50 Years Dead
Deadheads can be an insufferable bunch. We've been given this great gift, and we just want more and more. While we contributed to it's greatness, that only entitles us to a chance, and it can't always be on our terms. You can't make every party, and there'll be more. Paranoid delusions, self-righteousness, holier than thou hippiedom tantrums. Get over yourselves and relax. Here's a refresher course. Give it a listen before reading the track notes below. Previous volumes are on the blog. Check back next month for more if you think you can handle it.
Melt on meltin' on.
Disc Three: Laughing Water
The country, blues, rock, jazz hybrid continues to coalesce, with the Dead ultimately gaining a mastery of their new musical language toward the end of this disc. Aiding this development was the fact that Bill continued to be the only drummer during this period. While this may have cost them some muscle at times, it suited the songs stylistically and made the jamming more fluid and dynamic. Additionally, in October of '71, Keith Godchaux would join the band on piano, followed by Donna shortly thereafter. They appear on all but the first two tracks. Although Keith never stood out as a soloist, his supporting contributions were typically tasteful and beautiful. Donna was a mixed bag, from nice harmonizing to painful, unnecessary howling. I believe the period of 72-74 are the best years for the Dead, and it's no coincidence that there was only one drummer during that span. Not to hate on Mickey too much, as the other discs will show he contributed to plenty of excellent music, but the Dead were better when it was just Bill. Tracks 4-8 are from the trip to Europe in 1972, one of their most beloved tours. You'll hear why. Sadly, this would also be Pigpen's final tour, and you can hear the sound progress to jazzier and more ensemble playing on the final 7 tracks.
1. American Beauty Radio Ad
2. Ripple – Workingman's Dead outtake. A much simpler version than the one that appeared on American Beauty, this was recorded during the sessions for Workingman's Dead, but ultimately didn't make the cut. This draft has kind of a campfire sing-along feel to it. While the track on American Beauty is more produced, and ultimately a superior version, it's nice to hear this song still hold up when stripped to its bare essence.
3. Friend of the Devil – American Beauty. Another American classic from Garcia and Hunter. And you can't top the studio version. I much prefer it to the slowed down versions the Dead would soon come to play.
4. Me & My Uncle – Hundred Year Hall. Cowboy Bob doing a mini-Western movie. Classic.
5. Cumberland Blues – Garcia Tapes. This song's got all the core elements of the era: American symbolism and storytelling, harmonies, country-jazz fluidity, excellent improv, and classic songwriting.
6. Dark Star – Beautiful Jams. Actually just the tail end of the Dark Star. Bright, lyrical, and nimble playing by Garcia and the band. Bob hints at a Mind Left Body Jam, but Garcia steps on the accelerator, and they're off dancing around Sugar Magnolia, before weaving around the MLB Jam again. They finally settle on Sugar Magnolia. One of those magical jams that is so fleshed out, familiar, and expressive, all the while a totally original group improvisation. "What song are they playing, man? Holy shit!!!"
7. Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu – Steppin Out with the Grateful Dead. Just a fun song, and well played. Only performed it 5 times, all in 1972. Too bad it didn't stay in the repertoire.
8. Black-Throated Wind – Steppin Out with the Grateful Dead. Vintage Bob Weir here, again doing the singer-songwriter thing. Bob's roots were in the coffee-shop folk movement from the early 60's, so I guess he can't escape that. Nice imagery of life on the road, again very American. And excellent support from the rest of the band, particularly Bill.
9. Here Comes Sunshine – Dick's Picks Vol. 1. The first track on the first Dick's Picks, it was the first live version of the song I had ever heard when it was released in 1993, and it was stunning. Still is. Old Dick knew his stuff. Fluid and jazzy playing, they never take it too far out, or stray too far from the tune; they just explore the melody inside and out, over and over.
10. Big River – Dick's Picks Vol. 1. The Johnny Cash classic, this track gives Garcia a chance to do some serious pickin'. The entire band is locked in, pushing the song forward. Tasty.
12. China Cat Sunflower>
14. I Know You Rider – Dick's Picks 12. Recorded on 6/26/74, this is quite possibly my favorite musical passage in Grateful Dead history. It starts out with a heavenly jam, exploring that melody every which way, taking it there and back again, until finally they all settle on the China Cat intro. One of the first Grateful Dead originals, the song progressed significantly from its clunky psychedelic origins. The main riff is bluesy, not in the traditional sense, but Grateful Dead bluesy. A close cousin of the riff in Viola Lee Blues if you listen carefully. While most blues has a crunch, pretty much everything the Dead did had a bounce to it. Each member contributed significantly to the sound, but in particular I think Garcia's bluegrass roots are responsible for the "Dead bounce." A carousel melody and kaleidoscopic lyrics from Hunter, the entire song triggers that thing inside that makes you feel like tripping, out in nature, on a beautiful summer day. Regarding the lyrics to China Cat, Hunter said:
"A cat dictated "China Cat Sunflower" to me. It was just sittin' on my stomach, purring away, and sayin' this stuff. I just write it down; I guess it's plagiarism. I've credited the cat, right?"
Again, the Dead stretch the song out there, the music dancing forward always, meandering about, taking interesting little melodic interludes along the way to Rider. One reason in particular I enjoy China>Riders from this era is the distinct jam played in between, often known as the "Feelin' Groovy" jam, due to its melodic similarities to Simon and Garfunkel's 59th St. Bridge Song. But to my ears, it always sounded like the Uncle John's Band intro, both in melody and rhythm. Whatever the case, it's another one of those magical moments, as in the Dark Star earlier on this disc, that leaves you wondering "What. The. Fuck?!!" And just before you can analyze it for a second more they slide into Rider. Both of these tunes languished in the Dead repertoire until they were paired together, and it really was the perfect combo: the intensely psychedelic with the immaculately soulful. Just after being launched into outer space, getting lost in your mind, you're back on earth, barreling down the track. Another train reference, in what is likely the peak moment in the entire Grateful Dead catalogue:
I wish I was a headlight, on a North bound train;
I wish I was a headlight, on a North bound train;
I'd shine my light through cool Colorado rain.
Literally it doesn't make sense. Why would anyone want to be a headlight on a train? Why do we all go bonkers when we hear this? But on an unconscious level, it's quite similar to tripping: cruising at high speeds, shining a light in the darkness, feeling wild and free. Something about the lyrics to both songs summed up the Dead's ethos so well: the intensely weird with the intensely American. It doesn't get any better than this, sports fans.
15. Around and Around – Dick's Picks Vol. 1. Of course the Dead had to have some Chuck Berry. Like Buddy Holly on the previous disc, their forefathers get the Grateful Dead treatment. A great rocker from this era, Jerry does some high speed noodling, the whole band build it up, and Bob tries to blow his voice out. Fun stuff.