Wednesday, April 11, 2012

4/11/72 Newcasle: Mr. Charlie & Anglo-American Music & Beer

When: Tuesday, April 11, 1972
Where: City Hall, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Setlist: (In order of the released CDs, can't find the AUD for a stream. While not as widely distributed as 4/8/72, it's out there. Worst case - one of the top shows of the tour, for sale here)
  1. Greatest Story Ever Told, Deal, Mr. Charlie, Black-Throated Wind, Tennessee Jed, Big Boss Man, Beat It On Down The Line, Sugaree, Jack Straw, Chinatown Shuffle, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Playing In The Band, Next Time You See Me, Brown-Eyed Women, Looks Like Rain, Big Railroad Blues, Casey Jones
  2. Good Lovin', Ramble On Rose, Truckin' > Drums > The Other One > Comes A Time, Sugar Magnolia  E: Brokedown Palace, One More Saturday Night
As always, personal highlights are in bold.

WOW! Great show. Start-to-finish, one of strongest of the tour, and I could have easily highlighted the entire setlist above. From the liner notes, Rosie McGee describes the venue as "a dour concrete building in the midst of a grim industrial town," with "the warmth of a witch's teat." Truly, "an ostensibly 'hostile' environment." However, she describes a transformation of the crowd from cold and confused to "stunned and bemused" until "the concrete walls somehow turned into green pastures." She also recounts a story of encountering an older local woman trying to get backstage. Eventually she learns this is the mother of Eric Burdon from the Animals, and they take in the rest of the set from the balcony, where Mrs. Burdon notes, "They're very good, you know!"

One of the things I love about this era in Dead history is the on-stage banter. The Dead are strangers in a strange land, but they sure sound loose! For instance, after the "Black-Throated Wind" ends and they're preparing for "Tennessee Jed," we hear this exchange:
Bobby: "We're going to do our best to decide what to do next and then do it."
Jerry plays a lick from "Tennessee Jed"
Bobby: "Back home, that's what's known as telegraphing the next song. By playing a characteristic lick out of it, everyone in the audience knows what we're going to play next. But seeing as you've never heard it before, there's no problem."
Jerry: "Ha, ha! Well, sure."
Then they kick into a forceful "Tennessee Jed." To me, it's an indication of how intimate the venues were at on this tour and in '72 in general. The connection between audience and band - individually and collectively - comes through in the music, and this banter is just another example of how that connection overwhelms foreboding environs.

As I noted, nearly every version of every song is special. The performances in the first set are tight, but they find some room for exploration in "Sugaree" and the "China" > "Rider" transition. I'm not always a fan of "Big Railroad Blues," but this version rocks hard!! It's worth listening to the first set for comparison to the "first set" tunes off the released Europe '72 - they could have called it a wrap and ditched the recording equipment after this show. But then, what would I be listening to right now instead?!?!

The second set scorches from start to finish, with a very good version of "Good Lovin'." It's interesting to see the evolution of Pigpen's vocal improvisations, and this one is a great prelude to the next show (more in my next post). It's tempting to dismiss "Ramble On Rose" as a throw-away before the deep jam, it's not in the least. Loose, lean, and energetic, Jerry delivers the vocals emotional precision.

Tension and release are key components of most (good) instrumental improvisation, regardless of genre and instrumentation. For me it's those two elements - and the way the Dead were able to create tension through melody without simply playing faster and higher - that make the big jam that follows so special. "Truckin'" starts off with a ton of energy. As the jam gets going, Phil and Jerry mingle with melody on the edge of space, conjuring tension without fully exploring it. The drum break is short and sweet, giving way to a drop I can only describe as loping. Keith's rhythm work on "The Other One" drives Jerry harder and faster, as the rest of the band builds the beat behind them. Keith often gets overlooked, but his jazzy rhythm work in the jams on this tour give them that youthful, summery quality that is a big part of why this tour is so special. Well done, Keith!! The rest of the jam is exploratory and explosive. Threads of the "Feelin' Groovy Jam" grow into a stellar performance of this melody (loosely based on Simon and Garfunkle's "59th Street Bridge Song"), building thick tension that is ultimately released to fall like confetti on New Years. Eventually, the mellow jam gives way to deep space, rebuilding the tension even thicker through chaos and feedback.

Of course, the only logical place to go from there is "Comes A Time," an emotional ballad penned by Garcia and Hunter. This will be a featured song of the day in another post, but for those not familiar with it, it's an all-time personal favorite that is dark with a glimmer of hope. Jerry delivers on this version - soulful, touching, pained. But the set has to end sometime, and there's no better way than rocking out a hot "Sugar Magnolia." A testament to how great the band is feeling, they throw out a rare double encore. The "Brokedown Palace" is beyond description. Listening to it after the whole show that precedes it is like a hug from an old friend. Of course, Bobby still has an itch to scream, so they play "Saturday Night" before sending everyone home. A bit of a letdown in retrospect, but we've all been to those shows where we just need one more high energy song to shake our bones to before grabbing our shoes and heading home....
This one isn't from Europe at all, but at least it's from 1972!
Worth mentioning:
  • This version of "Greatest" is rockin' and rollicking, pushing hard from start to finish.  
  • The "Brown-Eyed Women" is very high-energy, but it sounds like Bobby gets a little too experimental at times, making it sound like he loses the beat. This reminds me of something Garcia said: "The way it is with Weir is that he's continually making discoveries that are like old discoveries for some others of us. But on the other hand, there are ideas that Weir has that I would never have had, that in fact maybe only he has. That's his unique value - he's an extraordinarily original player in a world full of people who sound like each other."* This must have been one of those misses, but I'm glad he kept at it!
  • Not the most incredible version of "Looks Like Rain," but it's close. I can't turn down this song on most occasions, and when it's one of the rare versions with Jerry on that pedal steel, it deserves to be sonically bronzed. It must have been a pain for the crew to lug this thing around and get it properly tuned every night. They only played the song three times on the tour, which makes me think they may not have lugged it around for every show.** Enjoy this one, it's a doozy!
  • I can't say it enough, but a youthful Jerry singing "Brokedown Palace" is truly one of the most special things you can hope for from the Dead. To get this just a few songs after "Comes A Time" is quite a treat for Jerry-ballad junkies like myself!
  • I don't know why, but when I see "Truckin'" on a setlist I mentally shrug and move on. I just have trouble getting excited for it for some reason. But I've gotta say, this is well played through the composed sections, spilling into a fierce jam. Glad I'm warming to it because the Dead played a lot of "Truckin'" on this tour.
  • Did I mention this is a GREAT show? If not, just to be sure, this is a GREAT ^FREAKING^ SHOW!!

Song of the Day: "Mr. Charlie"

This Pigpen/Hunter collaboration was a regular but short-lived part of the Dead's rotation from the summer of 1971 through the end of the this tour and the accompanying decline of Pigpen's health. while not his final shows, the Europe tour was Pigpen's last hurrah, and this (along with "Chinatown Shuffle") was his swan song: he sang "Mr. Charlie" every night (and only two shows were missing "Chinatown Shuffle"). I feel obliged to take a close look at this enigmatic song, and doing so requires some explanation of Pigpen's youth and musical influences. (Please bare with the length here; I'll do my best to keep it shorter in the future.)

Pigpen was born Ronald McKernan on September 8, 1945, to a middle class family in San Bruno, California. Growing up, his father Phil was a disc jockey - "Cool Breeze," spinning rhythm and blues on KRE radio - and he passed his love of African American music along to his son. They moved around a fair amount, and he ended up with a brief stint in high school at Palo Alto High School***, before he and the principal "mutually decided" he should leave the school.
By the time he showed up at [the Palo Alto folk club] the Boar's Head at age sixteen, he had left white middle-class life entirely behind.... He had a motorcycle chain permanently bolted to his wrist and wore oily jeans, Brandoesque T-shirts, and greasy hair.... 
What everyone [knew] was that he was the white kid who practically lived in black East Palo Alto, hanging out with a black man named Tanwy Jones, who had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as well as a bread truck that they called the Seventh Son. It came with a mattress in the back, and their sexual exploits went far beyond the average teen's. It was also useful for their trips to a bootlegger in La Honda, in the mountains above Palo Alto, where they bought whiskey at $1.50 a gallon.****
While Pigpen was mild-mannered in private, apparently
he didn't like having his photo taken with his long-time
girlfriend Veronica "Vee" Barnard at Woodstock, 1969.
By all accounts his salty veneer masked his gentle, obedient nature. He was known in local musical circles for his encyclopedic knowledge of the array of black music that spawned rock 'n' roll. While he played harmonica, piano, organ, and occasionally guitar, his biggest talent was not only in singing the blues and R&B, but also his ability to improvise lyrics (again, see 4/14/72).*****

I have heard several interpretations of "Mr. Charlie," but for me the lyrics evoke race relations in the American South. As many readers surely know, Mr. Charlie has historically been one of the outwardly-polite-yet-secretly-derisive terms used by oppressed African Americans in society and in prison to refer to their white, male oppressors. It's similar to "The Man" but truly less respectful. It also alludes to the 1964 James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie, dedicated to the memory of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary assassinated by a White Citizens Council (and later Ku Klux Klan) member.

The narrator begins by filling a shotgun with powder and salt, intending to spare life and limb, yet "take a little skin" in a primitive delivery of less-than-lethal force. Why? "'Cause Mr. Charlie told me so." The lyric then takes an interesting turn towards voodoo mysticism of the bayou (and by extension Haiti and Africa):
Well, you take a silver dollar
Take a silver dime
Mix 'em both together
In some alligator wine 
I can hear the drums
Voodoo all night long
Mr. Charlie tellin' me
I can't do nothing wrong
One of the alternate interpretations is that Mr. Charlie is Charles Manson. While there is a plausible case to be made on that front, the final line suggests to me the narrator is afraid of the repercussions of doing wrong rather than brainwashed to believe whatever he (or she) does is axiomatically right. In antebellum New Orleans - home to slaves, free blacks, and displaced Haitians - Congo Square was a gathering place for blacks and creoles on Sundays to practice commerce, voodoo, music, and dance. The Manson interpretation doesn't account for this rather direct allusion.

In another novel interpretation, the song is about heroin (powder, silver dollar), cocaine (salt, silver dime), and the syringe (shotgun) used to deliver a "speedball." Through this lens, you could easily find different meaning in the lines "scare you up and shoot you" (shoot up), "give you a little warning / before I let you go" (cautionary note on addiction and overdose), and of course "looking high, looking low" (jonesing). While definitely possible, I am somewhat skeptical because - while an overindulgent drinker - Pigpen never partook in the psychedelics or narcotics that much of the rest of the band famously used. Though the accuracy of his book has been questioned, Rock Scully tells a story of Pigpen walking in on Jerry shooting up when they lived in the Haight. Pigpen freaked out to the point that Jerry agreed to refrain from that particular drug, though we know how that one turned out. (May of '77 came with a price....) You can see from Pigpen's opening quotation from this story of the Dead playing Wembley, he was in it for the music, not the drugs. This, along with Pigpen's early affinity and proximity to African American culture, music, and history, lead me to conclude that the "speedball" interpretation would most likely be a secondary one.

In my reading, "Mr. Charlie" is a singular lyric in the Dead's repertoire for its implicitly African American narrator telling a tale of oppression and race violence. The alternate interpretations (brainwashing and addiction) discussed above are plausible because of the control exerted over the narrator, but due to historical factors - both literary and biographical - I believe the simplest interpretation is mostly likely the best: This story, set in the historical American South, is a tale of racial oppression and black-on-black violence at the behest of a powerful white tormenter. Of course, you can never put a multi-pronged pen past a lyricist of the caliber of Robert Hunter.

*     *     *     *     *

Ping Pong Across The Pond: Mirrored Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll & Ale

Originally I wanted to touch on this topic because the show was in Newcastle, home to one of the world's iconic ales, the Newcastle brown ale (as you can guess from the reviews, there are better examples out there, but more on that in the PS). But Pigpen's biography reminds us that, while the majority of Americans came to the blues through the British Invasion, there were definitely homegrown exceptions. So my caveat is that I'll be painting with a broad brush here, so please excuse me for my (many) omissions on this topic.

It's been well documented that the blues spawned rock 'n' roll. The American racial dynamic in the late-1940s through early-1960s made mainstream exposure and appeal for music rooted deeply in African American culture and society nearly impossible. Before the music's wild sensuality could reach TV audiences, it needed to be neutered. (Okay, those links are anachronistic, but the later recording is actually the original version.) In England, young white musicians gravitated to the music of black America, learned the instruments, and made their own music, albeit liberally borrowing or outright stealing songs from the music's original authors. Once the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Birds, and others hit America, previously marginalized rock 'n' roll music been sufficiently laundered for mainstream audiences that it even allowed for a return to its original raunchiness.

A similar repurposing process has been happening with the Anglo-American evolution of ales over the past few decades. Ale - beer made at higher temperatures with "top fermenting" yeast (as opposed to lagers) - has always dominated the British Isles, and historically ales were a major part of the American brewing tradition. Following the dark days of Prohibition, the brewing industry consolidated around continental-style lagers. It wasn't until the development (primarily at Oregon State University) of new strains of piney, citrusy, and resinous hops like Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus ("the three Cs") that American craft brewers had their own distinctive ingredient. Due to the clean break in brewing tradition, however, American brewers turned to Anglos for lessons in brewing procedures and ingredient quality to make their own amazing ales.

In 1980 Sierra Nevada pioneered a new style of beer, the American pale ale featuring the Cascade hop, which spawned the American craft beer revolution. It must be noted that Fritz Maytag III saved the Anchor Brewing Company from closing by purchasing it in 1965, running it at a loss until the 1980s. But it was Sierra's aggressive approach to bitterness - not Anchor's traditional California common or Steam Beer - that spawned a revolution that created a market for hoppy beers in America. As American craft breweries have grown and explored new styles, they have helped develop a distinctly American beer palate, one that craves bitter beers, often to the "extreme" by conventional English standards.

Today, the reverberations of the American craft beer revolution are making their way across the pond. Breweries like Scotland's BrewDog, Denmark's Mikkeller, and many more are challenging convention while explicitly exploring American-inspired experiments in alpha-acidity and other extreme concoctions. Will this create a mainstream market for hoppy, extreme beers in Britain (and the Continent) similar to the way the British Invasion paved the way for the Grateful Dead? There is no telling, especially since high-quality ales don't travel across the Atlantic as easily (or economically) as records once did, even with American-inspired hopping rates. Nonetheless, I can still hold onto my hope for an extreme beer tour of America by English brewers one day.

- Morning Brewer

PS (Pairing Suggestion):

I'm building this pairing around the brown ale, of course! Either English or American, would be fine. (The Belgians do brown ales, too - regular or sour - but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax!) The difference is that the English versions showcase a nutty, toasty, toffee-like malt flavor and aroma. American version is slightly hoppier (both in aroma and bitterness), typically stronger, and are more likely to showcase caramel and chocolate in the malt profile. But one thing is for sure - they're all brown!!

Oh, yeah! Here it is:
Jerry with a Newcastle!!!
To pair with the first set, we'll start out with the English version. Track down a Newcastle or a Samuel Smith's Nut Brown. (If you're in D.C., you'll have good options at the Queen Vic.) Both are "sessionable" (relatively low alcohol), but for those of you accustomed to drinking hoppy, American brews either of these may seem a bit subdued. Pair your English brown ale with another English classic: fish and chips! And you've gotta use the malt vinegar, no ketchup (when in Rome...).

For the second set, pick up an American brown ale and pair it with some fish (whatever you can get FRESH), blackened and sauteed to a nice crisp on the outside. The heat and spicy nuance of a good blackening seasoning will have you reaching for that brew in no time! Hops and heat are a fine combo, and the substantial malt body will prep your palate for another bite. Try it with some fresh, julienned veggies - lightly steamed and sprinkled with fresh herbs - to give this pairing an American character.
  • Gotta go with the Indian Brown Ale here in Philly, right? (We can do the Palo Santo Marron for the encore!!)
  • In DC, the Corruption goes with everything (even if it's not a brown ale), just ask Dan and Sam!
  • In the midwest, try the Bender.
  • Out West, if you can find it, grab a Jewbilation 9 (limited release).If not, I have no doubt you can track down Rogue's Hazelnut Brown Nectar.
  • In AK, try a Kodiak Brown, or if you're in Anchorage, stop by the Glacier Brewhouse to see if they've got the Oak-Aged Nut Brown on tap (or cask!). (Sorry, can't vouch for these, but pickin' brews in Alaska is tough!!)
  • If I didn't hit your locale, please let me know where you are and I'll do my best to accommodate.
* This quotation comes from in an interview with Blair Jackson and David Gans on 4/28/81 and appears on pp 39-40 of Conversations With The Dead, edited by David Gans. The conversation started about Bobby's learning to play slide guitar on stage, to which Garcia quipped, "It still embarrasses me, but luckily it doesn't embarrass him." (p 38)
** Then again, Garcia noted in the same interview from above that the pedal steel is "weird" and "a hard instrument to play." (p 37) Maybe he just decided to bag it in favor of his modified Strat.
*** Paly is the alma mater of such contributors to human civilization as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR); NFL zealot Jim Harbaugh; billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr.; Erle Stanley Garner (creator of Perry Mason); actors Dave and James Franco; musicians Billy Kreutzman, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, and the Donnas; a Fluffhead (sorta), Zan, the man formerly known as First Federal, one Toad, and of course Linsanity-turned-Linjury.
**** From pp 35-6 of A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally, the Grateful Dead's official historian and biographer.
***** Pigpen started getting noticeably sick in 1971, at which point he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Europe would be his last tour with the band. His final performance was in June, less than a month after this tour concluded. He died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on March 8, 1973. His headstone in Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto reads, "Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead."
****** I wanted to make a case for "Mr. Charlie" being a prison guard using one of the black prisoners as his henchman, but the song debuted about five weeks before Attica.

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