Sunday, August 4, 1974
Civic Convention Hall Auditorium – Philadelphia, PA
Albeit spanning two venues, I think one of the best three day runs by the Grateful Dead occurred on August 4th, 5th, and 6th, 1974. The first night was a tough tape to come by in trading circles. 8/5 and 8/6 were in pretty regular SBD circulation by the late 90’s (and surely well before). And while good quality, low gen versions of those two were hard to hunt down, the 8/4 SBD simply wasn’t around at all. Now featured in Dick’s Picks 31, the soundboard is easily accessible, and this Pick is a must in all collections. But here we’ll talk about the audience recording – another chance to get your head right in to middle of the Wall Of Sound. Never an opportunity you want to pass up.
The first cassette version of the AUD I was able to score was woefully hissy. But, this show gave such fine rewards upon subjection to the otherwise less savory aspects of the tape itself, it was worth it. It wasn’t the master recording’s fault (as we learned later). It was just a bad copy of the master that had finally made its way around. The master itself, recorded by Jerry Moore, was part of the great Moore digitizing project that a few of us took on back in 2003.
In all fairness, 8/4 probably stands third in line behind the next two nights as a complete show experience. Yet, considering the next two nights, this leaves a ton of room for excellence. Its own highlights shine very brightly indeed.
This show also provides an excellent example of how the Dead’s jamming style had developed over the last year or so. Once you’ve listened to a few 1974 shows you can start to recognize a consistent “feel” to the playing style - a tightly wound, aggressively driven exploration of improvisation. The band would push and pull themes, working their talents at will, sometimes into more than one direction at a time. The evolution of the band’s playing and jamming style from 1973 to 1974 is quite distinct. An analogy that has always come to mind for me in describing this evolution is to describe 1973 as the band riding in the back seat of a car careening downhill on a wild ride with no one at the wheel. It's a never ending adventure. In 1974, the band is in the same car, but they have climbed into the driver’s seat so they can control the madness of flying down the mountain, taking the car where they like. By August ’74, they had fully mastered this, and were using it to brilliant ends.
On this show in particular, Playin’ In The Band embodies this evolved playing style wonderfully. For the first ten minutes it is a solid romp through this pure 1974 essence. Eventually, Jerry pauses for a break that lets the rest of the band lay down some wickedly dark funk grooves. Billy smashes his hi-hat, which phases the sound into the mic. It’s an awesome little flourish that is hard to forget. When Jerry returns, something has clicked and the music blossoms. Immediately there is a shift and the music fractures into multi-layers, no longer one raging force. The span of colors seems to stretch more completely across the spectrum. Phil steps outside of the firm pocket of bubbling, hopping notes, and starts to pull in some more strange sounds amidst the backbeat. The driving groove doesn’t change, but other elements are taking shape. There are now more open spaces within the soundscape, which allows you to concentrate on different elements a little more. Jerry is flinging pointed phrases everywhere, each dripping with a cosmic psychedelic edge. Time and time again he catches a run of notes and hangs within, circling and spiraling. Like flashes of galaxies normally hidden from view in the night sky, he bursts into view with visions that leave you gasping for breath.
These are the sorts of things that make you want to listen to this Playin’ again, to catch the little openings that fade as quickly as they appear. Through these openings we reach the true nature of magic that this band somehow found the means to express over and over again. Their musical efforts combined like a forest shaman’s potion that, once ingested, peels back the curtain of the everyday cacophonous noise that fills life, bringing you face to face with something more true, more undisturbed. In those true moments there is nothing more than your experience of them. They pass, and you look over your shoulder saying, “That was it.” And with that, it’s already oh so long gone. No different than moonlight, a flower growing through a sidewalk crack, or the passing view of a mountain touching the sky, sun, and clouds; these moments are often veiled by nothing more than the normalness of life, and pass without notice. If you can focus your attention to the beauty within, for a shimmering moment there’s nothing else. This is a beauty that is always around us, of course. We simply don’t often spend our time experiencing it. The Grateful Dead served as a divining rod to the stuff. They knew where to look. We knew our eyes should follow. They could call up this beauty in their music, and it would strip away distraction and chatter, bringing us directly into the moment.
We get more of these precious window opening moments in the huge Let It Grow>Wharf Rat>U.S. Blues that follows in the second set. The solo section of Let It Grow (not even the jam) finds Jerry careening over the edge of cliffs, sailing through the sky. His lines are wonderfully lyrical, triumphant, and joyous. As they head into the post song jam, we’re essentially placed right back into the burning hot funk jam feel of Playin’. The band is completely locked in on the groove. Jerry floats lines around, then flips on his wha-wha pedal with a beautiful entry note. From here, he lays down some absolutely drippy lines of music. He seems to go in a new direction with every phrase, sometimes cooking along, sometimes exploring the lightest of musical expressions. Slowly beneath him, the rest of the band is deconstructing completely, until it’s a painted canvas of sharp, bunched up angles, Jerry mixing impossible colors over the top. Crazy patterns overwhelm one’s ability to see straight. Eventually Billy drops out completely and the music slips into an underground lake that echoes all around a mile wide cavern. The chaotic patterns can’t be held off, and they fill the space again until Billy re-emerges and a more classic insect fear / tiger jam takes shape. It’s like being shot up the throat of a volcano. Dangerous music, to say the least. This expands out and Phil and Bobby begin the march into a Spanish Jam. A burst of feedback ensues, and Jerry makes an executive decision to go for Wharf Rat instead. The transition swells into view, and what could have come across as a bumpy turn, renders itself majestically into the next song.
New Wharf Potato Rat
This Wharf Rat, along with most from the ’73-’74 period, locks solidly into one of the Dead’s pervasive core grooves that turns up as a transportational vehicle in virtually all years. If we were to dub it a name tied to one of the songs in which it first appeared, we could call it the New Potato Caboose groove. Easy to pick out, this groove also shows up in Crytpical Envelopment and Bird Song most clearly (I made reference to this before with the Bird Song from 09/07/73). The exit solo section of this Wharf Rat taps directly into the heart of this groove. You need only open your ear to it. The music lifts you into the air, buoyed on nothing more than the breath of creation. A pristine tapestry of refracted crystal shimmering diamonds, the music bores its way into the very heart of you. Pierced and pleasantly poisoned, your heart expands to fill your entire being. Collectively, there is that sense that the single entity of the entire crowd, and the band, has closed its eyes. Jerry plays in a different direction with almost every turn of a phrase. So much emotion courses out of his guitar, it might as well be a lute’s strings plucked by the hand of angels. Under him, the band is continuing its trend to crack the edges of steady song structure, but rather than ferociously taking corners and twisting paths, this all forms within clouds and mist. They weave strange rhythmic patterns out into the air.
Eventually this simmers down, and Phil hints at Truckin’. But Jerry is working his way into another fabulous song transition that moves to U.S. Blues. You couldn’t ask for two songs more diametrically opposed in theory. But Jerry leads them in, and the band grabs on with sublime perfection. It’s brief, yet sensational. And U.S. Blues is splendid. It somehow exceeds all expectations, delivering itself as a set closer, much like a Sugar Mag, but more so. The cheers of the crowd after this massive three song jam are some of the loudest I’ve heard. Pure delight. Perhaps sensing that there is little where else up to go, the band closes the set with Sugar Magnolia itself.