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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

1981 March 9 - Madison Square Garden

Monday, March 9, 1981
Madison Square Garden - New York, NY
Audience Recording
The maturation process for a Deadhead tape collector is a very interesting thing indeed. Whether it's in the way one slowly develops an ear to "hear" a year from just a few seconds of a song, or gains the ability to call a tune long before it starts based off of random between-song noodling happening on stage; with more listening comes the perception of subtleties and nuances which can elude other less experienced ears.

One subtle nuance that sticks with me from the time long before I was a seasoned listener myself is that of being able to discern a "really on" show from one that might be considered "normal." "On" refers to that level of play which goes decidedly over the top from what we might consider a regular Grateful Dead performance. It's different than a "good show." It's actually more about a certain extra layer of sparkle, for lack of a better explanation.

This nuance sticks out for me because I distinctly remember having no clue how to discern the "really on" attribute at all. And I recall not caring. I recall feeling like every new tape that passed through my mail box was "really on" as far as I was concerned. In this, my ignorance truly was bliss.

And then I heard 03/09/81.

Shows from the 80's tend to blur together. Maybe this makes it somehow easier for certain performances to stand out -- I'm not sure. Regardless, one song in to 03/09/81 and it becomes abundantly clear that Jerry is on. I suppose recognizing this takes at least having heard enough shows to create a frame of reference, but during his solo in Feel Like A Stranger, when his amplifier tubes are being pushed to the edge of destruction -- an over saturated and piercing tone -- Jerry explodes like a plume of liquid starlight. It's not a long passage, but it's more than enough to make anyone within an ear's distance cock an eyebrow and smile. And this quality proceeds to infuse the entire night's performance. There's something about Garcia all night. He is really on.

Before diving into the show, it's also worth noting that this Barry Glassberg audience recording is quite certainly one of the very best audio documents around. Clear from the first notes, this recording oozes with the power to whisk you directly out of your everyday existence, and land you squarely in the sweetest spot imaginable at a 1981 Dead show.

Set 1: Feel Like A Stranger, Althea > C. C. Rider, Ramble On Rose > El Paso, Deep Elem Blues, Beat It On Down The Line, Bird Song, Minglewood Blues
Set 2: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider> Samson & Delilah, Ship Of Fools, Estimated Prophet > Uncle John's Band > Drums > Space > Other One > Stella Blue > Good Lovin' E: U. S. Blues

Highlights tumble over each other throughout the show. Almost no song goes untouched by Garcia's clearly overreaching endeavors. Beyond the riveting Stranger to open the first set, Bird Song contains wonders both great and small. There are lines in Jerry's solo that pierce the air; repeating phrases that echo down miles of mental canyons, forcing the song's dynamics to pull in every extreme. Then there are passages spun into endlessly intricate tapestries with threads as thin as hair; gossamer strands of coiling moonlight. This is a version not to be missed.

A fine China>Rider opens the second set, and within the transition is a deliciously long intro jam to I Know You Rider. It finds Jerry repeatedly allowing himself an extra set of measures, unwilling to step off into the song itself. This forces us to become more and more lost in the moment, and the intoxicating nature of the second set is only just starting. The Rider bounding directly into Samson & Delilah is a nice added delight.

The music expanding out of Estimated Prophet sounds like a slowed down China>Rider groove that slowly undulates, breathing whispers and mysteries. The 7/8 time signature quickly evaporates and every note becomes syncopated upon the last. Soon we are on slow rolling hills with each musician following his own lazy path. Subtly, Garcia massages a key change and the jam slips into Comes A Time territory bringing with it a familiar and joyous opening of the heart. Garcia's notes sing, and we are smiling forever, deliciously lost with the band.

Sun flakes settle, and murmurings echo quietly around us. The music is thinking, pondering its next direction. Like a slowly drawn curtain, Uncle John's Band is revealed. Always a perfect choice, we are swept in, spinning on the trails of Jerry's lightly arching melodies. When we sail into the final section of the song, his solo is a mix of staccato swirls and bursting bird calls. Edges sharpen and Garcia's tone fluctuates between ice and honey. The jam takes on the pure Grateful Dead voice, defying song identification. We are resting close to the music's soul here, and invisibly we pass into Drums & Space.

Treated to a post Space Other One, things can hardly get any more satisfying. As is often the case, the band demands surrender across treacherous terrain. Boulders and lighting, ancient masks and imploding planets -- the rush of sensory overload tips us over the edge. Hopeless to define a myriad of images that pass in great thousand year gusts, we merge with the music completely.

Edges give way, and miraculously we emerge out of the second verse into a gleaming, towering hall of trees lit from within. The music swirls delicately between branches nearly unseen. Jerry's voice appears leading us through a delicate and touching Stella Blue. Once again, the band exudes a tenderness that elevates the musical experience beyond mere Rock ‘n Roll.

Once hearing this show, it might be easier for you to put your finger on nuances that separate the different levels of Grateful Dead performances. This show is a lesson in hearing the energy within the music, and recognizing it in other places forever afterward.

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