Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Down in Monterey
By Blair Jackson
The people came and listened/ Some of them came and played/ Others gave flowers away, yes they did/ Down in Monterey
—Eric Burdon & The Animals, 1967
Road trip! Could it really have been 17 years since Regan and I hit the highway for a weekend of concerts somewhere? It was such a part of our lives for so many years—Eugene, Santa Fe, Reno, Vegas, L.A., Irvine, Red Rocks, Telluride, Ventura, Sacramento. Yep, Sacramento ’94 was our last hurrah, and that year we brought our babysitter on the road with us to stay at the El Rancho motel (we called it the “El Rauncho” because the ol’ place had fallen into disrepair) to take care of our kids, then just seven months and 3, during the shows.
After Jerry died, we still hit nearly all the Bay Area shows by the various post-GD bands, but we never felt compelled to travel to go see RatDog or Phil & Friends and deal with sitters and hotels and all that. But the kids are older now—17 and 21—and Regan and I have been digging Furthur so much we thought it would be a gas to catch their two shows down at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, stay in a nice motel, get into that touring head space for a few days.
I vividly remember going to see the film Monterey Pop in New York City with my older brother and a friend right after it opened in January 1969. Living in the suburbs, there was no guarantee this “art film” was going to make it to our neck of the woods, and there was no way I was going to miss it. I was already a huge fan of the San Francisco bands that appeared in the film—the Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish and Big Brother with Janis—and the whole San Francisco/Summer of Love mythology still loomed large in my imagination, even though I had read that things had changed since that film had been shot. But seeing all those great bands (plus Jimi and Otis, etc.) and the beautiful hippie girls and the overall groovy vibe of the event as portrayed (and romanticized) in the film, had a powerful effect on me. And when I visited San Francisco with my family that summer of ’69, it was all over—I knew where my destiny lay.
poster for the fall tour.
So I was both thrilled and intrigued to finally make it to the Monterey Fairgrounds to see Phil and Bob’s first appearance there since June 18, 1967. Once the gates opened on Friday afternoon, we excitedly raced down a long walkway lined with dozens of craft booths and food concessions—a nice touch that added to the pleasing retro aspect of the weekend. However, as I turned a corner to enter the back of the cozy oval amphitheater, I was immediately struck by how shabby the place was. It looked as if it hadn’t seen a new coat of paint since 1967, and the entire floor of the arena was soft dirt/mud (it had rained midweek) covered with tons of wood shavings and sawdust—it was sort of like being in a giant hamster cage! Good for equestrian events, I guess. Disappointing aesthetics aside, the place did have an intimate feel, with its narrow covered grandstands and the high stage clearly visible from most spots in the venue (except behind the large sound booth about a third of the way back on the floor). We put our blanket down about 10 or 12 feet in front of the soundboard, dead center. The place filled slowly (a lot of folks came late from work or got stuck in traffic), and the pre-show mood was very upbeat.
I wish I could report that the Friday Furthur concert was the killer show of the year, but it was actually the weakest concert I’ve seen by this band. The first set was a motley affair. From the outset, it appeared that Bob was off his game. He was unsure of himself lyrically and both his pitch and timing were unsteady. “Two Djinn” was mostly a tuneless mess in the verses and “Mission in the Rain” not much better. The sound where we were should have been perfect, but it wasn’t—we could hear John K. cutting through only intermittently, and the overall balance seemed poor. Even so, “Pride of Cucamonga” and “Candyman” were both fairly well done, and I dug the set-ending “Quinn,” mostly for novelty’s sake. Considering the amazing song list folks at the Greek Theatre in L.A. had been treated to the previous night (for what turned out to be the Steve Jobs Memorial Show), it was a pretty disappointing set.
Unfortunately, Set Two had many of the same problems. It started out promisingly with a spry JK version of “Any Road” (a nice choice to end the week when HBO premiered its two-part Martin Scorsese documentary about the song’s author, George Harrison). But “Estimated” was a tad sluggish and the jam afterward positively leaden before it lurched clumsily into “Deal.” “Playing in the Band” was a vocal disaster and played at a glacial, uninspired pace. The “Dark Star” that followed was an improvement, but felt misplaced and somewhat forced.
Which brings up the Tyranny of the Set List. Now, I give major props to Furthur for continually coming up with imaginative and varied set lists. They’re supremely conscious about doling out big tunes and “special” songs at every stop, and most nights they deliver on the promising set list. But on a night like this one, when the band was struggling and the transitions mostly clumsy or nonexistent, going through the prescribed set list seemed like a chore. Can you imagine Garcia, on a night when things were not going very well, suddenly launching into “Dark Star” because it’s the next tune on the list? No, and that was part of the beauty of no list — whim and vibe and a sensitivity to the moment played a large role in dictating the course of the set, as did their attempts to create graceful passages from one key to the next as another determining factor in song choices.
The hodgepodge of songs that followed “Dark Star” was uneven, as well, with a few strong numbers—particularly “King Solomon’s Marbles” and “Dear Prudence” (Weir’s best song of the evening)—but also more turgid jamming that went nowhere. Our little group walked back to the motel after the show wondering what the hell we’d just witnessed—could it really have been that bad?—but hopeful that Saturday night would bring a stronger show.
(I should note that I listened to a recording of the show on archive.org a couple of days later and it did sound considerably better to me. The guitar was loud enough and the mix in general more normal. But Weir was still “off,” there was little continuity between songs and the jamming was often aimless.)
We spent a glorious sunny Saturday morning and early afternoon eating like kings and soaking in golden rays of California sunshine on a beach in nearby Carmel. Now, that’s livin’! Because of the sound issues we had at the Friday show (not to mention the distracting hordes of beer-swilling folks constantly passing through our area), we decided to dance in the side grandstand for Night Two. We snagged seats in the front row, pretty close to the stage on the JK side, and prayed that the sound would be good there.
about an hour before show time. If you look closely,
you can see the wood shavings covering the dirt floor.
Photo: Regan McMahon.
And it was! From the first moments of the opening “Feel Like a Stranger,” it was like seeing a different band. The sound was just about perfect where we were, JK was assertive from the get-go and Bob was confident and in control. I have seen many a Dead show marred by the crazy energy of distracted Saturday night crowds, but when JK went into a loping “Althea” second song of the first set, everyone was right there with him, hanging on every word. John has developed a special vocal rapport with Sunshine Becker that really elevated “No More Do I” (one of my favorite post-Dead originals) and, especially, the rare first-set “Comes a Time,” which was filled with passion and soared in a way that no song had the previous night. “Viola Lee Blues” felt like a fond nod to the Dead’s appearance in Monterey 44 years earlier, and the potent set-ending “Throwing Stones” seemed as pointedly topical in today’s political climate as it did when it was introduced nearly two decades ago.
The second set was filled with one highlight after another. I know there are those who think “The Golden Road” is lightweight fluff, but I’ve loved every version I’ve seen, and it always gets the crowd movin’. “Shakedown Street” kept the party going with its big, funktacular groove, and then it was on to a solid “Truckin’” (with nary a lyric flub!) and a healthy closing jam that eventually ended up (though not very smoothly) at “Let It Grow.” “Watchtower” was another nice surprise (to me, anyway), and that led to what I felt was the strongest song of the two nights—a spectacular “Morning Dew” that John sang with tremendous power and absolute commitment. His playing on the song was spot-on, too, and his high-speed “fanning” at the end of the final buildup was so stirring, it filled my heart with joy. The crowd was as quiet and respectful as can be, its connection to the music palpable.
Everything after that was gravy. The thundering ovation for the magnificent “Dew” was still swelling when the band leaped right into “Help on the Way”—also solid and sure-footed. But instead of the expected segue into “Franklin’s,” “Slipknot!” instead veered into a great version of “The Eleven” before finding its way back to a joyful “Franklin’s.” Everyone may have expected the “Saturday Night” encore, but looking around the old arena, all I saw was smiling faces and flailing bodies, dancing like there was no tomorrow. What a night!
Fun road trip. It will be interesting to see if the scattered reports of gate-crashing and unruly behavior by ticketless fans outside the arena and in the surrounding neighborhood before, during and after the concerts affect the band’s ability to return to Monterey. Why, it’s just like the bad old days of the late ’80s and early ’90s Dead scene all over again: “Wherever we go, the people all complain.”
I took my boy to his first shows when he was four years old in 1995 (Deer Creek, St. Louis, Soldier Field to end the Tour From Hell) when we rented a big ol' 37-foot RV and hit the road. The fan clutch went out in Wisconsin and we had to talk our way to the front of the parking lot line in each city, lest the RV's engine explode. The boy and I have seen every post-Jerry iteration since--Alpine Valley, The Dead at Red Rocks in '03 and Chicago in '09, Furthur at the tour opener in Minneapolis. He's 20 now, and we're looking forward to Chicago and Madison-- rare late-tour, weekend shows for us in the midwest. Don't care about the set list, so long as the boys bring it. Especially if they bring a Lost Sailor/St.of Circumstance, which it is my dream to see (hint, hint).
I was IN those squads. Alas, they failed to save the Henry J as a venue back in the day, they failed to save the Greek back in the day... This was of course arguably an unrealistic goal but hey, we were naive and stupid...
What wound up happening back in the day was that when various people's personal version of leading by example got old in the face of bad actors engulfing the scene they just got tired and walked away. Now whereas mileage varies as to who's leading by example and who's a bad actor, I am really sorry to hear the scene being described above happening because I can't see any good coming out of it for much of anybody.
...but I'm having another flashback to the '80s, when we all earnestly discussed this stuff and tried to come up with solutions... There were organized efforts to talk to people before shows and out in the lots, and then trash pick-up squads after...
> we're so famous for being such a self-policing scene and all, but what are we supposed to do about stuff like this?
The answer is in the question marye; we're supposed to police ourselves, not others. Lead by example. Don't show up without tickets. Don't litter. Don't buy dope or alcohol from parking lot vendors. Keep your head. Pick up someone else's trash. Etcetera.
...but also cool in its own way. I mean, the Dead played the rodeo stadium in Ventura six years in row and it was always a blast.
Not in the same league with Red Rocks, to say the least, but a really good show can make any place seem like the Best Place On Earth while it's going on...
I wasn't there, but I like that Friday Red Rocks show a lot! The stuff with Chris Robinson was great and the playing throughout is really solid!
What a difference between the magnificent natural splendor of Red Rocks and the description here of Monterey. Why play a venue like this rodeo arena?
I've turned over the setlist issue in my mind and come to the conclusion that this is not GD circa 1973-74, nor should it be.
"Death Don't" on Friday at Red Rocks was a perfect choice for the day and setting, referencing the first set's "Me and My Uncle" and resonating in many people's minds after the drone attack that day in Yemen.
Saturday night, we all thought the short first set was great, but subdued. Turned out it was the perfect foil to an epic second set.
Serendipity could have produced the same result, but I don't dismiss planning ahead any more. I saw the tour opener a year ago in Minneapolis and came away less than impressed. Red Rocks told the story, though, for me -- this is a great band.
Reminds of the line from Jelly's Last Jam when Buddy Bolden says to a young Jelly Roll Morton about playing music written down: "that's like waking up in the morning, and knowing you'll be alive at the end of the day."
From Phil, who once quoted Karl Wallenda, "the wire is life," it's a bit of a disappointment, but it is certainly better than not playing at all. It's bit like seeing a experienced magician: the trick still produces a wow, but there's not much actual magic in it.
because we're so famous for being such a self-policing scene and all, but what are we supposed to do about stuff like this?
...was the sight of so many really young children with their fingers in the air looking for extras for their parents. Barefoot and dirty... I worry about the life these kids are leading...
We also noticed Weir was almost broken in Monterey. After a barn burner in Vegas and two solid shows at the Greek it did make up for it. Definitely some high points as Blair pointed out. What we noticed mostly between the nights were the scene after the shows. Friday they had a nice place for vendors to hawk there goods and place for heads to chill after the show. It seemed to work perfectly. On Saturday they decided not to let happened. Making for quite a scene in the streets. There were plenty of unroolley characters causing one bad seen after the next. (Fucking Wookies) k I said it! It's so sad to see these people coming in to Monterey not to see the music and to bring the scene down. It was not controlled chaos it was chaos chaos. It would be hard to imagine that Monterey would extend an invite to Furthur again... so sad. I believe Monterey needs to shoulder some of the blame. I don't think they had any idea what they were in for. Some dumpsters (garbage control) would have been smart. After the event the sidewalks had 2 feet of garbage. Some of the worst I have seen in over 20 furthur shows I have seen in the past 2 years. I think if they would have opened up the lot for vending again and kept everyone contained like friday night they would have saved many headaches. I don't want to sound like a negative nelly but it was really disappointing to see Monterey get trashed by a few bad decision from the town and the wookies that fight amongst each other. And really, what the f is up with all the pit bulls. Bringing your pit-bull two shows sounds like a drag.