Sunday, April 29, 2012

4/29/72 Hamburg: "Chinatown Shuffle," Smoked Ribs, and the Pilsner

When: Saturday, April 29, 1972
Where: Musikhalle, Hamburg, West Germany
Setlist: (In order of the released CDs, stream the audio here.)
  1. Playing In The Band, Sugaree, Mr. Charlie, Black-Throated Wind, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Big Boss Man, Jack Straw, Loser, Chinatown Shuffle, Me & My UncleBig Railroad Blues, Good Lovin', Casey Jones
  2. Greatest Story Ever Told, He's Gone, Next Time You See Me, Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia > Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks)One More Saturday Night, Uncle John's Band
As always, my personal highlights are bolded.

The liner notes on for this show come from the iconic Steve Silbermanan, author of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads.* He borrows images and words from Hunter's introduction to Hundred Year Hall in a stirring turn of phrase:
[Germany] was a land of dream castles shimmering on the Rhine that turned out to be real high-tech towers build upon bombed-out ruins, ghosts of Nazi kommandants sneering in old Pathé newsreels, and the gods in Phil's musical pantheon calling the fire of the muses down from Heaven or up from hell. It seemed Gothic, Romantic, and modern all at once; werewolves howling in Black Forests of the mind as the Bozo and Bolo buses passed through with their weird load.
He also notes Phil was tickled before the show when he learned Johannes Brahms conducted in this hall. No doubt! For those of you who haven't wasted much of your life learning as much as you can about this band (much of the foundational knowledge coming from Silberman's book, to be honest), Phil Lesh didn't come to rock 'n' roll - or even the bass - through the typical route. He grew up playing trumpet but learned music listening to the greats of Western classical music. He had ventured into avant garde composition by the time he met Garcia, who gave him an electric bass guitar, told him how it was tuned, and the rest is history.

It's my strong opinion that Phil's musical contribution to the band is what sets them apart from all other rock bands of their era and the jam bands that came later. For me, his roots in classical and experimental composition allowed him to move the band to new and unparalleled musical spaces. He relied on conventional musical ideas - particularly melody and counterpoint - that transcended the cubbyhole of rock-bass-as-rhythm-instrument, even given the jazz approach the band used in their performances.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again here: picking highlights from these shows is really splitting hairs. The performances are so consistently inspired and error-free, it comes down to personal preference and even your set and setting listening to them. That being said, please take my judgements with a grain of salt. However, any band playing 22 concerts in seven weeks while crossing (at least) nine international borders in the process is entitled to the occasional off-night. In fact, it's miraculous that it's taken this long to find one. Unfortunately, friends, this is one of those nights. I guess when "Me & My Uncle" is the highlight of the entire show, you get the idea.
Musikhalle, Hamburg

The entire first set here is played well, though there aren't any obvious standouts. No surprisingly extensive jams here (even the "Playin'" wraps up under ten minutes), just a series of tight, well-played songs with respectable (for the Dead) harmonies and reliable instrumental performances. Overall, it's quite good, but unremarkable. (Check out the "Worth mentioning" section below for details, if you're interested.)

From the "Greatest Story" opener, the second set tries desperately to shake off the "well-played but unremarkable" description of the first set. It starts ordinarily, but by the time Donna jumps in for some ear-splitting screams (again!), this one is off and running!! Searing leads from Jerry (Silberman describes it as his "'insect fear' guitar doing exuberant loop-de-loops in midair") and tight through the changes, they're clearly trying to turn up the heat here. Between songs, Phil makes some comment to dogs everywhere (the show, restaurants, boats), and Bobby tries to hawk GD wristwatches in the lobby. Jerry justifies the unfamiliar song selection by explaining they're recording an album, and "you can't do the same thing forever" (without going color-blind, according to Bobby).

Jerry delivers on the adolescent rendition of "He's Gone" that follows, but Silberman points out it contains the "chilly wind don't blow" bridge. After an excruciatingly sssssllllllllllooooooooowwwwww version of "Next Time" (more below), the band collectively says, "We love you, Pig, but grab a quick nap, and come back in 35 minutes," before launching into "Dark Star." This version isn't about playing tight, fast, or exploring the mind-melding changes of Frankfurt, it's about SPACE. Lots and lots of space - between notes, between melodies, between rhythms. Before they even get to the first verse, they veer into an exceedingly mellow, even sloppy "Mind Left Body Jam." Contrast this one to Copenhagen 4/14, it's like a different world. They quickly abort mission and head back to the forgiving expanse of space and stay there for a week or two (just like "Truckin'" atop the charts in Turloch, California). Let's just say I wouldn't want to be pulling a Roger Sterling at this show....** Unless you just woke up 23 minutes into the "Dark Star," in which case all is well! All of a sudden, the band tunes in, and away they go! Jerry scorching away, with Phil doing what he does, and Keith stepping to fill in the blanks. Where did this jam come from?!? Even the ensuing space is tighter and more frightening! Bobby tries to pry Jerry out of his pitter-patter corner of despair just to rock a "Sugar Mags" and move on.

Jerry letting it fly!
The "Caution" follows much like the rest of the show: well-played but nothing groundbreaking. Pigpen drops a decent rap, but in light of the performances over the previous two weeks, it pales in comparison. Towards the end, it gets a bit more raucous, with Phil and Billy pounding away at the rhythm. The tour-de-force gives way to a spacey, meandering segment, the highlight of which is Billy rolling across his toms like a prize-fighter training on a speed bag. Unfortunately, the song ends with a whimper, without any real closure, unless you count Phil's belated cadence. The crowd is not dismayed, however, and claps in unison for more. The Dead don't disappoint here, coming back with a surprisingly energetic "Sugar Magnolia." At one point, Bobby's screams are so loud and reckless, I almost expect him to rupture a vocal chord. The ending of the song is remarkably tight, with Jerry's scorching guitar leads matched only by Billy's frantic flurries. The band realizes they need to take it down a notch and come back with the first "Uncle John's Band" of the tour. Unfortunately there is a hiss on the recording as they start the song, but the performance mirrors the rest of the show: well-played, decent harmonies, no outrageous jamming to speak of, but a strong ending.

Worth mentioning:
  • Donna's howls are really growing on me. The one towards the beginning of the "Playin'" opener is a whopper!! After the opener, Bobby shows off his Deutsche: "Danke schön."
  • "Sugaree" isn't the most incredible rendition, but it's performed without frills, just how it was written - short and sweet.
  • Leaving "China Cat" for the transition, Jerry must have a finger on the volume knob to get it to meow like a (very loud) cat. This version of "China" > "Rider" is mellow and smooth as a tasty German beer cheese soup!
  • In the liner notes Silberman draws attention to a "New Speedway Boogie" tease around Pigpen's harmonica solo during "Big Boss Man." He also picks "Chinatown Shuffle" as the gem in the part of the first set.
  • Spooky version of "Loser" on this one! Love it!!
  • Talk about high energy, this "Me & My Uncle" smokes from start to finish! Though it starts off a bit slowly, the same goes for "Big Railroad Blues."
  • This version of "Good Lovin'" is a far cry from the maelstrom of energy in Frankfurt a few nights earlier, but like the rest of the set it's well played if a bit subdued towards the middle. Nice change of pace, actually.
  • The opening of "He's Gone" is getting closer to the final version, but it's still not quite there. They're not changing any lives with this version, but Jerry delivers the lyrics with longing, totally dialed in.
  • This is easily the slowest version of "Next Time" ever. It's like they're playing it in slow motion, and if it wasn't a release I would swear that someone's deck motor needed to be replaced. It sounds like Pigpen wants to just stop the song and try again. They manage to pick up the pace a bit, but WOW!! It sounds like Pigpen needs to get a breath in the middle of some of his harmonica notes.... Or, if you prefer, Silberman has another take: "One of the unheralded gems of this boxed set." To each his own!
  • I found these crazy cartoon CD covers, just wanted to share them:

Song of the Day: "Chinatown Shuffle"

The annotations for this song start with the title. A quotation from Bernard P. Wong explains the roots of the American urban Chinatowns:
Active prejudice and harassment stemming from mainstream American racism and fear of economic competition has resulted in the tightening of internal bonds within the minority group and the development of protective associations of one kind or another. The internal cohesiveness thus developed became the distinguishing characteristic of the Chinese American communities in cities like San Francisco and New York.
The shuffle is defined as a southern black dance step, though the rhythm comes from the sh of the snare coupled with the short couple of syllables uf-fle to form uneven triplets typical of swing or boogie-woogie.

Like "The Stranger" the music and lyrics are both Pigpen originals, though this one is far more lively the self-reflective ballad explored in my previous post. The lyrics in "Chinatown Shuffle" express more frustration or boredom than mourning or epiphany.
And I can't handle your problems
So don't try to handle mine
Get yourself a shotgun a pocketful of shells
And we can while away the time
The solution of course is shooting the shotgun for fun. The lyrics are playful on the surface - "Look up at the wall, you know you gotta crawl" - but hide an unexpected depth:
Before you start crawling get ready to fall
And if you fall in my direction
Don't expect no help at all
Get it right, do it nice
And if you make a mistake you're gonna pay for it twice
I interpret this lyric as another window into the unforgiving world of Pigpen's youth. The beginning evokes the what-do-I-care rebelliousness of an ostensibly middle-class young man choosing to live on the outskirts of society and outwardly compose himself as an existential youth out of Rebel Without a Cause. However, life on the skids, particularly when you spend over a decade chasing your next drink, would wear anyone out and leave them with a short supply of empathy.

This message is buried beneath an upbeat veneer of a swinging rhythm and simple, joyful chord progression. The composition sounds like the nearest berth that R&B takes towards old-time rock 'n' roll (pretty close, to be sure!), right in Pigpen's wheelhouse!

*     *     *     *     *

Smoked Pork Spareribs

My alternate topic today is brief and to-the-point: a recipe for smoked pork spare ribs. This recipe was originally for St. Louis style ribs, but I've done them with the whole spare rib before and they turned out delicious. You can do them either way. (You could use a similar approach to baby back ribs, as well, though they cook about 2 hours less than the spareribs. They can also benefit from some direct heat towards the end to give them a crispy, caramelized surface.)

Serves: 4
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Grilling Method: Indirect low heat (225°- 250°F)
Grilling Time: 5-6 hours

5-6 fist-size hardwood chunks, not soaked (mesquite, hickory, apple, etc.)
2 racks pork spareribs
  1. First, prepare your smoker for indirect low heat. 
  2. Next, we're going to prep the ribs with a nice rub. You can use anything you have handy (or the recipe from the BBQ Pit page of this blog). Or, if you want to mix up something different try this one:
  3. Just on the grill!
    • 1.5 tablespoons kosher salt
    • 1 tablespoon chile powder
    • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
    • 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
    • 1 tablespoon paprika
    • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
    • 2 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 2 teaspoons celery seed
    • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  4. Season the ribs all over with the rub, putting more on the meat side than the bone side of the rack of ribs. Allow the ribs to rest at room temperature while you prepare a zesty mop. Try this simple recipe or use a vinegar-based BBQ sauce.
    • .5 cup apple juice
    • .25 cup apple cider vinegar
    • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  5. Start with two wood chunks on the smoker, and put the seasoned ribs on the grill for indirect heat. Add an additional chunk of wood to the side of the coals every hour or so, and regulate the smoker temperature (target: 225°-250°F) by adjusting the vents.
  6. Baste the ribs on both sides with the mop every couple hours. Cook the ribs until the meat has shrunk back from the bone at least a half-inch. Before removing the ribs, brush the ribs again, this time with a sweet, ketchup based sauce. 
    • Quick tip: if you don't have sauce handy, just make a bit extra rub and mop. While the ribs are smoking, combine them with a cup or two of ketchup and simmer them for 5-10 minutes.
  7. Cook the ribs for an additional 30-60 minutes. Remove the meat, and cut the rack into individual ribs. Serve with BBQ sauce on the side.
If you can keep the temperature down and take your time these ribs will be tender and fall right off the bone. One rack may cook more quickly than the other, so keep an eye on them so they don't dry out from being on the grill too long. 

- Morning Brewer

PS (Pairing Suggestion): 

To me, this show is fresh, if uncontroversial, and the perfect pairing is a Pilsen-style lager, familiarly known as the Pilsner. Please don't get this style confused with the American macrobrews that occasionally call themselves a pilsners (unfit for consideration alongside the capital-P Pilsners here).

Just found this shot, now included in
the post for 4/11/72, Newcastle.
Didn't want anyone to miss it!
The first clear, light-colored lagers were brewed in the Czech town of Pilsen in 1842. The water in that part of the Alps is very soft, meaning there are few dissolved minerals present. That trait allows brewer to use nearly as many hops as an English IPA without the overwhelming bitterness. Instead, the hop finish is peppery and crisp, perfectly matching the dry, light maltiness of the beers. Since the dawn of the style, it has become the most reproduced beer style in the world, particularly as the industrial revolution made cold-conditioning possible in any geographical area, any time of the year.

The brewing method for a lager tends to be more detailed than an ale, and it ferments more slowly at a lower temperature. After primary fermentation has completed, the beer is conditioned at very cool temperatures for several weeks, allowing the yeasts to process some of their chemical byproducts (like sulphur, among others) before dropping out of solution (known as flocculation). The beer drinker is left with a very clean-tasting, malty beverage, as the lower temperatures inhibit the production of fruity esters or spicy phenols. Basically, lagers are the opposite of the Belgian ales.

The style of Czech Pilsners are known as Bohemian Pilsners. They almost exclusively use the palest of lager malts, known as Pilsner malt, and the typical hop of the region, the Saaz. Not nearly as bitter as American hops (and totally lacking the piney, citrusy flavors and aromas), this is a subtle and spicy hop. The overall effect if of a crisp, dry, refreshing beer, about as pale and clear as can be. As the style became widespread, the Germans adopted the same brewing methods and yeast to their local ingredients and water chemistry, creating what is now known as the German Pilsner. As a result, there is some variation from location to location, but they all feature German hops. Often, the water is considerably harder than the water in Pilsen, and as a result there some German examples may have pronounced hop bitterness. In addition, it is not uncommon for German Pilsners to have a pronounced grassy or grainy flavor. Bohemian or German, pilsners are always sparkling clear, as pale as possible

As I noted in my previous post, I think these ribs would pair wonderfully with something big and hoppy like the Deviant Dale's, but most people responding to the poll about what beer people would prefer with their BBQ on the web version said they would prefer something lighter. So here are a few Pilsener suggestions that are pretty widely available.

  • Pilsner Urquell - The original of the style from Pilsen, where it's been brewed for most of two centuries, this beer embodies crisp and floral when fresh. 
  • Czechvar - This is the name you'll see here in North America, but in the Czech city of Budweis and throughout the EU, this one is called Budweiser Budvar.
  • If you can't find this one fresh, try these American craft examples of the style. Not the same, but pretty delicious, nonetheless!
    • Noble Pilsner - This Sam Adams offering nails the style, using all German noble hops.
    • PILS - Those on the West Coast are likely familiar with this one. Just what the doctor ordered - crisp and refreshing. I can drink a lot of these.
    • Mama's Little Yella Pils - Another fantastic offering from Oskar Blues, so of course this one comes in a can. Pack it in, pack it out!
  • Warsteiner Pilsner - If you prefer the German interpretation, you can go wrong with this classic. Again, freshness is key, so here are some American interpretations:
    • Braumaster Pilsner - This offering from Victory in the Philly area is a remarkable American example of a German Pilsner. It's a special release, but the brewery puts out the fantastic Prima Pils all year round.
    • Scrimshaw Pilsner - For those in Northern California, this German Pilsner comes from Lost Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg. Wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer day!!
  • American craft brewers have been playing around with the style and coming up with their own sub-styles. For a change of pace, see if you can track down any of these:
    • Summerfest - Clean and crisp like a European Pils, but this one packs in the American hops, in the aroma and flavor.
    • Hallerthau Imperial Pils - I've only heard tell of this beer, but it's supposed to be fantastic. Sam Adams was one of the first to take the style over the top with extra alcohol and a lot of hops!! If you find this one, please let me know how you like it.
    • My Antonia - Dogfish Head's interpretation of the imperial Pilsner is quite interesting, with far more sweetness than would be remotely acceptable in a traditional Pils. (For the sake of comparison, try to find the version of this beer they brewed at Birra del Borgo just outside of Rome.) It's pleasing, though, due to the balance of generous additions of hops and quite a bit of alcohol for a lager (7.5% ABV).
Cheers, everyone, and thanks for reading!!


* I'll never forget the image of Silberman wandering around on the Market Street sidewalk outside of the Warfield Theatre on 4/17/99 for Phil's special return to the stage (with Phishy friends Trey and Page, and the incomparable Steve Kimmock) after getting his new liver. Silberman didn't have a ticket but was holding an autographed copy of his book above his head in search of his miracle. 
** Best advice ever: "Don't look in the mirror." And while we're at it, we can all learn a lot from Roger.

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