Music in the Dead zone
November 1, 2013
Josh Behrman began seeing Grateful Dead concerts nearly 40 years ago and eventually attended about 200 shows, mostly in his native Northeast. Now, as executive director of the PAC3 Behrman has been bringing the echo of that music to Carbondale, booking multiple shows by the Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue, a Colorado ensemble that resurrects the Dead's songs. Behrman isn't surprised that, even 18 years after the death of Jerry Garcia and the disbanding of the Grateful Dead, fans still faithfully congregate around music that has its roots in the 1960s. The Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue has made four appearances over the past 14 months at PAC3, and drawn a solid crowd of a few hundreds each time.
"The Grateful Dead wasn't just a music movement. It was a generational movement," Behrman said. "It had to do with a whole community evolving out of the beatnik cafes in San Francisco. It was a revolution in a way — an experiment in life, in freedom of expression."
The popularity in Carbondale of the Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue has a hint of nostalgia.
"It brings back memories of people's past shows, and a sense of family," Behrman said. "If you were on the East Coast, you pretty much knew all the East Coast tour people. And that's what happens here — people reunite. Everyone has a Dead story, and they reminisce about their 1990 Dead show."
The Revue returns to Carbondale on Saturday for another backward trip, this time into the deep past. The band will perform the Grateful Dead's entire show from Halloween 1971, a well-liked show from Columbus, Ohio, a portion of which got an official CD release as the second volume of the Dick's Picks series of archival recordings.
But Behrman notes that the popularity of the Revue reflects more than a desire to travel back in time. The music, he says, is top-notch. The band features two members, singer-guitarist Rob Eaton and bassist Jim Allard, who play in Dark Star Orchestra, the group renowned for its meticulous recreation of Grateful Dead concerts past.
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"They're not just another Grateful Dead bar band. These guys are fantastic," Behrman said.
Though one of the attractions of the Dead was their ever-shifting setlists and the certainty that a show would not be a repeat of the previous night's concert, Saturday night's gig might benefit from fans having knowledge of what will be performed.
"The Halloween shows were always epic. We're looking to tap into that tradition," Behrman said. "And when do you ever get to see a 'Dark Star' and 'St. Stephen'?" he concluded, referencing two landmark Dead songs from the 1971 setlist that became rarities over time.
It isn't only in Carbondale where the Dead are having continued life. It might be against the odds — the band's greatest appeals were its live shows and the musicianship and charisma of Jerry Garcia, all of which are dead and gone — but tribute bands and side projects by individual members carry on, and the music and merchandise keep coming. Here are the freshest goods.
In his essay "Philosophers, Stoned" in the booklet accompanying "Sunshine Daydream," Johnny Dwork suggests listening to the music, from a concert near Veneta, Ore., in August 1972, with your eyes closed.
Terrible advice. If ever there was a Grateful Dead experience that demanded open eyes, "Sunshine Daydream" is it. The package includes not only music but a film that just might capture the band in its purest essence — sound and sights, spirit and social context. The setting is a benefit concert for the Springfield Creamery, owned by the brother of author Ken Kesey, a member of the extended Dead family. The venue is a rural field, ringed by woods and filled with hippies. Half the crowd is half-naked, the other half fully so. If you want to distill the '60s into a 90-minute clip, this technically proficient, thoughtfully made document from a couple of years after the '60s ended might do it.
And if you want to distill the Dead's long strange trip into one moment, I suggest "Dark Star," the band's ultimate vehicle for sonic exploration. About two-thirds through they enter into the deepest channel of the Dead, and while the music alone is magnificent and otherworldly, you really need to see Garcia — the fluidity of his hands in a riveting close-up, the zone he enters, reflected in his far-off eyes.
Though I attended some 90 shows, read all the books and listened religiously to concert recordings, I was sure there was information — a fact, an anecdote, a YouTube video — I might have missed. But I didn't think there was some new dimension to be discovered. Having been wowed by the Dead numerous times in my 30 years of Deadheadism, I didn't think there were any wows left.
"Sunshine Daydream" is a major eye-opener. Do keep your eyes open for it. Then, after watching the film a few dozen times, yes, feel free to close your eyes and listen to the sound alone.
'Dave's Picks Vol. 8, Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Ga., 11/30/80'
Since late 1993, more than 100 packages of music, ranging from the 73-disc box set of the entire Europe 1972 tour to 36 volumes of the Dick's Picks series to expanded reissues of all the studio albums, have been officially released. You'd think the good stuff would have been picked over by now, and there has been the occasional marginal release.
And then comes something like "Dave's Picks Vol. 8," which makes one wonder what else might be lurking in the corners of the vault. This late-1980 show can hardly be called overlooked; an accompanying essay notes that a group of students at a New Hampshire boarding school developed intricate rituals based around listening to this blistering show. But how it could have been kept under wraps, at least officially, is hard to figure.
The band begins flexing its muscle toward the middle of the first set with a powerhouse version of the shuffling "Ramble on Rose." From there, they hit accelerate and never quit. Highlights abound — inventive jamming on "Playing In the Band," a mighty cover of Johnny Cash's "Big River," Garcia's nimble solo on "Cassidy" — but the jaw-dropper is the segue between "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain," a complex and gorgeous passage that a friend of mine calls "the 'Mona Lisa' of Jerry's work."
For various reasons — drug use, faltering internal band dynamics, Garcia's health, the expanding popularity of the concerts — the '80s didn't quite become what the '70s had been for the Dead, a time of generally fantastic concerts. But the decade sure started out on some high notes, and this might have been the peak.
Other recent releases in the Dave's Picks series: "Vol. 7," a fine show from Normal, Ill., in April 1978, notable for a tease of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" and an encore of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"; "Vol. 6," spotlighting two hard-rocking shows, from late 1969 and early 1970 and with a total of 42 minutes of "Dark Star"; and "Vol. 5," from UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in November 1973, and with a segment of "Playing in the Band," "Uncle John's Band" and "Morning Dew" sandwiched together, plus an essay by Bill Walton, a basketball star at UCLA at the time who was in attendance for the show.
Tony Sclafani, 'The Grateful Dead FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Greatest Jam Band in History' (Backbeat Books)
The subtitle here could be enough to scare you away, and maybe it should. Veteran rock journalist Sclafani digs to the bottom to come up with topics, like what role Tom Constanten, a Dead keyboardist from late 1968 to early 1970, played, and a fairly exhaustive roundup of unreleased video footage available on the Internet. And is "The Significance of Donna Jean Godchaux McKay" really an FAQ? Sclafani's conclusion — that the singer who was a band member through much of the '70s had a major positive impact, especially in bringing women into the Deadhead scene — is bound to stir up the pot.
The book is occasionally repetitious (the point that the Dead's early-'70s turn toward folk traditions was inspired by The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival is made at least three times) and amateurish (handing over a chapter on bootleg taping to a taper who is clearly not a writer). Probably the best part of the book is the thorough examination of the Dead's work in the studio.
For all you really would want to know about the greatest jam band in history, the reigning title is "A Long Strange Trip," by former Dead publicist Dennis McNally.
Mickey Hart Band, 'Superorganism,' produced by Mickey Hart and Ben Yonas (360° Productions)
In his post-Grateful Dead career, drummer Mickey Hart has carved out an interesting musical aesthetic. It has little to do with the Dead's style but has been consistent dating back to "Mickey Hart's Mystery Box," an album from 1996. Hart's music has emphasized female vocals, funk beats and touches of fusion, pop, gospel and African. You might well guess that Hart's previous band was Talking Heads, not Grateful Dead.
"Superorganism," the second album credited to the Mickey Hart Band, is deep and grooving. You don't need to know — in fact, it's probably better not to know — that the album was inspired by ideas of brain waves. Instead, focus on the thick beats, the sharp production, the words by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (on four songs) and the resonant vocals of Crystal Monee Hall. Also notable is the bass playing — not just that it's played by Dave Schools, of Widespread Panic, but how strong it is.
Jerry Garcia Band, 'Garcialive, Volume Two, Aug. 5, 1990, Greek Theatre' (ATO Records)
For the bluegrass fans and the simply curious, this two-disc set is marked by the appearance of Béla Fleck, who adds banjo to two tunes. Counterintuitively, his contribution to the bluegrassy "Midnight Moonlight," written by Peter Rowan, is muted, while he truly shines on the Jimmy Cliff reggae number "The Harder They Come." Garcia Band fans won't need the Fleck hook to be reeled in. The set list is appealing (the Band's "Tears of Rage," Bruce Cockburn's "Waiting for a Miracle," the 1940s ballad "That Lucky Old Sun"), the sound is A-quality, and the playing is top-notch.
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