For the past week-plus, I spent my brisk, daily, hour-long walks around Lake Merritt here in Oakland digging the three mid-February Phil & Friends concerts from the unfortunately named 1st Bank Center in Denver. The shows were fantastic! I had worried that having three lead guitarists—Warren Haynes, John Scofield and Jackie Greene—might make for too thick a stew. And yes, there’s a lot going on pretty much all the time. But somehow it works. Even when it is a cacophonous roar of wailing guitars, it’s a fine mess (as Oliver Hardy used to say).
Warren and Jackie are two of my favorite singers of Garcia’s songs, and they did not disappoint, as they tackled everything from “The Golden Road,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “He’s Gone” (all by Jackie) to “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” “Althea” and “Candyman” (Warren). And what a selection of cover songs—“I Am the Walrus” and “She Said, She Said” by The Beatles, The Who’s “Magic Bus,” the old blues "Rollin' and Tumblin'," Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-heeled Boys,” even Clapton’s “Layla”—the last a perfect showcase for all that guitar firepower and Warren’s passionate vocals. Man, I would love to see that band!
After I had finished listening to that truly wondrous 2/18/12 Phil & Friends show, which opens with “The Golden Road” into a magnificently gnarly “Viola Lee Blues,” I put on the Grateful Dead’s 3/18/67 Winterland show. I’ve been on a ’60s jag of late, listening compulsively to ’66-’68 Dead in preparation for a book I’m writing (it’s a long way off, but thanks for asking). That Winterland concert is probably the best we have from the first half of ’67. It’s the day after their first album was released, and just the third time they’d played that 5,000-capacity venue, which must have seemed so cavernous to a band accustomed to the much smaller Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom. There’s raw excitement in all the songs they play, which are all cover tunes except for “The Golden Road” and “Cream Puff War” (neither of which would make it to the summer of ’67). There’s a long, spellbinding “Viola Lee Blues” and a harrowing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” which unfortunately cuts on the tape before its conclusion. Damn!
I love all those tunes, but never got to hear any of them played by the Grateful Dead, except for one version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” when it came back in 1989. Even though I first saw the Dead in the spring of ’70, I never saw “The Eleven,” “Cosmic Charlie,” “New Potato Caboose,” “Caution,” “Born Cross-Eyed,” “Alligator,” “Mountains of the Moon” or “Doin’ That Rag.” After catching a few versions of “St. Stephen” at my first shows, I heard only one less-than-great one (10/31/83) for the rest of my Dead days.
I was always disappointed by Garcia’s aversion to playing most songs from the Dead’s early days. Certainly I understand why he found tunes such as “Cosmic Charlie” and “Doin’ That Rag” a bit forbidding—the first because it’s difficult to sing (as he said in interviews), the second because it is so lyrically opaque. In the ’80s he said he thought “Cream Puff War” was embarrassing, and flatly stated he would never play “Golden Road” again because “it belonged too much to that moment.” But, “Mountains of the Moon”? Why ignore “Attics of My Life” for 17 years? As for “Dark Star,” Jerry’s classic cop-out during the fallow years when that song was being ignored—explained to Dead.net’s own Mary Eisenhart in her superb 1987 BAM magazine interview— was: “Really, ‘Dark Star’ is a little of everything we do, all the time. So what happened to ‘Dark Star’ was, it went into everything. Everything's got a little ‘Dark Star’ in it.” With all due respect, Jer, no it doesn’t.
It’s sad that it took Garcia’s death for us to finally get to hear some of these great songs live. I’m convinced the latter-day Dead could have killed on “Viola Lee Blues,” but for whatever reasons they wouldn’t play it. Too redolent of the still-formative ’67 GD? It’s just a blues tune; a jumping off point for adventurous extrapolations. But thanks to Phil & Friends and Furthur, thousands of people who never got to hear it from ’66-’70 are privileged to experience it now, and it is almost always interesting, exciting and experimental in ways that are completely different than it was during its first era. “Mountains of the Moon” has become a launchpad for some of the most inspired improvisations Phil’s bands have come up with. You see, Jerry was actually quite conservative—rigid even— when it came to his song arrangements, and it is practically unimaginable he would have taken that song in the fascinating directions Phil has.
“The Golden Road” may be lyrically and spiritually rooted in 1967, but the way it’s been played the last few years—as a joyous anthem that celebrates that time and this time—makes it relevant and a gas to hear and dance to. The Dead never jammed it out the way Furthur and Phil & Friends do; it’s like a new song. “Dark Star” may, as Jerry told Mary, be “a minimal tune,” but it is also a portal to unlimited possibilities and it has flourished in recent years in the hands of many a band that recognizes its value as both a way station and a stepping stone. “St. Stephen” remains one of the truly glorious touchstones of the entire Dead canon—not dated at all; just classic—and “The Eleven” is always a dynamite groove that elevates everyone. How marvelous that we get to enjoy that practically orgasmic moment when the pre-“Eleven” jam finally kicks into 11/4 and hits that next level!
I love that Phil and Bob have embraced the murky deep end and forgotten spaces of the Dead’s incredibly rich repertoire. “What’s Become of the Baby?” Still not very good, but I appreciate the effort. “Blues for Allah”? Nailed it that first time in Calaveras. “King Solomon's Marbles”? Yeah, baby! A winner everytime. The list goes on, and the plethora of brilliant and creative and cool versions of Dead tunes that have come into the Dead Covers Project reaffirms my belief that these songs will grow with all of us forever.
Untold thousands of players who aren’t weighed down by ’60s baggage are finding exhilarating new avenues to explore and investing the songs with the distinctive radiance and energy of this time. Right about now, this world could use a little dose of 1967.Above: Kelley and Mouse’s poster advertising the Dead’s original fan club, 1967.