Monday, 10 June 2013

The Ultimate Grateful Dead Concert (Top Ten News, Views and Music 197)




So, it’s not just me then – Neil Young’s been listening to ‘The Dead’ on the radio too. I wonder if he knows about the ‘Deadcast’ app/? Yes, dear all, the Deadheads among will you know what it’s like when you get into this group – they become all-consuming and everything else you listen to, however golden, somehow becomes less shinier. So forgive me for yet another Dead-related article so soon after the last - it’ll pass soon I promise but at the moment I’m still obsessed with the ‘Deadcast’ app on my new phone which broadcasts unreleased Dead concerts 24 hours a day (the Deadcast website does the same if you don’t have a phone). What a revelation it’s been, ladies gentleman and skeletons – I’ve been a Dead fan for over 20 years now, own every single studio album they ever did and most of the live ones and solo albums including three box sets. But till now the only complete concerts I’d heard were two rather uninteresting ones (‘Hundred Year Hall’ from the European 1972 tour and the ‘Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack’ from the five day ‘farewell’ tour of 1974).

I’ve still got a long way to go before I’ve heard all 2000 odd recorded shows the Dead ever made, but I’m well on my way to having heard 500 of them now in some form or another and I’ve already formulated a little list of what the ultimate Dead concert would have been like, with performances available from any era. Some Deadheads might call my selection naive or wish to point other, better shows – please do if that includes you; everything that made this band great and unique is their ability to pass on life lessons learnt and that goes for the fans as much as the band. Sadly I fell in love with this band a mere year before Jerry Garcia’s demise and never did get to see them properly in concert. Thank goodness, then, that so many wonderful archives of them exist, each concert wildly different, each performance adding something new, each development in the catalogue something to be cherished and love. Most of the shows listed here are ones I’ve heard from ‘Deadcast’ but some are out especially on CD, either at the time or in years since – frankly anything ‘live’ is fair game for this list. My favourite full show so far, by the way, is a fairly un-regarded one from 7/11/1985 with Garcia not long out of recovery from the coma that almost killed him: charging at a rate of knots throughout, it’s a near perfect gig. Here then is this Deadhead’s list, in chronological order, although it’s worth pointing out that this list could easily have been ten times longer. What a concert this would have been, though, eh?...

“Viola Lee Blues” (18/6/1967 – The Monterey Pop Festival)

Few fans rate the band’s rather nervy Monterey performance – traditionally the Dead always ‘blow’ their biggest audience shows like this and Woodstock. But while the rest of the short gig is under-rehearsed and tentative, this full throttle 15 minute version of a classic blues standard is right up there with the best. Many Dead songs have outlaw characters but this is the only one in the Dead canon actually up before a judge and while the song reveals no emotion lyrically and simply describes the scene (‘The Judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it down!’) the escalating carnage the band play is something truly special. Each repetitive verse sounds hemmed in, like the prisoner has been locked into his cage early, but the space between them gives the band and Garcia especially the space to soar and hint at the darkness and danger lurking in this song. We never find out what the prisoner is in trouble for – probably nothing that major if his two year sentence is anything to go by – but the seething hatred at everything the judge stands for is perfectly captured here, especially the tirade of noise at the last verse that is probably the hardest, heaviest sound of the whole three day peace and love festival while still in keeping with the rebellion ethos of it. The crunch at the end – when the band simply circle back to the beginning of the song as tied as ever – is the only ending the song could logically have. Superb.

St Stephen > The Eleven (27/2/1969 Fillmore West and 23/8/1968, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco)

The Dead’s 1969 Fillmore shows are legendary and most of the justly worshipped ‘Live/Dead’ album comes from them including the best version I’ve heard of one of my favourite Dead songs ‘St Stephen’. Arguably the first ‘modern’ disciple of Christianity, Stephen was one of the first believers born after Jesus’ death not to have firsthand knowledge of anyone connected with events. Far from the earlier saints who went to their deaths believing 100% in life after death and that their beliefs were true, Stephen represented a younger generation struggling to come to terms with his belief. Robert Hunter’s clever lyric doubles this with the pain of being a hippie in 1969 when Haight Ashbury was now a media circus and the first flush of the summer of love seemed to be over. The ‘Aoxomoxoa’ studio version is pretty special anyway, but this live version is something else entirely, with the Saint a little more sure on his feet and the band swooping as one through what must have been a ridiculously hard song to play. The band then link to a re-telling of ‘William Tell’, another old tale of an elder generation ‘shooting’ at a younger one that makes perfect sense in context, the band even playing a bit of a Scottish Jig to this song (even though the story is from Switzerland). The band then swoop into a killer rock and roll riff and some of the most joyous playing of their career in a song played in the frankly hideously complex time signature of 11/4, the band’s two drummers Billy and Mickey effectively keeping two separate times at once. How the band get to the end in one piece I’ll never know, but far from a technical masterclass this ‘trilogy’ really sounds natural as the band lightly play around with these huge concepts in rock and roll heaven. I could have been boring and plumped for the same ‘Eleven’ as on ‘Live/Dead’ (its plenty good enough) but there’s another, earlier performance from 1968 doing the rounds too that’s even more over-the-top and extraordinary.

That’s It For The Other One (27/2/1969 Fillmore West)

This is the stunning version from the ‘So Many Roads’ box set of 2000, by the way, which collected together five CDs of live recordings with a few studio outtakes and a collection of the band’s final, unreleased songs intended for a 1995 album at the end. It’s as hit and miss as any Dead study should be, but worth the money for this one recording alone. Starting with the band tuning and Garcia’s declaration that ‘its really too weird up here...beyond the pail’, the Dead then enter the Twilight Zone with their most extraordinary music ever (their own soundtrack to the 80s remake of ‘Twilight Zone’ notwithstanding). Starting off with the ‘Cryptical Envelopment’ theme of the album, it begins as a folk song with Garcia mourning the fact that ‘he had to do die’ and commenting on ‘children learning from books that they were burning’ (putting this song firmly back with the generational crossroads of ‘St Stephen’). What comes next is less-space age then the effects-laden studio original on ‘Anthem Of The Sun’, as the band plough full steam into a rock and roll psychedelic journey (‘A bus came by and I got on, that’s where it all began’). Tighter, more disciplined and heavier than the studio, this sounds less like a whimsical decision to ‘drop out and turn on’ from a boring life than a desperate need, with every monstrous rumble of rock adrenaline sounding like a do or die approach for the narrator. For a band who’ve only been making records four years or so after years of missed opportunities and years of being ignored, the Dead still remember what it was like when this more middle of the road journey seemed like the only way out and they rail against the system with everything they’ve got here. Unusually Garcia reprises his ‘Envelopment’ section in the middle, as the band back off and get quiet, murmuring ‘he had to die...you know he had to die’ like a man possessed. The band aren’t finish and keel back into the song as Garcia plays with what sounds like shaking hands, his guitar angrier and louder than I’ve ever heard it before or since. Most versions of ‘That’s It For The Other Ones’ I’ve heard sound like the ‘fun’ moment of the set, the place where the Dead can go to extremes – this one sounds by contrast like a matter of life and death. The song finally collapses after some 27 minutes of the most extreme use of the Dead’s five fingers of one hand’ philosophy where telepathically each one knows exactly where the others are going. What’s even more extraordinary is that the band don’t seem to realise the magnitude of what they’ve just played, Bob Weir even having the audacity to announce ‘a break, because this is our short set’ to an audience whose minds have just blown and who will never hear music the same way again, with every other concert after this one by any band surely an anticlimax after seeing this. Weir adds that they will brighten up the next set by ‘bringing on the monkey’ – fans have long speculated what he means by this (is this a rude joke about Pigpen?! Or did Garcia’s heroin addiction go back further than we thought?!?) If you even vaguely like the Dead and don’t own this version of what was always one of my favourite of their songs then download it from Amazon now – it’ll be the best 70p you’ve ever spent!

Dark Star (13/2/1970 Fillmore East)

Choosing the best ‘Dark Star’ is like choosing your favourite child – you love them all in so many different ways and each one of them is near perfect in your eyes. Many fans agree, though, that the 1969-70 ‘Dark Stars’ are spacier, tripper and far more mesmerising than later ones and the general consensus is that the Dead never jammed on the song better than they did on this February night. Unusually I agree with them – this ‘Dark Star’ is fragile yet tough, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, combining power and beauty like few recordings before it. There have been longer versions of perhaps the band’s most famous song of all time and individual sections might be better on other recordings, but the Dead’s telepathic interplay makes this one a nose better than all the others all the way through as the band entice their audience to a ‘transitive nightfall of diamonds’.

Morning Dew (8/6/1971 Hollywood)

Coming at the end of an epic three and a half hour set this version of one of the band’s better cover songs simply grows in stature with every passing refrain. Tired and weary at first, as befitting a song about a nuclear war that leaves most of the world dead (the song was inspired by seeing the film ‘On The Beach’ at the cinema, where this scenario actually happened) the song simply grows from nothing with every passing moment as Garcia is by turns mournful, angry, compassionate and afraid. So many groups did this song (Lulu being another AAA member) and nearly all versions of this lovely song are worth seeking out, but the Dead seem the most ‘in tune’ with the sentiment somehow, treating the song as a mournful ballad rather than an uptempo protest. Garcia’s guitar solo going into the last verse as it positively screams out in agony and fury is bone-chilling, the song finally collapsing in a final mourned cry of ‘I guess it doesn’t matter anyway!’, a warning to all the listeners before it’s too late for us. I almost wish the cold war was still with us when it inspired inspired performances like this.

Cold Rain and Snow (3/2/1978 Dance County Colisseum, Wisconsin)

One of the Dead’s earliest cover songs, I’ve always admired their down and dirty version of this folk song, which doesn’t so much turn a folk song electric as stick a jet engine underneath it and hurl it into space (Fellow AAA band Pentangle recorded the folky original if you want a comparison). Romance was never a typical subject matter for the Dead (a few Weir solo songs aside) and it sounds odd hearing Garcia singing about being thrown out of his own house. The way the music runs through so many disparate sections telepathically, though, is perfect for the Dead and the way the twin guitars seem to be in battle with the bass throughout shows off a great skill I wish the band had exercised more. By 1978 this song hasn’t been played in Dead shows to often so its appearance as late as 1978 was a surprise. The Dead had played around with the arrangement a lot since the early days, which was usually a bad thing but occasionally struck gold, as here where the band double up the time signature and give it a much more straightforward tempo, replacing the rather lopsided gait of the original with electric muscle.

Halfstep Mississippi Uptown Toodeloo (9/5/1981)

The studio version of this song – which kickstarts my favourite Dead LP ‘Wake Of The Flood’ – is heartbroken and sad, the narrator mourning the fact that he’s been ‘born with the mark’ and has been unlucky his whole life. This version from eight years later is much more positive, Garcia all but crowing proudly at the fact that he’s seeing life through eyes quite unlike those around him and his chorus cry of ‘I’m on my way!’ now sounds triumphant than defeated. The song’s second half where the narrator finally finds salvation ‘across the Rio, Grand Rio, across the lazy river’ always sends chills down your back when it’s played right – this version, with the band’s harmonies never better, sounds like Nirvana. It took a long long time but finally the un-named narrator of this song is at home and at peace.

Wharf Rat (4/4/1986 Rich Stadium, New York)

I really struggled to find the best version of ‘Wharf Rat’, probably my favourite of all the songs in the Dead’s canon, and I’ll be honest with you – I’m not sure if this is it. I know I heard a great one about 80-odd Dead concerts ago but I was so overcome I forgot to take my usual notes. I think it was this concert, but who knows – perhaps a fellow Deadhead will put me right (did the band even play this song that night?) Still, I’ve never heard a bad version of this song yet, Garcia and Hunter’s tale of poverty stricken August West, whose life once looked promising but is now washed up and homeless by the sea that once gave so much. The way West asks his fellow penniless narrator for a dime for his story and then tells it anyway is superb storytelling, West promising that ‘I’ll get up and fly away!’ and put his life right ‘the good Lord willing’ even though we just know that will never happen. The song is played on one chord almost all the way through (with the exception of this one sudden burst of emotion) and on paper should be the most ghastly, banal thing the band ever played. In fact the Dead always manage to go somewhere new with this song, where the chiming one chord echoed on guitar, bass and keyboard never fails to sound like as trap and Garcia’s last sudden burst of guitar towards the end the only real sunshine inside the song. If ever a songwriter wants to learn how to use momentum in a song, this is the perfect example, never staying a note too long even though some performances went on for 20 minutes or more.

Blow Away (7/7/1989 Giant Stadium, New Jersey)

Poor Brent Mydland never really fitted with the Dead and his songs only occasionally caught fire, but at his best his work was right up there with Garcia and Weir. I always thought ‘Blow Away’ (from what turned out to be the last Dead album ‘Built To Last’ in 1989) was among his best – and then I bought the CD, with this live version of the song as a bonus track. For those who haven’t heard it, after a rather ragged performance of the full song Brent kicks back into a coda, rapping out to the audience in a Pigpen-manner about how ‘you can’t hold love in your first’ and that controlling, possessive love ‘ain’t real love at all’. The song rattles on and on, with the band repeating the hypnotic riff, as the previously quiet and controlled Mydland pours out his demons and his own ups and downs in his personal life as he gets the whole audience to open their fists and let their own hang-ups ‘blow away’. I saw both keyboardist and song in quite a different light after hearing Brent open up to his real feelings on this performance and although the Dead (struggling with a song they don’t know all that well by their standards) have played better at almost every other show, the realness of feeling in the room is highly moving and supportive. A late period classic.

Rain (27/7/1994 Riverport Ampitheatre, Maryport)

Finally, we end with the biggest surprise out of all the ‘Deadcast’ shows I’ve heard. For years I’ve read in books and websites about ‘The Dead’s most popular cover songs’ – the majority of which have appeared on album or were Bob Dylan songs from the rather dodgy gigs the two American institutions played together in 1987. Top of my list of ‘must hears’ have been other AAA songs: the likes of The Who’s ‘Baba O ‘Riley’ (which I still haven’t heard), The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’ and the fab four’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ (!) and this one, a superb Beatles b-side (to ‘Paperback Writer’) that for my money is one of the best things they ever did. The Dead version doesn’t disappoint either, slowing the song down to a ballad and replacing the sneering Oasis-ish taunting of Lennon’s original about ‘state of minds’ with a more reflective, learned take much more in keeping with the Dead’s usual style. The Dead did many ‘rain’ songs in their career, almost all of them loosely linked to this one in that the ‘rain’ that falls actually represents re-birth and a new way of looking at the world rather than sadness. What a joy to hear them finally tackle the original in one of their last shows (indeed ‘Rain’ is one of the last ‘new’ covers the band ever did, nominated by new keyboardist and Beatles fan Vince Welnick).I don’t know about you but had the band continued I’d have love to have seen more Beatles songs in the setlist (‘Nowhere Man’ ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ ‘Within You Without You’ ‘The Fool On The Hill’...)

Those still longing for some ‘encores’ would do worse than to seek out the following: Pigpen’s greatest song ‘Two Souls In Communion’ (from any of the 1972 shows), Bob Weir’s lovely ‘Weather Report Suite’ from any ‘Wake Of The Flood’ era shows (when it was played complete), Garcia and Hunter’s gorgeous ‘Row Jimmy’ from the same period, two solo Garcia tracks from the mid 70s that the Dead excelled on ‘The Wheel’ and ‘Loser’, a mid-70s trilogy of ‘Help Is On The Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower’ top ‘roll away the dew’, any of the mid-to-late 70s versions of ‘Terrapin Station’ (an epic that sounds much better live than on album), a late 70s medley of two of the Dead’s better late-period songs ‘Scarlet Begonias’ and ‘Fire On The Mountain’ (henceforth known to fans as ‘Scarlet Fire’), the first ‘Touch Of Grey’ after Jerry’s return from illness in 1985 – the perfect version of a the perfect song to bounce back with, Garcia’s gorgeous ‘Candyman’ from the late 1990s when Jerry no longer had to put on his ‘frail’ voice for the addicted narrator and finally the very last song the band ever played, the ‘Box Of Rain’ from July 1995 (a month before Garcia’s death) that un-beknowing to the band was the perfect farewell. Now that’s what I call ‘Live Dead’!
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