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!)
“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.