A Perfect Night at the Movies!
By Blair Jackson
I have a slightly bizarre ritual when it comes to listening to shows I'm not familiar with. I make every attempt I can to not know what songs were played in what order, so when I hear them I get to experience them more-or-less fresh. I say “more-or-less” because working against this methodology is the fact that I have a pretty good memory for Dead shows, and with the post-GD groups, I make a point of going online the day after any Phil & Friends or Furthur or RatDog show to see what was played. But in the case of the first shows from the current Furthur East Coast tour, I downloaded audience recordings of the Boston and Connecticut shows to my iPod a couple of weeks ago, and then it was another week or so before I got around to listening to them. By that time I'd forgotten most of what I'd absorbed about the lists.
I go to fairly extreme lengths to not know what I'm going to hear. I will download from Archive.org without looking at the song list (not an easy task), drag the songs into iTunes “blind,” and then transfer to my iPod only looking to make sure that the entire clump of iTunes with the correct date goes into a pre-labeled playlist, sometimes even covering up the song list itself on my monitor with a 3x5 file card.
I do the same thing when I write liner notes for archival releases of Grateful Dead shows I don't know off the top of my head (which is most of them). I love to be surprised by what comes next, and it really does make the experience like being at a show, where you're listening closely and maybe thinking, “This sounds like it's headed for 'The Other One,'” and sometimes it is, but then there's a left-hand turn, Jerry slows it down and suddenly you've arrived at “Stella Blue”! Or maybe Bob starts up a “Spanish jam” before eventually hitting “The Other One.” I like that thrill of discovery.
I went through the same sort of machinations beginning the first moment I heard about The Second Annual Meet-Up at the Movies. I loved seeing The Grateful Dead Movie in a theater last year, and this one had the added allure of being a show no one has ever seen on video: July 18, 1989, at Alpine Valley (in Wisconsin), the night after the concert that makes up the bulk of Downhill From Here, one of my favorite Dead vids. Although I undoubtedly have a tape of 7/18/89 lying around somewhere, I never “upgraded” to digital, and I might not have heard the tape since I got it 22 years ago. In short, it's a show I don't “know.” When promos for the Meet-Up appeared on Dead.net or in my email, I didn't read them, didn't click on the video teases. I avoided talking about the show with friends and colleagues, lest they suddenly rhapsodize about it.
Tragedy struck three days before the April 19 screening. I was wandering around Rolling Stone's website and glanced down at an embedded video headlined “Grateful Dead 'Touch of Grey' 1989” and mentioning the movie night in the first line of the description. Aaaaugh! Oh well, one song; not much damage there.
The screening I went to, at the AMC multiplex in Emeryville (between Oakland and Berkeley), was very close to full (The Dead Movie in the same theater drew about a quarter-house) and the crowd was very enthusiastic. And why not? It was a helluva Dead show!
Nineteen eighty-nine really was a high-water year for the band. It was clear from that opening “Touch of Grey” that the band was clear-eyed and fully engaged with one another and their songs. Jerry was in a great mood the whole show, and when Jerry was happy, it was hard not be happy along with him. The band was looking really good in this era—Jerry had the longish hair and was comparatively slim; Bob was wearing his short-shorts, his perfect face still uncreased by time; everyone else seemed robust and relaxed. Smiles all around.
Seeing the band up close like this on a big screen with booming sound really was the next best thing to being there—“close enough to pretend.” And not knowing what they were going to play next really was a gas. The first set was fantastic. The “Touch” was a nice warm-up, but the show really started to take off with the “Jack Straw” that followed, when Jerry leaned into his guitar solo with an “OK, no more messin' around” determination that kicked the whole band into a higher gear. Jerry the master storyteller took over for “Jackaroe,” and then Bob totally nailed Dylan's wordy “Stuck Inside of Mobile”—there was a great moment when he was singing falsetto on one of the choruses, straining but still completely in control, that drew loud whoops from the audience in the theater. It was Bob at his best, doing that thing he does like nobody else.
I experienced many wistful feelings during the show, mostly connected to Jerry, because seeing him be so expressive and interacting with everyone onstage—especially Brent, with whom he obviously shared a special bond; what a lovefest!—reminded me more of the person we've missed these past 17 years, not just the incomparable musician. Oh, but his genius was evident at every turn, too. In “Friend of the Devil,” the little flurry of notes that rolled out of his fingers at the beginning of his solo was breathtaking—a few seconds of transcendent bliss on his way to a plateau where his lines could dance and sing with abandon, short notes and long intermingling gracefully, but with power. Similarly, the meaty jam during “Bird Song” was strong and confident as he led the band though varied realms.
It might have been fun to have a short break between sets to hang out and socialize, but I suppose having one continuous event did keep everyone in the theater locked in. “Sugar Magnolia” was a delightful surprise to start the second set, and the transition from that into “Scarlet” during the guitar break was a thing of beauty—as seamless as you could imagine. If I had been at this show in 1989, I guarantee you I would have been disappointed that “Fire on the Mountain” didn't flow out of “Scarlet,” and in the theater I was not eager to hear “Man Smart Woman Smarter” instead. (The Picky Dead Head dies hard!) But the band pulled it off effortlessly, and at the end we were rewarded with a fine “Eyes of the World,” Jerry once again in command. Lovely little jam going into “drums,” too.
It was a treat to see Mickey and Bill in close-up during their solo segment, because their world was always largely shielded from us in the venue—much of what they did was out of our view. So, to see Mickey's subtle work on the Beam, or to hone in on Bill's deft hits on his large drum arsenal that seemed to envelop him, was exciting. After a MIDI-ful “space,” there was a hint of “I Need a Miracle,” but instead Jerry went into a gripping and emotional “China Doll,” followed close behind (after an “Other One” tease) by “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” which gave Brent a chance to shine. Something the video let us see that merely listening to a recording would not, was Jerry's MIDI guitar (Wolf—what a gorgeous instrument, I was reminded) malfunctioning right as he went into his solo on that tune. You could see he was playing hard, but the sound was barely audible. Brent jumped in to fill the void and Jerry switched back to Tiger (yay!) and then uncorked a beaut of a solo.
“Throwing Stones” was another unexpected highlight, big and brash with an amazingly well-executed middle jam that built and built, everyone in sync, Bob with his slashing Rock Star rhythm work cutting through the intricate weave of instruments. We all knew there must be a “Sunshine Daydream” still lurking, but it seemed like “Throwing Stones” was surely headed to it's usual mate, “”Not Fade Away.” But no, after an awkward silence, the “SSDD” came bounding in to wrap up the set.
Cue end credits, but underneath we could hear the band had come back and was tuning up for the encore. I heard a “Black Muddy River” tease, but then, with the credits done and the band visible again, it turned out to be a solid and fun “Quinn the Eskimo”—all the more appropriate on the night that Levon Helm died, as he had played on the Dylan/Band “Basement Tapes” original 45 years ago.
What a great night at the movies! Let's do it again!
(A few notes: Kudos to Len Dell'Amico for the crisp video direction—though something seemed to go awry during “space”—and to John Cutler for the superb sound mix which, true to a real Dead show, seemed to get better and clearer and louder as the show went on… In answer to a question several people have asked me, at the moment there is no plan to release this show on DVD… A cool touch was showing three of the top videos from the Dead.net “Dead Covers Project” before the show—they looked good on the big screen… Also entertaining was the “U.S. Blues” from the forthcoming Dave's Picks Vol. 2 (7/31/74), accompanied by photos from that gig at Dillon Stadium in Hartford.)
But last night sitting and watching the Dead, on that big screen (and thanks for a friend who persuaded the theater to adjust the volume jacked upward) along with sitting with brothers/tapers and road tripping partners/wife was a real delight. Screams, clapping, and whistling by the crowd after each song. Can that get any better?
Yes it can, watching Jerry playing wonderfullly and then grinning while he shot those knowing glances over to Brent, then peering through the forest of cymbals to make eye contact with Billy (who returned with a surpressed grin) and raising his eyebrows at Phil, made my month (or more). And the reactions from each of those guys, (including Bobby and Mickey) really charged my batteries big time. "Sometimes we live no particular way but our own..."
My God, those were the times of our lives. What a treat. I fuckin' loved it!