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June 30, 2015

GD50: FARE THEE WELL, NIGHT TWO: THE EARLY EIGHTIES, MORE OR LESS

After spending the morning banging out most of last night’s show recap, I spent the afternoon on a day trip to Santa Cruz with Charles and Michele Still. If you haven’t seen people in 25 years, you really don’t run out of things to talk about any time soon. And while Michele had seen the Grateful Dead a few times while they were together Charles never did, and he was so happy to be doing the closest thing to it. Actually, we all were.

After a stop at the hotel I was back at the stadium and in my seat by 5:50 for a 6:00 p.m. start, complete with two bottles of water. Tonight I was one section over and 11 rows down from last night, and by sheer coincidence Charles and Michelle were in the very same row, one section to my right. Once again, the actual start time wasn’t far behind the announced one, as the band started playing at 6:23 with the sun still shining directly at them.

SET 1:

FEEL LIKE A STRANGER: Nice opener, and it always has been. The post-disco-era singles-bar lyrics pair nicely with the post-disco era groove and guitar tone, and it also ensures some jamming happens early. However, this version went to the next level quickly when the band used the normally-short solo between the second and third verses for the first open-ended jam of the night. Trey employed the wah effect that the song calls for, but with a slightly subtler tone than the one Garcia used, and very early on he caught a wave. We’re maybe four minutes into the show and Trey is bouncing that little bounce he does and playing this fluid, confident solo that could have been from a second set, and at one point in there Bruce stepped up and added some choice piano bits before passing the proverbial baton back to Trey. The closing jam was also strong, and before long 11 minutes had flown by.

MINGLEWOOD BLUES: Alright, a double-shot of Bob tunes. Minglewood was always my favorite of the Bob-first-set-blues tunes, so I’m happy. They stuck to the traditional GD arrangement of Jeff getting 2 verses to solo on the Hammond B3, Bob getting 2 verses for the slide guitar solo (still raunchy) and Trey getting 2 verses after that. As the song came to a close, Bob rotated his hands around in the “keep going” motion to ensure a walking start into the next one.

BROWN-EYED WOMEN: One of the most concise and well-constructed Garcia/Hunter songs in the catalog keeps things moving along nicely, with Bruce handling lead vocals. Hunter’s lyrics paint such vivid pictures on this one, and Bruce keeps things on track by sticking to the song’s original arrangement and not using the mid-song break as a launch pad.

LOOSE LUCY: Okay, now it’s two Garcia/Hunter songs in a row, with Bob handling the vocals. This version was on the mellow side, with some slightly different backing vocals than the GD versions from 1990 onwards. It’s definitely welcome, but the best versions of this one tend to be a little quicker, with bit of raunch to go with the lyrics, but this one had more of a relaxed vibe. Still, great choice.

LOSER: And another strong one - a Garcia-Hunter outlaw song about a gambling addict, and one that’s been beefing up first sets for 40 years. Bruce handled the vocals and his voice is just right for it now, having acquired some additional grit over the years. I actually remember when heads were openly concerned when Bruce first joined the band in 1990 that he was some “pop star” who would ruin things. Wrong. He was probably the most spectacular keyboard player the band ever had, with the underrated Brent Mydland running a close second. Anyway, Loser also sauntered along at a tempo that was a little slower than ideal, but the “Last Fair Deal” chorus revved everything up a notch. Then the mid-song jam faltered, but Bruce stepped forward and hammered out some chords to salvage it before leading the band into the second “Last Fair Deal” chorus.

ROW JIMMY: Everyone has that song or two that they’re just not that into, and for me Row Jimmy is one of them. I don’t dislike the Garcia/Hunter song (now four in a row!), but I do think the live versions of it take 10 minutes to do what could be done in 5 or 6. With that in mind, I watched the first verse and chorus and darted out to hit the restroom and grab a couple vegan dogs for dinner, and I was back by the final chorus. Phil handled the lead vocals, and I could hear Bruce playing a nice piano lead in the song’s midsection while I was out on the concourse. When the song ended, Bruce got up from his piano and walked all the way across the stage to talk something over with Trey before starting the next song. This made me think something very good was about to happen.

ALABAMA GETAWAY: And indeed it did. A fifth consecutive Garcia-Hunter song, one of the rockingest in the catalog, and the energy level was right back up. Trey got the nod for lead vocals and he nailed them. Jeff took a great Hammond B3 solo in the middle and Bruce augmented it with some thick chords, then Trey took over from there and burned it up. This was the strongest performance since the opening Stranger, and by the end of the song they’d built up a huge head of steam for one more rocker to close the set. As the final chords rang out Bob turned to the others to count in the next song, I found myself thinking “What’s it gonna be, Bob? Greatest Story Ever Told, or Promised Land?”

BLACK PETER: Huh? What? Really? As Bob gently strummed the opening chords to one of the longest and slowest dirges in the catalog when played in electric form, I couldn’t believe it. I really like the Garcia-Hunter-penned (6 in a row!) Black Peter in its original, concise, sparse acoustic “Workingman’s Dead” arrangement but I’m not as into the electric version, which usually runs upwards of 10 minutes and takes a long time to get there. The energy from Getaway dissipated almost instantly, and even though the song did build up nicely at the end, with some high-volume Bob vocals leading the charge, its placement here made me wish they’d used these 14 minutes to play something else. But that’s the Grateful Dead for ya right there - ya pays your money and ya takes your chances. It’s all good.

HELL IN A BUCKET: This was always one of Bob’s favorites, and it's a strong song with a strong arrangement. During the last decade of the Grateful Dead era this was a very frequent show opener, but I actually preferred its occasional placement as a late-first-set song, as it’s complicated and benefits from the band being warmed up. But even with its placement here as a set closer, it was a loose and sometimes shambolic version with extra bars between verses, and delays before some of the vocal lines. Bob had to switch guitars at the beginning of the mid-song jam, and a couple minutes later they nearly train-wrecked when Bob missed his cue to close the jam and start the “Circus” verse, only for Bob to try and signal for the closing thirty seconds later in the middle of the next go-round. Trey stepped forward and got things back on track by leading yet another run around the block and building momentum way back up with a powerful solo that had a fanned peak, and the third time was the charm: this everyone nailed the transition into the “Circus” verse at the same time, and with gusto. Then instead of the normal ending, the song just sort of petered out as if it was going to transition into something else, but then it didn’t and it was break time. Hehehe. Lack of perfection is just exactly perfect, and even if it was inconsistent you’ve gotta love a first set that ran 89 minutes. That's an entire cassette, and longer than most of the Grateful Dead’s second sets during their final decade.

I went out for a stroll on the concourse during the break, and it is amazing how many people at these shows were paying little or no attention to who or what was in front of them while they were walking. I'll let you guess the reason(s) why this was happening, but it was actually kind of funny, and at times I felt like I was playing some real-life, modified version of the old video game Frogger.

Once again the set break ran about an hour, and it was nearly dark by the time the lights went out for the second set.

SET 2:

MISSISSIPPI 1/2 STEP UPTOWN TOODELOO: As much as I like this folksy, evocative Garcia-Hunter song I generally think of it as a “first set” tune, and I’m surely one of many who hoped one of the traditional heavy-hitters would start the second set (e.g. China Cat, Scarlet, Help/Slipknot). However, the band were warmed up and ready to go, and the sound was equally warm and full as Phil led the vocal charge. It was a strong, solid version and Trey played a beautiful solo to close out the song’s coda. After the solo wound down Bob turned to the band and directed a clear key change, and there was a clear hint of Wharf Rat early on before the music bubbled along for a good five minutes or so. This is really, really nice. And was that a hint of “The Wheel” there? Maybe. Then after a couple more minutes the jam slowed down a bit and that initial tease had indeed been the giveaway of what was coming next.

WHARF RAT: Yet another Garcia-Hunter song, and one of the diamonds in the Grateful Dead catalog. Bleak as hell but ultimately uplifting, it’s the best of the original “Jerry ballads”, and Bob delivered his strongest individual performance of the two nights during this one. He sang the lead vocals with power and conviction, and the band remained right on point throughout the song. Everyone got up and flew away, and then during the first of the two big closing jams the show hit its peak as Trey gazed skyward, mouth hanging slightly open, and allowed waves of notes to arrive from beyond and surge through him and his guitar. Bruce laid down thick chords behind him, it was the best song of the night, and afterwards they transitioned right into another jam that eased along for several minutes while toying with the “Let It Grow” theme. I kept thinking “Samson & Delilah” was next as 1.) it’s Sunday and 2.) we haven’t had a “Bob” song in the second set yet, but then came some clear hints of “Eyes Of The Word” followed by several nods of acknowledgement amongst band members.

EYES OF THE WORLD: As the jazzy chords ushered in yet another Hunter-Garcia classic, Jeff got up from his keyboards and walked offstage. I figured he'd be right back in under a minute, but then he wasn’t back before Phil started singing, or the first chorus – it looked like they made an artistic decision to have him sit this one out. It was a slightly slower, more relaxed version, and the momentum from Wharf Rat didn’t quite carry over. It was, however, a pleasant version and the song plays to one of Bruce’s strengths as he supplied some beautiful jazz-style leads after the second verse, but what came before and after it was much stronger, and it just felt weird to me that Jeff was sent off (if that is indeed what happened and it wasn’t something else). It was also was a relatively short version of the song, running “only” 10 minutes.

HE’S GONE: This has become the Jerry Garcia memorial song, and the band rose to the occasion with their strongest ensemble vocal performance of the night to augment Bob’s lead vocals. This one can plod along on an off-night, but tonight it had muscle and purpose. Plus, I got my favorite crowd visual of the two nights during this one. During the “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile smile!” line, I looked to my right and saw my college buddy Charles, and ohhh, man. You shoulda seen the size of the grin on that long, tall Texan’s face as he sang along an added some fist pumps for emphasis. After the vocal coda the song would down pretty quickly and the stage emptied except for the drummers. And that makes the “pre-drums” a total of four straight Garcia-Hunter songs.

DRUMS: Tonight they were a little more low-key, though Billy spent a lot of time at The Beast again. There was a third drummer up there for nearly all of the 15 minutes, and he stood behind the kits and played what looked like been subtle patterns on a talking drum, but I didn’t recognize him and I couldn’t hear him. Still, there’s something about watching Billy and Mickey play together. And in a related story, Billy wore glasses last night but not tonight, and tonight Mickey wore a 49ers jersey with the number 50 and "Hart" on the back.

I NEED A MIRACLE: The guitarists and keyboards came back out, plugged in, and essentially skipped the “space” segment of the show to head straight into “I Need A Miracle” after a short lead-in, and we finally have our first Weir-Barlow song of the second set. The song was its normal, punchy self (I’ve always loved the image of a surfer on a tidal wave) and it yielded a nice bluesy jam afterwards.

DEATH DON’T HAVE NO MERCY: I was a little surprised to see this one get the nod as the post-drums slow song, but I’ll take it. When the Grateful Dead revived the song in 1989 Jerry, Bobby and Phil each sang a verse, but tonight Bob handled them all. The first couple verses were very restrained and quiet, and were marred by the woman behind me who decided it was the perfect time to spend several minutes loudly telling her friend all about her son’s recent playdate. Yay, white wine! I turned and gave “the look” a couple times, but she didn't notice. Fortunately the band turned up the intensity during the solos before the final verse, and it was enough to end the monologue and get her back to swaying to the music.

SUGAR MAGNOLIA: I can’t see ever getting tired of hearing Sugar Magnolia. It’s one of Bob’s best songs, and this version was in its usual place as a strong set-closer. Trey played an absolutely searing solo as the music built and built, and there were no mishaps on hitting that big final chord together. That jam used to be a time for Bob to walk out to center stage and hit some power chords and throw some shapes, but the 2015 Bob just played the power chords. He did, however, give us a beautiful rock-star moment: right as they hit the final chord of the jam before the “Sunshine Daydream” coda, in one very quick motion he quickly unzipped and pulled off the hoodie he was wearing and cast it behind him, and it made me think of James Brown tossing his cape off. Once he was down to the traditional band leader’s black t-shirt he counted everyone in and brought it all home. Total second-set running time: 96 minutes.

ENCORE:

BROKEDOWN PALACE: Phil came out alone and did his organ donor rap (summary: tell someone you love that you’d like to become an organ donor if something happens to you; Phil is a liver transplant survivor and he’s here now because a guy named Cody did just that), and then Bobby followed that by asking for 10 seconds of silence “for the guys who couldn’t be here tonight”. He maybe got six or seven seconds of the ten he asked for before several guys started yelling, which prompted an ear-splitting “SHUT UP!” from a woman a few rows in front of me. Nice. And after all that, they closed out the night with a soft, gentle “Brokedown Palace”, and the crowd quieted down completely to listen. No Foxboro or Giants Stadium crowd could ever have done that. Nice finish. Then Mickey came up to the mike after the bows and told everyone, “Take this feeling that you have right now, and go home, and do something with it.” Consider it done.

A few thoughts now that the Santa Clara shows are in the books:

I liked the Saturday show better. The first set was tentative at times and there may have been some rough spots, but that’s not exactly a new thing around here, is it? But those were far more than offset by the song selection (which could not have been better) and the multiple successful excursions into deep space.

Sunday’s show was the more polished of the two performances, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the band felt this performance was the better of the two. But there were a couple of lags in momentum, and the song selection was never going to hold a candle to Saturday no matter what they did.

Saturday was a clear “1970 and before” era show, and a closer look at the Sunday set list shows that with a couple exceptions (Loose Lucy and Death Don’t Have No Mercy), this was a list of songs that could have made up a show from late 1982 or 1983, so we’ll call tonight the Early Eighties, More Or Less.

So far it looks like Bobby and Phil are splitting the lead vocals on the biggest songs, while Bruce and Trey each get to sing a shorter Garcia song or two each night. I’d like to see Trey singing lead more over the next three shows; his voice fits those songs extremely well.

As I walked back from the stadium to the hotel, the band’s motorcade rolled by - around a dozen vans with blacked-out windows and one sleeper bus, with a phalanx of motorcycle cops leading the way. And look, there’s Mickey Hart leaning out the front passenger window of one van and waving to everyone as they cheered and applauded. As the last couple vans passed, a gravelly-voiced guy behind me slurred to his friend: “Heyyy, man. Ya think they’re goin’ to Haight-Ashbury?”

Nothing left to do but smile.

See you in Chicago.

ARCHIVE

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