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Friday, November 28, 2008

1990 September 19 - Madison Square Garden

Jerry Garcia July 4, 1990
GRATEFUL DEAD
Wednesday, September 19, 1990
Madison Square Garden – New York, NY
Audience Recording

Epic runs can be found in most every era of the Grateful Dead’s recording history, even as the years wore on toward the end. One latter day run that will forever live in the history books came in September 1990 at Madison Square Garden. If you find yourself to be one of those folks for whom late era Grateful Dead holds little to no interest (whether that be shows post 1985, post 1977, or maybe you just don’t touch the 90’s at all), this run will surprise you. It’s not that you should be listening to the entire catalog of music from years you typically don’t reach for, but rather, that there is occasional magic happening in these later shows that your early years loving ears would love to hear – music that will satisfy your soul in precisely the same way you have come to enjoy whatever your favorite year is all along.

With whatever credentials you might attribute to the volume of writing contained in these pages, I humbly offer to you my recommendation of 09/19/90. If you trust the Listening Guide when I feature a show from 1970, and immediately reach for the mouse to download something musically spectacular, I can honestly tell you this show from 1990 is equally deserving of your attention. Don’t pass it up on preconceived notions. You will not regret this. Please, enjoy with me...

Brent Mydland died on July 26, 1990, just five days after I had seen him play with the Dead at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, IL . I was dumbstruck. We all were. The Dead were on such a high. The music was so good. It had been getting so much better over the last two years. We were basking in the beauty of our band almost assuredly delivering the goods any night we saw them (something that couldn’t be said of the handful of years prior to 1989). And then this.

Vince WelnickIn retrospect, the fact that the band was able to continue this surge of creativity and growth so soon after Brent’s passing is a lovely testament to his memory. After replacing Brent with Vince Welnick, the Dead got right back on tour, and headed east. In New York, they were joined by Bruce Hornsby on piano, and a new line up of the band was born. Drawing energy from a number of inspirational points, the MSG run in 1990 was like a phoenix rising out of ashes. For me, the September 19th show is a glowing example of the tremendous power and energy that infused this stretch of shows.

This show also provides us the opportunity to listen to an audience recording of the absolute highest order imaginable. Tom Darian managed to capture the entire run from right around the 15th to 20th row center every night. The 19th, recorded from row 18, might be the crowning jewel of this MSG recording collection. The quality of the recording matches the music, and that is an incredible statement to be made, as the musical performance scores an 11 on a 0-10 scale.

Preferentially speaking, the set list on 09/19 is a clear winner in my book. Tending, as I do, to gravitate toward earlier year performances, 09/19 is an awesome snapshot of a set list that could almost be something pulled out of the intricately weaving sets of late 1976. For me, the stars align with this date – set list, show quality, sound quality; all in perfect form.

With so much to comment on, I will attempt to focus on some highlights. Right out of the gate we get a blazing Jack Straw. Jerry just tears it up. His solo ignites the entire house, and it is clear that we are in for something special. The rest of the set is strong, solid first set material – Bertha, Big River, and It Must Have Been The Roses all delivering the goods. And then we reach the closer, Help>Slip>Frank. This version could have been grafted out of 1977 and inserted here thirteen years later. It just has that picture perfect feel to it. The Slipknot highlights Garcia working phenomenal magic with his leads as the song begins to expand out and awaken the phosphorescent hues of candy colors lying in wait in the expectant crowd. He swirls in snaking lines all around the music, riding his slightly buzzed guitar tone deliciously through the rhythms. He then gives way and Hornsby takes a piano solo. He’s been with the band for only a matter of days, but he instinctually knows exactly how to work things. He pushes the music into luscious field of dissonance and tension, which Jerry immediately latches onto, and rides into the air. The music pushes out of bounds beautifully here, with worming knots of energy sliding everywhere. And then comes Franklin’s Tower.

Really, if you didn’t know any better, you could think this performance was happening in 1976 or 77. They nail the energy and tempo of this song so perfectly, that I can’t call to mind many a Franklin from back in its heyday (1976-79) which exemplify the song’s own ideal any better. And, my God, Garcia’s leads throughout are so jubilant. The entire band is riding a joyous wave, and the crowd is right there with them. This Frankin’s Tower is an endorphin rush end to end. We couldn’t be in any more perfect a spot to wrap up a Grateful Dead first set. Matching Jerry toe to toe, Hornsby again lifts the entire proceedings with an outpouring of perfectly suited energy. This is just plain wonderful music all the way through. As the lead sections return to verse, you can’t help but find extreme joy in that you are nestled in the middle of a wondrous ride – deep within, and nowhere near the end. When the set does end, it’s all smiles.

Set two wastes no time opening with Playin’ In The Band. The jam blossoms with Phil hopping and bopping, and Vince swirling wet B3 organ chords. It’s a smooth ride as the music billows out in long extended waves, cresting and falling in slow random intervals. The band is fused together, and you can hear it in the way phrases dance from instrument to instrument. Everything follows long rolling tunnels and turns, and you can easily lose the definition between yourself and the music as it casts a deeply hypnotic spell. Edges start to fray beautifully, bringing us to a wonderful open and quiet vista where Ship Of Fools emerges, manifested directly out of the slow turning colors in our eyes.

Jerry Garcia 1990It’s a wonderful version, full of gospel undertones. And on its final notes the band effortlessly slips back onto the vista out of which Ship Of Fools emerged, and the Playin’ jam is back filling our vision with the slow turn of multi-hued sunsets. Here we are treated to a wonderful segue jam on the way to Uncle John’s Band. It appears, and the crowd welcomes it with open arms. The entire Garden sings along with the band, and it’s another of those most precious intimate moments between band and fans, unmistakably vibrating off of the tape. Before the final a capella section, Phil drops a huge low note that comes though nicely on this perfectly recorded tape. In the exit jam, Jerry transitions into his synth sound which adds great effect, not overstated in any way. And this rolls effortlessly into Let It Grow (making its first set two appearance since 1986!). The transition is wonderful. The entire song sparkles.

Let It Grow dissolves like a tree losing its leaves, and then its branches, in sunlit breezes. A gentle world of interplay featuring Jerry, Bobby, Vince, and Bruce takes place, all tinged with the memory of Let It Grow themes. Eventually Jerry ushers in a more intense jam wherein he can even be heard to toss in a few riffs from Loose Lucy. It’s a free cascading jam that plays itself out nicely, eventually finding the drummers returning as all musical form drops away, and Space infuses everything. A seriously mind twisting passage leads the way into Drums proper.

Space gives way to Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad which lifts the house to its feet. By no means a throw away version, everyone is doling out and feeding off of energy at every turn. And then there’s the majestic Stella Blue. This song had the ability to reach all the way down to the center of your heart, and with Jerry’s singing and solo on this one, you just couldn’t ask for anything more. Perched as we are on the shoulders of the taper sitting in the perfect spot, it’s one of those “Jerry was playing right to me” moments. As the song plays out to its end, the pure bliss factor of the Dead rolls out over you.

This recording is just plain wonderful. Enjoy!

09/19/90 AUD etree source info

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

1985 June 30 - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Jerry Garcia 1985

GRATEFUL DEAD
Sunday, June 30, 1985
Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD
Audience & Soundboard Recordings


1985 has an interesting reputation. Being the 20th anniversary of The Warlocks, the band seemed somehow inspired throughout the year, elevating their game with such sparkle (and a few tremendous breakouts) that most folks consider 1985 to be the highpoint of the 80’s. Regardless of that statement’s validity, ‘85 certainly holds a reputation of completely outshining the few years prior to it, and it is this attribute that feels somewhat strange to me. While clearly possessing something of an extra punch in energy, 1985 isn’t really something so staggeringly different than 1983 or 1984 that it could discredit these years as something less. But there’s no denying a certain sense of rebirth in the outpouring of music in ’85. And, while at times the extended jamming can seem to be getting cut short, 1985 has plenty to offer.

One show that has come to typify everything great about the year is 06/30/85 at the Meriwether Post Pavilion. There is an undeniable fun-loving vibe to this show, which then turns around and delivers some of the most intensely psychedelic journeying of the year. The show scores on all counts.

Grateful Dead 1985The first set is wonderfully upbeat, filled with a great stretch of songs. Things don’t go too over the top anywhere, but still, all in all, the music is satisfying. Set two, on the other hand, roars.

Shakedown Street gets off to its standard bluesy gate, strutting around in a high-stepping dance that opens the second set with a great Dead show energy. As the jam progresses along, Jerry lays down some nice leads, then Bobby gets off a great solo himself. This is followed by the music starting to surge in pulsing fractal pinwheels outward. Something has begun to infuse the music, and it sheds the garments of a straightforward song, leaving them to coil and eddy into vapor. Brent starts a slow organ swell, and the entire band bursts through the clouds, melting all colors into pure white sunlight. This pushes beyond itself as the drummers roll on their snares while the entire pavilion drops away in the burning light of music. This blistering crescendo sets this Shakedown into the “listen to this again” pile easily.

A rockin’ Samson & Delilah follows, and the entire place is hopping and bopping with the band. Next, another 1985 hallmark: the return of Phil to the mic. Okay, he actually started singing Gimme Some Lovin’ at the end of 1984, but another feather in 1985’s cap is Phil singing again. It’s really quite good, and very nice to feel the band really having so much fun of their own (another trademark of 1985).

Jerry Garcia 1985After this, the show is sitting at an absolute precipice of energy and power as we head into the meat of set two, starting off with He’s Gone. You’d expect the slow tempo of the song to bring the energy to a crawl, but far from it. He’s Gone is such a classic Dead tune by this point in 1985, that the entire audience is locked into a beautiful comfort with the music here. It allows for a breath, to be sure, but there’s no loss of attention.

As the song nears the end, after Jerry soulfully croons out the “nothing’s gonna bring him back” section in tandem with his lead lines, he flows into a lovely and lazy solo passage that eventually finds him playing the opening guitar refrain to Cryptical Envelopment again and again. Hearing it woven into He’s Gone is magical. Anticipation of the song coming mixed with how beautifully it threads its way into He’s Gone is a wonderful experience. *This* song (or, the return of this song, to be more accurate) really puts the icing on the 1895 cake. It’s hard not to be completely taken in by the return of the melodic lines of this old classic (it was last played on September 23, 1972, before returning, 791 shows later, on June 16, 1985). The short and darkly poetic story rolls itself out and is quickly whisked into Drums.

The Space on this night is extremely fine and worth a close listen. It’s an onslaught that leaves no footing whatsoever with which to remain upright. In fact, upright isn’t even on the list of options here. Sound comes at you from every angle, pushing and pulling perspective wildly in and out of your field of vision. It’s as if everything you see and hear is being reflected in a hall of mirrors, where all the mirrors rush toward you and recede in random patterns. Lights explode from behind the corners of your eyes like fires darting from view again and again. The pressure subsides and space opens up as things continue to breath and turn around you. Slowly the sea settles and then Garcia is working the volume knob while Bobby is groaning deep distorted chords. Phil walks bass lines around the stage in quiet circles, and Brent plays music box colors. For a time it is as if order is condensing and dissolving over and over out of chaos, the music being written at the hands of passing time’s fleeting interest. Then Garcia is hinting at Other One as everything begins to swirl up to a higher pitch. It’s daunting and magical as the music slowly but surely works its way closer to the song. This is one of the finest transitions out of Space you’re likely to hear. The Other One’s energy seems to have been there the whole time as the song draws its rhythms out of the primordial muse of musical expression.

The drummers return and immediately the pressure builds around them. We find ourselves fully locked into the song now, and it becomes an intense storm filled with rippling, rolling phrases which interconnect on and off most every beat. The first verse appears, and is gone. From here, titanic spinning wheels of fire consume the air around you. As the music reaches what seems like a natural summit, another wave drives itself up and out through the heart of the peak, raging into the crowd, whipping the musical energy higher still. Breathless and blinding, we find that the musical climax is an ever-moving, always expanding expression of energy with no end or beginning. It forever feeds back into itself, and here in Other One we come face to face with the highest cycles of this loop. Pushed further than we could ever expect, this Other One goes down as one of the most memorable moments of the year.

Stella Blue appears out of the chaos, and lightly wraps the crowd in loving arms. Keeping in step with most of the show, Jerry’s mid-song solo brims with energy. His exit solo find the band back in the most familiar of cool and gentle places. The family-like energy that pours out as the song closes is unmistakable Grateful Dead music. Like flags waving in bright sunlight, the music trumpets its own victory within your heart. All is good.

This show can be enjoyed in both SBD and AUD, and even in Matrix (SBD/AUD blend). There are actually quite a few versions to wade through. I would recommend the following:

06/30/85 Oade AUD etree source info
06/30/85 Oade AUD Download

06/30/85 SBD etree source info

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

1974 July 31 - Dillon Stadium

Grateful Dead Wall of Sound 07/31/74

GRATEFUL DEAD
Wednesday July 31, 1974
Dillon Stadium - Hartford, CT
Audience Recording


Billy Degen ate some mushrooms.

Undoubtedly feeling no regret over possibly eating them a little bit earlier than might have been prudent for the task at hand, it is this that left him unable to navigate the complex diodes, plastic coatings, and vibratory electrical fields of his recording gear, each of these competing for attention as the 07/31/74 Dillon Stadium show began. That and the full-on pleasure of a Grateful Dead show getting underway while he sat in a very sweet spot indeed. While he made attempts to get the tape going and recording correctly, it wasn’t until he eventually found an opening where the slowly shifting panes of his mental kaleidoscope glass came into something of a focus, that Bill was able to pull all the elements together and get the tape going in time for Mississippi Half Step.

Grateful Dead 07/31/74What he managed to come away with was one of the most multi-dimensional AUD recordings we have from 1974. This tape runs the gamut of audience tape clich├ęs, for good and bad. There are rowdy people chattering all over the place (including a classic where someone inches from the microphone quietly asks if it is a microphone), shifting winds saturating the mics, the sound of trucks rushing along the highway that borders the stadium (they tend to sound like prop planes flying over head), people bumping into stuff, the mics changing positions (often more than once in the same song), the odd tape cut here and there – yet on top of everything, this recoding is also one of the best documents of the Wall Of Sound captured out-of-doors in 1974. At times (especially when it really counts) this recording manages to transport the listener deeply into the pure heart of the legendary sound system. This tape does what only a few from the year pull off well – it demonstrates precisely how loud the Dead were in 1974, and really manages to grab the highest highs and lowest lows that billowed off the stage. The music roars and the energy soars in ways that most other tapes, even good ones, only wish they could emulate.

It was these latter, more positive aspects of the tape the drew me to choose it specifically to be featured on Grateful Dead Hour radio show #751 when host David Gans reached out to me with the idea of featuring a 1974 Wall Of Sound AUD tape on the program. As hard as it can be to decide just what show to review next on the GDLH, picking the right tape for the Grateful Dead Hour back in 2003 was truly painful. As much as it made sense to pick what might be one of the best AUDs ever, Jerry Moore’s 06/23/74, we decided to go for an outdoor recording since it would remove any worry over hall ambience, and thus translate a bit better to the compressed wavelengths of radio. In the end, I was very happy with the way this choice translated to the radio show.

For kicks, I have posted a MP3 version of Grateful Dead Hour 751 for those of you interested in hearing my interview as the online, banner waving, audience tape lover that I was (am).

What kept me from lofting this tape up as one of my first posts on the blog is the same thing that saw me hold off a bit on 06/24/70. The less than savory aspects of this recording could be construed as off-putting to one not somewhat ingratiated into AUD tape listening. So, by now, anyone who has found his or her ears warmed to the ups and downs of AUD tapes will have no problem panning for the gold on this tape. It is there in plentitude. Some moments shine through more than others, and without a doubt, this entire Summer ’74 show is filled with great versions of many songs (three sets worth). I will focus on some of the moments forever burned into my brain.

Jerry Garcia 07/31/74With Eyes of the World, the absolute majesty of this tape fully comes through. The crowd is almost immediately drawn into full attention, the ambient hoots, hollers, and conversations all but fading completely out of the field of Bill’s microphones. And straight off of the intro soloing, we can feel Jerry Garcia choosing his lines with great lyrical care. He seems more intent than usual in expressing distinctly voiced phrases.

After Phil’s solo, the song seems to tumble over an edge, unraveling itself into multiple shifting paths. It expands at several different angles causing our footing to give way into sweet confusion with no idea which direction comes next. The music eventually turns a corner as the band runs through the 7/8 time signature theme that adorned all Eyes in ‘73-‘74, and then glides effortlessly into China Doll. Here, the Wall Of Sound finds its way so deeply into your head as to turn it in on itself. You sense the enormity of the physical crowd and sound system, while feeling that the entire musical experience is yours, without outside ambience. This is the hallmark of a wonderful outdoor audience recording.

This show also has what might rank as my all time favorite Let It Grow. The jamming sections on this one find the band at the peak of their 1974 tightness. There is never any sense that the jam is just going along seeking for a foothold. It is endlessly locked in, constantly blossoming into new colors and textures, outdoing itself by ascending to a gorgeous peak in the final section where the Bobby and Phil begin lightly shredding their notes as Garcia soars higher and higher. It’s a beautiful crescendo, not repeated in any other version of the song anywhere.

Grateful Dead audience Dillon Stadium - Hartford CT July 31, 1974Then, of course, there is the mammoth Truckin’ jam from this show. Filled with a Mind Left Body Jam, into Spanish Jam, back into Mind Left Body Jam *after* the Truckin’ itself goes for 18 minutes, this set three jam is one for the ages. Two things always spring to mind for me with his tape. First, there’s the guy who shouts “Yeah, do it!” during the second or third verse of the song. For some reason, this is my favorite on-tape audience member moment of them all. It’s perfectly timed, and brimming with energy. Second is the mid jam Truckin’ rev up. You know, it’s that part of the song where Jerry starts circling on a triplet that climbs up the guitar neck, as the rest of the band joins him. This one from 07/31/74 has nary any equal, finding Jerry taking things up even higher on the neck that you can imagine, all while Phil is zigzagging notes at rough hewn angles in chaotic tempo. As it boils over you, it’s one of those moments of audience tape rapture – all this going on around you as a sea of people lock into the music in a vast outdoor stadium, in the Summer of 1974, while our intrepid young taper, Bill Degen, manages to reap the rewards of overcoming all the challenges that tapers faced – navigating deck, batteries, tape flips, levels, and paying attention to all of it during a Dead show.

The jam goes on and on from there, and despite the odd tape cut or two, the musical experience is well worth it. It’s great to hear how this overly rowdy audience can settle into near silence and attention as the band deeply explores the jam. And late in the improvisation, Phil reflects back to the gentle shredding done in the Let It Grow. It’s a wonderful tie in, bringing these tendrils back together late in the show.

Phil Lesh 07/31/74At the time that I circulated Bill’s tape, the only SBD of this show was very subpar, and not in heavy circulation. So much so, that this date got no attention what-so-ever. And even now that the full SBD circulates, Bill’s AUD brings something far more special to the listener. First put into digital circulation via the Audience Devotional Tree in January of 2002, it is a true pleasure to share this tape again with you now.

And a special thank you needs to go out to Bill Degen. Bill, you were largely responsible for my coming to appreciate AUD tapes from the start, having sent me copies of 07/01/73, 08/06/74, set two of 06/23/74, this 07/31/74 tape, and so many more. In a true example of the good side of the Internet trading community, we met in an AOL chat room of all places, and became fast friends and trading partners from there. As the years moved along, you even trusted me with your precious 7” reel copies of your master tapes that fell victim to your house fire many years ago, so I could transfer them and set them into digital circulation. I wouldn’t be here without you.

07/31/74 AUD etree source info
07/31/74 AUD Download

Audience Devotional Tree Round 9 – January, 2002

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Downloading Dead Shows From The Guide

It’s been asked of me a few times to provide some guidance around how one acquires the music being reviewed on this blog. Here is a straightforward walkthrough that will help you get your ears on the music.

First, the gentle reminder that while both SBDs and AUDs can be streamed online for listening enjoyment only the AUD tapes reviewed here can be downloaded for personal consumption away from the Internet. The Grateful Dead Listening Guide does not provide, nor link to, SBD files for download or trade.

There are a couple of tools (applications) you will need to get which then help you render these shows into a listening format. These are freeware, and protected from viruses, etc. You can safely download these and run whatever install wizards they trigger when you click on their set up or .exe file.

WinRAR: You will need this to unzip the song files if/when you download a MP3 version of a show in zipped format.

Traders Little Helper: You will use this handy gem if/when you want to create WAV files out of the music files you download for burning to Audio CDs.

That’s it. Just two. Get them now. Go on. It’s easy.

Now we are going to walk through the process of getting shows downloaded in two ways (it just comes down to the type of file format you want to end up with). Not being well versed in the Mac platform, I’m only going to cover the basics in Windows (XP in particular). I’m pretty sure that this walkthrough should turn on enough light bulbs such that a Mac user could figure things out.

First we will walk through getting the show in a good quality MP3 format, ready to load onto your iPod or player of choice. MP3s are a “lossy” format, called such because in compression of the original files there is some sonic degradation. It’s minor, and up to you whether you care at all. Speaking as a guy who swore up and down that lossy MP3s were the work of the devil back through the years when I was transferring masters and seeding shows online, I can tell you that for my own listening pleasure I only deal in MP3s. My ears are perfectly happy with this format for casual listening enjoyment. Since returning to the Dead, and starting this blog early in 2008, I’ve only listened to shows in the MP3 format on my iPod. I haven’t burned a single disc for listening.

Second, we will step through getting the files onto your computer in a “lossless” format (SHN, FLAC), and what you’ll need to do from there to listen. Lossless will provide you the exact music files as they came to digital. Pure pure pure.

1: MP3 Downloads

At the bottom of every audience tape show review’s post, you will find a link that always reads something like this:

07/27/73 AUD Download

1. Click On The Link – Clicking on that link will take you to the corresponding page on www.archive.org where that show is waiting for you. That’s all there is to step one for downloading a show.

Now you will be at the archive.org website, on that show’s particular page. On this page are a lot of links that you could click on. We are going to concentrate on just one. In the upper left side of the page is a box/section with a Steal Your Face logo at the top, labeled “Listen to audio.” It looks like the image to the left.

2. Right click on the link that says, “VBR ZIP” under “Play / Download." If you are using the Mozilla Firefox browser, select “Save Link As…” If you are using the Internet Explorer browser, select “Save Target As…” A navigation window will open up allowing you to decide where you want to save the file. Perhaps this would be a good time to create a folder in your “My Music” folder that you call “Grateful Dead Shows.” Regardless, click “Save” or “Okay” (depending on browser)and allow whatever time is needed for you to get the file saved on your computer.

3. Once saved, you need to find the file wherever you saved it, and right click on the file itself. You will notice that the WinRAR program I had you install at the start has provided some selections for you in this menu. Select “Extract Here” from the drop down menu:


This will unzip the file directly in the same folder you're in, and produce a folder containing the entire show in correctly named, individual MP3 tracks ready to be added into your favorite music library management application.

4. Listen to the music.

2: Lossless FLAC & SHN Downloads

Again, at the bottom of every Audience Tape show review post you will find a link that always reads something like this:

07/27/73 AUD Download

1. Click On The Link – Clicking on that link will take you to the corresponding page on archive.org where that show is waiting for you. That’s all there is to step one for downloading a show.

Now you will be at the archive.org website, on that shows particular page. On this page are a lot of links that you can click on. We are going to concentrate on just one. In the upper left side of the page is a box/section with a Steal Your Face logo at the top, labeled “Listen to audio.” It looks like the image to the left.

2. Now, the FLAC or SHN files are not zipped. You can actually see them all on the main page with clickable links denoting file size under a column labeled “Shorten” or “Flac.” You could start right clicking on these links directly to pull down each file individually per the instructions above in MP3 Downloads. Or you could click on the bottom-most link in the “Listen to audio” box that says “HTTP.” This will take you to a simple page that shows all the files on the page you might want to download. In Internet Explorer, right clicking on each SHN or FLAC file will allow you to save them one at a time, or in Firefox, you might want to make use of the DownThemAll! Plugin to make this a faster experience. Save all the files into a place you can easily get to when finished downloading – perhaps a folder you name with the date of the show.

3. Once you have all the files saved on your computer you’re just about ready to listen. FLACs can be played in many different applications as is. SHNs, not as many. If you want to burn the files to Audio CD’s, you’ll first need to us the Traders Little Helper to convert the files into WAVs which can then be burned to CD via a myriad of applications including Windows itself. Traders Little Helper is extra intuitive. You shouldn’t have too much trouble using it after the first try or two.

4. Listen to the music.

I hope this helps. Let me know if it doesn't. The Listening Guide is no good if you can't LISTEN.

Friday, November 7, 2008

While The Music Plays The Band


What is it about this group? Why is it that they can strike such a resonate chord in the pit of my being? How is it that this then illuminates a spidering out of interconnections with music from all over the globe and all up and down the time continuum? Sometimes the Grateful Dead make too much sense to me.

As one example: Knowing what we know about this group, it’s a fair assumption that they were not intentionally calling upon the sacred music of the 12th century to infuse the deep reaches of their improvisational feedback-induced psychedelia. But while listening to early show feedback compositions where sounds weave together in something not quite chaotic or cacophonous, I hear the melodic lines of haunting and beautiful music composed nearly one thousand years ago. It is no mistake, nor over statement, to say that time and time again, the Dead’s music feels like a sacred, church-like experience.

It is this sacred element which goes a long way in separating the Grateful Dead from being just another rock act. Yet, it can be quite incomprehensible to those who might not otherwise have a Dead-based frame of reference from which to see this characteristic. As one explores this facet of their music, it is not uncommon that its validity takes a kick in the leg because of the social climate which gave rise to the generation of Psychedelic Rock music in the first place. If you aren’t “one of us,” it becomes quite conveniently easy to write off any esoteric philosophizing about the Dead due to their obvious pigeonholing within that “late 60’s rock thing.” I would venture to say, however, that this expression of musical sacredness appears across all music throughout time, and its recognition within the Grateful Dead is no less valid than the form it took centuries earlier. Indeed, it is much more hidden in modern music, and therefore easily missed, or dismissed as the case may be. That said, this is one of the deepest layers of the Dead’s music we can discuss.

This somewhat hidden sacred element of music’s expression is only part of the great many other things we call Grateful Dead music. This speaks, in part, to the rapid evolution of music across the second half of the 1900’s. There was so much going on, so quickly, that music’s own sacred expression found itself woven in as only part of the musical fabric, rather than a single thread easily held apart and recognized. The condensed rapid evolution of music in which the Dead found bedrock-like footing, predicated that we would have a more complex musical form to examine, explore, and discover. Their music was a cauldron of ingredients – Bluegrass, Psychedelic, Rock, Funk, Country, Blues, Gospel, Tribal, Avant-garde – different things to different people. And as much as we sometimes ponder what it would have been like to see the Dead take the stage and play a solid two and a half hours of feedback, this would not have been the Grateful Dead. Even in the earliest years, they were more than one thing, most all the time. Unlike sacred music composers of centuries past who spent lifetimes channeling the rich power of music’s ability to communicate directly to the soul, the music’s power seemed to find new, more complex paths to expression in the pallet of modern-age music. Thereby, it came to reside between notes and lyrics, working at an almost subconscious level. And it took up residence in the quiet still waters of the Grateful Dead.

This sacred element is a descriptive manifestation of a far more indescribable truth lying deep within the Dead’s music – in fact, within music itself. Being a primal and universal language that can affect mood and alter the pulse rate of all listeners, music, when rendering a sense of something “spiritually beautiful,” calls the listener into a serene stillness of being – a truth that blurs all lines between our individuality. As found in the Garcia quote that currently adorns the right-hand sidebar of this blog, Jerry describes truth to be “..like those moments when you're playing and the whole room becomes one being -- precious moments..” This describes the fulfillment of music’s highest goal – to bring us to these moments of oneness. That’s what we paint as church-like, and refer to it as feeling sacred. But these words veil the truth of what’s going on with too much of their own connotation. You’ve heard it (or need to hear it) in many of the musical selections featured on these pages. Strip away all the baggage that may accompany your ideas around these words, and recognize nothing more than the feeling you get from the musical experience - drop the description of the feeling. This reduction of a self-editorial backdrop can heighten the experience and foster a deeper connection through the music into Oneness.

It is often at the times when the Dead are *not* deeply exploring the outer reaches of improvisational interplay that they conjure up some of their most serene and sacred moments. In Jerry Garcia’s hypotonic setting to music of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, we find some of the most beautifully quiet contemplations drawing us in. Never trying to force a message, Hunter’s words whisper at concepts both highly personal and widely universal all at once. In performance, these lyrics often find themselves surrounded by the softest sunlight; slight music sparkling in tender tears and lazy breezes.

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me
from "Attics Of My Life"

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