A Summer of Dead guest post! Matt Weston grapples with post-1972 Dead …
Until five years ago all I knew about the Grateful Dead was the radio hits and Dave Marsh’s evisceration of them in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983). On the rare occasions where a stray live Dead recording would waft into my peripheral hearing, it only served to confirm Marsh’s eviscerocity.
Then in 2011 I heard “Feedback” off Live/Dead and instantly became one of Those People who, no, dude, have you heard that one show, the show where Jer’s like, “deedle-dee deet-dee-dee” in minute 342 of “Dark Star”? The truly tragic part is that I can, off the top of my head and utterly unironically, sing/point out this one vaguely Richard Thompson-esque thing Jerry does in “I Know You Rider” from their 4/24/72 Dusseldorf show.
My Dead listening started with the fresh surprise of Live/Dead, moved into the distinctly Velvet Undergroundish early 1968 shows (there are moments on Dick’s Picks 22 that are nearly indistinguishable from the Velvets’ 1969 live record), and almost hit a wall with Europe ‘72. The clean sprightliness of their approach, all feedback now banished, was initially dispiriting; the fuck am I listening to, Poco? But I recognized “Jack Straw” as a song I’d heard for over 30 years – WXRT in Chicago played it often – and “Morning Dew”’s new slower tempo allowed for the kind of exploitation of dynamics few bands can effectively pull off with any regularity. And pianist Keith Godchaux was a revelation. If there’s a missing link between Nicky Hopkins and Andrew Hill, it’s Godchaux.
I soon learned, however, that 1972 was the end of the road in terms of my Dead tolerability.
My dad saw the Grateful Dead once, on November 1, 1973, at Northwestern University’s McGaw Hall in Evanston, IL. He wasn’t there voluntarily, but as part of the NU administration – he and his friend and colleague Jim were charged with watching out for anything that might result in legal trouble for the university.
McGaw Hall was NU’s basketball arena. It had a dusty dirt floor and bleachers, and was used for indoor rainy-day activities at the summer day camp I attended there when I was five and six years old. It was barely hospitable for the sedate basketball crowds, and exponentially less so for Deadheads. My dad’s recollection is that he and Jim were likely assumed by the concertgoers to be cops, dressed as they were in trenchcoats and ties. At 35, my dad was undoubtedly one of the oldest people at the show. A 35-year-old at any “Dead” shows in 2016 would likely be the youngest person in the audience by at least four decades.
My dad remembers little, if anything, of the music itself. He mostly remembers a first aid tent overwhelmed with vomiting teenagers, and an opaque cloud of dust and pot smoke that nearly obscured the proto-Wall-of-Sound speakers. While this and other Dead shows were a self-indulgently long distance from the Happenings at Black Mountain College, co-founded by my dad’s parents, the lineage, tenuous as it was in 1973 (and would only grow more tenuous in succeeding years) was still present. The moochiest of deadheads, as characterized in “Jack Straw” (“we can share what we got of yours, 'cause we done shared all of mine”) couldn’t completely crack what was still a participatory give-and-take relationship with the audience, one arguably as strong as any artist’s at that time.
Aldous Huxley visited Black Mountain in its early years with his son, who was considering attending, so my grandparents took Huxley on a picnic. Decades later, Huxley encountered a high school drummer named Bill Kreutzmann; impressed with what he heard, he encouraged Kreutzmann to stay the course.
It’s too simplistic to say Dead shows rise and fall on the drumming, but if there’s a single element that nudged the Dead from sprightly danger-seekers into contented quicksand-sitters, it’s the drumming. The eagerly ramshackle collisions of Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart in the late '60s gave way to Kreutzmann’s crisp focus and prodding dynamics. 1972 was the apex of Kreutzmann’s playing, and the last year in which the Dead seemed to revel in taking risks.
By 1973, everyone sat back and relaxed and grooved. Tempos lagged, and Kreutzmann stopped prodding. That said, there are moments on this set (half of the show; recordings of the first set have yet to surface) that threaten to catch fire. A surprising phrase or two in an otherwise by-the-numbers solo in “Truckin’” will jolt you awake, and Godchaux (though sadly buried in the mix) is reliably inventive throughout. “Morning Dew” is hard to fuck up, and I have yet to hear a sub-par version (even from the late '80s). It starts doomy and focused, Jerry’s climactic solo determinedly digs deep into any number of dark avenues and, perhaps most shockingly, when the band gets out of sync with one another they completely recover. The segueway into “Playing in the Band” is accidentally graceful, but after that, the band approaches the remainder of their set with roughly the same level of enthusiasm Olive Garden patrons desultorily gnaw on a few more breadsticks because welp, those breadsticks aren’t gonna eat themselves.
“Wharf Rat” is almost as unfuckupable as “Morning Dew,” and manages to retain the spookiness of earlier, stronger performances. And “Sugar Magnolia” shows a little life, with Kreutzmann briefly injecting faint echoes of Clyde Stubblefield after the break. Bob’s and Donna’s screaming is welcome but does not square with the rest of the band never getting to the fireworks factory.
McGaw only hosted a couple of shows after this (Genesis in 1974, Jethro Tull in 1975) before residents in the surrounding neighborhoods put their golf-shod feet down against the scourge of wasted concertgoers peeing and vomiting on well-manicured lawns. In 1984, McGaw was renovated and renamed Welsh-Ryan Arena. Santana was NU’s first cautious step back into rock concert programming, soon followed by R.E.M., Simple Minds, and General Public. The arena was free of dust and pot smoke, and area lawns thrived.
Choice Cut: “Morning Dew”