Monday, December 16, 2013

1977-05-09 Buffalo Memorial Auditorium

     Here is yet another installment of my show review section.  In the post I started working on before this I realized I needed to write a review of this show, but I'm not sure which will be done first, this review or that post.  But either way, you're reading this now!  I've always held this show above the hallowed Cornell show from the night before, sometimes for the wrong reasons.  For a while I was such a fan of this show I refused to acknowledge anything good about the Cornell show, denouncing the playing in it as sloppy and too loose.  I've come around to the rational side of the argument now, and will be the first to say that the Cornell show should be one of the first things we show the aliens when they land, so they know that we're somewhat intelligent.  However, the Buffalo show is still a better show in my opinion.  My biases definitely show through in defending this, because it's got some of my favorite Dead songs, and a good setlist is hard to argue with.  Help/Slip/Frank, the Other One, Cassidy, Sunrise (if you'll believe it), Music Never Stopped, Comes a Time, Uncle John's Band; how can you go wrong?!

Set 1: Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, Cassidy, Brown Eyed Women, Mexicali Blues, Tennessee Jed, Big River, Peggy-O, Sunrise, The Music Never Stopped

Set 2: Bertha > Good Lovin', Ship of Fools, Estimated Prophet > The Other One > Drums > Not Fade Away > Comes a Time > Sugar Magnolia

Encore: Uncle John's Band

     Am I right?!  Ok, let's start form the beginning, relax.  This is the most mature version of the Blues for Allah trio I've ever heard.  They are completely in control of the medley, it's neither hurried nor dragging its ass, and it's not afraid to go places you wouldn't expect.  Help On the Way boils right along with a great, if short, solo break, and it segues seamlessly into the Slipknot! intro section.  Slipknot! gets as weird as you could want it to, and it's obvious from the very start that they're on the same wave length and are all having a great time.  The nail the outro, bringing it around an extra time just to show that this ain't the hit-or-miss Dead of '76, this is the Grateful Dead Machine hard at work, est.1977.  A good yard stick for Slipknot!, I've found, is if you hear at least one of them "woo!" before diving into the Slipknot! theme for the last time, and Bobby's all about it in this one.  Franklin's Tower is exactly what you'd expect for '77, rockin' along and rollin' away the dew.  Keith gets onto the weird organ/synth that he had in '77, but to great effect.  Most of the time I think he should stay on the electric piano or a real one, since the organ never proved to be his forte, but he really shines with it this time.  Listed as 16.5 minutes, the song is really about 14 with a couple of minutes of tuning and farting around, but that's ok, they deserve a break!

     From this explosive start they mellow into a normal set-progression, but keep things weird with a solid Cassidy.  While it's a song that flirted with the line of being over-played from '76-'77, it's a great song nonetheless.  Brown Eyed Women enjoys a classic '77 thrashing, with Jerry letting loose on the solo and vocals, and then a Mexicali that carries on in about the same manner.  In fact, Tennessee Jed and Big River bask in the same glorious, May '77 glory, with smooth yet powerful playing throughout.  While Big River was always an invitation to rock the fuck out, '77 saw the birth of it as a Garcia battlefield; by '78 you could almost see the smoke coming off his strings!  It's in these more straight froward segments that I think this show really proves its mettle against the Cornell one.  It's impossible to compare Help/Slip/Frank with Morning Dew or Scarlet Fire, but songs like these that are more set-in-stone as to where they go and how they get there are much easier to compare.  Where there would be some small slips in tuning, lyrics, or changes in these songs for Cornell, these are absent from the Buffalo one.  Again, both concerts are beyond belief, and the aliens won't believe humans produced them, but the Buffalo one gains small points in these places.

     Anyway, they carry on into a nice Peggy-O to calm things down.  After that they do what's always been a favorite of mine, Donna's "Sunrise".  This seems as good a time as any to clear the air about the "Donna Issue."  I like Donna.  Eight times out of ten I think she's a great addition to the band and well worth having on stage.  She has a beautiful voice when she can hear herself and is putting in the effort, and on her solo songs that comes through the best.  Her backup vocals (when she can hear herself) usually add great flavor the a song's texture, and I frankly enjoy how enthusiastic she can get in songs like Playin' in the Band, Greatest Story Ever Told, and Sugar Magnolia.  However, we all know what can happen when she oversteps her comfort zone: two ears full of pain.  In The Closing of Winterland, when they're doing Around & Around, she famously scared my best friend and I off of our couch when she made a sound like Bobby had just stabbed her in the kidney.  My other friend also got a full frontal assault from one of her Playin' screams, and was pretty fragile afterwards (she wasn't even a Dead Head, didn't know what she was getting into when she sat in front of the speakers).  But like I said, I generally like Donna, and think that this particular Sunrise is a really good one.

     They close the set with a great Music Never Stopped, a song I don't know if I can really call a favorite because it's so obviously good.  It's one of those songs that if it doesn't get you dancing, then nothing will.  Maybe this is a place where Cornell has the advantage over Buffalo, because we all know the fame and inspiration of the Dancin' in the Streets that closed that first set, but that doesn't mean the Buffalo set closer loses any power.  That's one great thing about these two shows, which increasingly seem inseparable in my mind: their setlists are so different as to give each show complete autonomy from the other.  They do share a couple songs (BEW, Estimated, and NFA), but the first two of these were pretty standard that May (a conservative description of Estimated), and who doesn't love Not Fade Away?!  These similarities, if anything, strengthen the relationship without blurring the lines between the two shows.

     After what I assume was a lovely intermission, filled with weird conversations, a lot of hydration (beer counts too), and some small clouds of smoke, they come back with a good Bertha > Good Lovin'.  While the pairing of these two makes good musical sense, the Dead didn't always transition smoothly from one to the other.  But even when the transition got tangled up, both of these songs are obviously staples of the Dead's repertoire, and the fireworks abound in this version.  Luckily they nail the transition this time, making one wonder how they could ever screw it up?  A nice thing about '77 Bertha's is that they could be really laid-back.  they weren't slow or lazy, but they had a controlled feeling that would be missed in the more haphazard versions in '78.  While those could rock the roof right off the house, they didn't always come together right, whereas in '77 they had all the time in the world to bring the song to its climax.  A quick word about Good Lovin' in general; this is a Pig Pen song, and Bobby could sometimes ruin a Pig Pen classic (Lovelight, Good Morning Little School Girl, Smokestack Lightning).  This is perhaps the best of his Pig appropriations, and this version in particular is very good, but any time I hear the song I wish it was Pig singing it, and I miss the Dead's more adventurous versions when they had him at the helm.  But I do love a good Bobby version, he just has big, stanky shoes to fill.  In classic late-70's fashion they cool things down with Ship of Fools, a song I've never been crazy about, but still enjoy.  This performance of it goes about the way one would expect, no problems or moments of pure inspiration, just a solid song.

     Here come the dragons!  Yes, it's time for the big second set transition, and while it's not quite the monster it could be, let's not get greedy and forget what they opened with!  Estimated Prophet was still relatively new at this point, and the jam section in the middle was in its infancy compared to versions even just a year later.  They don't make a wrong step as they go through it, and they're certainly in no hurry, no.  The jam gets weirder, and starts to gain momentum until, without any break into drums to prepare us, they launch into the Other One.  As I've said, this has always been at the top of my list of Dead songs, and I'll admit that this one is not the most amazing there is.  In fact, at under 7 minutes it's a pretty short version, but I can't complain.  It's still an amazing song and it'll take your breath away if you stop judging it against the 15+ minute versions that occur elsewhere in this particular month.  They slip into drums from here, and instead of bringing it back to the Other One, they go into Not Fade Away.  It's definitely shorter than the Cornell one, but in a comparison of the two it more than holds its own.  For being such a simple song as far as the cords and arrangement are concerned, it really is amazing the variety of places that the Dead can take it.  They can keep rocking out, they can go straight into outer space, or they can let it evaporate into a more tender song, as they do here.

     Comes a Time is one of the most tragically beautiful songs in the Dead's arsenal, and I'll fight anyone who thinks otherwise to the death.  If this song doesn't pull your heartstrings and make you feel a whole spectrum of emotions that you had previously just grouped under "sad," then chances are your heart is missing and you're either a robot or a rock.  This Buffalo version is no different, and takes you on a real journey.  Just when you think you're lost in the netherworld of melancholic feelings, however, the Dead pull some of their magic and bring you right back home with Sugar Magnolia and a smile on your face.  After a balls out version of Sugar Mags and some tuning and breath-catching, they come back for an Uncle John's Band encore.  This song is a great snap-shot of the Dead, a little bit of lightning in a bottle.  It's captures the tenderness they were capable of, the feel-good vibe of being at a show, and the psychedelic jamming that could go anywhere (but in this case it's a stand-alone).  This is a great note to end a great show on, and they pull it off without any incidents.

     So that's that.  Let me know if you want more show reviews (which ones?) or whatever.  I have a potential idea for the next post, but I can always change my mind.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Best of the Best

    So the other day I tried to organize a get-together with my Dead Head friends and like minded people to do a music swap.  The  main idea behind it was that I had way too much Dead (ha!, as if) and other people had way too little.  In my head this gathering would involve half-a-dozen people, a dozen flash drives, and other people's laptops.  In reality, one other person brought a flash drive with no computer, but some good music (Portugal, the Man) on it that I swapped for some of my music.  The only other two people who were there were people I drove, and neither had a working laptop or flash drive, two things I didn't think you could lack while simultaneously being a college student.  So mainly we just watched some Dead videos in an empty classroom, cleverly hooking my laptop up to the projector and sound system.  So all in all it was not a complete success, but in preparing for it I came up with two very useful lists that I'll share with all of you as a kind of Christmas gift.

     Both of these lists were created spur of the moment with no edits or tinkering.  Too much deliberation would have left me sitting at my desk for weeks considering the minute details of every show I had, so I had to be decisive early on.  The first is "Desert Island" collection, in other words the ten shows that I'd have if I could have no others.  The second is a lot less concise, but still only about a quarter of what I have, and it's a list of shows that I think every Dead Head should hear, if not have for themselves.  Both of these lists are mostly comprised of non-released shows, just because the released ones are easier to stumble across whereas the recordings on the archive, etc. can just look like a bunch of random dates to a newcomer to being a Dead Head.

     So here's my Desert Island list, which I wanted to contain a good amount of variety, so it has one show from every year from 1968-1977.  Two are official releases, the newly released Sunshine Daydream (the Field Trip, if you ask me) and One From the Vault.  The latter is on there because to me it's the best of the few '75 performances there are and, as with the others on the list, it's been a long-time favorite of mine.


     Some of these are pretty obvious I think: I already reviewed the '69 one, the '70 one seems pretty legendary in most circles, and the official releases are obviously good enough to be released!  Some might not be familiar to you: the '73 and '74 ones I came across while looking for the longest versions of Dark Star and Playin' in the Band, respectively.  While the longest Dark Star question is constantly debated because the song was frequently broken up by drum breaks, thematic jams, or whole other songs, I consider this one the longest one just because that's how I found it.  If you think another version is the longest, you might be right, but this one is fused with my brain, so I'll politely dismiss your assertions to the contrary.  The '74 one is definitely (to my knowledge at least, and I'll take any correction very well) the longest Playin' there is.  Besides these two monster jams, both shows are filled with excellence like you wouldn't believe, except for a rare and iffy performance of Money, Money on the '74 one.  The '76 show I'm not sure how well known it is, but I've heard some controversy around it that I believe is rooted in anti-'76 biases.  I looked it up because it's a show my dad was at, and the setlist and playing are incredible.
     The '77 and '71 shows might surprise people because they both took place around the time that more famous shows did.  There's the Hollywood Bowl show in '71 that took place just a week before this one, and obviously the Barton Hall show the day before in '77 (as well as just about any other May '77 show).  But this is my list, dammit, and I want the shows I love on there!  I've always been willing to tell anyone who will listen that the Buffalo show (05-09-77) is better than the Cornell show, partly because I've always been a huge sucker for Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, and the Other One, but also because I think the overall playing is better.  Obviously Cornell has that Dancing in the Streets(!), Scarlet Fire (!!), Not Fade Away, and Morning Dew (!!!) all going for it, but I stand by my opinion.  I'd say more for it, but I just decided that will be my next review, so I'll save it.  As far as the two '71 shows go, there's hardly any comparison in my mind; the fame of the Hollywood show doesn't compare to the shear power of the other show.  The '68 one may be surprising to some because it's from the period in time where the Jerry, Phil, and Mickey were becoming dissatisfied with Bobby's and Pig's musical development, but I think it's a solid time for the Dead in overall: it's a good mix between the primal, frenzied energy of earlier '68 and the more in control, spacier energy of '69.  Phil is pretty heavy in my mix of it, but I consider that a bonus because he is absolutely on fire for every song they do.

     I obviously can't go into much detail about my larger list of essential shows because that would take a looooong time, of which I have plenty, but it would be a lot for you guys to filter through.  Instead, why don't you put your comments, questions, concerns, or quarrels in the comments, and we can hash it out like adults!


Not sure how to end this post, really, so here's a rather abrupt ending!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Here He Goes Again

     Hey folks, sorry for the lack of updates.  I've been simultaneously lazy and busy at work, and haven't been struck by anything to write.  Today's topic goes backwards to Thanksgiving and forwards to Christmas and all other holidays where you gather with your family and find time, in the midst of being annoyed by them, to enjoy their company and remember how much you love them.  While this is something that is suffered/enjoyed by people of all musical tastes, it's a particularly interesting time to be a Dead Head.

     It all starts when your aunt asks you something about music and you casually mention something about the Dead: "Well, Phil Lesh said...," "The Dead played there once...," or the one that really gets everyone going, "Jerry Garcia..."  You see, your non-Dead Head family members already made up their minds that you're hopelessly lost in some kind of Garcia Cult, and that nothing else matters to you musically.  God help you if you mention you have a blog devoted to the Dead, because then the eye rolls become so big it could be a health threat to your family.  The eye rolling really is inevitable, but hopefully that's all you get.  You know that it will happen, so you try your very best not to mention the Dead, any of its members, or the last concert you went to, because you're trying to get your family to forget your musical biases so you can happily talk about politics, family gossip, and the wonderful meal you're about to eat.

     But it doesn't work!  And do you know why?  It's all because your family, despite their judgments, is really very curious about your obsession with this band, but they can't admit it.  So while your sitting there happily eating turkey and drinking your wine, your aunt is sitting across the table trying to probe your brain.  They keep bringing up Dead-related questions, or steering topics towards Jerry Garcia or Phil Lesh, and while you do your best to half-answer these questions and change the subject, that isn't good enough for them.  They want your full answer, but you know they aren't ready for it!  If you start describing the intricacies of the Wall of Sound and its evolution from their sound system in '72, your Grandpa's probably going to have to go to the hospital from pulling a muscle in his eye from rolling it too far back in his head.  So you give half-answers again and again until they push you too far and you vomit Dead trivia all over the table; and then suddenly you're the bad guy!  Despite their inherent curiosity about your love of the Dead, they really have no capacity to store or evaluate whatever answers you give, so they default back to eye-rolling and sideways glances to each other.

     So be careful out there, friends.  Your family will judge you based on your musical obsession with the most interesting band in the world, and no matter what you say, you'll still be the weird one.  But remember, if any of them are not put off by your answers, they might be Dead Heads ripe for the making!  You can be the one to turn your cousin into a rabid fan, and then next year at dinner everyone will point their questions at them!