Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Finding the Spirit of ’67
By Blair Jackson
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.
If they filmed "The Matrix" at the Orpheum, there would be Morpheus at the Orpheus. Um, yeah
... not all the Orpheum shows are in the vault.
6/14/76 and 10/3/76 are both dates that appeared before the Dave's Picks logo. More 76 will eventually become a reality. Dick's Picks 33 is one of my favorites. An Orpheum Box would be sweet also...
Is an example of a song, due to its intrinsic difficulty, that declined rather quickly, we are not talking about a 10 year gradual metamorphosis. Slipknot did loosen up, sometimes yielding a very interesting sonic experience. that "dead shuffle" sound is a good description of the band on off nights. Hey I had a great time at Cape Cod, and enjoyed all the Red Rocks shows (but do recall some really lame Help on the ways.....) That reminds me, time to go listen to Rochester fall of '76, I LOVED that show, had a blast, and I do recall a good Help, and two slipknots! Gotta go, time to listen!
I played that Help>Slip from 2nd Road Trips this eve, and I cringed a few times, again. It's not sharp, that is the best I can say about it. Great Franklin's Tower, then check that Slipknot outro. Ouch, again. While not a throwaway performance, it wasn't played again for awhile, and I am just really struck at how great and extended the signature Blues for Allah music was in the Fall of '76, occasionally in Spring '77, and then not so much and then kaput. I think the style got too muscular at times, but yes I/we loved it and I still do. Dick's Picks 15, 33, and 25, and are touchstone documentary evidence of my life in the late 70s and 80s. In my mind anyway. I want more '76 releases with the BFA suite. We gotta have it.
zuck - get the quote right, I didn't say that. Proofread your shit. Help is not Slip. What does a 30 minute jam have to do with rehearsing? 2/5/78 Scarlet = nothing special, it's rushed if not just badly played, go with 5/11/78 or 9/2/78, much better Scarlet Begonias I think. But the Fire may be the reference version, agreed. Be careful, the '78 coked-up at-times-trainwreck Dead is not the place to make a stand on tightness, I don't think so. 7/8/78 is fantastic, no question, it blows me away and I love it. But the plodding Dead shuffle sound, either resulting from Mickey's return, from the coke, or from infrequent rehearsal and bad habits -- it's there on the tapes. Go ahead and listen to all the versions of Help On The Way > Slipknot you can get your ears on. I don't think they could not play THAT music competently by the Fall of '77. Doesn't mean they weren't killing it with all their other magic, rehearsed or not. I loved the Cape shows too (and the 26 hours up and back from D.C.)
"By the Fall of 77, they could barely get through Help On The Way"- This helps explain the 30 minute Scarlet-Fire from 2/5/78- featured on Dick's Picks 18 and among the finest combinations of this medley ever performed. I guess they just got lucky, as bands without discipline often do. Red Rocks 78 is probably another fluke of this unrehearsed lack of discipline. Cape Cod 79- well, you get the point.
As is often the case, I find myself disagreeing with Dan C. I think there were some outstanding versions of "Slipknot!" in the '80s and into '91. Yes they had a different character than the '76-'77 ones (so did everything else!). But in some ways they were more interesting and intense to me than the '70s versions, and, I might add, perfectly in keeping with the sound of the band at that time. I also disagree with the characterization of that Oct. 77 version as "cringe-worthy." Obviously we're looking for different things in our music.
My understanding is that other than new material for their LPs, and for the Dylan tour, the Dead did not rehearse much or intensively after their time with Keith Olsen making Terrapin. By the Fall of 1977, they could barely get through Help On The Way (see cringe-worthy version, throwaway Slipknot on Oct-77 Road Trips). When they brought it back in '83, it was mostly novelty value, a few of the Slipknots were good, but nothing like the really deep 76/77 versions. Less detail, less crisp on the changes. Is it safe to say that a rock band that doesn't rehearse much or with discipline can't play challenging composition? When I attended shows with very dedicated musicians in the late 70s and early 80s, they were appalled at the Dead's sloppiness. I didn't care, but now it does seem to drive me back to 68-76 for my own archival pleasures. '77? It's great, but at times it is like an overhopped beer.
I've commented here several times - will someone please release a Best of GD '67 Live disc?
The earliest Dick's Picks/From the Vault are `68, though the Phil Zone double CD has - I believe - at least one '67 track, as does So Many Roads. Maybe Birth of the Dead, which I don't have, has some `67 live tracks too, I dunno.
I realize there is likely not too many masters from that era, but surely enough for a Best Of.
Blair - please use your influence to try to make this happen.