Saturday, May 18, 1968
Santa Clara County Fairgrounds – San Jose, CA
Northern California Folk-Rock Festival
As far as the Grateful Dead go, 1968 contains a collection of music that is in many ways unparalleled across the vast 30 year span of their career. Like no other year, 1968 never spares a single minute toying around with the idea of taking you on a psychedelic music journey. It doesn’t gently take your hand and lead you down a path which exposes you to some magic land. No, 1968 is more like being run over by a freight train fueled on electric Kool-Aid steam . Drop the needle down at any instance of 1968 Grateful Dead and you’re catapulted directly into the heart of a musical expression so lysergic, so steeped in cosmic adventurism, it defies any true comparison to what we might generally bring to mind as the “psychedelic scene” of the late 60’s. The Dead in ’68 go beyond.
At this time the band was fully possessed by it musical muse. This muse stood so close to the veil which normally shrouds its presence in mystery that we have no problem recognizing this higher power working the band like fingers on a hand. The muse found a foothold in this musical ensemble which not two years earlier epitomized the “San Francisco Sound.” Here, that band has broken free of any pigeonholing or time stamping. They are a hurricane force spiraling windstorm of transformative and bone melting music. You are not safe in their presence. You can not emerge innocent with flowers in your hair from this music. I would have hated to have been in a band sharing the bill with the Grateful Dead in 1968, especially if they took the stage before me. What they were doing went beyond music somehow. And they needed no warming up or cooling down. From bell to bell, you got life-altering soul-fire which bleached your flesh and bones into the color of stars.
Sadly, we are missing far more of the Dead’s output from 1968 than we are lucky to have on tape. Vast portions of the year are nowhere to be found. We have spotted shows, partial runs, fragments of music – and that’s from within the patches where we actually have music at all. Between March and August of 1968, for example, we have documents from only four concerts total, while the band was playing nearly night in and night out, early and late shows, free concerts and headlining. It makes what we do have all that much more precious and at the same time painful due to the thought of what has been lost to time, lingering on the air, and left boiling in the blood of the audiences that were there to experience it.
One of these precious treasures from the vast wasteland of lost music came at the hands of The Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, who recorded his own audience tape of the Dead’s performance on May 18th, 1968. He recorded from the lip of the stage, and while he clearly was on the move occasionally (the mic obviously gets repositioned two or three times during the set to different parts of the stage it seems), the recording is breathtaking all the same. There aren’t a lot of up front vocals, but in 1968 this doesn’t matter in the slightest. The raw inferno of the Grateful Dead’s power explodes like a super nova off of this tape. The mic’s journeying around the stage seems only to intensify much of the psychedelic power. 95% of the time, the recording will bring you to your knees – outdoors at an all day concert with the full force of the Grateful Dead rocketing you to worlds beyond the physical universe. There's a woman asked to say a few words to the folks at home in the opening seconds of this recording. She sums everything up just perfectly.
Alligator > Drums > Alligator > Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks) > Feedback
Sharing the bill with The Doors, Eric Burdon & The Animal, Big Brother & The Holding Co., The Youngbloods, Electric Flag, Jefferson Airplane, Kaleidoscope, Country Joe & The Fish, and Taj Maha, the Dead used their early slot at the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival to deliver side two of the Anthem Of The Sun album – a record not due to hit the shelves until July of that year. The music explodes, filling the entire Santa Clara County Fairgrounds like a shower of lava. The Dead become a black hole sucking all matter and being into their core. The music is fierce with fists like mountains crushing everything for miles.
To hear this sliver of May 1968 (April is completely absent from tape collections, and May and June only barely qualify as being any better) is to be given a window into the Dead’s evolution through these primal years. As if the January and February tapes display a band any less powerful, this snapshot of May displays something more colossal. This is similar to the way November and December 1972 stand somewhat more brutally powerful than the months just before. The band and its ferocious musical energy is completely unleashed here in May ‘68.
There’s little hope in mapping out this musical journey. Though, I will say that the transition into Caution manages to somehow push things over an edge. Just after you’ve spent about twelve minutes under a gale force of Alligator jamming, Caution takes things up another notch, swirling in that Bluegrass element which, even here in the deepest reaches of psychedelic mayhem, is able to jettison the musical experience further out into swirling space-time.
The first pass into Feedback, somewhere just after Pigpen’s first round of “Just a touch,” comes one like a welcome breather which seems poised to allow our heart to stop racing for a few moments. Of course, this undulating wash of cymbals and turning volume knobs pins us down all the more, only giving us the smallest hints of the insanity to come some eleven-and-a-half minutes later.
The final Feedback is inescapable. Flesh, nerves, hair, bones, and fingernails are shredded so completely as to remove the individual human experience entirely from the event. Where has the fairground gone? Where has anything I held onto as reality gone? Breathing and heart beating are unknown here. The rippling sound beams find names in the valley of my sundrenched treetops and my gurgling brooks.
When it’s over, things have surely been driven so deeply into your body as to never have hope of ending completely.
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