Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sugar Magnolia: An Essay by David Bourne

     Hi again folks!  For today's post I'm being a bit lazy, and submitting a paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Art (aesthetics) course a few years back.  I've made a few edits to make it a little more relevant to the Now, but it's largely unchanged.  There are some references to philosophers and quotes attributed to them, but no bibliography because it's mostly based on notes and discussions from class, not actual readings.  Some of the references or changes in topic might seem elusive, but remember its original context was as a paper for a professor who knew what I was talking about, so feel free to look up the philosophers or not.  There are certainly some points in here that are controversial even to me, so feel free to voice any opinions you have!

Sugar Magnolia
It is common, in discussions about artworks, to hear the question, “What does this mean,”  being asked by the artworks’ audiences.  This is also a common discussion among philosophers trying to probe the intellectual depth of the artwork’s content.  It is easy to imagine being in front of a painting, say a Monet, and ask that question, expecting the answer to be a story that the picture shows a part of.  Likewise, one can imagine reading a poem and expecting the meaning to be some statement or insight relating to human nature.  Lyrical songs, songs that include set words or lyrics, are often grouped with poems for the simple reason that the words are seen as the primary mode of transferring meaning.  However, there is much more to a song than just its lyrics, just as there is more to a painting than just the shapes that can be found in it, especially when considering the meanings being conveyed.  The specific song I intend to base this paper around is “Sugar Magnolia” by the Grateful Dead (lyrics by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir).  This song was originally released on their 1970 album American Beauty, and in an attempt to simplify the beginning of this paper, I will begin by only referring to this version of the song.  This will allow me to then, later on in the paper, discuss the many variations in live performances of the song, and the implications that come along with them.  My goal in this paper, through discussing the meanings that can be found in this song, is to come to a conclusion about the importance of finding meaning in art, and the overall function or importance of art such as this in society.
Before going into any kind of discussion about how we should interpret this artwork, I should briefly describe the artwork itself.  The most basic label to put on it is that it is a love song.  The lyrics have to do with a character referred to as Sugar Magnolia, a girl we can assume is the object of the singer’s affection.  The song begins with an instrumental intro that can be described as bouncy and lilting, kind of like a wild run through a summer field.  The lyrics are littered with references to flowers and natural images, some describing Sugar Magnolia, some just there to describe the scenery and mindset of the singer.  The combination of the two drummers and the two guitar players with the bass bouncing between them also makes the downbeat elusive, making the listener chase it, playing into the running feeling of the song.
One reason I decided to write about this song is the strange relationship between the Grateful Dead and finding any one particular meaning in their songs.  Many songs either narrate a story, with the underlying meaning designed to be the story’s moral.  Others have at least one message, whether it is related to social change and upheaval, as in the Beatles’ “Revolution,” or as most pop songs today choose to do, to let young adolescents know that they’re depressed and angsty too.  However Sugar Magnolia has no linear progression through time or any discernable plot, nor does it have an ulterior motive such as creating social change or making teenage girls cry.  This, typical of other Dead songs, is what Hunter talks about as “an invocation of the Muse,” in that it is meant to be taken on a psycho-spiritual level to find any meaning from it to begin with.  The next question, then, is what meanings are there to find, and how do we find them?
The question, as you may have noticed, is not how we should interpret any artwork, but rather just this particular one.  This is because different artworks should be interpreted in different ways depending on the situation.  If Sugar Magnolia was a hit single, a major influence on culture, or a song written by tone-deaf monkeys who somehow managed to write an intelligible song, then it would have to be interpreted in those contexts.  Likewise, if I was interpreting a Monet painting, a Warhol painting, or a statue of a guy with his head coming out of his ass, I would have to interpret them in their own contexts, from classical art to modern art.  This also brings up the question of authorial intention, in regards to what Hirsch describes as the ideal audience, which I believe sets the context for interpretation of an artwork.  If the ideal audience for Hunter and Weir was the post-modernist crowd, then we would have to interpret the song in terms of cynical and subtle statements and comments on the realities of our culture.  This is most certainly not the ideal audience for Hunter and Weir, seeing as our ironic culture today seems to have no bearing on ideas of the Muse, so I would say the ideal audience, and therefore the correct perspective from which to interpret this song, is a Romantic perspective.
The reason I choose to utilize Hirsch’s theory of authorial intent is that, while it is true an artwork can be enjoyed in analyzed without an author, the author is nevertheless a necessary figure for the art to be created.  I also believe that the intention of an author is an intrinsically important feature in a piece of art.  I do not mean that the meaning of a piece of art is only what the author had in mind during the artwork’s creation.  This is much too rigid a restriction, and it does not take in to account any unconscious forces or influences the author was subjected too, nor any kind of publicly established meaning.  Instead of this, the ideal audience concept does not give all the power to the author and what “he means” by presenting the artwork, but only to who he intended the audience to be.  The audience, being comprised (usually) of a multitude of different people with different experiences, finds potentially infinite meanings, but they are still limited in scope by the audience the author had in mind.  Now some authors may have no specific audience in mind, but this is not the case with Sugar Magnolia: the Dead had the fans of their music in mind when writing their songs, and this is no exception (not that they wrote them for the fans, but that they were a necessary part of the musical experience as a whole that necessarily affected the writing process).
This broader concept of authorial intent points towards some sort of sharing of the meaning of an artwork between the author and the audience, which makes this a good place to talk about the idea of the Muse and meaning, something we haven’t talked about in class.  When Robert Hunter talks about the Muse, and I believe this is the correct way to view it, he means an archetypal, psycho-spiritual force or spirit of creation that is present in us all, and while this seems to be treading into mystical territory, there is some science behind it.  When the psychologist Carl Jung talked about the collective unconscious, he suggested that we do share the same archetypes in the banks of our minds, whether we realize it or not.  This affects the discussion of meaning by making what seems to be a multitude of subjective experiences and meanings found in an artwork into something a little more objective.  This is especially true in the world of Grateful Dead music and fans, where there is a massive gestalt that results in many synchronicities, including shared experiences of meaning and implication.  By using a style of writing that invokes this sense of the Muse (a Muse-ical style if you will), Hunter and Weir take advantage of Hirsch’s theory, using their audience’s interpretations of their previous songs to influence and manifest meanings in Sugar Magnolia.
A strange feature of this Muse twist to authorial intention is that it only seems to work if the author intends to use it.  Although the Muse is supposedly an unconscious and universal archetype, it does not seem relevant to most incidents where people point to authorial intent.  If the author says that he means x and that as a result the artwork means x, then the muse is not present.  This is another instance of frameworks of art being too rigid, for this egotistical posit of meaning does not allow for the unconscious effects of the Muse to which Hunter appeals to “work their magic.”  The author needs to say to himself or his audience, “I don’t know how this will turn out or what it will mean, but I’m going to do it anyway with the Muse’s help,” for the Muse to work.
I will try to relate this back to our class material by appealing to Gadamer’s discussion of the importance of play as a concept in art.  This isn't play as in a theater performance, but as a somewhat technical term for an identification, or loss of self, in something.  Gadamer describes the absorbing quality of creating art as being the same absorbing quality of playing a game, sport, or activity.  The artist becomes completely involved in the creation of the artwork, and this absorption facilitates the creation even more.  Gadamer also talks about how this concept relates to the audience, but I don’t intend to elaborate on that here.  For now, I want to relate this absorbing quality of play to the psychological qualities of the Muse.  In becoming absorbed in the play of creating art, the author quiets his other mental experiences and trains of thought, allowing the artwork to flow organically from him.  This quieting of mental states is a familiar concept in meditation and transpersonal psychology, which allows archetypal forces and imagery to come to the mind’s surface.  Since the artist is in this pseudo-meditative state, he is not quite aware of what might surface, accounting for unconscious meanings in artworks, and eventually it seems as if the artwork is creating itself through the author: this is the doings of the Muse, whether as a spiritual entity or a psychological force.  The Dead themselves actually have a lyric in another song that describes this, “…as the music plays the band,” which occurred to me when we were discussing Gadamer in class.
The last aspect about this song I wish to discuss as far as authorial intention goes is that things do get a bit more complicated than I have painted them when we consider the fact that it was not just Hunter who wrote the song, but Weir as well.  I still stand by everything I said about the Muse and meaning, but the shared sense of the meaning in this case is more divided than a general description of Muse-related thought can cover.  Not only is the meaning shared somewhere between the audience and Hunter, or the audience and Weir, but also between Hunter and Weir as co-authors in their experiences of the Muse.  The meaning cannot be divided by any mathematical divisions, because credit and contribution are not concrete factors in an artwork that can be quantified.  The truth is, the song was actually a source of dispute between Weir and Hunter because of their differing tastes despite being somewhat similar people with similar qualities, in the same band.
Hunter took from his Muse more natural, airy, and sentimental imagery and emotions to put into the song, evoking transient, immaterial reasons for his love.  He contributed lyrics about breezes, high times, and seasons of the year; Weir was different.  His workings with the Muse resulted in more concrete, worldly parts of his life and cultural background.  Weir was the closest the Dead would come to the post-modernist critique of our culture, but Sugar Magnolia is not an example of this; only one of Weir’s songs, "Throwing Stones" was arguably a cultural critique for the audience to think about.  Weir contributed to "Sugar Magnolia" lines referencing Ken Kesey books (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Americana imagery of Willy’s Jeeps and the joy of driving, as well as numerous sexual innuendos that the Dead crowd knew to be just those due to Weir’s reputation as Bobby, the ladies man.
These two men argued over what type of lyrics fit where in the song, so it seems strange to say that they both wrote it equally, but at the same time it seems strange to give either one more credit than the other.  However, maybe the urge to divvy up credit like food rations is folly.  It seems plausible that most people would be satisfied with saying that both Weir and Hunter wrote the song, with largely the same Muse-related intentions, and therefore the song is attributed to Weir/Hunter, and not to Bob Weir and Robert Hunter as individuals.  This may sound similar to the idea of hypothetical intention, but I am not positing the existence of some strange Weir/Hunter entity, merely a way to attribute authorship of one artwork to multiple people with strange terminology.

So far I have talked about how to interpret this song only in terms of the lyrics Hunter and Weir collaborated on.  However, Sugar Magnolia is not an a capella piece of music, and the instrumental aspects to it are of great importance when talking about the artwork as a whole.  I mentioned earlier that the music contributed to the feeling the music conveyed (carefree, lilting, bouncy), and now I want to discuss how this affects meaning in a song.  The musical style of any band is developed by the tastes of the band members, the reception of their songs by mass and/or specific audiences, resulting in some sort of change by the band, repeating until the band falls apart or they carve a comfortable niche for themselves into the musical world.  The Dead’s style was also undeniably influenced by their fans’ and their own interest in psychedelics, which instilled the suggestibility of a psychedelic experience into their work.  As a result, the carefree feeling to the song is not the same as some pop band from the fifties, but comes from the cascading interplay of the instruments as they propel the song along.  There are many places where one player will start a kind of rhythm or jam, and it is picked up and carried along by other members throughout the song, even if the original player had moved on to something else. However, as far as meaning goes, this is as deep as the instrumental aspects get.
The purpose of the music around the lyrics is not to convey another set of meanings, but rather to help set the context of the song for the audience.  The Dead’s audience was not a crowd of people who only wanted to be happy and skip merrily along, but a group of humans with dynamic feelings and emotions; they appreciated a sad, somber song as much as a carefree dancing number.  The chord changes, rhythms, and melodies of a song set the stage for the emotions that can be found in the meanings, and the suggestibility of this particular band does more to convey the appropriate mindset and conditions for the lyrics.  This is generally true of all music, but I find it especially true with the Dead.
So we’ve covered the purpose of music and lyrics in interpreting the meanings of a song as a piece of art, but that leads us to the much broader question that has prevalent in discussions of art for millennia: what is the purpose of art?  As with the question of how one should interpret a piece of art, the question of what purpose it serves depends on what type of art it is.  Also, the question depends on what qualifies as a purpose to who’s asking the question.  Some people think a purpose must be a material, empirical function in society, others just think of it as what something does, no matter how immaterial it is; since I am the one writing this paper, I’m going to side with the second use of the word.  Some art, such as portraits, statues, and monuments serve a political or historical purpose to remind people of some person, event, or sentiment that is important to a culture, but with the skill of some artist.  Art created with the aspiration of being post-modern, whether an abstract painting or semen-covered bed, serves the purpose of calling our culture into question through the culturally accepted medium of art.  Music can fit into this last category, and can also serve the purpose of being a cultural rallying point, whether talking directly (and not ironically in the post-modern way) about social issues or expressing a shared sentiment from universal acceptance to universal damnation of a group of people or series of events.  However all of these forms of art, music especially, also serve a purpose that has fallen out of favor in philosophical discussions about art: the aesthetic experience.
Although art can serve a "higher", intellectual purpose for art critics and hipsters with scarves who are in love with obscure artists, this is not always the audience intended by the author.  Authorial intention also determines the purpose of an artwork, although in a more powerful way than it influences meaning.  There is less vagueness and less worry about unconscious influences when an author states what he intends to accomplish with a piece of art because it is a very conscious and simple intention, and if anything a very objective one, for it is very possible for the author to fail to create an artwork that fulfils its intended purpose (but a failure in conveying meaning can still produce some meaning).  It seems to me that many musicians only intend their artwork to serve an aesthetic purpose, thus the prevalence of purely instrumental styles of music.  What sort of cultural statement or direct message can anything Mozart or Beethoven wrote?  Styles are certainly influenced by fashions of certain cultures at certain times, which can be easily noticed when one listens to pieces from different eras, but these influences merely echo the mood of the time, they do not say any one thing about it.  This aesthetic intention may be seen as back-tracking in Hegel’s model of humanity moving away from religion and spirit towards science and reason, but I am not a subscriber of that view of how our culture is progressing.  The purpose of much music, the Grateful Dead’s especially, is too evoke some kind of spiritual, aesthetic experience, and to let the audience take from it what they will.
The aesthetic experience the Dead regularly evoked in their audience at concerts is also similar to Gadamer’s concept of play, in that it can be completely absorbing.  When the Dead played live, they were always influenced by the gestalt that existed between them and the crowd, so every performance was different, depending on any factor from weather, to intoxication, to how much sleep they got the previous night.  This resulted, in this particular case of "Sugar Magnolia" as well as other songs, in the gradual transformation of the song into a different style, influenced greatly by audience interaction.  The Dead’s style of playing was also highly improvisational, appealing to the idea of performance as play, in that they were not trying to exactly replicate the song as it was written, but to get absorbed into each particular performance in order to create in it a different way.  This improvisation also absorbed the audience’s attention, because all of the fans of the Dead are interested and eager to hear what guitar licks, bass lines, and drum crashes will come out of each performance: there is never a dull moment when they have no idea what is about to happen.  I have roughly 170 (some discrepancies on my computer certainly exist) different live recordings of Sugar Magnolia, and they are all completely different (even some lyrics get changed around or forgotten at various performances).  These songs range anywhere from 4 minutes to over ten minutes of playing, and some of them are incomplete because the Dead broke off into a different song in the middle, and never finished up the rest of the lyrics in Sugar Magnolia.
I still need to answer the question of what the significance of this song is as a piece of art, apart from all other songs and artworks.  Personally I find it significant because of how much of a fan of the Dead I am.  This song started out as a light-hearted rock song with a hint of country-western influence, and morphed, through its recreation in live performances, into what Weir described as “balls-out rock and roll;” this song is a perfect example of the vastness of the Dead’s repertoire and how dynamic their style was.  It’s also a song that I’ve heard performed by remaining members of the Dead playing in the band Furthur, which was quite an experience.  However, I can think of no historical or massively influential significance in the rest of the world.  It sure is a good song, and many people enjoy it, but it hasn’t changed world politics or international history.  However, that was not the purpose it was written for; what is significant about this song is that it is completely honest to itself and not pretentiously trying to preach to popular culture, which is something many musicians that people know of nowadays cannot say of their songs.
Of course, my interpretations of this artwork, as well as my reflections on how I interpret it and how others should, is completely a result of my places in the Dead culture and larger culture as a whole.  If I wasn’t as versed in the history of the band and song, I would not have the same insights on it, nor would I want to interpret it in the way I do, without appealing to any singular school of thought in the study of aesthetics.  In a similar way, if I was still as knowledgeable about the Dead, but not aware of my being a part of their culture, or like many in that culture, not aware of my place in society as a whole, I would not have the option to look at the song from as many different perspectives as I have.
The last point I have to make is to directly answer your question of the role of art in making us examine our roles in society, history, and life as a whole.  While it is not a necessary feature for something to be considered an artwork, this role that art can play does a lot to determine what makes for worthwhile art.  While I have described post-modernists as cynics in this paper, it is not completely inappropriate that they should be cynical about life.  Much of the world today is not a joyous, care-free place, and there should be art to make people aware of that, it just shouldn’t be all that art makes people aware of.  It also plays a large role in showing us where we fit into life and the world in psychological and spiritual ways, showing us that although we are individual people, we have many shared sentiments and urges.  This is why some art does need to be a care-free sprint through flowers and streams, so we don’t forget that’s another way to live, regardless of how depressing our culture may seem to be.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Archive vs. The Vault

     So a question has popped up recently that I think is worth discussing: how do I (we) get music these days (and is it fair to the artists)?  I've previously discussed my slight obsession with the Internet Archive and their slew of Dead recordings, but I never really compared them to the official releases and my relation to them.  I definitely have a slew of the official releases, but not all of them came to me because I went on to order a specific release.  In fact, only a few of them came to me this way; so have I been fair to the band?

     Well we need to remember that the Dead community has always been...well, very communal.  We are all friends in the music, and if someone has a recording that someone wants, it's common sense to share it.  In the days of tape trading, the only real rule (as I've gathered after the fact, so correct me if I'm wrong) is that no one should be getting or giving money for copies of the tapes.  So the archive and it's wide collection of the Dead's shows, does not detract form the band or the members' wallets...does it?

     Again, no.  Or at lest not really, in the grand scheme of things.  All (most) of the shows that the Dead have released officially, even partial shows, are unavailable on the archive in their soundboard forms.  Some of the shows you can find audience tapes of for free download, but there is a definite sacrifice in quality.  When a new release is announced, like new Dave's Picks or box sets, there is an indeterminate period of time in which one can get the soundboard from the archive before it's deleted, but this is not necessarily a replacement for the official release.  If anything, hearing a whatever-generation soundboard makes me want to hear the official release even more (although things can be lost or gained in mixing).  I'll admit I didn't buy the first few Dave's Picks, having found them on the archive instead; but I wish I had bought them now, because even if it's just for a few seconds, any bad cut or patch in the archive version drives me crazy.  What did I miss, what if Phil started singing scat while Bobby played the fiddle?!  Outrageous, yes - but impossible, no!

     But I'm getting off-track here.  The official releases are invaluable for true collectors and Dead Heads.  While the Vault is infamously lacking (no Barton Hall, really?), it also has surprises that no one would guess.  Dave's Picks 4 and 6 both feature material that you will not find on the archive, or anywhere else that I know of.  There's also something special about an official release, because it's more-or-less certified by the band (or at least their current management) to be in the upper echelon of their performances.  While we may not all agree with some of the released songs or shows, there's still that sense that it has been handed down from on high.  Dave Lemieux, the Dead's archivist and namesake of the Dave's Picks series, also makes them a bit personal with his "seaside chats," which, while a bit rambling, really make the case for each release.

     So do I buy the releases?  Sometimes.  Usually I'll buy older ones where the price has gone down since the release, but I haven't bought a new release at all.  This is mainly because I haven't had to, because my dad has already bought them before I've had the chance...or money.  One of my first Dead Head friends in college also had most of the Dick's Picks series, so I only had to buy some of the ones he didn't have to fill in the gaps I thought needed filling in.  Why would I buy a new copy when my dad or my friend has a perfectly good one he can share with me?  For the band?  Well, if you ask me, they're doing just fine.  I don't mean that in a callus, selfish way, although in may sound like it.  What I mean is that Phil, Bobby, Billy, and Mickey all have their own things going on, and I pay to see as much of that as I can.  These releases are mainly to keep the Grateful Dead experience going, to share the love and excitement of the music with as many people as possible over time.  By sharing these official releases, we're not robbing the band or preventing them from making money, we're ensuring the continuation of releases by increasing the amount of people with access to great recordings of great shows.

     Now I'm going off on a sudden tangent here, but I can't help it.  I think that the next official release they come out with, besides the continuation of Dave's Picks, should be an expansion on the idea of Fallout From the Phil Zone.  Phil had picked out all of the songs on this album because he thought they were exceptional instances of Grateful Dead music; and I think they should have all of the remaining band members come up with their own.  I think that the results would involve recordings from different eras with different styles and feelings going on, and that they would give a new perspective on the music.  They've all been pretty distant from the project of releasing material for pretty common sense reasons: they already played those shows, why do them again?  But I think seeing and hearing what each player thinks were the band's strongest moments will give all of them and each of us deeper insight to the experience as a whole.  Fallout From the Phil Zone was pretty eclectic, even for the Dead!  It included Bobby rockers, a Dylan song from '95, a good amount of Pig Pen, some semi-acoustic Dead, and some primal, wall-melting-universe-encompassing psychedelia.  Imagine what his next take would be, let alone Bobby's or either drummers!  We might end up with 3 more versions of Samson & Delilah, but if they're good then who cares!

     So I don't know if I answered the original question or not.  Well let me try to summarize my approach to acquiring new music, and see if that does it.  I will pay whatever money I have for good music, but if I can get it for free in a manner that I don't believe hurts musicians or the music, then I will.  I will also share my music with anyone who asks nicely, friends, casual acquaintance, or friendly stranger with a flash drive handy.  This stands for anything unrelated to the Dead as well, but if you'd believe it, most of the time I'm doing this it's Dead-related.  I'm actually planning a little gathering of friends in Ithaca who are Dead Heads or of a harmonious mind-set, so let me know if you want to stop by!  We can even discuss the moral implications of the sharing if you want, but I'd rather listen to and share good music with good people; and isn't that what this is all about, making the world just slightly better with this music?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

2013-11-02 The Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY

     That's right, boys and girls, it's time for another review of a show I was at!  And boy what a show; Phil Lesh has a whole new line-up of musicians in his Phil Lesh & Friends band, and they are on fire!  The band now include Mr. Lesh on bass, his son Grahame on acoustic and electric guitar, Luther Dickinson (Black Crowes, North Mississippi All-Stars) on electric and slide guitar, Anders Osborne (jazz/blues guitarist) on electric guitar, Tony Leone (Ollabelle) on the drum kit, and Jason Crosby (plays with anyone he can apparently, and regular at TRI studios) on keyboard, organ, and fiddle.  They were preceded by Phil's other son's band, American Jubilee, with Brian Lesh, Scott Padden, Ross James, Craig MacArthur, and Alex Koford.  Their instrumentation switched up a bit (and I don't actually know which ones were which specifically), but it featured Ross James on lead and Brian Lesh on rhythm (with some leads).  Now as a disclaimer, which I should have for all of these reviews, I am going to hyperbolize a bit in this post.  We got in right as the doors opened, and were in the very front row for the whole show, so to not exaggerate would do this good blog a true disservice.  Even the dinner we had before it is worth a good hyperbole or two!

     Some prelude is needed to capture the whole experience.  I drove from Ithaca to Port Chester (right next to Connecticut) to meet my parents who drove from Boston.  We arrived pretty close to each other, checked into our hotel in CT, then drove the 15 minutes into Port Chester.  It's a cute little city that was pretty hectic from all those damn hippies closing their streets and parking everywhere, but we found a good spot and went to the restaurant my parents had picked out online (it had the best bar selection).  It was called Kiosko, and there were surprisingly only a couple locals in there; maybe the Heads were all eating on Shakedown Street.  The margaritas were generously proportioned, the food was as authentic as it gets north of the border, and our waitress seemed pleasantly taken aback by our enthusiasm (most reviews online were complaining that it wasn't like Taco Bell).  I got a chipotle salmon dish that blew my taste buds away, and made me nervous the show couldn't live up to the meal (HA!), and the 3 salsas offered a wider range of taste than you'd expect.  Anyway, after that we moseyed on down to Shakedown Street where I got a sweet new sweatshirt with flying Stealies on it (also deserving of some hyperbole, but I won't go on), and then got in line for doors opening at 5:30.

     So a quick aside - Dead Heads can be crazy.  I don't mean wide-pupiled, off-putting, Estimated Prophet crazy ( know).  What I mean is that Shakedown Street, while being a sweet place to hang out and do all sorts of shopping, is there well before, and a bit after the show; but it is not better than getting in early and getting a spot right up front!  Why hang out with your friends outside and then struggle to get a good seat when you could hang out with your friends inside right next to the stage?!  Also, you're paying for both bands, so why would you skip out on the opener, especially when it's got a Lesh in the band?!  I even saw people leave the Phil set early to go back to Shakedown - YOU PEOPLE ARE NUTS!  But anyway...

     We, like relatively sane people, were waiting at the doors with some new friends who had been at the last show, and after a casual pat-down from security (is that a pipe?  well whatever man, go on in) casually walked right up to the stage, put our jackets on the barrier, and chatted it up while scoping out the theater.  The Capitol is famous in Dead-lore for holding some incredible show over the years, and was recently renewed to its past glory, with the addition of a bar called Garcia's (named guessed it!) and some mind blowing lights that displayed everything from fractals to leafy trees to Stealies on Stealies on Stealies!  Our neighborhood security guard explained to us that this was his kind of music, and he was there to enjoy and help us enjoy without any hassles (a good guy for sure).  The theater filled up very slowly (crazy people) and was maybe half-full when the lights went down for American Jubilee.

American Jubilee Set
Jam > Cinnamon Girl, St. Peter, California Skies, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, West, Round & Round, Henry Hill

     So the theme of this tour is for them to do an album in each show, with the Jubilee doing some songs from it and Phil interspersing his sets with Dead songs (and others that aren't from the album or the Dead).  This night they did a Neil Young album, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," and I have to admit I knew no songs from it.  I had prepared myself for this, though, and enjoyed hearing new songs along with some of my most-loved ones (but I'm getting ahead of myself).  We were right in front of Ross James for this set, and they started out whit a jam (little bit of feedback, foreshadowing...) into Cinnamon Girl.  James was having a great time throughout the set and they were all playing excellently.  Brian Lesh has an amazing voice and a lot of his dad's intensity when it comes to music.  All of the songs were done very well, but because I didn't really know them they kind of blended together in my head.  I just found a recording on the archive though (put it at the top), so I plan to become very familiar with it.  Jason Crosby also came out on fiddle for one of them.  While they were all excellent, the real highlight for me was Round & Round by Neil Young.  The drummer and keyboardist came over to sing in three-part harmony with Brian, and the result was beautiful.  I was completely captivated, and found myself locking eyes with Brian at several points because I couldn't look anywhere else.  While everyone knows the Dead's vocals were occasionally on-point (American Beauty, Workingman's Dead) but usually a bit rough-around-the-edges, this was from a whole other world where Donna never shrieked, Bobby knew all the words, and musicians can harmonize by accident.  The set ended with a rocking, jammed out Henry Hill (never heard it before) that really showed these guys aren't just an opening band, and they don't exist just because Phil is Brian's dad.

     Before moving on to the main event, I want to point out a few quirky things about American Jubilee.  For starters, they all have excellent beards, and embrace Americana traditions wholeheartedly; they had a cool tie-dyed American flag on the organ and a pick-up truck on James' amp (upon my questioning, he insisted it served no real purpose [a likely story!]).  They also, in any picture or real-life setting I've seen them in, are accompanied by at least two Lagunitas IPA's.

    So after the theater really filled in, a foray out to the bathroom and the smoking area, we got our beers and reclaimed our positions up front.  The family we had come in with had saved our seats, and we saved theirs later on; a true symbiotic relationship.  Soon after we got back to the front, the lights went down and out came the band!  We ended up right in front of Luther Dickinson and as a result he was pretty heavy in our mix, but we ended up being able to hear everything just fine.  To his right was Crosby at the keys, and Lesh immediately to his left with Osborne and Grahame on his left (Leone was obviously behind them at the drums).  Most people had figured out that they were doing the Neil Young album at that point, but some were like me and were still wondering.  Some could even see the setlist on the floor, but we did our best to keep the mystery.  After some tuning and test-riffs, the band eyed each other and kicked the show off without any hesitation.

Set 1: Ramblin' Man > Bertha, Down by the River, Peggy-O, Dire Wolf, The Losing Ends > Cumberland Blues

Set 2: Feedback > Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks) > Shake What Yo Mama Gave You > Sugaree, Running Dry > All Along the Watchtower > Death Don't Have No Mercy > Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad, Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower

Encore: Donor Rap, Cowgirl in the Sand > I Ain't the One

     One of my dad's guesses had been that they would do an Allman Brother's album, so Ramblin' Man got us all excited!  They really had that southern rock feel down pretty tight, thanks in large part to Dickinson who was already starting to melt faces (mine included).  They rocked right through that one and were jamming out until Grahame started the unmistakeable Bertha riff on his acoustic.  I thought it could have turned into Touch of Gray for a second, but they kept it on Bertha to great results!  The band was really good at trading off the solos in jam sections, and it was exhilarating  to see the shared glances, nods, and grins that went on throughout the show.  There were no egos to contend with and no shyness; if they were gonna jam, they were gonna have fun and do their best!

After Bertha they went back to the album and did Down by the River, which had everyone who knew the song singing along, which was pretty cool even if you didn't know the song.  This is one of those songs that, even though it was created by a different musician, it seems like it was made for a band like this to do.  Phil was certainly loving it, and if the others on stage weren't at first (and they were), his enthusiasm definitely spread to them.  This was almost over-shadowed immediately, however, when Phil stepped to the mike to sing a beautiful rendition of Peggy-O.  While this song sometimes gets glanced over when looking at old Dead setlists as a slow-first-set-song, this one definitely stood out.  Phil's voice was the best it's been in recent years with him hitting notes I didn't know he could ever hit, and he seemed very aware of his voice.  While we all love it when he sings, there are definitely times where he maybe shouldn't be singing the song he's singing;  this was absolutely not one of those times.  They also had one more bar to the song after the main verses, and that made this version stand out even more.

     They then went from one song that features the mythical land of Fennario to another: Dire Wolf.  A nice little piece of self-awareness in a setlist that Robert Hunter has allegedly been doing recently as well.  Things slowed down a bit as they did another song from the featured album, The Losing Ends.  By slowed down, I of course mean in tempo and feel, not in energy.  In fact all of these slow songs that they did were completely full of energy that had just been channeled into a slower manifestation;  none of the tediousness that can sometimes slip into a ballad.  This one even picked up energy as it went along!  The jammed out of that into a seriously rocking Cumberland Blues, one of those songs that's been on my list of songs I have to get since I got into this music.  Phil was positively beaming during that one, and the band was all on the same page.  Not too surprisingly, after that they took a small break before the second set.

     This set break proceeded about the same as the previous one, though a bit shorter.  We continued to make friends with our neighbors, but also encountered some of the...less savory Heads.  The star of that show was the sweaty guy with pupils bigger than his mohawk who was insisting he had to give Phil his hat.  Though my dad and others convinced him at the time that Phil probably had plenty of hats and didn't want his (he was very sweaty), he eventually threw it to the very edge of the stage in the second set; Phil didn't notice, nor did he look like he needed a hat.  But whatever, we all go a little crazy now and again, and who am I to judge?  He was still saner than those people who came late and left early!

     Anyway, the lights went back down and the band returned to the stage.  Phil definitely had a sly look about him, and they all kept shooting each other conspiratorial glances.  After a little bit of tuning, they all started getting right up to their monitors and feeding back.  While according to the tape this didn't go on for too long, to be there (especially right in front of them) it seemed like a small eternity.  I've always thought, as I believe I've written about before, that the Dead had the ability to create something truly metaphysical from feedback, and these guys had clearly been taking lessons from Phil.  I thought it was must be heralding a pretty wild set, but how wild I had no idea...

     BAM!  They exploded right into Caution as if they had been doing Alligator all along, and my brain immediately shot into outer space!  They filled the song with feedback and frantic jamming like you've never seen...unless you've seen the Dead I suppose.  Dickinson turned his blues-meter to 11 and led the band through an epic version of the song that would have made Pigpen smile.  He had his own style of doing the rapping that was very different from Pig's, but was certainly true to the tradition of balls-out psychedelic blues that the Dead are a part of.  We were all shouting the responses (all you need!) back at him, but I couldn't hear myself think, let alone yell.  But what we or Dickinson could hear of ourselves didn't matter; the feel was there, you knew everyone knew that all they needed was just that little touch...of mojo hand!  They jammed without any snaggles into Shake What Yo Mama Gave You, another great blues song for Dickinson to get down with.  They carried along in that manner until suddenly they were doing Sugaree!  A definite change of pace, but they didn't falter at all, and killed the song as if they wrote it!

     Next came a song (Running Dry) that my dad was sure was a jam into All Along the Watchtower...and that's exactly where it went next!  It was definitely at a more mellow pace in Running Dry, but they soon hit their stride at a much faster pace for Watchtower.  My dad and I have had many discussions about this song and who can/should play it after Hendrix (obviously) killed it.  Both of us actually think the Dead and Furthur and not on that list, not because they can't play it well, but because their versions lack that je ne sais quoi.  This version, however, would have had Jimi smiling right along with all of us.  They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, it was a rock and roll massacre!

     They then snaked into a song I thought I'd never hear, Death Don't Have Mercy.  While obviously different from the 60's versions of the song that everyone loves, and different even from the 80's or post-Jerry revivals of it, it was excellent.  Osborne took the vocals for this, and you could tell that he was singing about death.  This may not be news for some of you, but this is not just another second-set-ballad.  Obviously neither Wharf Rat nor Stella Blue are mediocre or "just another ballad," this song in particular has deep roots.  This song reminds us that the world is a big, scary place that we just pretend to understand and control; death can show up in your house any time, and he don't need to stay long...

     Perhaps Phil, in his wisdom, knew that this song needed a follow-up to show us the flip side, so they jammed right into Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad.  This is the song I've gotten the most at my Dead shows, but I always enjoy it and this was no exception!  I was a little let down at first because I usually receive it as a set-closer or an encore, but I figured I had gotten more than my money's worth out of this show already and I shouldn't get greedy.  After the final chorus and a new verse from Phil ("goin' where the pavement suits my shoes"), the stage lights went to normal white color and the band stood around for a bit...but didn't leave the stage.  They started tuning a bit and started strumming the beat of the next song, it couldn't be.  Could it?

     Bam!  Caught off guard again!  They slammed into Help on the Way with the force of a whale hitting a planet and I just lost it.  The Help/Slip/Franklin trio has always been one of my favorite segments of the Dead's repertoire, and after I got one from Furthur at Bethel Woods last summer I thought I had gotten my only one.  But holy shit, these guys killed it.  The jam in the middle of Help on the Way was outstanding, possibly better than the Furthur one (so hard to say), and the band was thinking as one.  Slipknot! is notorious for being tricky, but these guys didn't hesitate or miss a step at all.  They got way out there almost immediately in a jam like no other Slipknot! I've heard, with bits of feedback and new themes flying by like galaxies.  There's no point in trying to compare it with the Bethel one because they were so different, so let me just say they're both beautifully weird.  Tony Leone, who had been on point all show, really showed that he could get wild and weird in the drum fills.  I actually locked eyes with Phil during one and he mouthed to me "pretty good, huh?", to which I nodded and stuck out my tongue and received a similar gesture (my life is now complete after Phil stuck out his tongue at me).  They finally landed on the closing riff to come out into a rolling Franklin's Tower.  Phil was still singing at his peak, and they played that song til they couldn't play it no more.  I'm still a little shell shocked!

     That ended the set on a pretty definitive note.  Phil wasted little time to come up and give what seemed like the most personal Donor Rap I've seen him deliver.  He really seemed to be enjoying himself and to be grateful for everything.  His wrist band now has CODY on it, which of course is the name of the little boy that became an organ donor and saved the lives of 8 people including Phil.  They did a double encore that finished the Neil Young album: Cowgirl in the Sand > I Ain't the One.  Both of them were great, but it was the closest I've ever come to just wishing they'd stop jamming and finish the song.  I still loved them, but I was completely drained at that point - Franklin's Tower requires a lot of dancing!

     So that's the show, folks.  We made it to the hotel room with our ears still ringing, unwound for a bit, and then slept hard.  Luckily it was daylight savings (said no one ever) and we got an extra hour of sleep before waking up for breakfast and check-out.  My ears finally stopped hurting the next day, but I didn't care.  That was one of the best shows I've ever seen in definitely the coolest venues I've been to.  I hope you guys listen to it, or at least the songs that stand out to you in the setlist, because this show really has the magic that we love in music.  While I was wiped out, I also felt totally cleansed and renewed, a truly soulful ritual that we all undertook.

     Let me know if you have any requests or suggestions for my next post.  I have no idea what it will be about, but probably not another review...but maybe!