Thursday, February 16, 2012

Grateful Dead-Dave's Picks Vol. 1, The Mosque, Richmond, VA 5/25/77

In Disaster Amnesiac's opinion, there is probably no more a contentious or contested world than that of the Grateful Dead. Deadheads argue like crazy over the merits and finer points of whichever favorite aspect of the band is theirs. I've already glanced at a few chat room debates in regards to this most recent release from Grateful Dead Enterprises, and, needless to say, opinions range far and wide, from the approving to the disgusted. I consider myself more of a Grateful Dead fan than a Deadhead, if that makes any sense, and, as such, would like to venture to "describe and enthuse" about this release, which I consider to be quite a good document of a band at its zenith point.
Disaster Amnesiac feels that 1977 was the Dead's zenith point mostly because, judging by the ample recorded evidence of their live shows from that year, the band had refined their sound, as a collective improvising group, and as individuals, to an incredibly sharp point. I, like many people my age, was first turned on to this advanced psychedelic approach by the classic 5/8/77 tape that began circulating in the 1980's (THANK YOU, Marty York of Richmond, VA). According to the liner notes for Dave's Picks 1, the master tapes to that epic show in Ithica are missing, but, the Richmond show that is documented here is a great example of said refinements.
Take for example head honcho Jerry Garcia. One can hear so many great examples to prove why he was such a respected guitarist and composer. I have read in Blair Jackson's very cool book about the Grateful Dead's gear how at this point both Jerry and Bob Weir had begun to experiment in earnest with different effect pedals for their sounds. In Garcia's case, it is abundantly clear. His sounds range from sharp, cutting tones to rounded, Leslie'd ones, and everything in between. A lot of people like to diss his tones (Google Iron Prostate), but, in Disaster Amnesiac's opinion, he was a masterful, tone-centered guitarist. One gets the sense that he put a lot of thought into that aspect of his playing. Of course, there is also Jerry Garcia the lead guitarist. Obviously the man loved to noodle, playing in, out, around, and down the grooves that the rest of his cohorts laid down. At the Mosque show, his lead playing is spot on, often reminding this listener of the alto sax playfulness of Ornette Coleman or the precision banjo runs of any number of Jerry's old-time heroes, all the while showing a clarity of focus and a dizzying precision of attack. Jerry pretty much owns the show, which comes as no surprise, but, the force of that ownership is impressive, and for this fan, a joy to hear.
As for Bob Weir, he had also made great breakthroughs in his playing by 1977, and they too are on full display on Dave's Picks 1. Whenever I listen to the Grateful Dead, I am always struck by how shrewd Weir's guitar playing approach is. It seems as if he decided early on in the Dead's career that he was never going to be able to compete with Garcia's full-throttle, maximalist style, and instead developed a highly refined, percussive, minimal sound as a complement to it. Bob's stabbing, scraping rhythm guitar sound, made up of rich, angular chords and odd accents, can often be pushed to the back of the listener's consciousness; when it hits, In some ways, Weir's sound is a lot more unique than Garcia's. Disaster Amnesiac just thinks that it's a bit more subtle in its approach. Needless to say, Bob's playing at the Richmond show display all of the aspects just mentioned, with the added fire of their being performed in a live setting, romping through their fiery paces.
In many ways, Phil Lesh is perhaps more of a traditional lead guitar player than Weir. He never seemed to want to relegate his instrument's position in the band to one of mere support. His early education in music theory imbued the Dead's melodic sound with hints of counterpoint and later styles of compositional approach, up to and including Jazz and Minimalism. I can recall reading a quote from Garcia that ran along the lines of "if Phil is having a good show, so am I" or some such sentiment. His playing at the Mosque is full of his typical 1977 sound, from spacious, floating statements to low, rumbling charges. Much like Jerry's leads on the disc, his "leads" are precise and present as he turns the songs' structures inside and out, giving the band a buoyant bass low end, along with his characteristic treble-ey plucking and spots of pure space.
The Grateful Dead's tandem drum team of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart was perhaps the brightest, most dominant factor in making 1977 such a banner year for the band. If 1976 was the year in which the two drummers worked on re-syncing their styles to fit the band's evolution, 1977, from all of the live recordings that I have heard, was the year in which the fruits of the previous year's labor were in full bloom. Disaster Amnesiac would opine that the best example of this can be found during the long instrumental transition between Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain on the 5/8/77 recording. That said, their drumming on the Mosque show is equally brilliant. Hart and Kreutzmann sound seriously locked, or, as Hart has phrased it, entrained, particularly during their buzzing interplay on Cassidy. Despite both of them playing pretty big-sized kits, they at no time play over each other or the tunes. There is a bounce and crackle to their playing. They sound tightly and loosely bound pretty much all at the same time, Hart going nuts on his cowbell and tom fills, Kreutzmann locking the whole thing down with his sublime beats and masterful sense of pacing. The fires of their 1968-69 partnership sound as if they had been seriously re-stoked in 1977, but tempered with many more years' experience and chops. There is a spinning lightness to the quality of their playing that marks it as highly evolved.
1970's-era pianist Keith Godchaux has often seemed somewhat of a dark horse presence to Disaster Amnesiac. Having never had the chance of seeing him play in a live setting, I only have recordings as a reference. It's my understanding that he could be rather subdued, and often the tapes give him less than ideal representation. It must have been tough for a guy who liked to play the grand piano to compete with the loud electrical din the rest of the band was cooking up. Close attention reveals a player who could keep up with the rest of the band's modes and changes. His lovely, baroque sounding  playing on Scarlet Begonias and his honkey tonkin' approach on the the more rockin' tunes of the set show this fact. Still, Keith was more a quiet fire in the midst of the larger inferno of the Dead's live blaze.
Most Grateful Dead detractors like to zero in on the vocals of the band. It's often understandable, as, they can often be off-key, and, in the opinions of some, rather dopey and "hippy dippy". The 1977 iteration of the band belies the latter opinions, and, in the case of the former fact, often proves it wrong. On Dave's Picks 1, Jerry's voice sounds strong and assertive of its better qualities, and Weir's even more so. Bob's Blues voice is emergent here, while Jerry's love of the ballad vocal approach comes to fore, especially on the dark, moving Peggy O. Even within the ranks of the Dead faithful, vocalist Donna Godchaux has been the focus of some derision. Along with her singing band mates, Donna sounds in fine form at the Mosque show, staying in key (supposedly always a problem for her in the Dead's live show), thereby gracing the songs with her lovely, Memphis-trained voice.
The Grateful Dead's music was always a gestalt, in theory a sublime whole made up of many parts, all conversing or battling within the framework of their tune-based improvisations. Again, much like other documents of their 1977 high point, Dave's Picks 1 shows the band deep within the throws of this concept, hitting musical peaks and staying on them for extended lengths, playing their asses off in a collective setting, all the while sounding as though they are strongly, sublimely  attuned to the overall feel of each tune or improvisational mode. Third set magic such as the easy transition from The Other One to Wharf Rat and back again, or the drum tight rhythmic change embedded with the blazing Around and Around provide glimpses of a band with all pistons firing, fully aware of and in control of their power.
Disaster Amnesiac just now tabbed over to another window, open to a forum on, and, not surprisingly, the first post I read was characterized by a disgruntled listener, opining that the show documented on Dave's Picks 1 was lackluster at best. I think it's a fine document of a fine band within one of their finest periods. 1977 Dead is hard to beat, if you enjoy that sort of thing.