A few days ago, someone on the Internet posted a list of Furthur’s spring tour “breakouts”—songs the band had never played onstage before. And it’s quite an impressive group of tunes, a mixture of cover songs by The Beatles, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and others; songs the Grateful Dead played in different eras that Furthur hadn’t touched; and one-offs with guest singers … 32 in all (by April 6). OK, more than half of those—16—are from The Beatles’ Abbey Road, which Furthur unveiled, in order, over the first nine shows of the tour (culminating with the whole Side Two suite on Phil’s birthday), but the band still had to learn all of them—yes, even the brief “Her Majesty”—and cast singers for each. What started out as a cute gimmick turned out to be pretty cool, and it was also special when some of that album’s songs later migrated to unexpected spots in the middle of Furthur’s sets—there was Phil bellowing “Octopus’ Garden” out of “Maggie’s Farm” in Hampton, and the choral showcase “Because” drifting into “New Potato Caboose” in Charleston. Nice! Who was more surprised—the Radio City Music Hall audience when Diana Krall sang “Fever” during an encore segment, or the Hampton crowd that witnessed John Kadlecik leading the group through Led Zep’s late-period nugget “Fool in the Rain”? (I know I was more surprised by the latter—surprisingly good version, too.)
Breakouts are one way a band stays fresh. They always inject a bit of life into a set, whether a newly introduced tune is performed beautifully or falls on its face—any of you who followed the Grateful Dead through the years know that it can definitely go either way. And you also know that a song you don’t like the first time you hear it can easily become a favorite as it matures and your own prejudices fall. Conversely, songs that feel alive the first few times they’re played can start to “turn” like overripe fruit and lose that initial pizzazz.
For the first 10 years I saw the Dead—1970 to 1980—it seems like every show I would hear a song or two (or five!) I had never heard before. In the early ’70s, particularly, there was an amazing tidal wave of new songs every tour. But it never occurred to me to actually keep track of what the band played from season to season, so, for instance, I had no idea that I saw the breakout of “Bird Song” and “Deal” at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester in February ’71, and both “Sugaree” and “Mr. Charlie” at the Yale Bowl that summer. I remember other songs that were new to me (personal breakouts!) at those shows that slayed me more.
“Boy, you’re gonna carry
that weight a long time.”
It was that way for me for many years: I wasn’t aware until a couple of weeks ago that I saw the U.S. breakout of “He’s Gone” at Dillon Stadium in Hartford in July 1972. What I remember most from that show was Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers’ drummers joining the Dead for the last part of the second set. Toward the mid- to late ’70s, as my circle of Dead Head friends increased (and included super-knowledgeable folks like David Gans) I started to become more aware of what the band was doing week to week and month to month, and I also started collecting tapes more seriously than I had been. I remember David got a tape of that first “Terrapin Station” from the Swing Auditorium (2/26/77), but I made the conscious decision to not hear it before I saw the band at Winterland 3/18/77—I wanted to be surprised. And I was! My mind was completely blown by “Terrapin” (my first thought when I heard the jam at the end was that it sounded like Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” believe it or not!), and I was also fully aware that this song the Dead ended the first set with, “Fire on the Mountain,” was a breakout! (That show remains in my Top Five concert experiences.)
I recall the great excitement that surrounded the introduction of “Touch of Grey” and “Throwing Stones” on the fall ’82 East Coast tour and the thrill of hearing them for the first time, back to back, at Frost Amphitheatre October 9. The following autumn I fretted about the band’s apparent refusal to give us West Coasters the return breakout of “St. Stephen” we so clearly deserved after they played it in Hartford and at MSG. (Then, when they actually did play it Halloween night ’83 at the Marin Civic it was stiff; a letdown for me). A lot of us in the Bay Area developed a bit of an inferiority complex because it seemed as though the breakouts and revivals always happened away from “home,” from “Dear Mr. Fantasy” to “Revolution” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” to “Help on the Way.” (On the plus side, I did get to witness the first “Hell in a Bucket,” the return of “Walking the Dog,” the first “Keep on Growing” and what remains one of my favorite Grateful Dead memories ever—the first “Gimme Some Lovin’” at BCT, 11/2/84. Hey Jerry, how come you never played “Good Lovin’” > “La Bamba” > “Good Lovin’” for us in California? (We can forgive, but never forget!) I’m mostly kidding, but I certainly recall the anticipation so many of us felt wondering when and if the new gems would pop up in Bay Area shows.
To the Dead’s eternal credit, they kept introducing new originals and covers and reviving old favorites until the end, though with decreasing frequency. Remember how excited we were when “Attics of My Life” reappeared after so many years collecting dust? “New Speedway Boogie”? I remember being intensely affected by my first versions of “Standing on the Moon” and “Days Between”—surprise breakouts I hadn’t even heard whispers of. Even at the last Dead show I ever attended, at Shoreline in June ’95, many of us were “waiting” for “Unbroken Chain” to finally appear in California. (It did, and again I was disappointed. Beware heightened expectations!)
The whole post-Garcia era has been so wild, freewheeling and unpredictable that breakouts and revivals don’t have quite the mystique they did during the Dead’s time. That’s not to say it wasn’t totally awesome to hear “The Eleven”—ignored by the Dead for decades—retooled by The Other Ones, or Phil & Friends with Trey playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” or Furthur doing “Blues for Allah” at Calaveras last spring. Indeed, it’s the sheer variety of the ever-expanding repertoires and the sense that any song could pop up at any time that have helped make this such an exciting time to be going to Dead Family shows. New songs, new covers, old chestnuts cooking again—bring ’em on! I want to hear them all. We’ll have plenty of time to complain about (some of) them later!
What have been some of your pleasant surprises at shows, either in the Grateful Dead era or post-GD? Are you diggin’ Furthur’s recent breakouts?
(For the record, here are Furthur’s spring tour breakouts/revivals: “Fool In The Rain” (Led Zep), “Mexicali Blues,” “The Last Time,” “The Mighty Quinn,” “Chest Fever” (The Band), “Fever” (Peggy Lee; sung by Diana Krall), “Alice D. Millionaire,” “Iko-Iko,” “Might As Well,” “Train in Vain” (The Clash), “Blue Sky” (Allmans; sung by Warren Haynes), “Road Runner” (Jr. Walker; sung by Warren Haynes), “Supplication,” “Eclipse” (Pink Floyd), "To Lay Me Down," “All Along the Watchtower,” and all of Abbey Road (though “Come Together” was not a breakout): “Something,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh! Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Because,” “You Never Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” “The End,” “Her Majesty.”)