Not Sure Where To Begin?
my thoughts on Music & Being, which guide my writing.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
Saturday, June 14, 1969
Monterey Performing Arts Center - Monterey, CA
It is often the case when listening to old tapes of Grateful Dead music, that you can be struck by the fact that what you are hearing never made it onto a commercial release, and thereby, into mainstream society. It is not uncommon to hear music so good, you can’t believe it only lives by the grace of a sub societal sect that cared for and shared this music fully outside the scope of a record label and commercial industry’s ability to present it as an example of a band’s musical identity to the “outside” world. This tends to happen at a higher than average ratio when it comes to 1969 Grateful Dead. And June 14th, 1969 exemplifies this in spades.
Turn On Your Love Light > Me And My Uncle > Doin' That Rag > He Was A Friend Of Mine > Dire Wolf; Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Turn On Your Love Light > Drums > Turn On Your Love Light
As this show begins, we can hear everything known to be archetypically “Lovelight,” and a good deal more. Jerry’s leads give the appearance that he is a daredevil tightrope walker, fearlessly charging forward while blindfolded and balancing several tea cups on saucers across each extended arm, each of these holding aloft a feather-strewn lady sitting in a chair – like some twisted and distorted Dr. Seuss character. He has no concern which way the tightrope turns, bows, or buckles. He’s confidence radiates for miles. The song rolls like a river charging through the wild west terrain of America, great frothing whitecaps boiling over boulders, long swaths of orange and mustard brown silt running like ribbons under crystal glass cover. We are delivered to more remote and twisted vistas than the commercially released Lovelight might ever have dreamed of. Pockets of imploding feedback, great yawning taffy-like pulls of guitar-dinosaur moaning, and strobe light exploding curtains of color adorn the music while Pigpen’s improvised truck driver love poetry sprinkles a consistent thread throughout the 26 minute opening bookend of the show.
When the song sneaks its way into Me And My Uncle, the unmistakable aura of Grateful Dead magic pervades everything. We are defenseless as the band casts its controlling energy over the entire hall, happily lost in their hypnotic trance. Me And My Uncle crackles with a psychedelic power unfairly permeating a simple cowboy song. Bobby’s vocals quiver and tremble with their edgy glimmer, and Garcia’s guitar work is like a tumbleweed caught in a tornado. The Dead’s ability to superimpose one musical genre into the fibers and tissues of another in 1969 was nearly unequalled in any other year. Here in the summer of ‘69, the band was already headed down a creative path toward the formation of the “Acoustic Dead” which would fully play out through the winter and well into 1970. Yet at this time the titanic lysergic beast of 1968 still shrouded even the most traditional of songs, and often made it a more brain twisting challenge to reach stable ground in even the most straightforward of music. As Me And My Uncle deposits us directly into Doin’ That Rag, we are immediately thrust into the belly of the beast again, and Garcia is in as fine vocal form as he’s been on guitar up to this point. He’s delivery matches Bobby’s with its certain crazed and bug-eyed intensity.
That Jerry Garcia could sing a song! His voice paints a Cheshire Cat smile into the air. Doin’ That Rag is so overflowing with the symbolism that pervades the veiled and subtle messaging of the Grateful Dead, it’s a shame that the song could not have secured a more stable home in the Dead’s repertoire. It flashes forward to Robert Hunter’s lyrical majesty contained on American Beauty, crafting pictures and imagery into a poetic mural of spiritual grace, lessons to learn, and endless snapshots of the psychedelic experience.
This draws us directly into He Was A Friend Of Mine, another song that fell out of the rotation after the first few years and probably the one I personally miss the most, along with Viola Lee Blues. Jerry’s vocals and guitar solo only build upon what was happening in Doin’ That Rag. It’s a drippy walk through a folk ballad, showcasing the Dead’s personal signature wonderfully.
When we arrive in Dark Star, it quickly makes everything that proceeded it seem like child’s play. The song comes on as if we’d been slipped a massively over-potent elixir brewed by some medicine man in the Central American jungle, and all the warnings we’d been given in preparation for the ensuing experience amount to not even the smallest level of readiness for what’s happening. Looking back on the show up to this point, we can only laugh at ourselves for having thought we were witnessing the psychedelic grandeur of the Grateful Dead. Dark Star is the real deal, a true game changer.
Oddly, in the grand scheme of Grateful Dead things, the fact of the matter is that most of their music isn’t all that psychedelic. We all have probably been asked the question, “How is this psychedelic rock?” by people in our immediate circle who hear this music over our shoulder. I’ve been asked the question many times, and there’s little point in arguing. Tennessee Jed? Ramble On Rose? Promised Land, Big River? This list goes on and on – this isn’t hippie psychedelic music. I suppose those of us on the inside find it all tinged with the roots of psychedelic rock in some way. Such is the power of that portion of the Dead’s music that truly was psychedelia incarnate. And that, beyond doubt, was Dark Star in 1969. The Dead’s psychedelic preferences didn’t infuse Dark Star. Dark Star was the elixir itself. It was stepping into the inner chamber of a hidden palace to find a secret underground sea of mists, colors, and sounds all in a cosmic dance of intricate beauty. One taste, and you can forever onward begin to trace hints of it throughout everything else. Have you ever heard the strains of Dark Star while gently taking in a beautiful spring morning? That’s it.
There’s little sense in road mapping 06/14/69’s Dark Star for you here. It’s a version that makes you very thankful that recordings of this band were made in such abundance. The idea of this performance having been lost to history as each note rang out without being recorded is unthinkable. The one thing I will mention in regard to the actual playing on 06/14 is that while the entire song quickly latches into the musical satori experience of the Grateful Dead’s living breathing musical muse, there is a near indescribable soul burning passage in the section that follows the first verse. As music revolves, and feedback swarms into all empty space around every sound, the dance between form and chaos overwhelms. This push and pull is never ending. It lays to waste any ability to retain a sense of separation between music and listener.
You are drawn to listen because the music is finding itself within you. Dark Star is the muse within us all. It wakes itself as it plays. The illusion is that we believe Dark Star works on us. This is not true. It is seeking itself within us. We aren’t really there at all in the end. The more we can work to realize this absence of division, the more deeply we can release into the moment. The parallels to pure spiritual knowing here are not coincidental. The force of Being sings through many forms, and in the depths of Dark Star its musical voice is true. The thematic undercurrent which was Dark Star itself binds to everything in the Grateful Dead’s history. In that, it goes beyond any simple mapping from one song to another on a time line. In 1969 we were blessed to be exposed to the pulsing heart of the Dead’s magic. Once exposed, the beat echoes forever forward and back, in and out of music, in and out of self. Dark Star is just something altogether elemental while also dwelling beyond most everything else imaginable.
When Saint Stephen rolls out into The Eleven, there is a controlled frenzy to the intricate rhythm. As if taming something part swarm of bees, part lightning, and part molten furnace core, the Dead sear through time and space with an impossible control over something so ferocious. The music sweats. The pulse races. And in a great swirl of callioped color we find ourselves back at the start of the show as Lovelight steps back on the stage. Beautifully the song drops completely out into Space momentarily and then flashes back into view (one of my favorite elements of any Lovelight). Complete with opening band Aum's leader, Wayne "Tha Harpe" Ceballos, filling in a bit as a guest vocalist, and a drum solo in the midst of everything else, this closing bookend of Lovelight adds another 17 minutes on top of the 26 minute opening ride. Yes, Lovelight was in full bloom during the Summer of 1969.
The tape we have sounds good, but also possesses something of a classic Dead bootleg quality to it. It isn’t culled directly off of a 10” master reel. It has that cassette feel to it, while not taking anything away from the quality of the recording – just a nice layer of listening pleasure reminding us how lucky we are to have the tape at all.
06/14/69 SBD etree source info
06/14/69 SBD Stream
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Amazon expanded Kindle subscriptions to offer blogs. I couldn’t resist setting up the Grateful Dead Listening Guide (Kindle Version) in the Amazon store. They are currently offering a free 14 day trial too. Got a Kindle? Check it out. Know someone with a Kindle whose life is missing that certain electronic layer of the Grateful Dead? Pass along the news!
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Monday, June 14, 1976
Beacon Theater – New York, NY
Just as picking a show from the early 80’s can present a daunting task when it comes to knowing which way to turn first, June 1976 is like a microcosm of the same problem. The Grateful Dead played a lot of shows marking the inaugural run in the band’s return to the road as a touring act in '76. It seems that nearly the entire month of June has always circulated in good quality, and the shows can sort of bleed together. Way back when we all had to build our tape collections through trade, a large portion of June ’76 was among the easiest music to find because the band had done so many FM simulcasts. This meant that soundboard quality recordings were being seeded, potentially by the hundreds, night after night, up and down the East Coast. Interestingly, certain shows from this run (Chicago Auditorium Theater) remained lost in the fog even from an audience tape perspective while the surrounding dates were easy pickings.
I’ve mentioned before how it seems that this overabundance of easy to find music from June contributes to the bad rap 1976 gets in general – so much material from, arguably, the low point of the year. And while I’ll be the first person to tell you that the music only continued to get better and better as 1976 rolled along, there is plenty to enjoy even as the band was shaking the rust off from its near 20 month hiatus. In fact, the highpoints among this historical “snoozer portion” of the year become that much more special precisely because one generally expects very little from June ’76.
I made early mention of one of my favorite Dead shows in general which happens to come from this time frame - the long time under-circulating masterpiece from June 9, 1976 - and here now is another show that has always managed to poke its colorful petals up over the rest of the June ’76 flower garden in my mind: June 14th from the Beacon Theater.
The show packs great energy, both from the band and audience (clear even on the soundboard), and the first set plays like an archival sample of everything good going on in 1976. In typical early 1976 fashion, nothing explodes (though Might As Well – often miss-documented as “Mighty Swell” – does fly over the top), but the entire set is a worthy listen. And it all rounds out with a memorable Playin’ In The Band.
This Playin’ presents a wonderful balance of every direction the song could flow in 1976. Still a staple feature of Dead shows, 1976 saw Playin’ begin to more fully explore different rotation slots in the set lists beyond its hallmark set one closing role. It also started to traverse distinctly different temperaments as if reflecting the changing mood of the band – some would flow out in silky smooth oceans of psychedelic waves, while others could find their ways into jagged and treacherous terrains that boiled with fire and hail. 06/14’s Playin sits in the traditional set one closing spot, and seems to explore and taste both extremes of expression.
With sound quality on the soundboard source that rivals nearly all other tapes, when the band slides into the Payin’ jam everything is about as close to perfection as we could wish. With a terrific balanced mix of instruments, the sense of this six piece band as a true ensemble comes shining through on this tape. Everything weaves together as the band continues to pick up steam. There’s a lovely flow oozing in and out like one’s breath as they roll along. Eventually things quiet to a whisper and we find Playin’ set at the precipice that might have easily led to a roaring Tiger Jam two years earlier, but here in 1976 it hints more at Blues For Allah. The intensity builds again as if we have just passed though the eye of a hurricane, and we are slowly swept back into the fantastic stitch work of an intricate tapestry. Not long after, the drummers tip over an edge into pure rolling thunder – the beat has been consumed and the entire band begins to tremble and fracture leaving us both on dizzying heights and staring up at more impassable mountains of dark foreboding rock. Before a completely blinding meltdown can ensue, the band reappears and another phase of the jam takes form. The drummers come back to the beat while we were lost in some phrasing by Garcia, and soon there is the sense of all the instruments fitting together like massive planet sized gears of reflecting kaleidoscope glass. It’s as if the music can’t take a wrong turn. Each member zeroes in on a simple phrase of their own and they begin to repeat them into each other like the inner workings of a watch. This is one of the most subtle explorations of the band’s pure creative musical force, made somehow more precious by its delicate and fleeting nature. Capping off the jam section of a nearly twenty minute Playin’ In The Band, we find that we’ve travelled many diverse miles all while we otherwise thought we were just listening to another Dead show.
The Wheel opens set two, to the clear shock and delight of the crowd. The song came out on Garcia’s first solo LP in 1972 yet never made it into the live show line up until 1976. Here, the band is fully enjoying themselves (there’s even a nice “Woo!” let out along the way as they become clearly locked into the slow pulsing arch of the songs melodic runs). The solo section paints a majestic picture with Garcia dancing on tiptoe from star to star. It’s short lived, but no less enjoyable for it, as the song comes to a close just as we’re ready for it to go on forever.
There follows some fun stage chatter as no one seems to know what to play next, eventually seeing the band land on Samson & Delilah, followed by a tasteful High Time, and The Music Never Stopped.
With Crazy Fingers, we head into the meat of the second set. Always good for casting a subtly gentle, yet psychedelically mysterious mood, we find ourselves casually ambling through a misty evening as our peripheral vision seems to flicker with unseen light sources. The song trails off into the end portion improvisation and the slow turning galaxy wagon wheels are back. The tides shift, and just as we feel the arrival of a Spanish Jam, Bobby provides a distinctive tease into the Dancin’ that will follow. Gently the jam subsides leaving the drummers to assemble the backbone of Dancin’ In The Streets.
Dancin’ was a tune that matured over the years after its return in 1976, and the ’76 breed is often one that merits little attention. Truly the versions in the following year become epic. Here, however, we are gifted with some of Garcia’s most delicious solo work of the entire evening. When they launch into the jam, Jerry’s phrasing becomes that of a 1950’s jazz saxophone player (insert your favorite’s name here). The way he holds back, and then blows out phrases flying up and down the fret board provides us with the Jerry we are all so thankful for. His tasteful note selection, filling the syncopated spaces between the beats, brings nothing but smiles to your face. All in all, it’s an understated Dancin’, as most were in 1976. But it’s worth everything to ride with Jerry through the solo section.
Cosmic Charlie, another song seeing its revival in 1976, comes next and is delivered perfectly. Vocally, the song just takes you in and works its magic. And as the pulsing backbeat that bore The Wheel at the start of the set returns to ricochet and echo its way through this song too, we’re firmly locked into the hypnotic trance of the Grateful Dead.
Then the set caps off with the wonderful highlight of Help>Slip>Franklin, containing an improvisational masterpiece during Slipknot which firmly locks this entire show into its spot as one I’m always happy to return to and explore. Here, as the 1976 tour was getting started, this song trio was well rehearsed and sounding very much like the Blues For Allah album version while allowing the band plenty of space to work each rendition into its own unique direction, and all the while finding Garcia able to forget the correct ordering of the lyrics in Franklin’s Tower.
Help On The Way overflows with heartfelt and emotional vocal delivery by Jerry, and rides ever so sweetly through the extended solo section. The tempo is locked in the pocket, and everything shimmers and gleams as they roll into the last verse, and then deftly navigate the intricate path which leads to Slipknot. This jam is representational of a new direction for the Dead. Nothing they were doing in their first ten years sounded quite like this at all. And the music finds its way into a lovely expanse of long flowing phrases atop Bobby’s wide volume swells. A deeply explorative jam finds the musicians listening to and playing off of each other. For a long while we are buoyed in a borderless ocean of the jam’s theme, lost in a timeless space of coolly dark comfort.
Soon much of the jam drops away, leaving Garcia playing off of the drummer’s light accents. Slowly Phil works back in, layering his own solo efforts while Jerry’s notes fly past like meteor showers. Eventually the rest of the band assembles again, and off of Bobby’s seemingly forced change of direction inspired by Phil’s own thumping, the band slips into the heavenly realm of absolute bliss and musical satori that forces chills to electrically snake across your face and down into your heart. We are cast into a pure musical presence which sucks all attention into its own focused midst. There is nothing else in the universe at all. This short (painfully fleeting) passage calls back to the inspirational brilliance found deep within 1970 Dark Stars – joyful expression of exquisite musical passion. Experiencing this music when you can offer it your open heart is a healing event. Our souls filled to bursting, the inspiration fades and the band returns to the coolly dark and mysterious interplay we were comfortably enjoying moments ago. We ride the twisting river toward Frankin’s Tower and arrive in the song’s own uplifting energy and simplicity.
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.
06/14/76 SBD etree source
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
While the kindness of deadheads is a historical fact, being allowed to copy your friends tapes (or relying on your friend to copy them for you if you didn’t even have your second deck yet) would only get you so far. Eventually you’d run out of his tapes. By then, you were probably a full blown addict, and getting deeper into the club was now a necessity – life without more of those Summer ’73 tapes was just unthinkable. So, you had to wrangle up two cassette decks and start trading.
Deadhead tape traders were (are) a detail minded bunch, and there were many facets to tape trading that could either smooth or obstruct one’s way into the world of building a tape collection. Once inside door number one of this club, you would be quickly directed down a particular hallway based upon just which kind of cassette decks you owned. If you could afford it, or rigmarole some means of acquisition, possessing two Nakamichi tape decks could get you into the first class lounge of this tape trading Moose lodge (never do it without your fez on). Folks who went “all in” to this club were spending a pretty chunk of change to get set up with two Nak decks. Even as tape decks were speedily going down the path of the black and white TV and 8-track player, Naks were fetching top dollar, and this long after they went out of new deck production. There were some models that represented the crème de la crème, one of which was the Nak Dragon, a deck that would run you a minimum of $900 “used” in the 1990’s. This, while you could stroll into Target and pick up a fancy dual-well dubbing deck for under a hundred bucks (we have a special room in the club for you guys with dual-well decks, by the way). And yes, even in the Nak lounge, the Dragon guys would sit at their own table (the bastards!). It’s not that Nak folks wouldn’t trade with non-Nak folks, but it certainly helped. Those Nak decks really did make the very best possible copies of tapes. If you had the tapes I wanted, and Nak decks, I was going to do everything I could to find a way to score a trade with you.
Okay, so decks were important. I brandished a couple of Nak decks myself. But even more important was knowing how to use them. There were a few cardinal rules in trading that I’ve probably mentioned before: NO DOLBY; use good quality tapes (Maxell XLII’s and XLII-S’s); and set your levels right. That last rule was subject to serious debate. Because of this, you were best off to just ask your trading partner where they wanted their levels set (I was a +3 to +5 peak guy. Many others would say set them flat to +0). And then you had to actually set the levels. This required looking at the set list, picking a part of some tune (or tunes) that you knew generally produced a “loud” moment, fast forwarding to find that spot, and playing the tape to then set the recording peaks on deck two. I would generally seek out the end portion of a Sugar Magnolia, or the explosive start of an Other One. You had to take care, because blowing level setting would cast a negative picture in your trading partner’s eyes when it came to trading with you ever again.
It didn’t end there. Where do you want the set list and tape genealogy written out? Can I write on the j-cards? Back of the peel-and-stick tape label sheet? And special packaging instructions - did you know that we typically never ever mailed the plastic cases that cassette are stored in? They just break in transit. Rubber banding the tape with a special loop to prevent the hubs from spinning the tape loose while in the mail – I kid you not, we cared about all of this.
Rules. Rites of passage. Customs. When we weren’t blissed out the newest Dark Star to cross our paths, deadheads certainly were sticklers for details.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I find myself drawn to the way the world of online Social Networking and the Grateful Dead have been crossing paths of late. I work in the field of Internet Marketing, and thus have an interesting perspective to see both forces at play. Recently, there has been a good deal of buzz around the way folks are twittering set lists while attending the current Dead tour, and the ensuing shock and disgruntled opinions around how this “new age” of communication technology is stabbing the magic of the Dead concert experience in the heart. It seems someone nabbed a complete set list before one of the shows even began, and was tweeting the songs prior to the band playing them, thus bursting the bubble of spontaneity for many folks. Beyond the simple fact that people have a choice whether to read up on these things while en rout to, or while attending a show, it is wild to see how the electronic age version of scribbling a set list down on some paper can stir such discord.
The fact of the matter is that we occasionally get more than we bargain for with all this technology. Today, we are all best friends with the guy who snuck a peak at the Dead’s set list before the show got started. 30 years ago, our friend would have emerged from back stage grinning broadly and immediately told us what he saw (this assuming there was a pre-show set list to see back then). We’d probably be thrilled at this window of insight, and then perhaps bemoan his telling us every song before the fact – or be amazed that he was able to remember the entire list long enough to retell it at all. But it would have all happened between perhaps a half dozen people, tops. Today, the pack of friends he tells is every human being who happens to be tuned in online. Now, instead of a few of us talking about this event, hundreds (thousands?) of us are amazed to find that we even had a friend nosing around back stage at a Dead show, let alone that he crushed all the excitement for those of us in attendance who thrive on the spontaneity of the band’s performance.
These are just the growing pains we suffer as we mesh our Grateful Dead community into the ever-evolving digital age. In some ways it’s not unlike the bitterness many deadheads felt when every single show turned up online, making the music that took some of us decades to track down and assemble into our personal tape collections instantly accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. It took a lot of years, but we got over it (most of us, anyway), and now the full online digital catalog is just part of life.
And I’d venture to say it’s the growing pains talking when people instinctively curse the advent of these technologies (Damn you Twitter! You harshed my buzz!). But what’s happening here is an evolution of the way our community ties itself together. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, they all serve as a new version of being signed up to the Grateful Dead’s mailing list as advertised in the bi-fold of the 1971 Skull & Roses record sleeve:
Today we’re able to sign up for a myriad of communication channels, with the band and with each other, and many of them now flow in real time. But they serve the same purpose as the original – to unite us.
While anyone dabbling in these new Social Media tools will attest to a certain level of static noise coming over the channel, it is an interesting vantage point from which to experience the thoughts and goings on of our tribe, especially while there are events (the Spring 2009 Dead tour) going on in real time around us. For anyone struggling to wade into the water because of the sense that this information comes too quickly and from too many angles, it’s actually possible to clear away some static. First, you should accept that you’re going to miss stuff. You can’t keep up with all of it, so don’t rank the experience upon how much of the information you can consume. You can also impose a little filtering. With Twitter, for example, it’s possible to search tweets with an imposed theme via hashed keywords like #GratefulDead, or #TheDead. Check it out. It’s a little better than pouring though what seems like mindless noise, although there’s plenty of noise even within a themed search. As things like Twitter stick around, the ability to filter will only improve. There are many third party apps out there helping as well.
So, while the new world of Social Media catches many of us off guard, we should try to avoid rash decisions related to its value. It really just points to another skill we need to develop – learning how to best make use of our tools, even if that skill turns out to be the talent for dialing down the constant drone of Dead noise to an acceptable level. As we’ve seen with the evolution of audio technology, all new gadgetry needs to be accepted, learned, and adapted to best serve the community. We screwed up CDs big time when they first flooded into trading circles. For those of us who were there, we have countless piles of drink coasters made from Track At Once (TAO) burned discs with two second gaps between our Scarlets and Fires, and endless Sector Boundary Errors (SBE) leaving those annoying little blips between tracks. Eventually, we figured it all out, got over it, and wove the technology into our community. Thank goodness the price of blank discs plummeted so continually.
Eventually more and more technology will come along making the stuff we struggle with today seem completely normal. I eagerly await the day I can re-master all of my AUD transfers into some new holographic simulator that allows us to go back and feel like we are actually sitting 10th row center while Jerry and the boys play their hearts out in front of us. We’ll go to shows together without leaving the house. And yes, there will have to be a holographic parking lot scene with every show too.
Shall we go…?