Yes folks, it's time for another review! This time, as should be obvious if you read the title, it's a review of a show I wasn't actually at, if you can believe it. No, the author of 21st Century Dead is not quite old enough to have been at this (legendary?) show, but boy does he wish he was! This show from Vallejo, CA (across the San Pablo Bay from San Rafael) is from the period of time that gave us Live/Dead, the early months of 1969. This era marks, to my ears at least, the high point (no pun intended...ok maybe a little bit) of the Dead's early, primal, crazy-far-out-psychedelic years. Everyone knows and loves the transition that occurred from mid '69-'70 into country and acoustic sounds that produced Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, but this is really the climax of the Acid Test atmosphere. They obviously never lost that psychedelic edge in their music, but this period of time is sort of the high-water mark.
Set 1: Dupree's Diamond Blues, Mountains of the Moon > Dark Star > That's It For The Other One > Death Don't Have No Mercy
Set 2 : Doin' That Rag > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Turn On Your Lovelight
So this show does actually start off with a couple of acoustic numbers from Aoxomoxoa, the Dead's '69 studio album that had not yet come out by the time of this show. Dupree's later was revived as a funky, electric song in the late 70's and early 80's, but here it is a kind of silly robber tale for the acoustic guitar. The recording comes in a little ways into the song, but not that much is missed. The real heart of the show starts with Mountains of the Moon working as a kind of prelude for the treats to come. This folky ballad has always been one of my favorites, and this is version is a classic version; Jerry's voice is turned all the way to "folk," with that soft angelic quality really shining through. After the lyrics they really start the ascent into space, with Jerry jamming flawlessly on his acoustic guitar, and changing almost seamlessly to his electric. From here he and Phil waste no time transitioning (in signature '69 style) into Dark Star.
This Dark Star has been put up on many a pedestal, and rightly so. Many claim that this is interchangeable with the legendary Live/Dead version of Dark Star, but to me that one is untouchable. While it might not be the "best" version of this song as it was played over the years, it is unquestionably the iconic version; a perfect portrait of this point in time for the Dead. The Dream Bowl Dark Star, however, is absolutely of the same stellar quality, with obvious connections between it and the Live/Dead version (which was performed just 5 days later). While the whole show is epic by any standards, this Dark Star has always been my favorite part of the show (ok maybe sometimes I prefer the Eleven [18 minutes!!]). It perhaps was not chosen for Live/Dead because it's not technically perfect: Jerry slips up on the first lyrics ("transitive diamonds of dia-mumble...") This Dark Star also features some interesting snippets of stage banter, including one point where the stage apparently caught fire! This is not too surprising for a band with a history of technical difficulties, but the real question is: are they playing for their lives because the stage caught fire, or did the stage catch fire because they were playing for their lives??
Either way, they eventually make their way out of Dark Star and land, somewhat surprisingly, not on St. Stephen but on the entirety of the That's It For The Other One suite. Now I may make this claim a few times throughout this post, but this is a version of the song that could have made it onto Live/Dead had they changed their track selection. While this had been released semi-live on Anthem of the Sun just the year before, by this point in '69 all 3 parts of the song had really matured. The first bit of Cryptical Envelopment is not as rushed and seems a lot more in control than '68 versions. '69 also marked the beginning of what is now a signature part of the Other One: Phil's intro. The year before they would launch straight into the Other One either from Cryptical itself, or eventually from the short drum break, but from '69 most Dead Heads mark the beginning of the song with Phil's 4 bar run into the explosive, band-wide entrance. They didn't do this for all versions of this song, but it happens consistently from '69-'95, and continues even today. The Other One itself was becoming a more long-lived song at this point, resembling Dark Star, not in its sound, but in its adventurous, searching spirit. When they return from Bobby's wild, hectic tale of busts, Spanish ladies (and presumably their busts), and the Bus, they settle into the 3rd key part of the suite, the Cryptical Reprise. While this was definitely a strong point in earlier versions, in '69 it continued to grow and mature into a song that swelled and receded into different themed jams. The version found in this show absolutely nails all of these parts, and is full of energy.
From here the band melts into the Rev. Gary Davis tune Death Don't Have No Mercy, a standard switch from either this or the Eleven. Like many recordings of this song from this era, there is an unfortunate tape cut in the middle. I don't know why this is such a common problem with this period of time, but it's the only complaint I have about this show; what is preserved is still an excellent recording of an excellent performance. After this a noticeably shaken Jerry steps to the mike and says they're going to take a short break and they drink some Coke (and presumably come down a bit...or maybe there was a bit more...something in those Coke cans).
Either way, the band comes back for a second set, and the recording joins them a couple bars into Doin' That Rag. This song was woefully short-lived in the Dead's repertoire, which has always puzzled me. I know Jerry is on record as saying that many of those Aoxomoxoa songs are overly-elaborate for their musical pay-off, but this song is a classic example of Hunter's psychedelic/folk writing. I think that post-hiatus this song really could have taken off, but to be fair they thought that about Cosmic Charley, and that didn't quite work out. Furthur, however, has certainly been able to get this song working out just fine, so I think it's a lack of effort on the part of the Dead (they had so many other songs to play anyway), not a lack of a good song Either way, this is a great version of the song, with the closing jam hitting some really high points.
With barely a pause Jerry goes from Doin' That Rag into those two, chill inducing chords that signaled the beginning of St. Stephen (St. Stephen!!!!). Another possible candidate for Live/Dead version 2, this version is perhaps even more technically on point that the Live/Dead one, but that's not the point. The point is, this song rocks right along taking no prisoners. The middle jam here is as great as any subsequent performance, but in the end it's almost forgotten in the fray that immediately follows.
The band goes into their (at the time) standard transition tune, the William Tell Bridge (official name? not too sure). This is an almost Celtic feeling little jaunt that was performed after St. Stephen that almost always went into the Eleven (there's at least one instance of them going into Lovelight instead). Now I would say that this Eleven belongs on Live/Dead because of two factors, it's excellence and its transition into Lovelight just like on Live/Dead; but I can't because both of them are two long! The Eleven > Lovelight on Live/Dead took up one side of an LP, but this Eleven alone would take up the entire side! This version is absolutely top-notch, and should be sent into space on the next available satellite so we can convince the aliens that we really are an intelligent species. Its polyrhythmic, psychedelic frenzy is totally incredible to behold, and it goes on forever! And just when you think it can't get any better...
It goes into a rockin' Lovelight! While also too long to make it onto an LP back in the day, this shares a lot of similarities with the one found on Live/Dead, including a small (but excellent) drum segment. The song swells and recedes as Pig Pen brings the band up and down, and if you weren't dancing then Pig had a thing or two to say to you! Lovelight let the band rocket into outer space at a moment's notice, only to settle immediately back into a groove for Pig to rap over. They could play good old rock, slam into feedback, march across the clouds, or get down and dirty in the mud - and sometimes all within a minute! This version of the song is no different, and it closes up this terrific show on the best note possible.
So that's that. Might do another review, might do something different, I don't know. Let me know if any of you have any requests.