Wednesday, September 28, 2005

One Week in May '77: Part 3 - 5/7/77

Today we move on to Beantown, home of my namesake Deadhead blogger. The 5/7/77 show was played at the Boston Garden. The historic "Gahden" sat a shade short of 15,000, what a great place that had to be to see a show. This show however almost never happened. The day of the show, a crew member named Peter "Craze" Sheridan allegedly fired the union stagehands. Eventually things were smoothed over, but the night never truly recovered as the band suffered through numerous equipment repairs, including Jerry's guitar breaking before the Encore. During the equipment repair between Minglewood and Half-Step, Bobby rags on Mickey's need to "beat a nail into something", then gives Billy K. a hilarious roast in celebration of his 31st birthday

This night doesn't get the hype that the next night in Cornell does, but IMO, this show is every bit as good, especially considering everything they had to deal with that night. It almost seems on many an occasion that the tougher you made it on them (or they made it on themselves), that they would respond with an incredibly strong performance. If that is true, this night was the ultimate example.

The Bertha that starts of the first set begins a bit slow and methodical like the one in New Haven, a brief feedback snafu catches them by surprise during the first chorus, then they really kick it up-tempo during the second verse. From then on, you know it's going to be a fun night. After some brief equipment repairs, they launch into a hot Cassidy that really kicks into gear about the 3:30 mark. A very danceable Deal follows for the 2nd straight show. The Jack Straw that comes next is a bit disappointing as they never quite find the right groove. They respond strong with another great Peggy-O (although I think I like previous show's version better), followed by a nasty New Minglewood Blues. The Mississippi Half-Step that comes next is epic, possible the best one they ever played. Played with a funky shuffle to start, Jerry soars into orbit with a spectacular solo, and the band follows suit with amazing intensity. It slows down a bit to go "Across the Rio Grand-eo", then kicks back into a powerful finish. Truly the highlight of this show, and one of the top highlights of the entire week. As if that wasn't enough, Half Step moves quickly into Big River which starts off with a funky disco beat, finds a typical up-tempo beat to drive it through. A garden-variety Tennessee Jed is next, and a Music Never Stopped which features a jam that just builds and builds to orgasmic heights, finishes an amazing set.

The 2nd set starts off with an exquisitely played Terrapin Station, followed by a strong Samson and Delilah, two of the newer songs in their rotation that they seemed to truly enjoy playing. Friend of the Devil is next. FOTD was never a favorite of mine, at least until I heard this version. This was played absolutely beautiful and from the heart. Keith really shines on this one, Jerry sounds oh so sweet. Next comes a Eyes of the World>Drums>The Wheel>Wharf Rat combo that is out of this world. The fun, hi-tempo Eyes leads into a Drums, which trips a bit uneasily into a great Wheel powered by the Rhythm Devils and Keith, then a nice jam transition into a haunting Wharf Rat. A magnificent 2nd set closes with a rockin' Around and Around. Another song that wasn't a favorite of mine, at least until I heard the '77 versions, which rock with incredible intensity. U.S. Blues closes this incredible night, a night marred by numerous distractions and equipment failures.

I'm starting to think that this may be one of my all-time favorite shows, possible even greater than the 'greatest' show that took place the next night. That's our next destination, Ithaca, NY. The campus of Cornell University, at Barton Hall. What was it about that show that made it so legendary, and amongst many Deadheads, so controversial? We'll explore that in the next post in this series.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

One Week in May '77: Part 2 - 5/5/77

This may be tougher than I thought, finding things that made this week particularly special (special at least in my mind). They had just recently finished final touches on The Grateful Dead Movie, they had worked out the kinks from an uneven '76 comeback tour, and they had spent considerable time and effort in the studio working on Terrapin Station. On the other hand, this was also about the time that Jerry had discovered heroin, which you think would of hurt of him more than helped him musically and spiritually.

So why is the playing so tight? Why are there moments during this week that are possibly unequaled in their history? Why is the recording quality of these shows so crystal clear and rich (guess we'll just simply have to credit Betty Cantor for her perfect mixes)? Haven't figured that out yet unfortunately. I've done a bit of reseach so far, if you have any insight, please feel free to contribute.

Regardless, the May 5 show in New Haven, CT was a fantastic start to an amazing 5-show stretch. Played at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum (Capacity - 9,500), this show started off with a scorching first set, followed by an almost equally impressive 2nd set. This show was covered last year by the Dark Star Orchestra at The Fillmore, with Donna Godchaux making a special appearance, and that show was recently released on DVD.

The show starts off with a garden-variety Promised Land, after which Bobby cracks, "Sorry to be late, but you see a funny thing happened on the way to the show tonight, the airplane went the wrong way." Must of been an inside joke. They played in NYC the night before, I doubt they flew from NYC to New Haven. What followed was a spectacular 18 minute Sugaree, one of the best I've heard. Next came a unique Mama Tried>El Paso combo (only time ever played as a combo in that order), followed by a decent Tennessee Jed (never have been a big fan). The Looks Like Rain is excellent, with Donna adding very soft and sweet backing vocals, but this one wasn't even the best one that week. Next comes a hot, shuffling Deal, you know the kind you just bounce around to. After Lazy Lightning>Supplication (always a favorite of mine), a practically perfect Peggy-O follows. Listen closely on this version for Bobby and Keith, who both apply a beautiful texture to this great song, Jerry's solo soars as well. An incredible 95 minute 1st set ends with a powerful Music Never Stopped. The show could of ended there and most I'm sure would of been completely satisfied.

The 2nd set opens up with a methodical Bertha (I'm not so crazy about the slow-tempo Bertha's of this time-period), but then heats up with an Estimated Prophet that's about as good as you will ever hear. The Scarlet>Fire next is red-hot. The Scarlet may be better than the Cornell version 3 nights later, the transition is nice, but not spectacular, the Fire has it's moments, but never hits any spectacular highs like it did at Cornell and other times. Alot of reviewers at are always looking for the better Scarlet>Fire than the Cornell one, this one is close, but not quite as good overall. A typically fun Good Lovin' comes next, followed by St. Stephen. I only like the late 60's St. Stephens myself, the late 70's versions just don't have the same energy. This version shines though in an extended jam that has a Not Fade Away tease and a smokin, but brief blues shuffle. The Sugar Magnolia that comes next is a bit disappointing as they struggle to find a good tempo, kind of like the Bertha that the set started with. The last half of the song finishes strong as they find a driving high-tempo groove to close-out a solid 2nd set. A rockin' Johnny B. Goode encore that Chuck Berry would be proud of ended the night.

Like a couple other shows played this particular week, the 1st set outshines the 2nd. A joy overall to listen to though. Next, we'll head a couple hours north-east to Boston for what was a problem-plagued, yet still amazing show two nights later.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

1000 page views!

Cool. I'm still shocked that anyone actually has any interest in what I'm writing. Thanks to those who have been visiting and commenting. Hopefully many more posts to come.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

One Week in May '77: Part 1 - Intro

Tonight starts a series of posts that will analyze one week in the history of The Grateful Dead. A week highlighted by their most legendary show, with the two shows leading up, and the two shows that followed. May 1977 is considered by most Deadheads to the pinnacle of their greatness. Not only were their performances the best during this month, but the quality of the recordings of those shows are generally unmatched in their consistency throughout that month.

It's the shows starting in New Haven, CT on May 5 through the show in St. Paul, MN on May 11 that I will focus on. The recording quality of these shows are top-notch, and each of those 5 shows featured some of their best performances. This series will look into interesting things that happened around those shows, and the highlights of the shows themselves. Hopefully we'll discover what made that week so great. The Cornell show on the 8th is considered by many to be their best performance ever. Many would argue that too. As I go through this analysis, I'm still not sure if that show was even the best show that week, let alone the best of their 30 years together.

As always, I invite your comments. I plan on putting a good deal of research behind this, but if you have anything to add, please feel free. That said, I'm going to go off now and start working on my next post in this series, the 5/5/77 show at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, CT.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Concert Roster

As I continue this blog and reminisce about the many Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows I saw (well not that many compared to some, but 23 in all), I can't help but think of the many other bands I've seen over the years. My junior year in high school through college was when I went to the most concerts. I've compiled a list below of the major headlining bands I've seen over the years. This of course doesn't count opening acts or smaller, more unknown bands. Still a decent list I think. Basically, if a 'classic rock' band came through the DC area from 1987-1994, I saw them. Well here's the list, the number in parentheses is the number of times I saw the band:
Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe
Don Henley
Eric Clapton
Fleetwood Mac
George Thurogood
Huey Lewis & The News
Iron Maiden
Jefferson Starship
Jimmy Buffet
Little Feat (3)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Pink Floyd (3)
REO Speedwagon
Rod Stewart
Rolling Stones
Smashing Pumpkins
The Eagles (2)
The Kinks
The Pixies
The Who
Van Halen
I can't say that I've seen too many concerts recently. The sorry state of the music business, combined with raising a young family has been a bit prohibitive. Oh well, at least I have the memories (and slight hearing loss) to show for several years of seeing and hearing some of the greatest live rock bands ever.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Sweet Peggy-O

God I love this song. It's been a favorite of mine lately, especially the late-70s to early 80s versions. It's got to be one of the most beautiful songs they ever played, and on certain nights, it could touch even the toughest of souls.

The Dead's version was based upon a old, traditional folk song of Scottish origin. The original song eventually took a new life in the Southern United States. Dylan had a similar version on his debut album in '62 called "Pretty Peggy-O". The Dead first played it in December of 73, where it remained a staple for the next 22 years.

It starts off with a rolling Jerry-riff, then the rest of the band just kinds of folds into a slow, smooth shuffle. Jerry kicks in and takes you on a journey with Peggy and her sweet William. What can really make this song special though is Jerry's solo. Done right, it can soar to amazing, emotional heights.

I've been listening to alot of 1977 lately, a particularly good year for this song. A truly excellent version can be found during the 5/5/77 show. Check it out.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Happy Birthday Mickey!!!

That's right, another birthday. In addition to remembering the somber events of September 11, 2001, on a happier note we can celebrate the 62nd birthday of one of the most influential, innovative and creative percussionists of our time.

Mickey has always been a personal favorite of mine. All you have to do is just watch him during a show, and you know that there's no other place on the planet he'd rather be. Sometimes, he has this devilish grin on his face, challenging his brother-in-drums Bill to raise it to another level. Sometimes, he has a sort of zoned out look where it's almost he's like on another plane of existence than the rest of us.

Several years back, I saw something on TV about his work with the Smithsonian's American Folk Life Center, where he was working to digitize the most endangered recordings in the Center's collections. He's also been lobbying on The Hill for funding for this program. Truly a noble cause.

Here's a great interview from 2003 that I found that pretty much covers his whole career. Check it out and wish Mickey a happy 62nd!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Happy Birthday Pigpen!

That's right, Rod "Pigpen" McKernan would of been 60 today. Born on September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, CA, Pigpen was the resident bluesman of The Dead from the band's founding until the summer of 1972. Early on, he was primarily The Dead's keyboardist, but where he really shined was when he sang the blues. His powerful and energetic versions of "Hard To Handle", "In The Midnight Hour" and "Turn On Your Lovelight" were highlights of many a show in the late 60s and early 70s. Even towards the end, he could still belt out classics like "It Hurts Me Too" with the best of them.

Pigpen's 1st love was the blues, but his 2nd love was the "Sauce". He never pretended to be a hippy, he preferred the hard-living Hells Angels look in the 60's, then the Cowboy look in the early 70's. He loved to share the bottle with Janis Joplin and both met a similar demise. Although rarely mentioned in the same breath as Janis, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, it surely wasn't for a lack of talent.

In addition to his blues vocals, harmonica and keyboard skills, he was also one of the great early Rappers. His raps were perfect compliments to the songs that came directly from his heart. Ralph Gleason once wrote that Pigpen took "Lovelight" and "made it into a one-man blues project. He sang for almost 20 minutes, stabbing the phrases out into the crowd like a preacher, using the words to riff like a big band, building to climax after climax, coming down in a release and soaring up again."**

Pigpen died way too young in March of '73. But, his spirit always remained with the band and with Deadheads everywhere. His gravestone reads "Pigpen was and is now forever one of The Grateful Dead". How very true.

** from Dennis McNally's "A Long Strange Trip"

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Build A Set List: 1979-1985

For this Build-A-Set-List I thought I would focus on the period from the time when Brent Mydland joined the band to pre-"In The Dark". The sound changed dramatically when the Godchaux's left at the end of 1978 and the gravelly-voiced, keyboard wizard, Mr. Mydland got on the bus. Their sound overall didn't change much during this time. If anything, the quality of the shows varied both in sound and in recording quality. For a long time, I didn't think much of this period, but more recently, I have truly enjoyed exploring the shows from this era.

This period reflected more structure in their set lists than they had previously, introducing the Drums/Space segment in every second set. This period also introduced a number of new (and underrated in my opinion) songs from "Go To Heaven" and "In The Dark". There's alot of great shows to be found in during this time, they just weren't quite as consistent as they had been in years' past. Without further adieu:

1979-1985 Ultimate Set List

Set 1
Feel Like A Stranger
Franklin's Tower
Minglewood Blues
All Over Now
My Brother Esau
Don't Ease Me In

Set 2
Samson and Delilah
Iko Iko
Lost Sailor>
Saint of Circumstance
The Wheel
The Other One
Ship of Fools
Good Lovin
Not Fade Away

Baby Blue

As always, any resemblance to an actual set list is purely coincidental.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Ben The Deadhead: Don't Judge A Book...

If you saw me walking down the street today, you would never guess that I'm a Deadhead. Even 15 years ago, unless I was wearing one of my Dead shirts or a tie-dye, you still probably wouldn't of ever guessed. I'm a pretty average looking guy. My hair has always been relatively short, I'm usually clean-shaved, I've got a respectable job with a respectable (and fairly conservative) company. I saw only 20 Dead shows, 3 JGB shows, and had about 75 shows on tape. I had a number of friends who saw many more shows and had many more tapes than I did.

But that's just me. I didn't grow out my hair because I thought I would look ridiculous with a big, bushy hairdo. I didn't travel with The Dead, mostly because I've always been highly responsible, almost too responsible I guess. But there has always been a bit of a rebellious streak in me, and it's mostly been represented by my musical tastes. I love music that is creative, innovative, smart and fun. Music that you can really lose yourself in. Dead show scenes also appealed to me because of the true sense of freedom that you had when you were there. The sights, the sounds, the smells, all appealed to that rebellious side.

Deadheads are everywhere though, doctors, lawyers, Senators, NBA hall-of-famers, even conservative, uptight talking heads (i.e. Tucker Carlson). We come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Looking at some of us though, you would never know. It's the music and memories in our heads that makes us Deadheads, and keep us in love with this great band.