Authentic Experiences: Embracing or Rejecting the Grateful Dead


I recently posted a comment (shown below) on a friend’s Facebook wall in response to a conversation happening there addressing the “validity” of the Grateful Dead as musicians and their music. It’s not a new topic for me, I’m afraid. This time, the conversation began in response to a particularly small-minded and troll-like article by Joe Queenan in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Please, Grateful Dead, Don’t Keep Truckin’ On.” It’s a pretty nasty and inflammatory piece that does its part to transplant journalism to the latrine. Queenan’s desire to invalidate and devalue the Grateful Dead, their music AND their fans simply because he doesn’t personally understand it is, in my opinion, grossly irresponsible and, I would have thought, far beneath The Wall Street Journal’s integrity requirements. Clearly I was mistaken.

Continue reading “Authentic Experiences: Embracing or Rejecting the Grateful Dead”

Authentic Experiences: Embracing or Rejecting the Grateful Dead

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

You Win Again: Copenhagen, Denmark April 14, 1972

The fourth show on the Grateful Dead’s first-ever tour of Europe landed them in a hall that was tailer-made for music. Located in the center of the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, the 1,700 seat Tivoli Concert Hall had been designed for classical music performances, though the Dead were not the first rock band to play there. Needless to say, it was a far cry from the dark and acoustically-challenged venues of the tour’s first three gigs.

Enjoying playing not only to an audience of Danish-speakers (though the Danes are well-versed in English, as I can assure you from having lived in Scandinavia for a time in my youth), the band was also performing for a culture of European hippies, the likes of which would not be seen again till the band hit Amsterdam. In the north part of Copenhagen is a small “town” called Christiania (or Freetown Christiania) which is an autonomous “commune” that exists outside of the drug laws that are somewhat enforced throughout the rest of Denmark. As a result, this Danish audience was more than a little equipped for this particular band’s visit to their humble city.

The results were, to say the least, perfectly in sync.

The sound on this recording is exceptional. You can “feel” the space itself and the energy of this more-than-ready-to-have-their-minds-blown crowd. From the first notes of BERTHA, this show soars. The tour’s first YOU WIN AGAIN makes a welcome appearance early on. WIN’s a song I’ve always loved and one the Dead sadly didn’t keep in their repertoire for very long. I always thought Jerry did justice to the heartfelt Hank Williams tune. Another short but highly experimental PLAYING IN THE BAND helps keep the first set loose and wiggly while Pig’s rendition of BIG BOSS MAN makes sure the dancing and swaying never loses momentum.

Set two gives us another steamrollin’ TRUCKIN’ (this was definitely the tour for that song!) and another heartfelt IT HURTS ME TOO, which I will never get enough of. The BROWN-EYED WOMEN is energetic and a perfect reminder of the Dead’s various roots and inspirations; there is no better reflection of American music than the Grateful Dead songbook. This is followed by the last LOOKS LIKE RAIN of the tour and the last time Jerry would play pedal steel with the Grateful Dead until 1987 (!) when they backed Bob Dylan.

Like all versions of DARK STAR on this tour, April 14, 1972’s is one of the best ever. Deep and spacey, while not quite as luxurious as the Wembley DARK STAR, it certainly takes us on a long, strange trip (though the second verse is left out in the nether-sphere for another night). Pig’s GOOD LOVIN’ may be one of the best examples of the man’s vast talent for rapping as he weaves in and out of GOOD LOVIN’, WHO DO YOU LOVE, CAUTION (DO NOT STOP ON TRACKS) and back into GOOD LOVIN’. It’s a wondrous thing to behold.

Well, the boys could have ended the show then and there and one wouldn’t have heard nary a peep of complaint from anyone in attendance. But they chose to add another five songs onto the evening including a rousing NOT FADE AWAY-> GOING DOWN THE ROAD FEELING BAD-> NOT FADE AWAY. And by the time the band completed their frenzied and energetic version of ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT, the audience, and this listener, was more than a little satiated. Oh, to have been one of those 1,700…

Thankfully, this would not be the Dead’s last stop at the Tivoli Concert Hall this tour. They departed briefly to do another show at Aarhus University in Denmark before returning to the amusement park and hashish aromas of the fabulous Tivoli Gardens.

You Win Again: Copenhagen, Denmark April 14, 1972

Comes A Time: Newcastle, England April 11th, 1972

A Tuesday night at Newcastle City Hall in Newcastle, England. Third show of the tour before taking the ferry across to Denmark and the mysterious continent beyond.

Many a band had played the industrial town of Newcastle, England before the Dead. In fact, Eric Burdon and The Animals derived from Newcastle so the locals already had their own rock and roll celebrities. But the City Hall had never been a favorite place on any band’s list of venues to play. It was not the warmest of settings, with a tiny stage and concrete pillars spaced evenly throughout, blocking sight lines and making the acoustics a bit wonky. Even the crowd seemed a tad suspect as the gig began, but soon enough, the Dead had proven their worth and those cold concrete pillars and walls started reflecting the heat that was coming off the stage.

The first set was a whopping 18-song affair. Not as tight or energetic as the 2 previous Wembley shows, but no slouch either. The Newcastle crowd was privileged to get one of the tour’s three Jerry-on-pedal-steel LOOKS LIKE RAINs as well as a scorching BIG RAILROAD BLUES. The BEAT IT ON DOWN THE LINE offered the first false-start of the tour, but once the song got up and running (how many beats was that again?) all was as it should be in Grateful Dead land.

Pig led off the second set with another GOOD LOVIN’. It’s great to hear Pig belting out each and every song with so much energy and emotion as this would turn out to be, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, his last tour. Pigpen was already sick by this stage and looking mighty frail, but you’d never know it by the recording.

The highlight of the second set is the epic 20-minute TRUCKIN’ that devolves into some deep psychedelic spaces before spinning its way into DRUMS and then into a 25-minute OTHER ONE that leaves one breathless as it winds down into the first of the tour’s four renditions of Garcia’s beauteous COMES A TIME. The set closes out with one of only two versions of BROKEDOWN PALACE offered on the tour. It is as stirring an interpretation as I’ve ever heard.

Even Eric Burdon’s Mum was overheard to declare about the Grateful Dead (somewhere during the show’s over 4-hour running time), “They’re very good, you know.”

High praise, indeed.

A few days off to re-energize and the band will soon be taking the stage at the famous Tivoli Gardens Concert Hall. A far cry from the grey of Newcastle and the band’s first show in front of a foreign-speaking audience (though one could argue that Newcastle’s northern dialect might seem rather foreign to some). But music is, after all, a universal language. And so it would be in the land of the Danes. And beyond…

Comes A Time: Newcastle, England April 11th, 1972

CHANGE ROCKS: The Dead Play For Obama

Surviving members of the Grateful Dead reunited on stage last night for the first time in 4 years. It was for what they called “Change Rocks”, a benefit concert to raise awareness for Senator Barack Obama and the upcoming November 4 election. The benefit also featured the Allman Brothers Band.

Here is the setlist for the show and the transcript of Sen. Barack Obama’s filmed greeting to the sold-out audience:

Bryce Jordan Center
Pennsylvania State University
State College, PA
October 13, 2008

Filmed greeting by Senator Barack Obama:

“For twenty months, I’ve been traveling this country from town to town-even developing a ‘Touch of Grey’ of my own.  And on that journey, I’ve seen Americans who are hurting under the politics and policies of Washington.  They need change, and I am running for President to bring about that change.

“On November 4th, you’ll get to make a choice between two different candidates with two dramatically different visions for our future.  You’ll get to choose which direction you want to take our country.  I believe that now is the time to put Americans back to work and rebuild our middle class; to live up to the promise of affordable health care for everyone; to guarantee a quality education for all our children; to end our dependence on Middle East oil; and to bring this war in Iraq to a responsible end.  We can do all that.  And on November 5th, I hope to announce that we ‘Ain’t Wasting Time No More.’”

U.S. Blues
Help On The Way>
Franklin’s Tower
Playing In The Band>
Dark Star
St. Stephen>
Unbroken Chain>
The Other One>
Throwin’ Stones>
Playing Reprise

Touch of Grey>
Not Fade Away

Bob Weir, Warren Haynes, gtr; Phil Lesh, bs; Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, dms; Jeff Chimenti, kbds.

CHANGE ROCKS: The Dead Play For Obama