Saturday, February 14, 2015

We'll Get There, Vol. 2: Oh! Boy

50 Years Dead

Since the first volume of this compilation was posted last month, the farewell shows have been announced and Grateful Dead mania has reached fever pitch. Nice to see so many people share in the enthusiasm. Here's the second volume. As with the first, I'd recommend giving it a full listen before reading my commentary below, to try and recreate the element of surprise that was an integral part of the Grateful Dead experience. My commentary is pretty short and to the point this time around, reflecting the nature of the music. Good luck with the mail orders, see you back here next month.

Disc two: Oh! Boy

After the excess and rebellion of the 60's, the Dead, like many other bands, turned inward.  Returning to their musical roots, the focus was more on songwriting, with country and blues melodies married to classic American symbolism.  The songs became more personal, deep, meaningful, and fun.  Just compare these tracks to those on the first disc.  This disc also represents the beginning of the period in which they would play with only one drummer, Bill, while Mickey Hart went on hiatus.  The difference can be heard in the more straightforward rock rhythms, while also adding some delicacy to the mellower tunes.  The Bear's Choice and Skullfuck (Skull and Roses) era Dead.

1.       Oh! Boy – 4/6/71.  A fun take on the Buddy Holly classic.  This was the first time they played the tune.  They would only play the song once more as a full band.

2.       I'm a Hog for You – 4/6/71.  From the same show as the previous track, which was played just before it at the show as well.  This is the final of four performances, and the first since 1966.

3.       Smokestack Lightning – Bear's Choice.  Always loved this cut from Bear's Choice, one of Pig's defining moments.  The music is raw and nasty.  Never realized it until putting this collection together, but while jamming out to Smokestack, they seamlessly slide into and out of the music of New Speedway Boogie for a few bars.  The music to both songs is quite similar, in case you've never caught it before.

4.       New Speedway Boogie – Fallout from the Philzone.  The musical cousin of Smokestack, the Dead's bouncy take on the blues.  Seemed to make sense to put these tunes back to back to compare, and just get sucked away by the deep groove.  A rather repetitive and hypnotic early version of the tune, with Weir on acoustic.  The cautionary tale of Altamont, metaphor for the end of the 60's, and call for the flower children to grow up.  The musical and philosophical maturity continues.

5.       Dark Hollow – Bear's Choice.  A soothing tune and engaging performance.  Reflective of the times, a move away from the psychedelic 60's to the confessional singer-songwriter style.  One can only imagine what would've happened to Bob Weir if he had been left to his own devices.  Thankfully the rest of the band was there to keep him in check, but these moments were nice in small doses.

6.       Loser – Garcia Tapes.  Classic Americana storytelling from Hunter, embodied by Garcia.  Gamblers, drifters, spurned lovers, loners, and losers determined that this is their chance.

7.       Black Peter – Steppin Out with the Grateful Dead.  The acoustic version from Bear's Choice is probably the most well known, so here's an electric take.  Another of Hunter's losers brought to life by Garcia, this time finding death-bed redemption.  Hunter wrote this song after accidentally taking a massive dose of LSD.  At one point he thought he had turned into a lobster, and later he was sure he was dying.  He has since remarked that he never did LSD again, because 'after you've crawled through the desert naked, you have no interest in sunbathing.'  From these depths of despair Hunter was able to bring back one of the ultimate psychedelic truths, and I believe his finest lyric:
See here how everything
lead up to this day
Sun goin' up
and then the
sun it goin' down
Shine through my window
and my friends they come around

8.       Big Railroad Blues – Good Old Grateful Dead.  Train imagery figured pretty big in Grateful Dead mythology, as it does in American symbolism.  Here it makes an appearance in this tale of the boy gone bad.  But the most enjoyable thing is the band, and Garcia in particular, just rippin it.

9.       Bertha – 8/6/71.  The last four tracks are from one of my favorite recordings.  This is a great audience tape, actually superior to the soundboard which removed some of the crowd noise.  The show was at the Hollywood Palladium, and there seems to be something in the air that night.  The crowd is just feeling it, clapping along, hooting and hollering, and the band reciprocates.  The energy is palpable.  Bertha is one of the Dead's finest rock songs, and this version delivers.

10.   Mr. Charlie – 8/6/71.  A great Pigpen tune and performance, with plenty of opportunity for Jerry to lay down some tasty licks as well.  Never really considered what the song was about, so I decided to check the Annotated Grateful Dead website, and got convincing interpretations that the song was about everything from speedballing to Charles Manson to prison guards.  Worth a read.  

11.   Hard to Handle – 8/6/71.  The Otis Redding classic, this is arguably the best version the Dead ever did, and Pig's defining moment.  The crowd is going ballistic, Jerry and the band just pushing it further and further, before sliding right back into the end of the song.  Thanks Pig.

12.   Casey Jones – 8/6/71.  Another train song, with someone in the audience supplying the train whistle.  A nice bit of advice from the Dead, not that they followed it themselves.  Love the buildup at the end, Bob is really getting into it.  "And you know that notion, just crossed my mind…"  A little too late I guess.