Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Playing In The Band"

By David Dodd

Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.(I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)

“Playing In The Band”

“I don’t trust to nothin’, but I know it come out right.”

Like “The Music Never Stopped,” “Playing” is a song that could be taken as an autobiographical song (others would include “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Golden Road....”). I remember this hitting home for me at the Closing of Winterland concert, as we repeatedly saw the phrase “breakfast served at dawn” on t-shirts and posters all night long. Daybreak would truly come as they were playing. By then, we would have been dancing for the entire night: through the New Riders, the Blues Brothers, and then the Dead coming on at midnight to start their three-set show.

Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics, and the music is co-credited to Bob Weir and Mickey Hart.

Furthur is currently, perhaps as you are reading this, playing at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, and that is where “Playing in the Band” first appeared, on February 18, 1971, along with the debut of “Bertha,” “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Loser,” and “Wharf Rat.” It was Hart’s last show until his return to the band in October 1974. They played six nights in that run, and “Playin” was played every one of those nights. The band recorded those shows for potential use on the Skull and Roses live album, but apparently none of it was used, according to DeadBase X. Nevertheless, “Playing in the Band” was first released on an album as a live track, on Skull and Roses, in September 1971. According to The Grateful Dead Family Discography, the particular performance captured for Skull and Roses is uncertain--something for someone to correct or fill in the blank.

It’s a little difficult to figure out the recording history of this song—but I suspect it was first recorded for Hart’s solo album, Rolling Thunder (September 1972), as “The Main Ten” (its time signature is 10/4). That album was a year and a half in the making. But even the release of Weir’s own first solo album, Ace (May 1972), predated the release of Hart’s album, and by then the song was fully formed, complete with a beautiful, elegantly captured studio jam, and was ensconced in the band’s live repertoire and released on the live album. So I would speculate (and I’m sure someone out there will either verify this or correct me) that “Playing in the Band” was co-written with Mickey during the sessions for Rolling Thunder (where is was played by an all-star cast of musicians including John Cipollina, Stephen Stills, and the Tower of Power Horn Section), then introduced to the Dead and taken out on tour, and then recorded for Ace, ostensibly a Weir solo album, but, in his own words, “a Grateful Dead record, as far as I’m concerned.”

OK, so that is complicated, and I surely welcome any further elucidation on any score regarding the chain of events as it actually transpired. Perhaps it’s not very important, but it is kinda fun.

Over the course of the band’s live performances, “Playin” appeared 581 times.

Its performance history could doubtless be mined for all kinds of interesting factoids. A cursory scan shows that it mutated from a first-set tune to being firmly ensconced deep in the second set. From 1977 onwards, it was often paired with “Terrapin.” Pairings with “Uncle John’s Band” were not unusual from the early 70’s onward. Occasionally, “Playin” would appear between the two. It’s final performance by the Dead was on July 6, 1995 at Riverport Amphitheater in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

The lyrics morphed a bit over the course of the early years. “Some folks up in treetops, just look to see the sights” changed to “just lookin’ for their kites.” (A nod to Charlie Brown?)

The song contains a plethora of biblical or seemingly biblical references (“let him cast a stone...” “standing on a tower, world at my command,” “others trust to might,” etc.). But my favorite is a somewhat buried Hunter-style aphorism: “I can tell your future, just look what’s in your hand.” At first, I took that to be a reference to palm reading, but a correspondent writing to me as I was putting together the Annotated GD Lyrics site pointed out that you can tell a lot about peoples’ future from what they have in their hands: is it a gun? a drink? a cigarette? a pen? a guitar?

So, while it’s tempting to say that this song has a simply message: leave me alone so I can play music, and don’t give me a hard time about it..., it also hits at a variety of levels. Our lives are what we make of them. We can choose what influences us, and where we will place out trust. When all else fails, music will rescue us.

And then, there is the jam.

To me, the unpredictability of a “Playin” jam was always a highlight of a show. It could get incredibly far out there—completely away from anything—and then, just like that, snap back in, quietly and cautiously or slam-bang, or later, after they’d played most of another song, or a whole set, into the “Playin Reprise.” Sometimes the reprise would never occur.

The version on the So Many Roads boxed set, from July 29, 1988 at Laguna Seca in Monterey, contains a particularly adventurous and mind-blowing jam. I remember an interview with Weir in which he was asked if he remembered that particular “Playing in the Band,” and he said, “I remember being scared.” Blair Jackson’s track notes characterize the performance as “spellbinding, volcanic.”

I loved (and still love) seeing Bobby signal the song onstage by holding all ten fingers in the air. I love dancing to this song. It has brought me a lot of joy and adventure over the years, and I love drifting around in its main theme on the piano.

As always, it’s time for you to chime in. Like a wave upon the sand.

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Joined: Jan 13 2012
The various live CDs from

The various live CDs from 1971-74 showed the song growing from its concise five minutes through just a tentative minute or so instrumental in the middle in late 1971 (Road Trips 3/2) to five minutes or so during the European tour in 1972, to 10 or 15 or even more minutes in 1973-74. I clearly remember the amazing moment on 11 September 1974 when in the gloom of Alexandra Palace in London the band swooped back into the song's coda to finish the first set, and how glad I was when this appeared on Dick's Picks 7.

Later on, when the song was split, this led to interesting sequences, coming back to the coda after a lengthy journey elsewhere, such as on Road Trips 2/4, or doing so on a different day, as on Road Trips 2/1 where the band finishes it off halfway through 'Dark Star' on the following evening.

It was things like this that made the band so different to everyone else, a unique musical experience.

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Joined: Jun 22 2007
Just looking for their kites

That's one of mine, too. It makes some sense lyrically, and is a more interesting image than the real lyric...or at least that's my opinion. Sometimes we can out-hunt Hunter, eh?

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Joined: Dec 3 2007
The Main Ten

My understanding of the history of "Playing In The Band" was that it originated as a 10-beat figure created by Alla Rakah, one of Mickey Hart's drum mentors. I don't know enough musically to say whether it was actually in 10/4, or what the purpose of the rhythmic composition was, but that is apparently how it came to be called "The Main Ten." Weir and/or Hart added some chords to it, and it became a theme for the Grateful Dead to jam on . Somewhere in there, Hunter added lyrics and it became a song. How it went from the "The Main Ten", composed by Weir/Hart/Hunter on the Rolling Thunder lp to "Playing In The Band" on Skull & Roses and Ace has never been made clear.I realize the Rolling Thunder lp was released later, but the composition seems to have originated from Hart.

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Joined: Dec 3 2007
The Main Ten

My understanding of the history of "Playing In The Band" was that it originated as a 10-beat figure created by Alla Rakah, one of Mickey Hart's drum mentors. I don't know enough to say whether it was actually in 10/4, or what the purpose of the rhythmic composition was, but that is apparently how it came to be called "The Main Tent." Weir and/or Hart added some chords to it, and it became a theme for the Grateful Dead to jam on . Somewhere in there, Hunter added lyrics and it became a song. How it went from the "The Main Ten", composed by Weir/Hart/Hunter on the Rolling Thunder lp to "Playing In The Band" on Skull & Roses and Ace has never been made clear.

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Joined: Jun 18 2007
Hug the treetops

I never read the annotated lyrics for "Playin'" so I always thought the line was, "Some folks hug the treetops just looking for their kites (or look to see the sites)" LOL. Thanks for the clarification!

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Joined: Aug 12 2011
Playing from Go to Nassau

Is a great verison, right? I just got this release a few weeks ago and I've listened to it maybe 10 times already...

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Joined: Jun 5 2007
melt your face right off your head

What I liked about PITB was its low 'melting point'... it had the abilty to slip quite easiy into and out of some of the gooiest jams the band has ever done. I'm talking jams where the entire universe is dismantled down to its smallest, most basic parts, and pure chaos rules supreme, yet it is all then miraculously reassembled back together into perfect working order, just in time for the reprise... in a way kind of like what Bear went through at the Muir Beach AT...

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Majesty and The Truth

The magisterial, meticulously peer reviewed, yet still improvable On This Day In Deadhead History on The WELL has 6th April 1971, Manhattan Center NY as the source of the Grateful Dead (aka Skull and Roses) Playin'.

The Cal Expo 28th May 1993 Playin' is indeed a ripper, available on Road Trips Vol 2 No 4, and right up there with the awesome 29th July 1988 Laguna Seca version featured on So Many Roads as a contender for the 80s and 90s crown.

Sometimes I do get the feeling that the band was quite perfunctory with the lyrics, just wanting them out of the way so they could get down to wrestling with this incredible jam vehicle. Nonetheless they are a nice attempt to convey what it felt like to play in the Grateful Dead when they cracked open the secrets of the uiverse with the muse at their shoulders.

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Joined: Feb 3 2009
Playing in the Jam

What a run at the Capitol! I've been to 3 out of 5 so far...back for more tonight. I totally get where handjive is coming from. I remember reading about how Playing kind of replaced Dark Star as the free-form jam tune in the early 70s...in 1972 you could get either, but by '74 it was more often Playing. I was psyched at the Warlocks show in Hampton ('89) to get both in the 2nd set! My personal favorite though is Portland '86 (funny Bach mentioned '85). I really liked the Hartford Playing on that same tour...Spring '86. Both of those are magnificent.

The lyrics work in any case. It is really about the jam though...that 'without a net' idea of jumping off into outer space...not knowing where it's going to go. It's both the essence of jazz improvisation and spirit...as well as the quintessential expression of psychedelic magic...I mean, come one...other than drums/space, when is the best time to light up? Right after the main lyrics part in Playin'! Hoist the sails and let 'er rip! It also makes me think of that line from Music; "while the music played the band". That's what happens...and you really see it in the jams...Playing, Dark Star...and all those other places.

Furthur loves the jams! They haven't done Terrapin or Lost Sailor yet this run. We'll see what tonight brings (Samson of course, lol). Peace!

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Joined: Feb 3 2013
PTB

I was at the Cal Expo 05/26/93 show, and that version was frightening.. I literally saw fire and brimstone from Bobs amp, and a green light coming out of Jerry's..it was and will go down as one of the greatest jams of the modern era, no doubt. And I loved the little Crazy Fingers lilt at the end that led into it..Bob or Vince had this trippy "Indian from Venus" futuristic sound, totally cool! I have seen Ratdog play smoking versions as well, but nothing like that. And folks, how many bands can make you dance in 10/4 time??? Thats awesome!!!!

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