The Unabashed Joy of Grateful Dead, Binghamton, NY & the Fall of 1977

Grateful Dead Live at Broome County Civic Center 6 November 1977

Spring 1977 is largely considered one of the Grateful Dead’s best tours. So much so, in fact, there’s a 5 show box set that’s just been released by the Grateful Dead and Rhino (the keepers of the Dead’s massive musical vault) this week. But for me, the magic didn’t end with the completion of the spring ’77 tour. It was simply being ushered in by it. The Dead’s fall tour of that same year, followed by the 4-show New Year’s run at Winterland and into the spring tour of 1978, contains some of my favorite shows of all time. In fact, that Winterland run should be released as its own box set along with the 3-camera black and white video that was shot by the Bill Graham folks. If ever there was a treat for DeadHeads, that would be it. When was the last time you saw Jerry doing Pete Townsend windmills? Sure, the video isn’t up to today’s Hi-Def standards, but it’s still incredibly revealing and energetic and such a rare and beloved piece of history for anyone who loves the Dead that to NOT release it in the best quality possible may actually be considered a hate-crime in some countries.

The tightness and beauty, mixed with a high rockin’ energy that came to characterize the Spring 1977 tour, only intensified as the year rolled forward. Garcia seemed uncontainable throughout this period: wide grins and guitar-slams so intense and heartfelt you’d think Garcia was trying to make the music reverberate straight through the center of the earth itself. And perhaps it did. The fierceness with which Garcia played throughout this period brought the band to new heights and each and every member of this touring circus rose up to meet Garcia. Sometimes the effect was less “tight” than they had been in the past, but the savage joy that took its place fills me to the core.

One such show was the Dead’s final show of their 1977 Fall tour. The Dead always loved playing New York and the Broome County Arena in Binghamton was no exception. This gig not only closed the tour, but an astounding three-night N.Y. run.

The first set is so magnificently tight and masterful. And the soundboard recording available streaming on is one of the most beautiful mixes I have ever heard. Each and every instrument is clear in the mix. Vocals are sharp and confident in a way that is rare for Dead recordings of any kind. And Garcia’s voice is so soft and melodic with traces of that early 70’s Garcia sound. Keith is uncharacteristically high in the mix and it is such a joy to hear what he is doing here. His contribution to the band’s sound is unparalleled. And to hear the nuances and intricate exclamation points created by Bobby will make your hairs stand on end (in that good way). Even Donna, who many complain was off-key more often than not, is in prime and delicate form here. If you ever wondered why Jerry loved singing with Donna so much, this recording and show will answer that question for you.

The second set isn’t as tight as the first. Some botched lines and slightly less-certain moments do crop up, but they are met with laughter and some of the most creative work-arounds I have ever heard, eliciting even more energy and commitment from the boys. It’s a show that one simply cannot stop listening to.

19770727_0939The show’s opening MISSISSIPPI HALFSTEP is among the best I’ve ever heard. So much pure energy and storytelling, it threatens to blow the roof off the place. This is followed by one of the best JACK STRAWS I have ever heard (in my opinion, Spring 1978 was the peak for JACK STRAWS so this is on the precipice of that moment in time). I would dare say that most every song in this first set is in competition for best version ever. If it’s not the best, it’s among the top 5. The MINGLEWOOD/DUPREES DIAMOND BLUES combo alone makes it all worthwhile. And the MUSIC NEVER STOPPED closer just lilts and roars.

The Sunday-appropriate SAMSON opener for the second set shows that the boys hadn’t lost their energy during the break. And Donna’s SUNRISE may make believers out of non-believers. One of the best ever. The SCARLET-FIRE that follows is not as tight as the rest of the show (though it’s no slouch!) with Jerry forgetting lines and even disappearing for a while (broken string? Bathroom break?), but this just spurs on more creativity and a clear desire to make up for lost time. Once the boys kick into GOOD LOVIN’ and then ST. STEPHEN, we’re off and running again straight through to the end of the show and a rockin’ TRUCKIN’ set closer.

There’s just something about this era for the Grateful Dead that moves me. Hell, there’s something about every era of the Dead that moves me, but this period speaks to something deep inside, something primal. It encapsulates both the grace, beauty and ferociousness that I most love about the Grateful Dead, mixed with the potent suspense and fire that is created out of risk and that the boys did so well when they allowed themselves to be vulnerable. All the while maintaining the musical clarity that came with being professional musicians at the top of their game.

If you’re less accustomed to this period of the band than others, or simply don’t know the band all that well, give this show a try. Not only might it knock yer socks off, but it will give you a prime example of why the Grateful Dead are considered such a wide mix of American musical styles in a way few bands have ever been. And why they are, still to this day, considered one of the greatest live bands in musical history and of such profound cultural importance. Not to mention, why they bring so many of us so much unabashed joy.

The Unabashed Joy of Grateful Dead, Binghamton, NY & the Fall of 1977

Uniondale ’81. The last great Dead show?

It seems that somewhere around the fall of 1978, Jerry Garcia started showing signs of wear and tear due to his ongoing love of the persian. He still played many, many tremendous shows before his life would come screeching to a halt, but ill health and a drug-induced slow-down of motor skills caused this immense and energetic musician, this one-of-a-kind talent, to become nearly immobile onstage while his playing grew increasingly sloppy.

They were never the same band after keyboardist Keith Godchaux and singer Donna Godchaux left the band in 1979 and were replaced by keyboardist Brent Mydland. I was never a huge fan of Brent’s stylings –though I recognized his immense talent– but in the early Brent-days especially, there could be a real dynamic energy between band members. Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY on May 9, 1981 is just such an example of this band bringing everything to the table and then some. Just when you thought Garcia might have sunk into a stupor never to return again, he could surprise everyone (including his fellow players) by surging to life with a vengeance.

You can’t listen to this show (and particularly this sbd/aud matrix by Hunter Seamons) and not jump to your feet with excitement and joy. It may well be the tightest and most energized show of the second half of the Dead’s career. The lilting, danceable melodies of MISSISSIPPI HALFSTEP build slowly to a fantastic peak. But that’s just a small taste to whet your appetite. Each song in the first set is better, stronger, than the one before it with Garcia just giving it his turbocharged all! If it weren’t for Brent and a couple of new songs, we would think this show HAD to be pre-1979. But it’s not. By time we get to the opening notes of the first-set closer, CHINA CAT SUNFLOWER->I KNOW YOU RIDER, we know this familiar combo is gonna knock our socks right off our feet. The band simply explodes into their set break leaving the audience breathless and smiling and yearning for more.

The second set kicks off with some newer songs for the era, LOST SAILOR-> SAINT OF CIRCUMSTANCE. Never have you heard these two songs played with more fervent energy and mastery. The peak in CIRCUMSTANCE is ecstasy-inducing. But it’s the ESTIMATED PROPHET-> EYES OF THE WORLD that will prove to you that there really has never been a band like the Grateful Dead. The mid-lyrics-jam in ESTIMATED goes higher than any other version I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard (and seen) many. Jerry is just pushing the envelope as far as he can take it and the rest of the band is right there with him in tight formation, almost too perfect to be believed. They are soaring! Then the EYES… This is one for the books with rhythms and flourishes completely unique to this version and this version only. It is both Jerry Garcia and the band at their most playful, their most experimental, their most joyous.

The post-drums portion of the second set is tight and beautiful and almost note-perfect. Garcia is happy to take his time and explore the spaces between songs and you can feel him smiling throughout. AROUND & AROUND almost gives way to a JOHNNY B. GOODE that suddenly twists itself into ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT. Even the BROKEDOWN PALACE false start is met with laughter and a sense of joy and humor that only makes you love these guys all the more.

If you feel like hearing the Grateful Dead with Brent in what may be their best, tightest show from this era (or at least one of the top five), I beg you listen to this one. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Oh, and do yourself a favor. Play it loud. Real loud.

Uniondale ’81. The last great Dead show?

Weathering The Storm Of Disappointment: When DSO Doesn’t Turn The Clock Back Far Enough

This has nothing to do with the talent or skill of Dark Star Orchestra. I have never seen them not play well. But I am learning something about myself that I must face: I’m simply not fond of the Grateful Dead’s set lists or sound post 1984. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, where DSO is concerned, I don’t need to see them recreate any shows post 1979. But Dark Star Orchestra doesn’t play for me and me alone, they do what they do. Which is recreate Grateful Dead concerts from the band’s many eras.

And this is where I have to be honest with myself. The Grateful Dead were never the same band for me after keyboardist Keith Godchaux left and Brent Mydland stepped in to take his place. Brent was a supremely talented musician. No one who knows anything about music could deny this. However, his style of playing, singing and songwriting was so vastly different from the Grateful Dead I fell in love with that I was never fully able to embrace his contribution. Ironically, I never had the opportunity to see Keith perform with the Grateful Dead. My first show was in September of 1979 shortly after Brent joined the band. But I had been listening to the Grateful Dead for many, many years before I had the opportunity to see them live. And in those early days of Brent, he was a bit more subdued. But within a couple of years, his playing became busy and forceful to the point where almost all the quiet spaces within the music were filled. For me, it was a sound deluge that diminished the delicacy I had come to love and expect from the Grateful Dead. The jazz-influence that Keith advanced in the band –his sense of when to step up and when to step back– was lost with Brent’s enthusiastic contribution. It wasn’t wrong, just different. And, for my personal taste, less preferable.

Now understand, ever since the beginning of the Grateful Dead, they were a band capable of vast depths of sound; they could be as quiet as a single soft breath or as loud and complex as a city under siege. But it was the contrast between these two spaces that made the adventure of seeing and listening to the Grateful Dead a genuine journey. Brent diluted this contrast for me. The cacophony became more consistent, more the norm. And, as will happen with the addition of any new sound, any new influence, it effected how the other band members approached the music.

Then there were the songs that Brent wrote. Simply put, Brent’s skills as a songwriter were not in sync with what attracted me so intensely to the Grateful Dead. I know that Brent was profoundly disheartened to see so many people choosing his songs as their bathroom break or an opportunity to visit concessions, but he never seemed to consider that his style of songwriting was not the kind of music that attracted many Dead Heads to the Dead; Brent’s songs were more direct in their storytelling, less ethereal and poetic. They were also seeped in a pop-ballad style that seemed to defy the Grateful Dead’s deeper exploratory nature. Yes, the Grateful Dead were a reflection of all types of American music, but I suppose the part of Americana that influenced Brent never appealed to me and, as talented as he was, I never found a way into his music. It simply did not move me. In fact, it did quite the opposite. For me, it stopped the show in its tracks.

Later audiences seemed to embrace Brent’s songwriting. In many ways, it was more in sync with what drew these later crowds to the Grateful Dead. Pop songs like TOUCH OF GREY and WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE or FOOLISH HEART, all Garcia/Hunter originals, were appealing to a generation that preferred “ditties” over depth. I rarely enjoyed these songs and, like Brent’s musical preferences, they stopped the show for me.

Last night’s Dark Star Orchestra show at the El Rey in Los Angeles was filled with these show-stoppers. And, as if pre-planned, the audience seemed to be made up of far more frat-boys (of varying ages) as well as men who clearly spend an inordinate amount of time at the gym pumping iron. This evening would find them with their trendy-clad girlfriends by their sides. It was like DSO were playing 24-Hour Fitness.

In effect, the show recreated was from May 9, 1987 and the audience matched the era. Eek. This was a time when the Grateful Dead were slowly being pushed out of their favorite venues due to uncontrollable crowds. The scene was turning, and not for the better. TOUCH OF GREY ushered in a whole new audience that changed the vibe forever.

Now, one good thing about DSO recreating these later shows is that DSO is, invariably, a far tighter band than the Grateful Dead were at this point in their development (or devolution, as many would refer to it). So the playing last night was solid. Tight.

But I’ve discovered (or more aptly, am ready to admit) that the allure of DSO for me is in seeing those earlier shows. Opening with SUGAR MAGNOLIA-> SUGAREE was very welcome. And even ME AND MY UNCLE-> MEXICALI BLUES was fun and well-played and still in keeping with the oldies but goodies theme I so love. But then suddenly, I’m plunged into WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE, a song I never understood the appeal of. For me, it was not reflective of Garcia’s musical strengths. If this were the music of the Grateful Dead from the get-go, I never would have been attracted to them. This was followed by the (IMHO) dreadful Brent tune TONS OF STEEL. Try as I did, I was not able to shed the sinking feeling building in my gut. I was no longer “in” the music as I had been for those first two songs. Then BROTHER ESAU followed. While a far better song than the two previous, it’s still something I have a hard time getting excited about. This trifecta left me feeling disappointed and “outside” the show.

Luckily, the TENNESSEE JED and LET IT GROW brought me back up, though never to the level where I had started. There was something in my gut, expectations foiled, that I could not shake. Truth be told, as soon as I walked into the El Rey and saw that the guitars and drums were set up for a show most-likely from the 80’s or 90’s, my heart sank a bit. But there was an extra mic set up which gave me hope that this would possibly be an original setlist and not a show from my least favorite era (as it suggested the inclusion of the fabulous Lisa Mackey in the Donna Godchaux role). Alas, the extra mic was removed and my hopes dashed.

The second set started off with more dismay. TOUCH OF GREY. I could live a long, happy life and never hear this song again. It’s a fun little ditty (there’s that word again), but it’s a sad replacement for the possibilities of second set openers the Grateful Dead were accustomed to treating us to. This was followed by LOOKS LIKE RAIN. Never one of my favorites, it was at least an older tune, but one usually reserved for first sets, not second. Again, given what second sets often had to offer, this felt distressing. I was, at this point, thoroughly removed from the show and could have actually walked out and called it a night.

Now I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my statements here. Dark Star Orchestra played these songs, each and every one of them, with energy and conviction. As I said before, in many ways better than the Grateful Dead themselves had in 1987. The disappointment I was feeling began and ended with me. No one else. It’s my personal taste and desire. It’s what I want to get out of the experience of seeing DSO that was unfulfilled. DSO was just doing what DSO does. And, try as I might to counter it, so was I.

The HE’S GONE-> JAM was very well played, particularly the long OTHER ONE TEASE JAM which started to lure me back in. DRUMS->SPACE were customary and enjoyable, but the sinking feeling in my gut had already settled too deeply. The rest of the show was filled with songs I truly love. All of them soared with energy. And at times I was moderately transported, but that feeling in my gut that had settled there never left. It remained like a shroud over even the best moments. I was aware of trying to get rid of it, to let it go and enjoy being there, listening to live music again. But my attempt ultimately failed. I could not transcend the moment.

All of this is made even worse by the fact that I’ve been reliving the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 tour in its entirety thanks to the recent release of the entire tour on CD. This is widely considered the Grateful Dead’s best tour ever. And I wouldn’t argue that. So much so that the set list from ’87 just seems downright lazy by comparison. A friend of mine also in attendance pointed out that DSO could have played any show from ’65 through the first half of ’79 and you wouldn’t hear a single song that would disappoint. The same can’t be said for any show post.

The only criticism I have of DSO as a band is that, now with the inclusion of Jeff Mattson -who I must say is an amazing guitarist and about the best replacement for former lead-guitarist John Kadlecik that one could imagine– this incarnation of the band seems intent on bringing every song to its highest peak. And they’re damn good at doing it. But there’s something almost “manufactured” in their doing so. As if subtlety and nuance were not quite as important as blowing minds. It happened so much that it ceased to be special and started to feel too easy. It didn’t feel organic. It wasn’t the music playing the band. This felt pre-planned in some way. Now that may not be accurate to what was actually taking place for the musicians, but it was my experience. Sometimes making a song “explode” is not the best thing for the soul of the music. But I’m just an audience member and probably one of the few who didn’t walk out of the El Rey last night satisfied. It is my personal cross to bear, I suppose. Again, it’s what I want that is not always in sync with what DSO is offering. That is no fault of theirs. That’s all on me and I take full responsibility for it.

I wish in the future I could know whether DSO were going to play a show from an era I want to travel back in time and experience, or whether they’re recreating an era I need not revisit. That would help me decide whether or not I need attend, to avoid disappointment or embrace that which I love and yearn for. But such things are not the way of the world. So I must take my chances, make my decisions. Perhaps I’ll just see DSO every other year and hope for the best.

Weathering The Storm Of Disappointment: When DSO Doesn’t Turn The Clock Back Far Enough