Blair’s Golden Road Blog—Celebrating Hunter’s Post-Garcia Writing
Continuing on with last week’s theme—Robert Hunter—I want to turn the spotlight to his post-Garcia songwriting collaborations, many of which are excellent.
I don’t think any of us expected Hunter to crawl into a cave and disappear after Jerry died. That’s not what restlessly creative types do. But I’m not sure any of us could have predicted how much would flow out of him, nor the myriad musical styles they would inspire.
Here’s a large, though not complete, sampling of places to hear Hunter’s work since that woeful day in August 1995, which was decidedly not “just like any other day that’s ever been.”
Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box (1996). This album, featuring some of Mickey’s Planet Drum mates plus a six-woman vocal group called the Mint Julips, was more than halfway done when Garcia died, with most of the tunes already written. However, songs such as “The Next Step” and “The Last Song” seem as if they are addressing the feelings of uncertainly, loss and confusion we all experienced in the wake of Jerry’s death. And “Down the Road” famously includes a direct reference to Garcia: “I heard a laugh I recognized come rolling from the earth/ Saw it rise into the skies like lightning giving birth/ It sounded like Garcia but I couldn't see the face/ Just the beard and glasses and a smile on empty space." The Mystery Box band was part of the first Furthur Festival, and though Mickey has said he didn’t think the singers and the band gelled live, I thought they were wonderful, and their performances of the Hunter-Hart tunes cathartic.
Zero (1997). After collaborating with Zero guitarist Steve Kimock and drummer Greg Anton on five songs—sung by Judge Murphy—on the 1994 live album Chance in a Million, Hunter returned to the Zero stable for this collection of tunes, my favorites of which are probably “Spoken For” and “Eight Below Zero.” The group’s musical settings for Hunter’s words are not particularly imaginative and Murphy’s blues-rock vocals sound somewhat generic to me, but there are some strong lyrics.
The Other Ones: The Strange Remain (1998). The title track, co-written by Mickey and Hunter, first appeared on Mystery Box but actually was written for the Grateful Dead years earlier. The moody and spare Weir-Hart-Hunter “Banyan Tree” was one of a few new originals for this first high-profile aggregation of former GD members and fellow travelers. Here’s a cool verse: “This is not the way I chose/ The way has chosen me/ Dangling to the muddy road/ Beneath the banyan tree.” I don’t think it’s just the mention of a banyan tree that reminds me of Kipling. And the highly rhythmic Hart-Hunter tune “Baba Jingo” contains a number of verses in the classic Hunter mold, including this one: “Now pass that cup from lip to lip but never spill a drop/ Sip the foam and lick the brine from the bottom to the top/ Ask the lizard on the stone the way to No Man's Land/ Right by night and left by day, just as the wind commands.”
The Gans-Hunter tunes. Singer/songwriter and Grateful Dead Hour radio host David Gans has put out a couple of strong collaborations with Hunter. The acerbic put-down song “Shut Up and Listen” appears on David’s Solo Acoustic disc (2001), and you can hear the angry and defiant “Like a Dog” on David’s fine 2008 opus The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best: “Sick of getting’ lied on, spied on and judged/ By people I don't even know/ Spent too much time holdin’ a grudge/ And spittin’ on the name of the rose.” Yow!
Phil Lesh & Friends: There and Back Again (2002). This beautifully made and underrated studio album by one of Phil’s most stable bands—the always adventurous PLQ (Phil Lesh Quintet) with Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Molo and Rob Barraco—finds Hunter writing with a few different members of the band. There’s Phil and Hunter’s optimistic anthem “Celebration” (“Let a fresh wind tear through your soul/ Swallow your sorrow and deliver you whole”); “Rock and Roll Blues” and, my personal favorite, “No More Do I” (“Meet me under painted thunder/ Lift me up to gospel skies”). Phil, Hunter and Warren Haynes wrote the lively PLQ concert staple “Night of a Thousand Stars,” and Herring and Hunter penned the pretty ballad “Again and Again” (sung by Barraco, with Lesh and Haynes).
Other early 2000s Lesh-Hunter tunes include the impressionistic “Mirror of Thalassa” (played by Phil & Friends) and “A Little Piece of You” (The Dead, 2003), in which Hunter (and Phil) pledge to leave us with “A piece of my vision, a piece of my brain/ To fight your battles once I am slain/ A piece of my heart I never touched/ A piece of my soul, though I can't spare much.” Nice.
Moonlight Rodeo:Rio Lindo (2003). Anyone out there heard this album? I haven’t. This Marin County band, described by the Allmusic.com as “alternative country,” was/is led by a fellow named Kurt Huget and he co-wrote five songs with Hunter for this, the group’s second album.
Rhythm Devils: Concert Experience (2008). Captured at shows in 2006 with the prime Rhythm Devils lineup of Mickey, Bill, Steve Kimock, Phish’s Mike Gordon on bass, talking drum maestro Sikiru and singer Jen Durkin, this maddeningly overproduced DVD (way too many distracting visual FX and quick cuts) nonetheless showcases a handful of pretty good songs Mickey (and in some cases Kimock) wrote with Hunter specifically for this band. Three have a bubbly and infectious African lilt to them: “Comes a Dawn” (“Distant music seems to rise from somewhere gladly/ And beyond all times and space/ And yet it sounds so familiar”); “Next Dimension” (“Love is the ocean and time’s the tide”); and the complicated relationship drama “Your House.” The funky “Fountains of Wood” dares to unleash multiple rapid repeats of these four words—“Multiphonic, supersonic, catatonic, anodyne”—yet it works! There are a few others, as well, but I’d recommend searching for audio versions on Archive.org. Last year’s incarnations of the Rhythm Devils, with Tim Bluhm, Keller Williams, Davey Knowles and Andy Hess joining the fray (and Jen Durkin gone), put a different spin on these interesting original tunes.
New Riders of the Purple Sage: Where I Come From (2009). David Nelson and Robert Hunter have written a number of fine songs together through the years, some of which have turned up in the David Nelson Band repertoire (“Kick in the Head,” “John Hardy’s Wedding,” “Four: Fifty One,” “Long Gone Sam,” etc.), but this NRPS album represents perhaps their greatest creative burst together. Seven of the album’s 12 songs are new Hunter-Nelson efforts, and a few are among their best: the twangy, driving title track (“Fed up rehearsing my part/ Gonna wing this one right from the heart/ The only place to start/ Where I come from”); the enigmatic “Barracuda Moon,” which bounces along on a second-line beat and Buddy Cage’s singing steel (“Been in San Francisco beneath a copper cloud/ First mistake we made was coming on too proud/ The next mistake we made was not being proud enough / It's always all or nothing, if you don't like it, tough”); and one of Hunter’s finest “road” songs, “Down the Middle” (“My destination is freedom itself/ And if I find it, I will share the wealth/ Roll down the window, arm on the sill / First coyote calls from the hill.” Good stuff.
The three Jim Lauderdale albums:
Headed for the Hills (2004) I believe folk/Americana singer-songwriter Lauderdale first collaborated with Hunter on a song called “I Will Wait for You” on the Lauderdale-Ralph Stanley record I Feel Like Singing Today (1999), but this album marks the first of three full discs they’ve written together. This one has a warm, old-time string band and old school country feel to most of it, and Lauderdale’s melodies suit Hunter’s words beautifully. Why is this such a good match? I think it’s because Hunter is so steeped in traditional folk and country music and he understands the emotional terrain, the imagery and the historical epochs those types of music often draw from (or can be set in), that it’s completely natural for him to write for these styles. He can blend in lines from other songs, old sayings, Scripture, even Shakespeare (he tosses in a little Macbeth on one tune) along with his own ideas, fancies and clever turns of phrases. So many of these songs sound like time-worn classics, yet I can pick out a Hunterism (or five!) in every single tune that places each of these firmly within his canon. I will resist the urge to quote from every single song, but will offer up this verse from “I’ll Sing Again”: "I heard the Memphis train speak to the moon/ Whipped out my fountain pen, wrote down the tune/ Don’t care if it’s been sung I don’t know when/ Such a good old tune I’ll sing again.” A great album!
Patchwork River (2010). This is much more eclectic (and electric) than Headed for the Hills, more musically “original,” I suppose, but is ultimately less successful in my view. Lauderdale ventures into blues, Memphis R&B, Cajun and more, but it sometimes feels a bit strained. Lauderdale seems vocally unsteady in places as he searches, not always successfully, to find the melodies for these words, and the production occasionally overwhelms the songs. Still, there are several nice numbers here, including the title track, “El Dorado” and “Far in the Far Away”—that last one sounds as if it’s from a honky-tonk jukebox circa 1958.
Reason and Rhyme(2011). This just came out in mid-June, and I fell in love with it on first listen. This time it’s a fairly straight bluegrass approach throughout, smooth as (corn) silk, and once again the more traditional song structures provide near-perfect settings for Hunter’s lyrics. Lauderdale’s lead vocals have never sounded more on pitch, and the bluegrass harmonies soar throughout. The characters are etched nicely in sepiatone, there are half-told tales of love and longing (and a “haunted history lesson” in “Not Let You Go”), echoes of America’s past throughout, even a spry anti-war parable called “Tiger and the Monkey” in which Hunter asks: “Why don’t we just postpone your war/ Clothe your hungry, feed your poor/ Before you take your sword up once again.” And you gotta love Hunter-as-curmudgeon on “Don’t Give a Hang,” which sounds like it could’ve been written by Webb Pierce, except in the ’50s he couldn’t have sung: “Don’t care for telephones/ That follow you when you leave home.” Another fantastic album from this flourishing partnership!
7 Walkers (2010). I’ve already expounded at length a couple of times on Dead.net about how much I like this album—which contains eight songs co-written by Papa Mali (Malcolm Welbourne) and Hunter—and this band, which features our ol’ buddy Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Papa Mali is from Louisiana, and Hunter has written a series of songs that are steeped in that world—the mysterious bayous, the clubs of New Orleans, a voodoo priestess, the mythic Evangeline. It’s some of Hunter’s richest and most evocative writing in years, and Papa Mali’s tunes capture both the thick, swampy feeling of lazy summer nights and the cracklin’ rhythms of the South’s greatest party town. Mosquito repellant not included!
Bob Dylan: Together Through Life. I don’t know what to say about this album vis a vis Hunter, as it’s unclear how he and Dylan wrote the songs together. Whatever the case, it’s neither’s best work. Musically, the album sounds like it could’ve been made in San Antonio in 1960, with lots of blues structures and Norteño textures (David Hidalgo plays accordion on it). Although no self-respecting producer from that era would have allowed some of these tortured lead vocals. (“C’mon, Bob, I think you can nail it with a second take!” “Nah, it’s fine.”) “Forgetful Heart,” “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” and “It’s All Good” at least feel original; the rest, not so much. I like its looseness-bordering-on-sloppiness, but a lot of the lyrics feel tossed off, and I can’t say there’s anything here that speaks to me particularly. Feel free to disagree.
The Furthur Songs: It’s been heartening to see that Furthur isn’t merely interested in re-creating the Grateful Dead’s glorious history, but actually wants to come up with new original tunes, too. From the beginnings of this band, Hunter has been feeding lyrics to Bob and Phil, and a fair number of interesting songs have already materialized as a result. “Muli Guli,” music by Phil and Bob, turned up a few times in 2010, but not this year, so far. Phil co-wrote “Colors of the Rain” and “Welcome to the Dance,” while Bob put music to two songs he says are part of a trilogy Hunter wrote—so far we have “Seven Hills of Gold” and “Big Bad Blues.” Somewhere up the road I’d like to look at these new Furthur songs in some detail, but for now, let’s end on this verse from “Big Bad Blues,” which, as is often the case, sounds as if it could be an autobiographical glimpse of Hunter the writer: “Found this card by the side of the road / Jack of Diamonds, battered and old/ Run down, rained on, filthy and torn / My own face, sure as I'm born.”
Whew, this turned out to be much longer than I expected, and I know I even missed a few (like that cool Bruce Hornsby-Hunter song, “Cyclone,” from BH’s 2009 album Levitate). Any favorite post-GD Hunter songs/lyrics that have struck you? Who has done the best work with Hunter since Jerry?
thanks to David Gans for the heads-up! Long blog post, but great. Short excerpt:
"For the hell of it yesterday I went to the No Depression archives here, and searched for the Dead. Nothing. And then I punched in Jerry Garcia. Nothing. But after switching over to the Google search engine, I found it.
"Letter's to the editor, issue #52, July-August 2004. Allow me to turn this over to Kevin Hyde from Louisville, KY.
"In response to David Cantwell's Issue #51 review of Jim Lauderdales collaboration with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter called Headed For The Hills (a brilliant album...Lauderdale's best if you ask me) Kevin took him to task for this quote: “Providing the words for the world’s most famous jam band must be something like writing captions for a famous photographer; the gig’s not unimportant, by any means, but it ain’t exactly the point of the thing, either.”
"And then Kevin wrote what I feel:
"Hunter helped create some of the greatest country-rock/alt-country/Americana/ whatever songs ever written with gems like “He’s Gone”, “Jack Straw”, “Loser”, “Bertha” and “Brown-Eyed Women” just to name a few. Far too often the pop-culture phenomenon that grew up around the Grateful Dead and their concert tours completely overshadows the poetry and the artistry that came from that true American original. Shed no tears for the millionaire Hunter and his Dead mates, but it’s a damn shame that so many people — smart music folks like the writers and readers of this great magazine — won’t give those wonderful songs a chance because they are so blinded by all the hippie dippy-ness. Granted, it can be blinding.
I would imagine there are more than a few readers of No Depression who can trace their twangy roots back to the Grateful Dead. For me, songs like “Dire Wolf”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “Ripple” and “Friend Of The Devil” — all written by Robert Hunter — were the first country songs I ever liked. Who knows? If it wasn’t for the Dead, I may never have given the Meat Puppets a chance. Which perhaps may have made me ignore the Jayhawks. And therefore I may have never been led to Wilco and Son Volt thus never discovering Uncle Tupelo. That would mean I might never have gotten properly obsessed with Neil Young and Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers. No Hank! No Johnny!! No Merle!!! No bluegrass!!!!"
I saw Little Feat last week and they are playing two new songs that Bill Payne wrote with Robert Hunter.
At the rate people are cowriting with Hunter, Blair will need to update this topic about 4 times a year. Since this blog topic started there is the new NRPS cd and one coming out from Mickey, both with Hunter songs.
But I am in the minority...
"And as for Dead Family Tree, I am the eastern branch
of the tree about half way down missing some bark
showing some scarred wood that is straight out from
the main trunk with 40 little branches off it each with
big bushy sections of leaves with thick veins and a
sweet mapley smell to them."
Gotta love you for that, & Robert Hunter, too!
Big Hugs & Kisses
for you this day & always!
(Hard at work in the sugar shack, getting the maple syrup done)
fluffanutter, thank you for the reply, xo.
I have a great story about alcohol and drugs
but not the time to do so now. Perhaps I will
leave it a different thread. It is a story that will
tie in my perspectives and beliefs on them.
It was the tone of the words and loss of
acknowledging him as a human an perhaps
a silent presence here. This is his website,
his band and music presented and given here.
Do you go to someone's house and insult them
then complain about the free meal they give you
and then insult the people they have invited at
their house...and expect the host to feel blessed
by your presence? I would hurt for my friend
who had to experience that. Um ya but I am just
making an example. Stop over to the Ratdog.Org
Board or the Philzone and see what happens to their
friends over there...even what happens to them. OMG.
I really stopped going there cause it hurt me so much.
Deadheads used to be very picky, very, very, very picky.
But it was a different picky. Bitchyness about how a song
turns out or a setlist that didn't have there pick in it. Or
the quality of what show they wanted or that the guys
But it wasn't feelingless it was bitchyness or ranting
at least as I recall it. Things have changed. Anna's
post was that. I have enjoyed Anna at times but she
(you, Anna) carries a swift bat that swings a tough blow,
if you ball. I asked for a more sensitive side but said
it was necessary especially if she (you) doesn't want to
change a thing.
But do remember where you are and who's site
I love you, All and will hope I find like-minded posters.
If not I read what I find and then hope some more.
And as for Dead Family Tree, I am the eastern branch
of the tree about half way down missing some bark
showing some scarred wood that is straight out from
the main trunk with 40 little branches off it each with
big bushy sections of leaves with thick veins and a
sweet mapley smell to them. Or something like that.
LOL, no worries I'm just a Lady with a Fan, xo!
Take care Anna and fluffanutter, forever you are loved, xo!
I think Anna's observations are correct based on my personal experience. If it hurts you then you should reflect on what, exactly, an alcoholic is. Coming from an alcoholic family I know what "enabling" means.
You know, Sher, you never say what your personal connection is with the Dead family. Spell it out and we'll be happy to give you all the credibility.
Have a grateful day, Ms. Bear.
just dropped in this tread
as I am jotting down the years
getting your gifts together
I do not want anything from you
but maybe for you to be a
little more sensitive but it
is not necessary
you hurt me by what you
just said about Robert Hunter
but it is okay Im used to the
pain it just leaves a scar
I dont bleed from the wounds
anymore like the children in our
society and my beloved friends
but maybe you could remember
your words are more powerful than
you think but never more important
than the alphabet - carry on
you're presents will be there soon
I love the above Hunter compositions. Some really good work there. The Bobby tunes especially with Furthur. Really creative people are hard to stop!
I don't know what to think about Robert Hunter. I have been listening to his live performances quite a bit on archive and I think he is a better writer than performer. I am wondering if he was the impetus for the Grateful Dead's signature style of going in and out of songs. I just finished listening to a show of his from Albany in 97 where he goes in and out of China Cat 4 times, so am thinking it was probably him. If anybody knows definitively please speak up.
I think Hunter has a problem with alcohol. I have such a negative impression of him from the first time I saw him live in my hometown. He was drunk and raving at the crowd in between songs for no apparent reason. I think he has quite an ego and has never really come to terms with the raw power and personal charm of Garcia.
But none of that takes away from the sheer brilliance of his lyric writing. Things like the mythical world of Fenerio and the other worldliness (hard finding descriptive words) of Terrapin are just amazing gifts he has left us all. I am very grateful indeed.
Long may you run, Ice Nine Publishing man!
Excellent topic and excellent responses
Keep it up everyone and thanks!
Has a show on the LMA - woo-hoo!
" Steal Your Jazz "
Headed For The Hills. A perfect match. Got to see Jim L here in a club in Bristol (England) not lang after the album. Me, a dutch deadhead mate and maybe a handful of old Bristolian Country & Western fans. All older than I! Great show, and Jim had a great Nudie style shirt as well. Got to chat with him after the show, and he made it clear he loved working with Hunter, and for sure, they mine a rich vein together.
Ahah. New Orleans Crawl, by 7 Walkers springs to mind as well, as a natural coming together.
It would seem that Humter's Muse is as evident now as it has ever been