Last month, I took it upon myself to listen to all of the Dead's June 1993 tour, which you may understandably think would be a thankless task. June '93 is occasionally mentioned as being the last consistently "good" Dead tour -- although different folks draw that line in many different places in the 1990's. While I've heard nearly all of the JGB's 1993 shows, the Dead that year were a mostly blank spot for me, so I figured it would make for an educational contrast, at the very least. Besides, consistency is ultimately interesting in theory, but what I really want are the best performances and I don't much care if I have to wade through a few middling shows to find the good stuff. I was surprised, however, that I found plenty of fine performances and that listening to all of these rarely felt like a chore. Many folks, however, may appreciate some pointers, so here's my take on it.
The specs of the tour have been covered in many other places. The Modern Deadhead has one good take on what was happening. But, in brief:
1. This was their second tour with their in-ear monitor system. The bandmembers were on record as having loved it for providing more detailed, individually tailored, and controlled monitor mixes, and for cutting down a great deal of the noise onstage. Healy had moved most of their amps under the stage, so nearly all of the sound was coming through the PA system. The fans were, by most accounts, not as pleased by the change in the sound.
2. Dan Healy was still running their front-of-house sound, but things seem to have come to a head this tour over how he was mixing the opening acts (Sting opened most shows) and, according to the gossip, Bob Weir. If the circulating sbd tapes reflect Healy's house mix, this doesn't seem particularly to be the case, at least with regard to Weir. But who knows? Healy left the band in March 1994.
3. This was Garcia's final tour with his Rosebud guitar (1990?-1993). The much-maligned Lightning Bolt was introduced in August (see here).
4. Weir's voice was in really rough shape, and he had surgery on his vocal cords not too long after.
5. The other big sticking point for many folks is the raft of new original and cover songs that the band introduced in 1992 and early 1993. You know 'em, you know how you feel about 'em. For me, Days Between and Liberty were reliable winners from Garcia, while So Many Roads and Lazy River Road were solid songs that began to feel increasingly over-sentimental every time I heard them. Eternity and Easy Answers were dinged irreparably by sub-par lyrics, though Easy Answers' groove did begin to grow on me (not an opinion shared by most, I know). Lesh singing Broken Arrow was charming enough, particularly when it prompted some nice Garcia soloing (see 6/23 for a nice one).
So, children, what does it all mean?
As much as the narrative of the band's final five years tends to (or used to?) center predominantly on Jerry's health, addictions, and decline, there was surprisingly little of any of that on display here. For nearly all of this tour, Jerry usually sounded like he was doing just fine. Comparisons to [insert your favorite era here] inevitably may not hold up to whatever expectations you may have, but you may also be pleasantly surprised: I certainly was not expecting Jerry to sound as good as he did in most of this music.
As much as that same narrative tends to skewer Vince Welnick, I didn't see much call for that here, either. Granted, I don't care for his voice, but I can listen around it -- and it's not like anyone else was nailing their vocal parts, either. Welnick's keyword work, however, was consistently very good, and I heard just as much piano in the mix as his other, more novel MIDI sounds (which, to my ears, were generally no worse than a lot of Brent Mydland's synth patches). I don't think his playing deserves most of the flack that it gets from critics of this final period.
|courtesy Bill Smythe, GDAO|
The Jerry was out of it, Vince was no good, therefore the 90's suck line, at least as it relates to these shows, doesn't hold up. Yet it's hard to deny that this still sounds like a band in the twilight of their greatness, although not quite on their last legs. Why? There were a couple factors that get eclipsed by the Jerry/Vince axis of blame, but imho contribute far more to the problematic aspects of these shows than not. Newer books about the band's last days (David Browne's, Joel Selvin's, Kreutzmann's, and so on) emphasize just how tired of it everyone had become, and also point to the unintended effect of those new ear monitors. For as much as everyone could fine-tune their personal mixes, they seem to have gone too far in that direction, playing more for their own mix rather than the group dynamic, and further isolating each from the other -- some have claimed that some bandmembers purposefully tuned each other out altogether. Some listeners put down the "sterile" quality of the sbd recordings, but I didn't find the aud tapes to be all that different, since the band's set-up had become, for all intents and purposes, pretty similar to an actual recording studio: the amps off in isolation and everyone hearing each other through headphones with different personalized mixes. As a musician, that setup makes it easier to hear what you sound like, but harder to sense what everyone else actually sounds like as an ensemble in real life. That's what I think was the essence of the problem, moreso than any obvious musical shortcomings.
For my own listening, I went with the sbds, which were generally pretty crisp, pleasant listens. Again, the general wisdom among some heads is that aud tapes are the way to go for this era, but to my ears the sbds weren't bad at all and reflected the same mix the audience heard (unlike, say, sbds from the early 80's, where a lot of sound from the stage amps didn't make it into the PA mix). Weir seemed lost in the mix earlier in the tour, but this mostly fixed itself after a few shows and he seemed, if anything, a tad loud for the rest of them (though, to be fair to everyone, I'm sure Weir's style and his various unusual timbres/effects were tricky to mix smoothly with the rest of the band).
6/5, 6/6 - Giants Stadium
The first two shows were the most uneven of the tour, each with some embarrassing trainwrecks but also one major keeper apiece. 6/5 sports a run-of-the-mill Scarlet with short transition jam into a monster Fire on the Mountain that stands up well in the company of many the better 90's versions. Garcia drops one verse and only plays two solos, so it clocks in at a shorter 11 min, but both are exciting and dramatic, and exemplify thoughtful 90's Jerry at his best. [edit: thanks to David Leopold for pointing out that I failed to mention the unique debut of Easy Answers in the middle of Music Never Stopped, a strange but effective move that they pull off pretty well!]
6/6 has patches of uninspired playing, but Garcia incites the band to some old-fashioned fury with a titanic Playing in the Band that showcases their "late" style at its best: rather than piling on the turmoil and dissonance until it explodes, Garcia seems more intent on playing more variably with the density and mood here (one great moment is when things start getting hairy, Garcia turns on the MIDI flute, which is both effective and almost funny) and it ends not with a dramatic meltdown but with an opaque variation on the Playin' riff. Very interesting and very, very good.
6/8, 6/9 - The Palace, Auburn Hills, MI
Overall 6/8 is a solid, much tighter show than the prior two. A big, high-energy Bird Song with a hot climax is worth hearing (although note the contrast with the also-excellent but quite different 6/26 performance). Garcia's vocals are particularly good at the end of New Speedway Boogie and in He's Gone, and fans of Standing On the Moon (which I am not) have pointed out that this was the first time he extended the vocals at the end. The guy must have had an extra cup of tea tonight! 6/9 is also consistently good, but really picks up in the final stretch. The Drums>Space segments from this period are often praised as being the only real deep diving the band did anymore: I found less variation than I expected, though, with both segments following a pretty regular arc from night to night. 6/9, however, stood out as definitely worth hearing: some haunting churchbell sounds in Drums, a stunning transition (Garcia's melodicism is often on full display in some of these moments, this one in particular), and an exciting Space with a near-Tiger jam and some eerie lines from Welnick to bring it down to a close. Garcia nails a surprisingly wonderful Wharf Rat with some excellent soloing; and then, of all things, Around and Around surprised me with an extended "jazzy" ending without any vocal reprise from Weir. Goes to show!
6/11 - Buckeye Lake, Hebron, OH
This is likely the best known show of this tour? It's probably the most consistently good one from start to finish. I didn't feel like its highlights were quite as good as ones from other more inconsistent shows, but this may be the one to pick for a single smooth listen. The Jack Straw > Foolish Heart > Same Thing combo that begins the night is a great ride, and the second set is in a groove all the way through -- even Corrina gets a nice jam at the end as they slowly pull away from the sructure -- and the Watchtower > Black Peter are both as hot as you want them to be.
6/13 - Rich Stadium, Buffalo, NY
This is one of the clunkers. Nothing bad happens, but nothing much else happens, either, largely due to an uninspired setlist that is light on the improv. It occurred to me during the decent Deal jam that Garcia was pushing as hard as he regularly did with the JGB that year, but that the Dead didn't seem willing or able to go there with him. Days Between always seems to save post-Drumz from mediocrity, as dark and heavy a tune as it was, and this one is a beauty.
6/15, 6/16 - Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
The first night has a cracklin' Althea that is now on my list of personal favorites, and there's an overall good energy to the 2nd set, although a very gentle, meditative Space and the only Morning Dew of the tour are the only big standouts. The 16th has another long Foolish Heart that's nearly as good as the more famous one on 6/11, a very hot jam in Saint, and a lovely and focused Stella Blue, but otherwise isn't a remarkable show.
6/18, 6/19 - Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
Both of these were B-level shows for the tour, never rising much above decent. Still, though, I was impressed how even the most meat-and-potatoes shows were still okay listens, albeit nothing I need to hear again. 6/18 gets the nod for an engaged Playing > Uncle John's and a fine China Doll.
6/21, 6/22, 6/23 - Deer Creek, Noblesville, IN
The first night starts off right with a fantastic Jack Straw, definitely one of the best post-Hornsby versions I've heard, then rolls on through a great 1st set, although nothing much happens in the 2nd. Likewise, 6/22 kicks off with a doozy: a wonderful Help > Slip > Frank with a really fantastic jam in Slipknot -- seriously, that bit from @1:50-2:30 is unlike anything I've heard them do in a Slipknot jam before -- then features a spirited progression of pre-Drums tune, ending with a very long vocal coda to He's Gone (almost 5 min!). 6/23 has the big jam of the tour, at the heart an otherwise so-so show. Wave to the Wind, not anyone's favorite new tune, is actually done rather well, giving way to a Terrapin that sports a major jam afterwards, with Jerry taking off a jackrabbit and blazing through 12 minutes of some of the best post-Terrapin jamming that they ever did, any era. A rare mini Dark Star pops up after Space, followed by a lovely Wheel to end a fantastic segment that may be the best place to start if you're skeptical about an endeavor like this.
6/25, 6/26 - RFK Stadium, Washington, DC
There's a pretty priceless recording of the soundcheck, showing the Dead at their most endearingly dysfunctional: I'll save the blow-by-blow, but it's worth 20 minutes of your day. Bruce Hornsby sits in for both shows -- on accordion, unfortunately. I'm an open-minded guy, but the thing seems to clutter up an already full mix and rarely adds much beyond a weezy, monochromatic texture. 6/25 is the better of the two shows. The 1st set sports fine versions of Half Step, Althea, Cassidy, and Cumberland Blues, and is worth a listen on headphones to hear Garcia's and Hornsby's plainly audible chatter to each other between songs. Pre-drums is excellent with a smokin' China>Rider, a very hot Saint, a crushing jam in Uncle John's with Garcia taking an extra lap for good measure and then twisting the final riff right into his Corrina lick, which cruises along on the momentum (not often the case), and then Drums sports one of the more titanic Beam segments of the tour. Whoosh!
For the last night, Garcia popped in for the end of Sting's set (who had opened most of the shows this tour), sounding off-the-cuff but pretty good, all things considered, with Sting's band making room for him to do his thing. The show itself is decent, but overall not an inspiring finish. Feel Like a Stranger, however, may be an all-timer, sans Hornsby and with Garcia playing it to the hilt; dynamic and exciting from start to finish, and Brown-Eyed Women sounds great coming right after. Bird Song is a more meandering, psychedelic version, a nice ramble through several peaks, valleys, and woods, and Garcia shreds up the ending of Picasso Moon in fine style. But Hornsby's wheezing around for most of this, and the 2nd set is only saved by a solid Playing jam, slow-burning and pleasantly weird, then a Terrapin that's followed by more of usual hazy, spacey jam with none of the wild energy of 6/23. Things peter out in the final stretch, and it's all over.
Ups, downs, the Grateful Dead in a nutshell. Covering whole tours, warts and all, can be a risky undertaking for the burnout factor, and I think it's a testimony to the band that even in the more bland patches, I rarely felt any ennui or boredom. I may yet work up the energy to give a close listen to the following Aug '93 Eugene shows (yet another "last great Dead shows" dividing line for some), but I left this June '93 tour feeling pretty good about a band that was slowly collapsing offstage and who's end was a scant two years away.