Tuesday, June 20, 2017

7/17/82: a little beach music


This isn't exactly a rave review, but this show's setlist inspired some curiosity while I was puttering around at work, and, frankly, I'm ready for the beach myself.  The FOB aud quality is very, very good.  And who doesn't like their Dead with some palm trees in the background?

courtesy Airplane Life

1982 shares the dubious honor with 1986 as being my least favorite year of the Dead’s “early Brent” pre-coma period.  Unlike other fallow periods, there’s nothing egregiously “wrong” with it, but -- for me -- most of the performances occupy a kind of gray zone between the sharp, creative playing of 1980-81 and the ragged, hare-brained (and, yes, hirsute) intensity of 1983-84.  Jerry was still keeping it together, Phil wasn’t quite back in the saddle yet, Brent ditched his older electric piano for a faux-acoustic one, and it all sounds, I dunno, a little too polite; I don't want to say autopilot, but there's not a lot of sweat in the music.  There are certainly a few shows that prove me wrong, but they’re outliers.  And yet, perversely, I’m periodically drawn back to it, partly to see if I can pin down what exactly I don’t like about it (who has time for that? I do, apparently) and partly just for the pleasure of rooting around for some undiscovered gem.  This show, sporting an attractive setlist, isn’t exactly that.  But it’s a nice show.

The first set is model '82: no clams, no shamefully bad vocals, a decent performance all around, and almost none of it stuck on me.  Althea has a heavy groove, but the only other standout was the surprising (unprecedented?) call of Truckin’ as the set closer.  Huh?  Not only that, but they rock it for almost 11 minutes and, a couple of slips notwithstanding, it's pretty strong.  Towards the end it almost feels like they’ve forgotten that they’re not deeper in the 2nd set, before yanking back for a big explosive finale.

To be fair, they did get creative with some setlist choices in 82, often structured around Playing in the Band.  Here’s a vintage example of a “Playin’ sandwich” kind of set: they forego an opening rocker and dive right in, swim around in it for a bit with an airy, vaguely ominous feel: clear and nicely textured yet shallow waters, perhaps.  It sounds like China Doll is coming, but Jerry switches things up with China Cat instead, another very unusual selection.  Not bad!  The guitars are way up in the mix here, making for an extra changly jam, and Phil seems sufficiently roused by the time Rider comes around.  Ol’ Jer belts out a good “headlight” line, and at the end they make a well-timed drop right into Estimated.  Not much to note here; it’s a typically fine one with one flub coming out of the bridge (“like a swiss watch,” Bob quickly quips) and a decent jam that trails off into the early 80's standard Jerry-less jam with Bob and Brent (and briefly Phil) splashing around for a few miunutes.  Not bad as those things go.  A brief Drums, a briefly noisy Space, a long Wheel complete with lengthy prelude and a pretty outro (an ideal groove for this show, actually), back into Playin’, then a goofy Bob closing twofer, and it’s all over now, baby blue.

This music, like a lot of the year, wafts by pleasantly without really getting its hooks into me; it’s got toes but no claws.  Or, to borrow from Thom Gunn, “the music comes and goes on the wind / comes and goes on the brain.”

I’m ready for summer.

(these shows, incidentally, were the first of several years' worth of "weekend at the beach" shows in Ventura)

Monday, June 5, 2017

hirsute heroics

A Monday morning moment of zen, courtesy of an old NYT article (on a free Airplane/Butterfield/Dead show in NYC's Central Park on 5/5/68) that I dug up at lightintoashes' behest.

The other chuckle is that many of the hippies in attendance were apparently throwing "lollipops" onstage to show their appreciation.  Crazy kids.

Kifner, John.  "6,000 in Park Rock to West Coast Sound."  The New York Times, 6 May 1968.  Web.

In hirsute pursuit of virtuosity: at Columbia two days earlier; courtesy Rosie McGee

Friday, June 2, 2017

July 74: nothing's weirder than coming to New York

July 74, Bottom Line, unknown
[edit: apparently this dating has been hotly debated]
I had been meaning to give these two July 1974 Bottom Line shows a relisten for a while, but was prompted to do so both by an unknown comment asking about Garcia's performances without Kahn and also by a small discovery that turned out to be pretty well-documented already.  The Garcia/Saunders band came to New York for the second time on July 1-3, 1974, at the tail end of a Dead tour; the first time in Sept 1973 was similarly affixed to a larger Dead tour, but otherwise it wasn't typical for Garcia's side projects to piggyback like this on the Dead's road schedule.  My understanding was that these 1974 shows were booked because Garcia had just released his Compliments album a week earlier, and that that making the gig happen was relatively easy: the Dead's tour ended in Springfield, MA on 6/30, so Garcia, Kreutzmann, and the crew could scoot down to NYC for a couple more gigs; Kahn was already in the area performing with Maria Muldaur, and Saunders had to hop on a plane.  Martin Fierro was either still a too-casual addition to get the call, or he was engaged elsewhere (he doesn't play on the band's next two July gigs in San Francisco either, but he's on every other recording from the year).  But I had overlooked the fact that the Dead's tour wasn't actually over: they had another show booked at the University of Wisconsin, a planned Fourth of July blowout with Eric Clapton and the Band.  Panicked locals shut it down, and the remainder of the band and crew spent four days running up hotel bills, getting up to no good (see Ned Lagin's entry for 7/4/74 here), and scandalizing the local Kiwanis Club.  It makes no real difference in the big picture, but it does paint a slightly interesting picture of Garcia and Kruetzmann heading out to work while the rest of the band was waiting around in a hotel in Wisconsin, but anyway.  Given all that, you might think that these would be big shows in the minds of many listeners, but my sense is that they aren't.

Some more sources fill in some more coloful context.  Thanks to JGMF's detailed reading notes from manager Richard Loren's book, I learned second-hand that
"On the Fourth of July weekend, the Garcia-Saunders Band was playing in New York at the Bottom Line on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The Dead had just finished an East Coast tour, and Jerry's Compliments album had been recently released. The owners of the Bottom Line had contacted me back in February, offering a four-show engagement for the Garcia-Saunders Band, and we'd accepted. I arranged for John Kahn and Merl to fly in, and John brought along his girlfriend at the time, Maria Muldaur, who was riding high on her hit single "Midnight at the Oasis." She sat in as a guest vocalist, and the group was hot. Word got out, and lines stretched around the block for every show. The Bottom Line was the happening place to be in the city, and all sorts of people were showing up."
and I found this review in the New York Times [1]
"Last Friday [June 28] it was announced -- on radio only -- that something called Merl Saunders and friends would be at the Bottom Line Monday and Tuesday [July 1-2]. The place was immediately sold out, another show added late Wednesday, and security guards engaged to repel the hordes. Scalpers reportedly enjoyed a field day outside the door. For Dead fans know that Merl Saunders and friends include not only Mr. Saunders, a first-rate organist, electric pianist, and synthesizerist with an impressive jazz background, and John Kahn, an excellent bass player, but also Bill Kreutzmann, the Dead's drummer and Mr. Garcia on guitar."
stub courtesy lostlivedead

Unlike later Bottom Line appearances (in November '74 and April '75), these July gigs weren't early/late show arrangements.  Steeleye Span headlined the early shows, and "Merl Saunders & Friends" had the late shows.

The music is good, but most of it (with one notable exception) doesn't do it for me the way that a lot of '74 Garcia/Saunders does.  Part of it, admittedly, has something to do with the recording: given the circumstances, Jerry Moore's tapes of 7/2 and 7/3 are about as good as it was going to get, but it's still a recording made with mics hidden on a tabletop in a packed nightclub.  I also miss Fierro.  His playing polarizes a lot of listeners, but I think he was a talented player who fit well with the music and added some welcome color to the front line.

The Bottom Line was, at the time, the premiere rock & roll club in Manhattan, and, while I'm sure that a vaguely billed Jerry Garcia show (vaguely promoting an album on his own independent label) wouldn't have been the industry feeding frenzy that other Bottom Line showcases were, I'll bet that a whole mess of freaks came out of the woodwork.  I think the Bottom Line and the Keystone were roughly the same capacity rooms (400ish?), but the difference in atmosphere was probably night and day.  As Corry put it, "it was actually on the East Coast where the Dead became really huge, and Garcia became larger than life... the Dead could headline Madison Square Garden, and a few weeks later Garcia would play this bar [in Berkeley] where he had to walk through the crowd to get to the stage."  In addition to a hearty number of rabid heads who hadn't seen a local show in a while, the NYC chapter of the Hells Angels must have also been out in full force, not to mention anyone else who wanted a piece of Jerry (hell, John Lennon showed up drunk and belligerent when they came back in November).  So while it wasn't the Wall of Sound, I doubt it was a real relaxing time, either. Maybe all that's projection or conjecture that's unfairly coloring my impressions of this tape?  My impression is that they hit some high moments but don't really settle into the kind of sustained groove that was easier to conjure on more relaxed home turf, that vibe that carries the music along with it, until the second set of the final night.

We have no recording of the first night, and although there's a setlist, I wonder if any official tape exists -- Kidd Candelario had been taping the Dead's shows, but he probably would have been with the crew in Wisconsin, and I don't think Betty was working this tour at all.  For what it's worth, the NY Times review (above) liked it:
"The early show on Monday fulfilled the wishes of most of the Dead's fans present (and the late show that night apparently went even better). Mr. Saunders was satisfying virtuosic [sic], Mr. Garcia unleashed his customary brand of introverted and extroverted blues guitar, Maria Muldaur bounced onstage for a song, and in general the group blended jazz, blues, country and Dead funk in satisfying proportion." [1] [note: I think he means first/second set instead of early/late show]

7/2, the second night, has its moments, but I find it to be an inconsistent performance.  The first set is mostly strong but unremarkable.  My Funny Valentine gets the frothiest: after a fairly tame start, they get looser and woolier as they roll through its 23 minutes, but there's a bummer of a cut as Garcia is moving to the top of one his solos (@11:40ish).  Still, they slowly unmoor themselves from the song itself and boil to a spacey, tumbling climax, with Garcia trilling heatedly before walking down neatly back into the melody.  Very nice!  Roger "Jellyroll" Troy appears in the 2nd set to sing How Long Blues.  As far as guests go, he was an infrequent regular: we have tape of a couple of earlier sit-ins, and he was in the Howard Wales group that Garcia toured briefly with in Jan 72.  I'm not a big fan of Troy's singing style or his more aggressive bass playing (it reminds me a little of Jack Casady), but he was clearly a strong musician who was welcome onstage with some heavies (I see that Troy also guests on a Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper Bottom Line recording from a few months earlier).  Garcia peels off a really nice solo in It's Too Late,  but nothing else in the set does much for me: After Midnight seems to never get off the ground, and My Problems Got Problems feels good but is much shorter than most other versions.  Garcia introduces Troy again at the end of the set, so maybe he's also sitting in for the closing How Sweet It Is?  A word for the audience, though: Moore's recording captures a crowd that's clearly hanging on every note, but is also listening hard and respectfully, with very little of the usual "Jerreee! Casey Jones! Dark Star!" hubbub.

Roger Troy 1/29/72 - courtesy GDAO
The last night, 7/3, is where something special happens.  The first set kicks off in high gear, but fumbles a bit at the end with a fairly leaden Mystery Train and a pretty sloppy but spirited Harder They Come with Maria Muldaur chipping in (I'm not hearing any second female vocalist like some setlists note).  The second set, however, is pretty unusual for the year, and is worth hearing both on its own terms and as a complement to some of the Dead's June 74 music.  Roger Troy returns for two more blues numbers, again with some questionable (imho) vocals but with ample space for Garcia to dig into some heavier blues, which sounds excellent.  But then Troy launches into a more upbeat bassline, kicking off a freeform (though not particularly spacey) jam that everyone pounces on.  The G/S band weren't strangers to exploring uncharted waters, but by '74 it had become less of a common practice, so this stands out as a late example of Garcia being willing to push the limits -- not surprising, given how often the Dead were doing this over the preceding weeks.  For as outsized as Troy could be on the straighter blues tunes, he's a great fit for the funky but less structured expedition here, just as he was on the 1/26/72 tape of the Wales/Garcia group.  While it's not at the superhuman levels of many of the Dead's June 74 improvisations (ahem), it's not just a funky blues vamp either, and they take enough twists and turns over the next 17 minutes to keep it interesting and consistently engaging; Garcia and Saunders pass the baton back and forth, Kreutzmann gets a solo, and after all of them dive back in for more, Garcia ends it masterfully by threading everything into an uptempo instrumental Summertime, a rarity that we have no recording of him playing since Jan '73.  How Sweet it Is closes the night again, this time with Muldaur joining on backup vocals and wishing everyone a happy Independence Day once it's done.  I can't tell if John Kahn returns to the bass or not, but either way, it's very unusual to hear nearly a whole set without him, particularly given how exploratory a lot of the playing is.
Garcia & Troy, 1/29/72, courtesy GDAO

For as far from the Keystone or the Lion's Share as they were, it's fitting that Garcia managed to end what must have been a pretty grueling tour with a return to the unstructured, after-hours club vibe that gave birth to this band in the first place.  Like the guy said years earlier, "nothing's weirder than coming to New York."

A final bit of color: here's another nugget from the NY Times on the Bottom Line, from a slightly later puff piece on the club's classy amenities and high-end sound system.  "Big acts like Jerry Garcia or Leonard Cohen have been guaranteed from $5000 to $7500,” reports the Times (not bad for a 400 seat club?), who also reserve a few words for the Bottom Line's kitchen. "For West Coast rock and roll, like Jerry Garcia, ordering will be heavy on pizza, french fries, and Heinekens." [2]

[1] Rockwell, John. "Dead's Fans Know Who a Friend Is."  The New York Times, 5 July 1974. Web.
[2] Walker, Gerald. "The Rock Road Leads to The Bottom Line." The New York Times, 4 May 1975. Web.