Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Post-Show Buzz: A Moment In Time


What a long strange trip it's been!! Listening to and writing about the Grateful Dead's 1972 tour of Europe these past seven weeks has been a wonderful experience for me, and I hope you've enjoyed reading (at least) portions of the blog. I've listened to quite a bit of the Grateful Dead's music over the years, but I've never listened so intently and with such consistency before. I now have a deeper understanding of this amazing era in the band's history. It was a time featuring musical freedom and exploration that also provided glimmers of a bygone era and foreshadowed musical developments to come.

The Band: Fingers On The Hand

This tour was Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's last hurrah, and while he graced the stage once more, his performances in Europe were his victory lap. Never again would we hear fully-formed versions of "Caution," "Who Do You Love," "Chinatown Shuffle," "Next Time You See Me," "The Stranger," or "Mr. Charlie." Classic show-stoppers like "Good Lovin'" and "Lovelight" would never be the same. We wouldn't hear Pigpen's organ adding weight to the intro to "The Other One" or ominously whirring in the background of a deep-space "Dark Star." The raunchy raps that evolved from the empty lots of East Palo Alto in the early-'60s through the Acid Tests and psychedelic dances of the Haight were once a foundation of the band's sound and identity. That had begun to change as the band developed musically through 1969 and explored acoustic musical forms in the 1970s. In 1971 - the year drummer Mickey Hart left the band and the Godchauxs came on board - the music had clearly turned a corner with musically mature songs like "Playin'" and "Wharf Rat." In Europe, the band's original frontman gave us something special to remember him by on this tour before stepping aside for good. Hearing him sing "Mr. Charlie," "Chinatown Shuffle," and some of the band's hottest versions of "Good Lovin'" just about every concert was a real treat. But to me, it will never get better than the emotion, uncertainty, and honesty of "The Stranger."

Since 1969, Jerry Garcia played a more prominent role in the band's music and identity. His singing and especially his masterful guitar-playing grew into the defining sound of the Dead's music, and in the mainstream for decades to come his iconic beard came to symbolize what was left of the 1960s. To me, 1972 represents his second musical peak (after 1970), a time when his tone had added depth that he manipulated with mastery and when he could go from playing and singing the simple twang of "Tennessee Jed" to a heart-rending performance of "Sing Me Back Home" to searing your ears off with a screeching, terror-filled meltdown on "Playin'," "Dark Star," or "Morning Dew." There was a levity and excitement in his playing throughout the year that may have arguably fallen short of the climaxes of 1974 and the emotional depths of 1977, but the consistency of Garcia's (and the entire band's) performances in 1972 make this the Golden Age of the Grateful Dead (at least to my ears).

If you've read this blog consistently, you have probably gathered that I believe Phil Lesh is the single component that set the Grateful Dead apart from any other rock band. He arrived at rock 'n' roll from an unorthodox path, that of classical composition and modern experimental music. When Garcia handed him an electric bass guitar for the first time in 1965, Phil had a deep understanding of counterpoint, tension/release, and polyrhythms. This provided the basis for his development into a singular specimen in classic rock music: the co-lead bass player. Without his ability to deliver rhythm through melody and single-handedly alter the musical trajectory of a free-form jam, Garcia would not be recognized today as the caliber of guitar player he was because Phil constantly challenged him musically.

Of all the epiphanies I've had while listening to this tour, I have been most struck by the adeptness and subtlety of the rhythm section. As I noted in one of my first posts, Billy Kreutzman seems almost liberated to be drumming alone over a year into Mickey Hart's hiatus. His solos are relatively succinct, but the greatness of his drumming is apparent in every jam and even relatively simple songs like "Me & My Uncle" and "Chinatown Shuffle." And his duets with Phil, which became commonplace a year later, were a rare treat in 1972. Bob Weir's rhythm guitar, too, struck me for its appropriate-ness in the deep jams, suggesting a theme or throwing a dash of musical color across the soundscape. His vocal contributions were consistent and solid for the entire tour, and it amazes me how his voice could hold up after closing a set with "Sugar Mags" and coming back for a "Saturday Night" encore! Keith Godchaux played incredible piano on this tour, about six months after his GDebut. He was clearly comfortable with the material, consistently adding color and light with is trills and fills to songs like "Mr. Charlie," "Jack Straw," and "Loser." He had a deep understanding of the musical relationship between Jerry and Phil, and he (along with Bobby) masterfully bridged the two in the deepest jams. In a way, his rhythmic contributions gave the freeform jams of the tour their typical melodic and joyous flavor that characterizes the tour in my mind.

The quick note I need to mention is regarding the much-maligned vocals of Donna Jean Godchaux. While they were never featured on the tour, she delivered a subtle and appropriate depth to the songs she contributed to, from the harmonies on "Sing Me Back Home" to the melodic wails in the depths of "Playin'." It just goes to show, when she could hear herself in the monitors she sang on key, and it sounded good!

The Songs: If My Blog Was A Show


I could go on and on about the songs and songwriting, but after exploring so many in my posts, let me just say that Robert Hunter is a master. I didn't even get to discuss several of his best lyrics of the era (most notably "Ramble On Rose" and "Sugaree"), but it's obvious that his stamp on the Dead's music was unique and lasting. Even as Bobby had begun writing with his high school buddy John Barlow, it was Hunter's poetry that dominates the songs of the tour. If you've been a regular and careful reader, you will have noticed that the Song of the Day section of my posts created their own concert setlist that could have been played on the tour. I've chosen some of my favorite renditions of these songs for my own personal best-of collection*:

SET ONE:

  1. Greatest Story Ever Told (4/11 Newcastle)
  2. Cumberland Blues (5/26 Lyceum)
  3. Mr. Charlie (5/11 Rotterdam)
  4. Me & My Uncle (4/16 Aarhus)
  5. Tennessee Jed (4/11 Newcastle)
  6. Jack Straw (5/7 Bickershaw)
  7. Playin' in the Band (5/26 Lyceum)
  8. China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider (5/11 Rotterdam)
  9. Loser (4/24 Düsseldorf)
    The Stranger (4/26 Frankfurt)
  10. Chinatown Shuffle (5/7 Bickershaw)
  11. He's Gone (5/13 Lille)
  12. Brown-Eyed Women (4/8 Wembley)
  13. Good Lovin' (5/3 Paris)
  14. Casey Jones (5/23 Lyceum)
SET TWO:
  1. Morning Dew (5/11 Rotterdam)
  2. Truckin' > (4/26 Frankfurt)
  3. Drums > The Other One > Me & Bobby McGee (bonus) > The Other One (5/10 Amsterdam)
  4. Dark Star > (5/11 Rotterdam)
  5. NFA > GDTRFB > NFA (5/26 Lyceum)
  6. Sugar Magnolia (4/14 Tivoli)
  7. Wharf Rat (5/10 Amsterdam)
    Comes A Time (5/25 Lyceum)
  8. E: One More Saturday Night (5/3 Paris)

This show would be quite the doozie, with a first set that's just under two hours long and a second set running nearly three hours. But in all, these were some of my favorite performances of the tour, and I look forward to listening to them when I need that special Europe sound!!

The Golden Age: Bridge Between Eras

There were moments on this tour that foreshadowed developments to come. I believe from one of the Lyceum shows I heard Bobby playing around with the opening chords from "Weather Report Suite Prelude" that became a standard in 1973-4. I heard more and more experimentation with the transition of "China" > "Rider" that also hinted at the epic arrangement of the next couple years. Songs like "Sugaree" and "He's Gone" would become bigger and more heavily jammed, and over the course of the tour you could hear the showcase jam in "Playin'" delve deeper and further. They played this song at every show on this tour, and while most ran 10-12 minutes, the final two performances at the Lyceum stretched to nearly 16 and then past 18 minutes, respectively. By 1973 (and beyond), it was quite common for the song to rage through the 20th minute. Clearly, this tour fell in the midst of a very fertile creative era for the band, and between Wembley and the Lyceum we were treated to a microcosm of the band's development.

The most striking aspect of the shows of the Europe tour, however, was their near flawless performances throughout. The closest thing I could find to an "off night" was at Aarhus on 4/16. Listening to this show on its own, however, reveals very good performances throughout. There were mistakes in almost every show, but there were no failures, a remarkable feat considering that they played 61 hours of music at 22 concerts over seven weeks!! In addition to the incredible peak performances of the tour, it's the impeccable consistency that may be the most remarkable part.

The shows of 1970 were closer to the Primal Dead era and benefit historically from an additional acoustic set. Those in 1974 showcased an enhanced repertoire and the energy from larger venues and the Wall of Sound. And 1977, of course, erupted with the return of Mickey Hart and an even more enhanced repertoire. For 1972, however, the freedom and exuberance that the band played with stands out. They were also able to tap into the Primal Dead era, re-visiting several of the songs ("Caution," "Dark Star," etc.) and much of the energy (Bickershaw) of those early years. After Europe, the Veneta 8/27/72 show captured a new terror-filled intensity that was hinted at throughout the tour. In Europe, however, it's the consistency characterizes 1972 among the other great eras of 1970s Dead.

Dead Bracketology: Finding "The Best" Show Of The Tour

As many of you may have seen, the official dead.net site put together a tournament bracket for the tour, which you can play here to come up with your own favorite show of the tour. Personally, I would have preferred to do the seedings differently (they were chronological), but in the end the final show of the tour won my bracket. If it was up to me, I would have structured the bracket and seeded the shows differently:
Obviously, it'll take a bit of jockeying to get this bracket to work out right. In the London and West Germany Brackets, the 2-seed faces the 5-seed, and the 3-seed faces the 4-seed. Those winners square off for the chance to challenge the two top overall seeds (5/26 & 4/26) in the tournament quarterfinals. You may think this would be an unreasonable advantage, but listen to those two shows and tell me they didn't earn a substantial advantage! In the North and Misc. Brackets, the 3-seed faces the 6-seed, and the 4-seed faces the 5-seed. The winner of the 3-6 matchup goes on to face the 2-seed, and the winner of the 4-5 matchup faces the 1-seed. Since I made up the seeds (and you can read my reviews of all the shows), you have an idea of which are my favorites. However, I also tried to build in some upsets into this tourney, so please leave a comment to let me know which upsets you would call!!



Thanks to everyone for reading my blog, and I very much appreciate your feedback. Another great big thanks to all you who were able to come to my party over the weekend, as well! I had a great time, and I think you did, too!!

I'm also considering revisiting this blog for other notable moments in GD history. It makes a big difference to me that the recordings are pristine, so if you can help me stockpile great recordings of any of the following eras (or have other suggestions), please let me know:

  • May (& into June), 1977
  • June, 1974
  • May, 1970
  • February, 1969
  • August, 1972
  • July, 1978

- Morning Brewer

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* In the interest of variety, I've avoided the versions I know made the original Europe '72 release.

6 comments:

  1. This is absolutely unbelievable. I just stumbled across your site and what a stumble indeed! Never have I seen such beautiful appreciation and explanation of the Dead's most magical tour. This is a site that I'll be lowering my bucket into again and again...

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  2. Just got my hands on the new tour mix Adam. Finishing up Lyceum now. S

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