Monday, 12 March 2018

Grateful Dead: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Cover Versions

'High Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead' is available now by clicking here!


Normally at this point in our books we day something about the bands we cover being very studio-based and would you believe it they sometimes got outta the studio and toured too? That seems a bit obvious with the Grateful Dead and over one hundred and forty archive sets later it's probably fair to say you've got the gist by now that this was a band who, more than any other, lived for the live arena where they could see the whites of their audience's eyes and smell the contents of their bags of marijuana. Despite the many pages dedicated to the band's live shows there are four key ones that still haven't been discussed at length yet (some because they weren't recorded, others because they're just too darn sad) and as this series of articles always explores things in fives it seemed to make sense having a bash at 'Rocking The Cradle' again simply because, well, it remains a unique and important milestone in popular music unlikely to be repeated. Even we can't go through every gig a band ever played so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway), starting at the very beginning...
1) Where: Magoo's Pizza, Menlo Park, California When: May 5th 1965 Why: First Gig Setlist: [39] Cold Rain and Snow [7] Stealin' [210] Little Red Rooster 'Off The Hook' [137] 'Good Lovin'
Technically speaking this is the first gig by 'The Warlocks', the band not becoming the Grateful Dead until December 5th 1965 and for now consisting of a quartet of Jerry, Pigpen, Bob and Billy, with Dana Morgan playing the bass in the months before Phil joined. The future kings of the road ending up playing nearby to where they all lived and instead of their future stadiums played in a tiny pizza parlour while people were eating. Not many people can remember what happened (the songs played that night are much debated too but seem likely given the band's early love of The Rolling Stones with a few later cover favourites thrown in, with only the Stones song 'Off The Hook' never appearing in a later concert or album), but what people can remember is that the band were politely applauded, weren't booed off the stage and didn't yet have any roadies, setting up the equipment themselves. Legend has it a nervy band didn't want their audience to see them play so sat with their backs to the audience for part of the set (something Miles Davis and The Buffalo Springfield both used to do) before the crowd kept yelling at them to turn round -a big day in Dead history as they'll never stop looking their audience in the 'eyes' again from here-on in. There were perhaps a dozen people there - certainly no more than twenty. The band's second and third gigs? Also at Magoo's a week later (so the fledgling Dead can't have been that bad!) The fourth a teen club named 'Frenchy's a month later. The fifth, the Merry Pranksters' Acid Test...  From small acorns grow big trees, so don't be discouraged if barely anyone turns up at your next gig and you're drowned out by the sound of people eating pizza, dear readers, for a colossus of rock and roll got there before you...
2) Where: The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles When: December 13th 1967 Why: First 'Dark Star' Setlist: Unknown
A red letter day which sees the 'breakout' of one of the Dead's most popular songs, their 'theme tune' if you will which will go on to be played nearly 250 times and nearly always got the biggest applause of the night. [63] 'Dark Star' is a song the Dead did every which way over the years: fast, slow, jazzy, rocky, folky, compact, very very very long, upside down - man, there was probably a be-bop rap version out there I just haven't come across yet. Regrettably none of the tapers seem to have been in the audience that night and nor, unusually, was sound engineer Bear who took records of things like this. Chances are the Dead didn't see it as that big a deal: they already had their own epics in the shape of [42] 'Morning Dew' and [44] 'Viola Lee Blues' and this was the first true Hunter-Garcia collaboration (indeed, Hunter scribbled the lyrics when he heard an early version of the song in rehearsals and you can't get much hotter off the press than that! He later added a second verse at Garcia's request while sitting in a park. 'Whatcha doing?' a kid asked him as he scribbled away on a piece of paper. 'I'm writing my first song lyric. It's called 'Dark Star'. It will be important one day so remember this!' Hunter remembers replying). However nobody in the audience guessed just how important that friendship was going to be. Nobody remembers what this version was like but it was likely a rather cautious attempt to lift off into the ether given that the band had only really jammed away on material at the ends of songs before this, never the whole way through. We don't know how long it lasted, what style it was in or what else was played at the gig that night (though most of the first 'Grateful Dead' album from March that year seems likely). However without this concert the rest of this book might not have existed.
3) Where: Cow Palace, California When: March 23rd 1974 Why: 'Wall Of Sound' system first introduced Setlist: [153] US Blues [34] Promised Land [128] Brown-Eyed Women 'Mexicali Blues' [132] Tennessee Jed 'Black-Throated Wind' [156] Scarlet Begonias [37] Beat It On Down The Line 'It Must Have Been The Roses' [119] El Paso 'Deal' Cassidy' [57/2] 'China Rider' [149] Weather Report Suite [109] Playin' In The Band [73] Uncle John's Band [42] Morning Dew [159] Ship Of Fools [142] Big River [130] Ramble On Rose [110] Me and My Uncle [106] Bertha [161] Around and Around [114] Wharf Rat [84] Sugar Magnolia [80] Casey Jones
By 1974 the Dead's touring equipment was becoming a bit, well, old. Nearly a decade of touring up and down the country and - in 1972 - around Europe led to a feeling that maybe the Dead could afford to spruce things up a bit. Being the Dead of course that meant big and large and noisy! Bear plus band roadies and supporters Dan Healy and Bob Matthews researched exactly what they would be allowed to use, what would cut down on the extra 'fuss' of their old patchwork layout (which was running to some 200 amplifiers alone) and what could be transported easily. The innovation they came up with was to put the amplifiers behind the band, instead of in front as per most bands of the era, cutting out the need for stage monitors and most risk of unwanted feedback. They also had extra power which enabled the band to reach the back rows of stadiums now that the band had outgrown playing clubs. It took twenty-six people working fourteen hour shifts to get the thing upright before every gig - and this was the simplified version! In the end the system, dubbed 'The Wall Of Sound' by fans, comprised more than 600 speakers and used up over 25,000 watts of power. At this first gig at the Cow Palace (formerly a giant cow shed), one of the first big outside venues the Dead played, Bear and his associates dotted themselves around the arena, taking notes and comparing them afterwards to tweak the model a little more. Both they and most Deadheads agreed that the show had been a success despite heavy deafening winds. The Dead enjoyed it too, comparing it to a 'work of installation art' and 'like plugging into a flying saucer'. It remains one of the greatest sound systems ever put together - and yet the sheer cost of putting the thing together ($100,000 a month) meant that it only lasted until the end of the 1974 tour before making way for a smaller, more manageable sound. This first show was later released as 'Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Four' and sounds mighty good, I have to say, even if the Dead's performance isn't always as strong as their equipment. The show is also celebrated for the first ever performances of 'Cassidy' and 'Scarlet Begonias'.
4) Where: Giza, Egypt When: September 14th 1978 Why: The only rock and roll gig ever played at the Giza Pyramids in Egypt Setlist: [196] Ollin Arageed [115] Not Fade Away [110] Me and My Uncle 'They Love Each Other' [43] New New Minglewood Blues [182] Peggy-O [37] Beat It On Down The Line 'Deal' 'Sugaree' [179] Samson and Delilah [156/186] 'Scarlet Fire' [91] Truckin' [48] That's It For The Other One 'Drumz' 'Space' [78] Black Peter [161] Around and Around
'Yeah yeah yeah' I can hear regular readers going, 'first gigs, first performances of songs, sound systems, pyramids...wait, Pyramids?!' Yep this gig (actually three of them) are unique in rock and roll and circumstances in the years since mean it's unlikely to ever be repeated. The trip came about because of Phil Lesh's reading material, discussing the amazing vibes that happened at certain sacred places on Earth at certain times. Reading that there was going to be an eclipse of the sun in Egypt Phil asked the band (and crew) on a whim if they could maybe book a few gigs there next tour. Everyone assumed the Egyptian authorities would turn the band down - there had, after all, never been anything like the Dead performing right next to the pyramids (and sphinx) before - but as it turned out that was more because nobody had thought of asking and the authorities couldn't have been nicer. Especially when the Dead agreed to submit all proceeds to a local charity concerned with preserving antiquities. So, for the only time in 2500 years, the Pyramids were a stage venue with the excited touring crews of Deadheads (the shows advertised with the tagline: 'Egypt - a place with no cops or parents!') and a few interested locals so close to ancient sights they could almost touch them. The band were supported by local musicians Hamza El Din who played his 'welcome' song 'Ollin Arageed' especially for the Dead at each gig, the Dead wrapping their opening number around the beat each night. The gig was in many ways a failure - it cost a fortune and the band played a pretty average set by their standards, with a planned for live album to off-set the costs scrapped (later released as 'Rockin' The Cradle' 0on the show's 30th anniversary in 2008). That wasn't all: Billy had broken his hand during the off-season and shouldn't really have been playing at all but didn't want to miss this trip so for three nights only the 'Rhythm Devils' played with three hands. One truck containing key equipment got stuck in a sand-drift and had to be towed by camels. Sand also got into Keith Godchaux's piano and caused it to go wildly out of tune at all three shows. For all that, though, those who saw the shows - from the stage or the audience - will never be quite the same again (Bob Weir reckoned the band tuned into an 'ancient history' during the time of the eclipse!)
5) Where: Soldier Field, Chicago When: July 9th 1995 Why: Final Gig Setlist: [223] Touch Of Grey [210] Little Red Rooster [268] Lazy River Road [258] When I Paint My Masterpiece [278] Childhood's End [77] Cumberland Blues [34] Promised Land [190] Shakedown Street [179] Samson and Delilah [272] So Many Roads [270] Samba In The Rain [271] Corrina 'Drumz' 'Space' [154] Unbroken Chain [84] 'Sugar Magnolia [229] Black Muddy River [82] Box Of Rain
We Deadheads feared the end was coming, but when it came it was a shock. The Dead were meant to be having a couple of months off before starting up again - this was meant to be a brief rest, not a final farewell. But a month today after playing his final show as a member of the Grateful Dead and a month after playing Soldier Field veteran Jerry Garcia was finally laid down. The past month had been a rotten one for all concerned, dubbed the 'tour from hell' in fan circles. On June 15th an extra 20,000 ticketless fans showed up, forcing the organisers to open the gates and allow them in for free to prevent a riot or a crush in Franklin Country Airport, Vermont. On June 25th a freak lightning strike hits three fans waiting in their cars for a gig to start at the Robert Kennedy Stadium in Washington, who all recover in hospital. Fans get drenched in an outdoor show held on June 30th at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh (the Dead wittily re-shape their setlist, throwing in every rain-related song they can think of: [82] Box Of Rain [270] Samba In The Rain [136] 'Looks Like Rain' and The Beatles' 'Rain'). A death threat is made against Jerry's life in Indiana on July 2nd, a show performed with police on the stage, the house lights up and a nervy band opening with the 'please don't murder me!' chorus of [75] 'Dire Wolf'. Deadheads waiting out a storm for a show on July 6th in Missouri find a disused cabin and climb in, only for the roof to collapse leaving dozens injured and one man paralysed. Fans saw omens everywhere from the song choices (the song of death [82] 'Box Of Rain' stayed in the set after its rainy revival performed for the first time in twenty-five years) to the clothes the band wore (Jerry always wore black, always, but suddenly started wearing red: nicking the line from [80] 'Casey Jones' came up with 'Trouble ahead, Jerry in red', writing it on placards and banners). By contrast the actual last show on July 9th went off well, with an ailing Jerry regaining some of his old composure. This is a sweet old gig, full of old friends and a few new ones proving that the Dead could still surprise when they wanted (an album, half started in 1993, was still being vaguely promised to fans and four possible songs from it are played tonight). It's the encores that hit you when you this still officially unreleased gig, though. Jerry had only just started singing his poignant goodbye [229] 'Black Muddy River' a few shows before and many fans still never expected to hear death doing 'Box Of Rain' in there too. Other poignant songs litter the set too including [223] 'Touch Of grey' 9with the chorus 'I will survive!'), [154] 'Unbroken Chain' (the tale of a band who give their all but are still 'searching for the sound'), [210] Little Red Rooster (performed at that very first gig thirty years earlier) and [272] 'So Many Roads', a new Garcia song about death. Even the regular 'Drumz' and 'Space' improvisations have a sad and mournful quality to them tonight. The surviving band members deny any knowledge that this might be the end or any tinkering with the setlist to reflect that fact and say things just turned out that way. But this gig is spooky, with ghosts hanging in the air, angels beckoning and the fickle finger of fate looming, the last goodbye far more poignant than even the Deadheads could have supposed.


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) There is, for instance, an entire box set 'deadicated' to the Grateful Dead named 'Day Of The Dead' and released for the band's fiftieth worth hearing including Tunde Adebimpe and Lee Ranaldo's spaced-out take on [109] 'Playin' In The Band' and Jim James' [82] 'Box Of Rain' alone, while Dwight Yoakam finally does the obvious and turns [91] 'Truckin' into a real 'truckin' song! There remains perhaps another hundred or so cover songs of the Dead out there, which given how many we have to choose from means we've gone with the unusual and beautiful rather than the zillion takes on 'Truckin' and [63] 'Dark Star' and concentrated om covers of songs the Dead wrote themselves, rather than just songs made famous by them (there are some truly lovely [42] 'Morning Dew's out there for instance, particularly Lulu's version, a single from 1968).
1) Burning Spear [177] Estimated Prophet ('Dry and Heavy' 1977)
Part of a double-sided single with a cover of [106] 'Bertha' on the other side, we've plumped with this one because it sounds so different from the original and was such a new song at the time of this cover the 'Terrapin Station' album had only been out a matter of weeks! Burning Spear was the alias of reggae star Winston Rodney who was born in Saint Ann, Jamaica in 1945 (and is thus as old as the Dead themselves by and large). Bob's song works surprisingly well as a reggae number, given that it's irregular time metre makes it sound closer to the 'Eastern' style than 'Western' rock and roll. Burning Spear adds all sorts of extra too like a sighing choir (much nicer than the one featured on [181] 'Terrapin Station'), horns and lots of improvising raps Pigpen style about local politics taken from the same point of view of the audience member who has seen something more in the music than the musicians themselves ('You have all been asleep, you will not believe me, them vices telling me you will soon receive me, we are standing on the beach...') This song appears on Spears (not to be confused with Britney!)'s sixth album released suitable by Island Records.
2) Suzanne Vega [150] China Doll ('Blood Makes Noise' 1992)
An under-rated overlooked song in the Dead canon, somehow it's fitting that the Dead's most fragile, delicate beauty got a whole new lease of life after singer-songwriter Suzanne fell in love with it and turned it into a surprise hit. There are many ways you can take a song about suicide and Vega does the obvious, toughening the song up and making it more about the narrator, bustling along without really listening and all but badgering the poor China Doll into another nervous breakdown. Throughout the song a mournful synthesised whistle sounds like a siren, a warning to those around to take these suicide attempts seriously yet no one does, the song's arrangement instead emphasising indifference and callousness. No match for Jerry's pure empathy and beauty maybe, but a clever and haunting cover nonetheless.
3) Real Estate [147] Here Comes Sunshine ('Day Of The Dead' 2015)
I would have thought this beautiful Dead song - one of my favourites - was perfect for copying. It doesn't sound like one of their songs no one else could do for starters, with a sunny sunshiney pop singalong chorus and a general sense of growth and delight that's surely impossible to get wrong. So far I can only find one cover and Real Estate's is the highlights of the entire 'Day Of The Dead' set for me, hidden away halfway through the sixth and final disc. Real Estate were Deadheads anyway, covering [124] 'He's Gone' during some of their concerts too. This song is more 'them', though with a sort of robotic country-twinge that's quite distinctive and a nicely 'polite' vocal that takes the sting out of Hunter's words in the verses before dissolving into pop bliss on the choruses. Beautiful - the sun's out indeed.
Other Dead-related hilarity ensues on the following pages from our website: 

‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases

Essay: Why The ‘Dead’ Made Fans Feel So ‘Alive’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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