BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
January 1, 2016
DEAD & COMPANY | DECEMBER 31, 2015 | LOS ANGELES FORUM | “SCARLET > TOUCH > FIRE! OH MY…OH MY GOD!”
2015 was a rollercoaster of a year, and there was no better way to end it than to take one final musical voyage with the current version of the band who dominated my listening and showgoing habits this year like no band has done in a long time. The ticket listed a start time of 8:00 p.m. and no opening act was listed, and so I had it in my head that the actual New Year’s Eve celebration would take place towards the end of the second set. As I settled into my seat next to the soundboard and waited for the lights to go down, the guy next to me thought the plan was to play three shorter sets, with the third one starting at midnight. Turned out he was almost exactly right - the show turned out to be one of the longest I’ve ever seen, running almost five hours with the intermissions. It was also one of the best in the strongest year of live music I’ve had in a long time.
SET I (8:18 p.m. - 9:17p.m.)
Just after 8:15 the house lights dropped, as and the band came out John caught everyone’s eye with his blue floor-length robe and the most perfectly coiffed hair I’ve ever seen on a Grateful Dead-related stage. I was trying to think of an Obi-Wan Kenobi joke to inset here, but I couldn’t Force my brain to come up with one. It quickly became obvious they were tuning up for FEEL LIKE A STRANGER, and it made for a great opener. The sound was much better for me compared to last night, and the band was loose and grooving from the start - Stranger seems to serve the band well in that regard. Bob’s voice was also in much better shape than last night too; whatever they did to restore his voice over the previous 21 hours has worked. This show got up and running quickly as the band went into a full jam after the second verse - this used to be a short, structured solo that was over in 30 seconds or so but it’s now an open-ended jam, and by the time Bob sang the third verse started we were a full 7 minutes into the song. There was a time when the song would be over after 7 minutes, but not now. This is a band that genuinely enjoys playing together for long periods of time. The closing jam was a bit shorter but still spot-on.
Without any waiting around John started the intro to THEY LOVE EACH OTHER and also took the vocals. The slower, reggae-infused song made for a nice counterpoint to Stranger, and tonight Jeff got into the act early with a nice Hammond B3 solo during the mid-song break. And just to ensure that Bob doesn’t retain the monopoly on forgetting lyrics, John spaced a line during the final verse to much amusement onstage and in the crowd. The momentum carries over into RAMBLE ON ROSE, with Bob on vocals, and Jeff got another chance to shine during the early part of the mid-song jam with a beautiful solo on the grand piano. Come to think of it, did he have a grand piano onstage in Las Vegas, or is that a new thing? Either way, it sounds great, and once Mayer takes over for the guitar solo he leads the band to an unusually hot peak for this song and for so early in the show. Oteil’s bass lines during this moment rumble so loudly that everyone feels it and doesn't just hear it. Now that I can really hear him and not just see him, I spend a great deal of time over the evening watching his fretboard hand, which is astoundingly busy. He is a truly exemplary bass player with his own style, he really knows how to play counterpoint to John, and he’s making Phil Lesh’s absence from this band a lot easier for me to bear. These six guys have truly coalesced into something special over the space of the last two months.
LOOSE LUCY ups the tempo a bit more, and surprisingly Bob takes the vocals for this one - because it’s in a higher register I was expecting him to pass this one to John tonight, but nope. You can hear him straining a bit on the first notes of each line, but he gets through it. It bops along in the usual way for a solid nine minutes, and then John takes over for SUGAREE. Once again John forgets a line in the second verse and everyone just grins (wouldn’t it be nice if everyone’s employers just cheered employees’ small mistakes and then moved on?), and soon after the set’s highlight occurs: the jam after the third verse of Sugaree is easily the most powerful one I’ve seen live. John starts fanning away and jumping up and down to raise the energy levels, and it’s as if he played the legendary version of the song from 1/11/79 to formulate his plan of how to play it tonight. The band pick up on all his cues and hit the right chords and boom the right booms, and they make full use of this song’s potential. The only downside is that it overshadows the set-closing HELL IN A BUCKET, which rocks along nicely but doesn’t hit the incendiary heights it sometimes can. But it’s a nice choice, and it ties it up in a bow rather neatly after an hour.
I spend most of the first break just wandering around the lower depths of the Forum and watching everyone else do whatever it is they’e doing. They’ve divided the floor into two mutually exclusive sections (GA up front, seated in back), and it relieves congestion - it’s not claustrophobically crowded at all. It’s also becoming apparent that it’s going to be a 3-set show, and I start thinking about the possibilities. Seems that the best way to do this might be going the route that they did at Winterland on 10-18-74 and making the second set the psychedelic blowout so the third one can be the rocking New Year’s set.
That’s exactly what happened.
SET II (9:50 p.m. - 10:53 p.m.)
For the second time in a month, the band kicks off a second set with DARK STAR, my all-time favorite song. The tuning made it obvious it was coming, and once the band dropped into the song and started exploring the main theme, the Forum folks turned on the flickering star lights that are embedded in the rafters to make it a truly starry, spacey environment. After a solid five minutes Bob stepped up to sing the first verse, and his voice well and truly cracked on the first word. But by that point the band had established such a lush musical setting that Bob just smiled, and so did everyone else. He altered his delivery to get through the rest of the verse, and from there it was straight into an insistent, forward-moving journey into the deepest reaches of musical space. At about the ten-minute mark the jam hit a clear peak, and by this point the tempo had increased to the point where someone could have listened to a snippet of the song and mistaken it for the middle section of The Other One. Jeff’s work on the grand piano complemented John’s leads beautifully, and off to my left a moment of levity occurred when two guys dressed in Wookie onesies came dancing down the aisle. The bigger of the two was a massive, bearded, dreadlocked guy who really looked the part, and they were offering hits of whatever it was in the large pipes they were smoking to anyone who wanted some. It was so freakishly funny, and not one security guard even thought about stopping them. A few minutes later Bob led the band back into the second verse, and after 16 minutes this segment of the journey wound to a close.
By now it already felt like a set that was only going to feature the most expansive songs in the Grateful Dead’s catalog, and the appearances of UNCLE JOHN’S BAND and TERRAPIN STATION did everything to confirm that notion. The former started as a short folk song in acoustic form, but once converted to electric form this one mushroomed into a wide-ranging vehicle for musical exploration, and tonight was no exception. The verses and mid-song solo travelled along at the perfect speed, and the song’s long, more structured closing jam was a great counterpoint to Dark Star. Eventually it wound down after 11 minutes, and instead of the vocal reprise and code Bob made a couple motions with his hands and signaled the transition into Terrapin. It was simultaneously the perfect landing point and the perfect launching point, and at this point the energy in the room was thick and full - even on a party-hearty night like New Year’s Eve very few people seemed to be doing anything other than concentrating on the music. John sang the Lady With A Fan section of the song with power and then led the band through the delicate mid-song solo before handing the vocals off to Bob, who sang the Terrapin Station section before passing the baton back to John, who led the band through four passes of the closing jam. Unlike most versions of the song where each pass-through was played at a slightly quieter volume, this one stayed loud and intense all the way to the end, with John adding some staccato chords during the final pass. They finished it with a full crescendo and a full stop, and all things considered, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Off to my right I can see basketball legend and Public Deadhead No. 1 Bill Walton towering above everyone and raising his arms towards the sky in a motion of joy, so I bet he’d he’d agree with me.
The momentum carried right into DRUMS, which went heavy on the electronic loops right away and established a full sonic palette even before Oteil returned to take his now-customary place at Bill’s drum kit to make it a trio. Eventually Oteil, Mickey and Billy pound away in unison on The Beast before Mickey switches over to The Beam to usher in SPACE, during which John hits his Wah pedal and proceeds with a couple of minutes of Garcia-esque noodling. It’s a nice touch. After about four minutes all six bands members return and they ease into what sounds like a pass through the Mind Left Body Jam. The guy next to me says he thinks its going to be DEAR PRUDENCE, and he turns out to be correct. Turns out they did actually play this late-era Beatles classic a couple times on the November tour, so it’s not as out-of-left-field as I first thought. But nonetheless, even though it’s a cover it fits the vibe of the set perfectly with it its beautiful chord progression and its dreamy, syrupy tempo. However, as the song plays out over 10 minutes my thoughts somehow trail off into remembrances of some of the worst memories from the past 19 years in the music industry, one leading to another, and by the time I catch myself the song is almost over. The mind is an odd thing. I was hoping for them to tack on the reprise to Uncle John to wrap it up, but even without that it was an absolutely stellar hour of music.
The second set break started with a trip out to the concession stand for ice cream, followed a visit to the restroom to grab a thick stack of paper towels. Someone spilled a couple beers in our area during the last set, and the floor had become so slippery that it was like dancing on ice. As I spread out the paper towels on the floor to soak everything up a couple of neighbors struck up some friendly conversation as text messages continued to come in from well-wishers in other locales.
SET III (11:44 p.m. - 12:59 p.m.)
The lights dropped well before midnight, so guess there’ll be at least one song before the New Year’s festivities. There are huge bags of balloons suspended from the ceiling, and there’s also a large, S-shaped track in the rafters that’s clearly going to transport something from behind the soundboard to the front of the stage. There are a lot of people are crammed onto the sides of the stage (somewhere Steve Parish has to be watching this and wishing he could toss a few of them, just because), and Bill Walton is now conspicuously absent from his customary center-crowd spot. The band tune up amidst all of this and crash into their long-standing cover of Wilson Pickett’s MIDNIGHT HOUR, and it’s a wonderfully obvious choice. John has changed into a gold t-shirt that says “Happy Forum New Year”, and immediately I’m transported back to memories of the Grateful Dead’s December 31, 1985 New Year’s Eve show, the second set of which was broadcast live on the USA Network and which I was able to tape on VHS and watch many times afterwards. The band are taking their time and having fun with the song, to the point where Bob finally comes up to the mike and says that they “still have about 2 more minutes” to fill before they can end it. They fill ‘em, and they bring the music to a halt at exactly 11:55 pm.
SUGAR MAGNOLIA: The music onstage stops and a tape of the Star Wars theme plays as various characters from the film appear in costume in the wings and make their way onstage to toss confetti into the crowd. Bill Walton materializes onstage as Father Time (in a robe that’s clearly Bruin blue), and he’s wielding a blue lightsaber. And behind me, the band have decided to resurrect the proceedings of the Closing-Of-Winterland show on New Year’s Eve 1978 by hoisting a float in the shape of a 15-foot joint up into the air and sending it towards the stage, complete with heavy puffs of smoke. Two people are riding in it, and they are also tossing confetti into the crowd. It’s a delirious scene, and at some point they count it down to New Year’s. It may not have exactly been at midnight, but it was still nice to exit 2015 and wipe the slate clean. Eventually the band reassembles amidst the chaos and stick with the Closing-Of-Winterland theme and start the New Year’s set with Sugar Magnolia. Balloons drop, confetti cannons blast, and it’s absolute visual bedlam for the next six minutes as gravity does its work. The band plow through the verses and the solo, and as it crashes to a close I find myself wishing for more Closing-Of-Winterland continuity via the opening chords of SCARLET BEGONIAS, and my first wish of 2016 is quickly granted. John takes the vocals as Walton parades behind the drummers and waves his lightsaber around, and the mid-song jam ends up being the song’s highlight as the outro jam takes a turn after just a couple minutes and leads into TOUCH OF GREY as Walton exits. I’m really happy about this, because this means that we might just get a repeat of the famous second-set opening salvo from the classic Greek Theatre show from 7/13/84, one of my first bootleg cassettes and still one of my favorites sets to play on archive.org. And indeed, once again a wish is quickly fulfilled with FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN. The version of the bootleg that we had in high school was an audience tape on which you can clearly hear some totally-blown-away dude exclaim, “Scarlet > Touch > Fire?! Oh my…oh my GOD!!!” early into Fire. Naturally, this became an oft-repeated tag line at school, to the point where it was used in all kinds of situations that had nothing to do with the Grateful Dead. And I’m hearing it again in my head now, and somewhere there a bunch of St. Paul’s alums that would be, like, totally vidding out, dude, and smiling as widely as I am if they were here too. Well, I’m good. I’m better than good. I’m musically sated and can ask for no more. Anything else that happens tonight is just a bonus.
And yeah, ST. STEPHEN is most definitely a bonus, and not just because Walton is back in his usual spot in the crowd, still in the Father Time costume, and still gleefully violating every open-carry lightsaber law in this galaxy and probably several others. The 60s classic crashes through its verses, and the jam at the end is split into two sections and extended out to great lengths, and by the time 13 minutes have passed Bob decides to skip the vocal reprise and bring the set to a hard-rocking close with the second half of Sugar Magnolia, aka SUNSHINE DAYDREAM. I’ll tell ya - one of the nice things about these one-hour sets is that they can become these gorgeous little self-contained universes of music if they nail the song selection, and that happened twice tonight - the second set was The Big Jam and the third set was The Rocking New Year. The latter also hit some just-exactly-perfect nostalgic spots with its striking similarities to two of my all-time favorite GD shows, and those feelings were only intensified by it happening during one of the most nostalgia-inducing hours on the planet each year. Well done.
And at this point, I have to share the text I sent to my buddy Zsolt at about 11:30 p.m.: “My prediction for the 3rd set: Sugar Mag, Scarlet/Fire, St. Stephen, 1 other, Sunshine Daydream.” Only off by one song, so some not-too-shabby guesswork there. I’d totally have won the betting pool if we’d had one.
ENCORE (12:54 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.)
For some reason I was watching John as the band came back out for the encore. He looked like he was very affected by something, and I started thinking about how much fun this all must be for him, not least after some of the things that went on in his life a few years ago. And surely enough, he approached his mike. This might be a word or two off, but it’s essentially what he said:
“They say that you’re not supposed to talk onstage here.” (Bob comes up and whispers something to him, and they laugh.) “But I want to say thank you to every person in here…for welcoming me into your house.” (loud cheers)…”This is a musical experience that has changed my life forever.” (louder cheers)….”And at the risk of rocking boats, known or unknown, we’ll see you next year.” (loudest cheers of all)
It was a wonderfully emotional moment, and it pretty much overshadowed the BROKEDOWN PALACE that closed the show. There was a nice touch at the very end when the band tacked on a few bars of AULD LANG SYNE to wrap it all up at 12:59 a.m. And at exactly 1:00 a.m. the band took their final bows and left us to fend for the rest of the beginning of 2016 on our own. What a great way to start it off. Let’s go do this.
As always, thank you for reading. Here’s hoping the upcoming year is our best one yet.
December 31, 2015
DEAD & COMPANY - DECEMBER 30, 2015 - LOS ANGELES FORUM - I HAD A HARD RUN
Sometimes you arrive at a place and you’re just not running on all cylinders. That was me, tonight. It was a night of little sleep, a full day of cross-country travel, complete with crowded airports, hour-long security screenings, misplaced luggage and delayed flights. I was home just long enough to unpack, play with the cat, knock back some coffee and head to the Fabulous Forum via the secret, locals-only back way. The ticket listed a 7:00 start and I was not in the car until 6:25 so this was cutting it far too close, but that’s just how it played out on a travel day.
I got to the Forum lots and parked pretty quickly, but the security screening took a lot longer than usual - it seemed there were only 8 metal detectors for the entire crowd who did not have Forum Club entry, and I lost whatever time I made up by driving the back route. It had also become cold and windy, and there were dozens of miracle-seekers and a few cash-for-your-extras people hovering around. After about 25 minutes the sleep-deprivation and the cold weather made me a little irritable, to the point where the small talk around me grated on my nerves and the idea of sitting at home sounded good. Not the greatest headspace to be in with several hours of live music with 15,000 people is staring you in the face. Sometimes this is a hard, cold town.
As I make my way into the venue, the house lights drop. I dart into the arena and see that my seat is on the exact opposite side of the arena from when I am now. Fortunately, the Forum is a revamped old-school arena where a main walkway rings the inside of the arena, so I was able to watch the band come out and start tuning. Within 30 seconds they’ve started MINGLEWOOD BLUES, and this Bob-sung blues cover goes all the way back to the earliest days of the band. Heck, they might have even played it just down the road at the Watts Acid Test in 1966. Then Bob starts singing, and for a second I think there are PA problems as his voice sounds off. Then he sings another line and I realize his voice sounds like his throat was rubbed with sandpaper. Uh-oh. Bob sounds like the gruff-but-lovable dispatcher at A&P Taxi in Concord, New Hampshire, and I wonder how much singing he actually has in him tonight. Immediately I think of those early 1978 GD shows where Jerry Garcia had no voice due to laryngitis and Weir sang every song for half of one show and all of two others. The song played out well enough as an opener as I made my way to my seat to the side of stage right, but this sounds like it could affect things tonight.
I’m still a little frazzled as HERE COMES SUNSHINE starts, but I smile as this is the first time seeing this one live in 2015. Lead guitarist / new guy John Mayer handles the vocals, and he’s going for an up-front approach that somewhat belies the early-show vibe. From my standpoint I’m just behind the guitar line and can mostly see the backs of John, Bob and bassist Oteil Burbridge, but I have fantastic views of drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and a surprisingly clear view of keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who is all the way across from me on stage left. Oddly enough, the one guy who I’m struggling to hear in the mix is Oteil, who is the closest guy to me. I’m slightly behind the main PA speakers, so that might be it. I’m trying to relax and settle in, and even as the mid-song jam hits a nice peak I’m still not fully dialed in. Eventually the primary color of the lighting changes from red to purple, and that helps, but it still feels early and the slightly trebly mix is making me feel a bit jangly. I feel like this 1973 feel-good classic is a little wasted on me at this point, but thousands of others look to be locked in by the time the song concludes after 11 minutes.
At this point I’m thinking that the show is going to rely heavily on the Garcia-penned songs sung by John Mayer. They need to protect what’s left of Bob’s voice for tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve gig - that’s the higher-profile of the two shows here, and nothing else is scheduled after that. Sure enough, John gets the nod on the easy-rocking mid-80s anthem WEST L.A. FADEAWAY and mid-paced early 80s easy-rocking ALTHEA, and then Bob steps up to handle mid-paced early 70s country-rocking LOSER. All great songs, but lining them up back-to-back-to-back unfortunately makes the vibe feel a bit samey after the 26 minutes they collectively last. Bob’s vocals are ok if he sticks to a range that’s close to his speaking voice and doesn’t overdo it, but it starts to sound rough pretty quickly if he sings too hard or goes up too many notes.
Once Loser winds down Mayer wastes no time leading the band into BERTHA, and it’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Simple, straightforward, upbeat, and direct, this early 70s Garcia-Hunter classic about an electric fan in the bands offices picks the pace up and keeps it there. John has a great time singing it, and after he energetically solos through a couple of verses, everyone is expecting the band to return to the chorus and finish the song. However, the exact opposite happens as Bob directs the band to back Mayer up for two more verses, complete with Bob and Oteil playing the “traditional” power chords on the 2nd and 3rd downbeats at the end of the one verse and 4th and 5th downbeats of the next. This extends the song out to a full 10 minutes, and all is well. The song sort of meanders into a very short, spacey jam, which quickly becomes BIRD SONG, a welcome early-70s psychedelic classic. The riff is one of Garcia’s most deadly earworms, and John and Bob trade off on the vocals, which are a memorial to Janis Joplin. The spaced-out, improvised jan after the verses peaked early with a nice wave of sound, and another one followed a couple minutes later and overall the jam was very much an “ebb and flow” thing and never hit the peak that it sometimes can. The finish was an odd one too, as Bob waved the band to a full stop after the first “snow and rain” in the final chorus and announced the intermission.
So, the quick halftime stats: after Bob’s raspy opener we got six straight Garcia-Hunter songs (four from the early 70s and two from the 80s), mostly sung by John. The set ran from 7:45 to 8:52, a solid 67 minutes.
Overall, I feel like I need to point the finger at myself here. I’m really tired, and that’s affecting everything. I’m also hungry, and the only substantive food that’s available without a long, long wait were hot dogs, which were scarfed down during Althea and are now giving me food coma. I’ve also ended up in a spot where the lower registers of the music are not coming through clearly, and that’s not helping, but this place is way sold out and I don’t want to be that guy scamming into someone else;s killer seat. On top of that, there are so many people smoking in here that the venue saw fit to open up many of its doors to the outside concourse. But it’s in the low 50s and windy outside, and my seat is about 30 feet away from open doors where cold air is blasting through, and I’m in a t-shirt and cargo shorts. Yes, I’m cold in L.A. All told, I’m working much harder to enjoy this than I should be.
By the time the lights go down for the second set, I’m in a slightly better place even if it’s a bit chilly. My mood improves further when the band is tuning to play a song in the key of D, because that means we’re going to get PLAYING IN THE BAND as the opener. Bob handles the lyrics on one of his best songs, and once the “song” portion plays out over three minutes the band head charge headlong into the jazzy improvisation section for which the song is famous. John gets any out in front of everyone and establishes a quick pace, and the band follow him. It’s dense, it’s thick, and the band are really feeling it in a Europe ’72 sort of way - at various times the music swarms, circles, dives and doubles back only to go somewhere else, and Oteil’s bass lines once again become more prominent when he plays the lower strings. The highlight of the night so far. The song glides to a full stop after 12 minutes before the band hit a loud, dissonant power chord, and for a few seconds I think that they’ve resurrected Bob’s Victim Or The Crime. I actually like this song a lot, and some major Schadenfreude kicks in as I prepare for the reactions around me.
Except it’s not Victim; it’s actually VIOLA LEE BLUES, one of the oldest songs in the repertoire and another one that could have been played at the Watts Acid Test. Sweet! This one dates back to the mid-60s and was retired in 1970 or so by the Grateful Dead, which was disappointing, but it’s received prominent and proper treatment in the post-GD incarnations of the band. Somehow John, Bob and Jeff started singing on the second verse and so the song only ran 10 minutes instead of the usual 15 to 20, but John led the way with some frenetic leads while he twitched back and forth and let the music just come through him. Billy’s drumming was also really on point - he was locked into what John was doing, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it was hot and it wound down to another full stop so people could hit pedals for the intro to SHAKEDOWN STREET. An appropriate tune for the often-heartless Los Angeles, the song nonetheless pales a bit in comparison to what came before it, and not just because Bob’s vocals sound rough. The band are getting their best jam results tonight with the passages that allow a restless, jagged, psychedelic vibe as opposed to Shakedown’s 70s disco-funk vibe, and the song’s outro jam just sort of bops along for a few minutes before winding down. I’d love to see what George Clinton’s P-Funk all stars could do with this one.
The momentum picks right back up with one of the band’s oldest and best pairings, and the songs fits the band’s vibe tonight perfectly: CHINA CAT SUNFLOWER into I KNOW YOU RIDER. John and Bob split the vocals on China Cat, and Oteil’s bass lines bubble under everything very nicely. The jam gathers momentum and maintains it throughout the guitarists’ runs up the neck to reach the tried-and-true transition into Rider, and you can see John and Oteil grinning widely as Bob leads the band through everything. After the first verses Jeff gets his first true solo section of the night, and he makes the most of it and does some wonderful things to the keys of his piano. Bob’s voice holds up as well as it can for the “Sun Gonna Shine” and the “Headlight” verses, and as the a cappella ending winds down the guys up front yield the stage to the drummers.
As has been the case on most nights with this version of the band, as soon as Billy and Mickey have gotten up from their respective drum kits and started pounding away on the wide variety of instruments set up behind them, Oteil makes his way back out and sits at Billy’s kit to make it a to for DRUMS. The journey covers much of the “expected” ground, with a side variety of booms, bashes, beeps, loops, bloops and whatever else. The highlight comes when Mickey is left alone for several minutes with his favorite toy, The Beam, which is a long beam with the lowest strings of a grand piano strung across it. Aside from giving it a couple of kicks, he saws on the strings and makes it rumble with such an evil-sounding noise that John can be seen watching from a few feet away with a huge grin on his face. He even applauds, and so does much of the crowd. The momentum carries into the SPACE segment, and after just a couple minutes of free-form noise he guitarists establish a staccato beat and Billy soon returns to lightly anchor it. It progresses along for a couple of minutes and it sounds like it could lead into THE OTHER ONE, and eventually it does exactly that, but not before a couple more minutes of the band enjoying the moment before making the full switch into the key of E. They make the introduction more obvious, and then John and Bob take deliberate steps back to give Oteil the spotlight for the song’s much-loved rolling-thundercloud bass intro. Oteil nails it, people cheer, and the next 10 minutes of purposeful jamming is another highlight of the night, and Bob’s voice holds up on the two verses since the range is within what’s left of his voice.
As the slow, distinctive strains of WHARF RAT issue forth from John’s guitar, the house lights start to go up. Or at least I think that’s what they are for a second before looking up to the rafters to see that the newly-revamped Forum has installed twinkling lights in the rafters that are intended to mimic a starry sky. Oh, now that’s a nice touch. John handles the vocals and the pace of the song seems a little faster than usual, but not so fast that it alters the song’s impact. Everyone flies away with August West while Oteil drops a huge Lesh-style bass bomb, and John assures us that August’s girl has his been true to him before bringing it home with a soaring solo during which he is literally jumping up and down to help get those notes out. They all forget to song the last verse, but that peak was so good that it actually made better sense to just end it there and start LOVELIGHT. Since this is usually a showcase for one of Bob’s vocal rave-ups, they had to change up the delivery of this 60s classic. This time they went for a call-and-response, with Bob making the calls and John, Oteil and Jeff handling the responses. It made for a different and distinctive version, and the now-expected James Brown-style false ending was also fun.
Man, at one point I was cold, but I’d forgotten all about that until just now. That was a lot of constant motion right there.
I knew they’d already done Ripple up in San Francisco, so I wasn’t sure what was coming when John, Bob and Oteil all returned for the encore bearing acoustic instruments. It turned out to be FRIEND OF THE DEVIL, and in the faster America Beauty-style version with a couple extra verses of soloing. It felt like an odd choice, but odd is good around here. Then it was a sprint to the car to beat the traffic out, and within about half an hour I was home and in a warm bed with the cat curled up next to me.
Overall, this show progressed like most of the Grateful Dead shows I saw: the first set served as a sort of warmup for the longer songs and musical fireworks that took place in the second set. And Bob gets major props for toughing it out tonight. Thee mentality of “The Show Must Go One” has aways run as strongly in this band as any other you can name; these supposed hippies have always been tough bastards.
And now there’s one more show to go this year. Shall we go, you and I while we can?
December 30, 2015
DEAD & COMPANY | LOS ANGELES, DECEMBER 2015 | PRELUDE: FROM THE WATTS TOWERS TO THE FABULOUS FORUM
Of all the surprising things that happened in the world of the Grateful Dead this year, the fact that the version of the band trading as Dead & Co. would choose to ring in the new year with a pair of shows in Los Angeles might be right up there with the biggest ones. It’s been my home base now for over 13 years, and by now it’s definitely home, but for the most part it's never been a major stopping point for the Grateful Dead.
In many ways the Grateful Dead were the quintessential San Francisco band, the unintended-but-oops-it-happened-anyway musical standard-bearers for the rival Californian city from the north, and one of the only cities whose creative output over the last 50 years can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with L.A. However, nearly everything about the Grateful Dead as people and a creative entity was totally antithetical to Los Angeles. Every original member of the Dead was actually a Bay Area native as opposed to a transplant, and the band’s formation was completely organic, done without regard for careerist purposes, and with little to no knowledge of the music business or how it worked, or how one might make a living in it. Despite all that, the city of Los Angeles ended up playing a significant role in the band’s early development. At this point, I need to credit Dennis McNally’s “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead” as my source for the following L.A. (back) stories:
By late 1965 the band were playing the legendary “Acid Tests” in the Bay Area, which were essentially get-togethers where all attendees (including the band) took LSD and hung out all night, during a short time when it was actually legal to do this. It didn’t take long for word of this to reach Owsley Stanley, the maker of the world’s best LSD, a lover of music, and a crazed, doctrinaire pioneer in search of many of the same things as the band. Soon Owsley and the band decided their interests were mutual enough to try living together in Los Angeles, and a decision to move soon followed. Owsley bankrolled the entire project and rented a communal house in the Watts section of Los Angeles, with the band also thinking that they might be able to make some inroads into the music industry while there.
It didn’t go nearly as well as everyone hoped. The house was a more stressful environment than expected, not least for for the female partners of band members. Owsley also insisted that all residents eat only steak and drink only milk, and the band made no real inroads with the Los Angeles music industry, primarily because they never really tried. After a couple of acid tests and only a couple of paid gigs later, the band returned to San Francisco to stay.
However, there was one pivotal moment during this time that galvanized the Grateful Dead’s future. The Watts Acid Test, staged just after their arrival, was the most significant event during their time in L.A., mostly for the wrong reasons: the acid made for the event was so strong that most attendees tripped way too hard to enjoy it. It also didn’t help that the event was staged in a dusty warehouse in Compton, and it helped even less when the police found out what was going on and ringed the event with sawhorses and officers wielding billy clubs. It became an event to survive instead of enjoy - even legendary Prankster Neal Casady was so messed up he couldn’t drive for hours, but eventually he did slowly drive Grateful Dead lead guitarist and reluctant leader Jerry Garcia back to the house in Watts sometime in the early hours. During that drive something very important happened, and at this point I’ll leave the words to Mr. McNally, because he’s already said it best:
“When they passed the Watts Towers, a peculiar local artistic monument to junk sculpture, Garcia had an epiphany. The Towers was the work of one person, Simon Rodia, and it was concrete, which is to say material. Early on February 13, Sunday morning coming down, nerves shredded by a grueling night, he gazed at the Towers and came to several conclusions. One was that material artifacts me no sense to him; whatever art he could participate in would have to be intangible, something that left behind only memories. In other words, music. And it had to be a group effort. The individual artist, as epitomized in Rodia or even more extremely in Neal Casady, wasn’t going to work for Garcia. Neal was his own brilliant, if demented, artist, and his own product as well. But he was also isolated. Something “dynamic” had a chance, Garcia thought, something cooperative but leaderless, and operating in real time, in the present moment. “This isn’t strictly recreational,” he decided. “This is really important. And that’s when I started paying attention.”
And now almost 50 years later, Dead & Company, the current incarnation of the band Garcia co-founded have returned to play shows just 9 short miles from the site of that revelation, complete with a bona fide pop star standing in for the man who transitioned to the great beyond in 1995. It’s an oddly L.A. sort of twist to the saga, and a twist one that no one could reasonably have ever predicted. But I’ll take it, and so will many others. Let’s get on with the shows.