BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
June 28, 2015
GD50: FARE THEE WELL, NIGHT ONE: TREY SILENCES THE HATERS, AND THE SET LIST IS A DREAM MADE REAL
After months of waiting and speculation, the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows are happening over the next two weekends, with the first two taking place in Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco. I spent the morning getting my roller coaster on at the California's Great America park next door as a warmup before heading over to Levi’s Stadium at about 4:30, only to be told by a polite security guard (with help from a visibly buzzed head with tall whiskey and cokes in each hand) that the lines for will call ticket pickup were an hour long. Apparently a lot of hard tickets were lost in the mail and this was how they were being replaced, so instead of checking out the parking lot scene for an hour, I waited through an airport-style security screening before waiting in the actual will call line. They probably could have doubled the ticket-distribution personnel there, sure, but it actually became funny listening to what seemed like every other head within earshot complaining about everything they could think of relating to “oppressive’ security (they weren’t), the slow moving lines (ok, fair enough), and various other sinister plots by The Man to hassle their buzz. Well, that part hasn’t changed.
Once I had my ticket it was 6:00 p.m. and showtime was listed for 7:00, so just I headed inside. Better early than late. I grabbed some food and a bottle of water before scanning the year-old stadium, which was enormous, comfortable, well-designed and easy to get around. The latter two details probably served as Jedi mind tricks to the longtime The San Francisco 49ers season ticket holders from the Candlestick Park days. While I waited for the show to start I was able to catch up in person with Pittsburgh buddy Jason Rapp (we live 10 minutes away from each other in Los Angeles) and with Wesleyan buddies Charles Still and Michelle Barth Still (who I had not seen since 1990 and who had flown in from Houston.) Let’s do the time warp again, shall we?
Every so often someone had been setting off the foghorn that the 49ers use to celebrate touchdowns to generate cheers, but eventually Radiohead’s “House Of Cards” started playing through the PA at a slightly louder volume as the sunlight poked through a beautiful red sky. I just sat there with a slight smile, took in the scene and enjoyed the moment as the stage techs finished their final preparations. As soon as the song faded out the band members started making their way onstage at 7:30, and there was a minute or so of tuning before they turned and acknowledged the crowd (and that oh-so-familiar roar), and just after that someone teased the riff of “The Last Time” before they launched a slower, free-form jam from a full stop.
TRUCKIN’: The band spent several minutes grooving in a slower, bluesy theme with a couple clear hints of “Spoonful” as they exchanged glances and the sound crew adjusted the levels and the mix. The volume was decidedly lower at first, but that was always a normal thing for the beginning of Dead shows. Soon enough they were ready to go, and Bob led the count-in to “Truckin”, which made sense as “Spoonful” was frequently linked to it in the GD era. A nice autobiographical choice as the first tune, but the volume stayed low and they kept the tempo a bit slower while they settled in and made sure they could hear themselves properly in front of 60,000 people. At some point nearly every band member gestured to his tech and asked for levels to go up or down on ther instrument or their vocals. As the song moved along it remained a pretty mellow version, maybe even a little tentative, with the usual crescendo at the end and another bluesy jam afterwards before coming to a full stop. We had no way of knowing this at the time, but this turned out to be the “newest” song of the night.
UNCLE JOHN’S BAND: After a few conversations onstage they eased into Uncle John, moving back in time a few months from “Truckin’”. Once again they took it easy and kept the tempo at a relaxed pace while they settled in, and at this point the overall mix was still a little soupy but they’d at least turned it up a bit. By the time they got to the middle jam they'd loosened up to where my mind wandered along with the music. The song’s closing jam meandered along gently, and then as a nice touch the band brought the band to a full stop using the short vocal coda from the Workingman’s Dead or acoustic versions. No genuine peak moments to speak of, but it’s early and it was a great choice.
ALLIGATOR: This got a “Whoa!” from your trusty reporter as I didn’t expect this one, and the opening riff sent a surge through the crowd and bumped things up a notch. Phil handled Pigpen’s vocals, and in the early days this relatively short song with playful, twee lyrics usually served as a launch pad for the lengthier “Caution: Do Not Stop On Tracks”. That’s what I though was coming here, and once they got past the lyrics and into the jamming section you could feel a boost in energy as they now seemed more comfortable. Trey stepped forward and played some hot riffs, and they were well-received. Once Alligator switched keys it definitely sound like the expected “Caution” for a few bars, but then then the tempo changed again, the band members exchanged glances, and after they moved into the another key Bob motioned everyone into….
CUMBERLAND BLUES: More Workingman’s Dead, and a nice carry-over of the momentum they’d built. It also gave everyone a chance to stretch out and play some faster leads when it was their turn, with Trey and Bruce coming up with some great stuff. The mix was still a little bit thick from where I was, and I could head Phil’s bass, Bill’s drums and Bruce’s piano most clearly, with Trey’s guitar, Jeff’s keyboards and Mickey's drums a bit lower. At times I could not hear Bob's guitar, but at least everyone’s vocals were clear. As the song got hotter we had a sad sight in our area though: across the aisle to my left a guy had passed out in his seat. It’s a Saturday night show, so that’s not abnormal. Dude probably spent the day drinking and it caught up to him. As he slumped forward, his wife or girlfriend reached around his shoulders to hold him up. I felt so bad for her and for him.
BORN CROSS-EYED: Sweet! That punchy, weird beginning of Born Cross-Eyed was another nice surprise. I’m really digging this early-material vibe; we used to dream about set lists like this in the late 80s and the 90s. But off to my left things have taken a bad turn as the passed-out guy has turned pale as a ghost and tilted his head back. The woman in the row behind sees this and holds her hand over his mouth to see if he’s breathing. The look on her face immediately tells us he isn’t. She motions for security, who makes a call for EMTs as numerous heads team up to try and help the guy. About six or seven people are able to pick him up and carry him up the aisle about 5 rows to the top of the stairs, where they lay him down on the concrete.
CREAM PUFF WAR: This was the most surprising song of the set, born from a great segue from Born Cross-Eyed. It was also when Trey took his first prominent step forward and led the mid-song am with some fanning and some power chords. Now they’re rolling, but unfortunately this is kind of lost on our section at the moment: the EMTs have arrived, and they are frantically administering CPR to the guy at the top of the steps while they’re waiting for a stretcher to arrive. And for whatever reason, a bunch of people had decided this was the perfect time to head up the stairs and out into the hall, but now the usher is blocking access the aisle so the EMTs can work, and there are now steady streams of people cutting through our row and one other row to get to the next hallway. The guy next to me is dancing in bare feet and they get stepped on at least twice, and after a nonstop train of about a dozen people cut through our aisle he’s had enough, and he blocks the aisle by reaching past me to throw a double “talk to the hand” motion to a few more people and orders them to use another row. Those heads aren’t happy, but neither is he. He’s also much bigger than them and clearly pissed off, so they back down and find another aisle.
VIOLA LEE BLUES: The EMTs wheel their charge away and things sort of get back to normal as the momentum from Cream Puff War is carried over to Viola Lee Blues. For a few seconds it sounded as if they were setting up a transition into China Cat Sunflower, but Viola Lee it was, and no complaints here as it was always one of their best vehicles for jamming in the earliest days of the band. The jam after the first verse was the most powerful, with Trey doing some more great fanning work to bring things to a crescendo, The jam after the second verse was longer but didn’t shoot for or reach a clear peak, and after the third verse the jam picked back up and sounded for a minute like it was headed into Lovelight. Trey stepped forward and started playing a nice lead and people started really cheering, and that was a nice acknowledgement, I thought. Then people kept on cheering in a way that did not jibe with the music, and it got louder and louder, and then I looked skyward and saw the reason: a rainbow had formed over the stadium while grey clouds hovered in the background. You have got to be kidding me. I was hoping someone would clue the band into what was happening via the in-ear monitors and that would prompt a lyrically-appropriate detour into the aforementioned China Cat Sunflower, but instead it was break time.
The first set ran 65 minutes, from 7:32 to 8:37. It was generally pretty mellow, but by the end of it the band had found their feet, and every song played was circa 1970 or before. Also, I asked the usher during the break if that guy who passed out was going to be ok, and fortunately he would be. He'd OD'ed and nearly died, but the EMTs were able to save him.
The intermission was unusually long even by Grateful Dead standards, running just over an hour. Fortunately I didn’t have anywhere else I needed to be, which is rare and I’m loving it. The house lights went down at 9:37 and the band kicked off the second set at 9:39 with a very welcome choice.
CRYPTICAL ENVELOPMENT: The slower song from 1968's "Anthem Of THe Sun" that serves as the intro and prelude to The Other One does not exactly make for a slam-bang start to the second set, but it does send a message that some big-time jamming is coming soon. Phil handled the vocals, and instead of heading into the expected drum intro to The Other One, the band gently explored the Cryptical theme for several minutes. Like so many Dead shows beforehand, the volume was turned up for the second set, but it was a little odd so go with such a subtle jam straight out of the gate.
DARK STAR: The pacing of the Cryptical jam made for a perfect launching point for Dark Star. Okay, anything makes a perfect launching point for Dark Star, even silence, but you get my point. After a couple minutes or so of exploring the opening theme you could feel a “click” - they’d found their second set groove and wasted no time putting it to good use. A few minutes later Phil, Bob and Trey each took a line of vocals and then teamed up for the chorus, and then it was off to the deepest reaches of space for a long time, and it was actually hard to tell if it was still Dark Star or not. Wherever it was that they went, it was somewhere out past our solar system, and eventually they returned to sing the second verse and then space out again immediately afterwards. Eventually, it finally landed and docked to an end after a whopping 28 minutes. Jeff gets a mention for his playing throughout; he deployed a ton of tripped out effects while Bruce held down the traditional sounds on the grand piano. And by this point it was safe to proclaim that anyone who'd been fool enough to think Trey wasn’t up to this gig has probably slunk away in shame. (And yes, large numbers of these haters were out there actively dumping their trash into Dead-related message boards for months. Go look, you'll see.)
ST. STEPHEN: During my pre-show conversation with Jason Rapp I really, truly actually did speculate that they could do at least one set out of the five shows as an “early stuff” set, and I even went a step further and specifically mentioned the Live Dead sides 1-3 sequence of Dark Star, St. Stephen > The Eleven > Lovelight as something that’s been on my "wanna-see-live" wish list for decades. And tonight we got it. Woo. But there was no way that I would have ever envisioned the band would extend St. Stephen out to an eye-popping 22 minutes by turning the jam after the “One man gathers what another man spills” into a lengthy, percolating, mid-tempo exploration of deep space, with musical fireworks from Trey, and Hornsby to go with the real fireworks that were being set off intermittently outside the stadium.
THE ELEVEN: After playing the "Live Dead" album along with many other shows from the late 60s and early 70s over the years, it was really jarring, in a good way, to actually be in a stadium in 2015 and hear these guys finish up St. Stephen and begin The Eleven. The band had a head of steam from the first line of vocals, and they plowed through the verses and spent a good five or six minutes jamming on the vocal outro riff before switching into that instantly recognizable 11/8 time riff for which the song is named. It’s a tricky section to play and things were occasionally a little ragged, but it was still just exactly perfect, like a child's favorite teddy bear. And, they nearly pulled off an eleven squared: The Eleven ran for 12 minutes, and I was now ready to see the five non-drummers start heading offstage to let Billy and Mickey do their thing:
LOVELIGHT: However, the band had other ideas and the "Live Dead" fantasy became a reality. for me and probably thousands of others. This version of Lovelight was more along the lines of the Bob-led version that regularly closed GD second sets from the the early 80s onwards, but there was one proper Pigpen-Inspired “Wait A Minute!” with a full stop somewhere in the middle. By now we were a good hour and twenty minutes into the set, and I thought they were going to end it here without the customary second set drum duet and space. But then again, the drum duets weren’t an every-show thing in the earliest days, and I realy would have been 100% happy if it had ended here. But the end of the 8-minute Lovelight did not feature the usual end-of-set crescendo - instead it just sort of petered out as the guitarists and keyboardists left the stage. This musical journey's heading into overtime.
DRUMS: Billy and Mickey looked and sounded absolutely thrilled to be doing the do on people’s heads together for the first time in six years, and over the space of 18 minutes they pulled out all the major stops for which they are famous: they used their kits at first, and then Billy mostly anchored himself at The Beast while Mickey flitted between the racks of electronic drums, an amplified African sanza, and The Beam, the latter of which was played with 2 different violin bows, a mallet and a large section of metal pipe. They finished up with 2 big smiles and and 4 arms pounding on The Beast in unison. Welcome back, drummer boys. We missed you.
SPACE / WHAT’S BECOME OF THE BABY: The guitarists and keyboardists came back out and quickly established a heavy, minor key, effects-laden palette, with Jeff leading the charge through the creation of a series of strange noises and squalls. After a couple minutes Phil stepped up to the mike and said something, and at first I thought someone flipped the wrong switch, and whatever he was saying was supposed to be meant to delivery to the in-ear monitors of the band and crew. Then he said some more things and only then did it became clear it was a set piece. I couldn’t quite make out the words over the music behind him, but my initial guess given the early-days nature of the set my guess was that it was a Beat-era poem along the lines of Ginsberg’s “Howl”. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned it was "What's Become Of The Baby", the lengthy Jerry Garcia spoken-word track on side 2 of “Aoxomoxoa” that he recorded while inhaling nitrous oxide. It was probably more fun to record than it is to listen to, and I bet just about everyone skips it when they play the album now. Still, it worked here with a music bed, I’ll take it, and this set is unbelievable. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the first time it had ever been played live. And after 12 minutes of space and words, the band finally arrives at the song we thought was coming an hour and forty minutes ago.
THE OTHER ONE: At this point I can’t believe our luck. After all that’s come before it, they're gonna lay The Other One on us now too? Man. Phil didn’t perform his famous and popular "rumble" intro, but by now the band was so far out there that it wasn't needed. Everyone up there just surged forward musically and created yet a thick, dense musical tapestry over the space of eleven minutes, with the players weaving in out of one another’s lines, with a bob and weave here, a dart to the left there, and and a wraparound over there and I'll meet you at the one, whenever that is. There was no major, epic, mind-melting peak but things kept moving pretty consistently and purposefully through two jams, two verses and an outro. This was the sort of version they'd been going for when they tried to record a semi-live version of the song over one side of the Anthem Of The Sun album. I wasn’t sure what the set closer would be, but as things wound down I narrowed my guesses to New Speedway Boogie or the reprise of Cryptical Envelopment.
MORNING DEW: While I love me some New Speedway Boogie, I was happy to be wrong. The band circles back to the 1967 debut album again to close the set with one of their heaviest hitters, a Bonnie Dobson cover that the Dead truly made their own. This was a Garcia showpiece when the Grateful Dead were together, but Bob handled the vocals and did a great job. Once again Trey stepped up and brought the house down during the closing jam, once again with fanning and power chords inspired by Garcia’s style but played by Trey in his style. Another eleven minutes flies by in what feels like seconds. Boom.
CASEY JONES: Phil comes out alone and does his organ donor rap (summary: tell someone you love you’d like to become an organ donor if something happens to you; Phil is a liver transplant survivor and he here’s here now because a guy named Cody did just that), and then they close out the night with a rocking, proud Casey Jones with Bruce handling lead vocals. As the last chord rings out, it’s exactly midnight, but no one's who's not hallucinating is watching their carriage turn into a pumpkin.
Including the set break, it was a four and a half hour show with a 2 hour-plus second set. Trey silenced the haters, the “newest” song was “Truckin’”, the set list was the kind that people dream about, and the performance went from mellow to good to great over the space of the evening. This train is rolling.
Even if any of the remaining four shows are better from a performance standpoint, I have a very, very hard time thinking this set list will ever get topped. But brothers and sisters? Here’s a time where I’d just loooooove to be wrong. And as Devo's General Boy once said, "No one knows, so let's find out!"
Ok, gotta move. Next show starts in just over an hour.