Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Grateful Dead: From Hartford to Terrapin 77

I call all the releases of past concert material by the Grateful Dead, Dick Pix Dead. Yes yes, I know that technically, there are different variations—like the Vault Series or the Road Series, and this recent release, From “From Hartford to Terrapin 77,” was released through Rhino, who now handles the Grateful Dead archive. But I don’t care. They’re all Dick Pix to me. Thought I would just get that out of the way right off the bat.

In the early 90s, the Dead started releasing the unreleased stuff with Dick Picks. They basically became their own bootleggers, an idea that Dylan, the Allman Brothers and a few other acts soon followed. I ordered the first Dick Pix from their well-designed, tabloid-sized, four-color Dead Head newsletter. I even got a hand written note once by Dick Latvia, the band’s first archivist who passed away a few years ago. There’s something like 50 official Dead bootleg releases all told. I have about a dozen. Every one is excellent. Great deals too, multiple CD packages for generally less than ten bucks a disc.

I thought I had all the reissued Dead I needed—live versions of songs I only had studio versions of, a bunch of cover songs that had some renowned, hard to find originals, like Pig Pen's great soul saga, “Two Souls In Communion.” My sister in law, who lives in Connecticut, and with whom I attended my first Grateful Dead show, emailed me this article about this new release “From Hartford to Terrapin 77.” The article featured fond fan memories of Dead shows in the nutmeg state. The same week, an article about the Dead in the New York Times said this release was one of two concerts that Dead Heads claim to be the best nights for the band.

I became intrigued. The Dead played thousands of concerts and Dead Heads are pretty good score keepers. Could one show be the best? Think about this for a second. I like certain shows because my favorite songs are played, but if you sort of break down the concerts by playing, singing, and song-choice—and add to that the fact there are thousands of shows to judge—even in such a subjective universe as music appreciation, an objective ranking is plausible. I had to hear the best; I have to judge for myself.

1977. That’s when from Hartford to Terrapin was recorded. When I think of that year, the Grateful Dead seemed like some lost cause. In New York and London (and just starting in Los Angeles), the punk movement was changing Rock & Roll. Fast, terse odes of alienation were a lot more cutting edge than say “Sugaree.” In those same cities, disco music drew coke snorting crowds to clubs with the “new” invention of mindless beats and insipid lyrics. Seemed a lot cooler to do the proto-mosh pit pogo or to get your Saturday Night Fever on than reprise the stale, failed ideals of the 60s.

And, while the Dead may have had enough fans to sell out a mid-size arena, many of their peers that had lasted into the 70s were on the Top 10 airwaves. Jefferson Starship, as an example, were mega-stars, growing their fan base, winning critical attention and raking in big bucks. Oh a few Grateful Dead songs were FM staples—and they had garnered some critical acclaim—but they never had a “Miracles,” and certainly never reached the popularity of say the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton and several other acts that began around the same time. In other words, the Grateful Dead had not only remained an underground 60s band, beloved by a devoted cult following, but that underground—and the music that defined it—was considered an anachronism in 1977.

In April of this year, the “Dead” toured the white house with President Obama, who has long identified himself as a fan. They had played at his inauguration. The Grateful Dead have achieved a level of well deserved reverence and respect, but 30 some odd years ago, except for their fans, when they weren’t being ignored, they received ridicule or indifference.

In the late 60s, the Grateful Dead were an outlaw band and were hounded by the police, emblematic of the San Francisco and the Hippie Movement that those in power despised. They encountered the excessive harassment by law enforcement so common during that period. Maybe the authorities would have exerted even more pressure if they sold as many records as the Doors.

In 1987, they topped the charts with “Touch of Grey”. By then, they were selling stadiums out for multiple nights in the summer and arenas the rest of the year, and remained the most successful touring act in history until Garcia passed away.

But in 1977, they were sort of off the radar screen. The band was also in dire financial straits. Their records hadn’t sold, especially the overlooked masterpieces released under their own label, which soon failed and they had to sign with Arista. Their only consistent source or revenue was their incessant touring. This concert preceded the official release of Terrapin Station, the first album on Arista, which was meant to point forward to a new direction for the band, but turned out to be a pretty disappointing mess. It certainly made less sense to me at the time than say, Marquee Moon.

My trepidation was that there have been so many Dick Pix releases, how could any real masterpiece still be lingering in the vaults? On the other hand, the idea of the “Best” Dead concert kept nagging me. I finally broke down, bought the dang thing and when I first put this CD on and heard the strumming intro of “Bertha,” I knew this was indeed something special.

Garcia’s voice is clear, and in fact, his singing and Weir’s, as well as their harmonies aided by Donna Godcahaux are the best I’ve heard on any of the Dick Pix. The Grateful Dead are under-appreciated singers. Weir is almost always strong—few can hoop and holler, shout and scream then go instantly back to good ole singing like ole Bobby W. I love Garcia’s reedy tenor, but live his vocal chops can be hit or miss. In terms of harmonizing, captured so well in the studio—or in hybrid live/studio classics like Europe 72—can leave something to be desired on the Dick Pix CDs.

Not here. Bertha may lack some of the edginess of the version we all know, but it is also aired out—the slight mellowing suits it. The band then kicks into “Good Lovin,” a favorite concert staple and one that is on several of the Dick Pix releases—Pig Pen used to sing this and Weir adopted it a few years after his 1973 passing. It’s a jaunty, ass-kicking Weir version, Lesh pounding away at the bass and leading the incredible rhythm section the Dead often proved to be.

The next song smashed any preconception I might have possessed. A 20 minute version of Sugaree, and it is as remarkable a 20 minutes of music as there is, and that includes all those live versions of “My Favorite Things” by Coltrane.

“Sugaree” is an okay Grateful Dead song. It has one of their signature shuffle sounds. Based, lyrically at least, on an Elizabeth Cotton song by the same name, the lyrics depict a funeral. Although rarely depressing, Hunter does write a lot of songs that deal with death, and the loneliness that follows loss. Musically and thematically the song is pretty much by-the-numbers Dead; you can’t really like the Dead and hate this song. By the same token, it’s merely typical Grateful Dead. A 20 minute version just seems like a cliché—the Grateful Dead at their most excessive.

In 1977, with the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads making Rolling Stone headlines, somebody declaring a 20 minute version of “Sugaree” remarkable? That must be some damn good acid! But then or now, the unbelievers simply have not experience this textured, extended last word on this song.

Garcia is on fire and the other musicians know it. Garcia too often aimed at the stratosphere. Sometimes he gets too damn spacey on these long jams, his solos becoming a tad pointless. In this performance, he remains earthbound in the deep muddy river, yet still explores every nook and cranny of this melody and the listener is surprised in how many nooks and crannies there are. These 20 minutes are musically enthralling.

It is simply draw dropping the way after every chorus, Garcia solos away—there are a about four solos—supported by Keith Godchaux playing his distinctive chunky piano chords. Godchaux and Garcia seem be dancing together, and Garcia is leading that dance. You want to scream Go Jerry Go, and you get the idea the band wants to scream that too, because that is how they are accompanying him—with sonic encouragement.

When I picked this CD up, I rolled my eyes at the thought of a 20 minute Sugaree. Midway through the first listen, I’m at the edge of seat—what will he find next in this song? When a musician is this on fire by only the third song in the set—and everyone in that group is fanning that fire—you know this is a special night.

The Dicks Pix releases show many such genuine moments of musical intelligence and intensity. I am tempted to gush on about the playing, but what makes the Dead so damn compelling is the interplay between the musicians. Symbiotic is a word that comes to mind. What strikes me—especially on this new release—how well this group of musicians listened to each other. They know exactly when to react—and what to react with. Their talent—the cohesion of the ensemble— may be due more to their ability to listen than their vast instrumental skills.

“Jack Straw” follows, a version that is more countrified and laid back then the Europe 72 standard, but the singing is better. This song, about two outlaws on the run, is basically a dialog between Jack Straw, and Shannon—Shannon is killing people, most notably the watch man, and Jack Straw pleads with him to stop until finally Mr. Straw “shot his buddy down.” There’s an edginess to the Europe 72 version that makes that the main version, but this could be a close second. It’s classic Grateful Dead and a truly great song. The singing on this album is simply fantastic. Their voices have never sounded better live.

Next up, “Row Jimmy,” a personal favorite of mine. Another Hunter impressionistic yarn about a loveable loser in a nowhere town—“ever since they tore the juke box down.” Musically, this song has two main features—the textured percussion and the vocal harmonies of Donna G. & Bobby W. on the chorus. “Row, Jimmy, Row, gonna get there, I don’t know.”

We’re five songs into this concert, it’s the end of the first CD, and CDs are like, more than an hour’s worth of music. Do the math. It’s a night for jamming, and the musicians are on top of their game. Whether or not “rock jams” are your thing, this CD is one of the best examples of that form.

The second CD has basically favorite Dead standards. “New Minglewood Blues,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Candy Man,” etc. Each is delivered with supreme competency and intelligence. “Candy Man,” another Hunter/Garcia Invisible Republic saga, profiles a reprobate gambler, the ‘Candy Man.’ He loves the ladies the ladies and they love him—“pretty lady has got no friend till the candy man comes around again.” Besides all the gambling references – “roll them laughing bones” – murder is on his mind, he wishes Mr. Benson good morning, then bemoans his lack of weaponry: “I see you’re doing well/if I had me a shot gun I’d blow you straight to hell.” The Candy Man has just come from Memphis, and when he returns there, “They’ll be one less man alive.” The song has a loopy, hypnotic groove and since it s from the American Beauty era, the vocal harmonies are a highlight and here, spot-on, creating the feeling of a gentle lullaby down to the ending chorus of just oohs, providing a counter point to the sordid and sad life of the Candy Man. The saccharine-tinge sound of the classic studio version is gone, a tangible mournfulness is conveyed, thanks to the addition of Donna Godchaux’s voice, which underscores the sadness of the women who loved the gambling, murdering lothario.

CD 2 of this tri-disc set includes the last song of the first set—“Promise Land” – the Chuck Berry song which was a minor early 70s single for Elvis and a high-point of The Band’s Moondog Matinee—and the first song of the second set, “Samson & Delilah.”

These are two of my favorite songs ever, I have several versions of each, but still, Dead’s take on these classics are my favorites. Here they absolutely rock.

I realize the first time I heard these two songs were at a Grateful Dead concert and decades later, when I stumbled upon Blind Willie Johnson’s version, I was struck by the similarity of the arrangements. Johnson of course picks a single guitar, although it is quite fierce. It’s amazing how the Dead both expands the arrangement to suit a full band—and yet how that arrangement so closely follows Johnson lone guitar vision. Everything in Johnson’s version is presented in the Dead’s amazingly energetic interpretation—Lesh’s bass drives it at full throttle.

This song reminds us how weird and strange the bible is, especially the Old Testament. Samson is an unstoppable force, killing philistines with a jaw bone of an ass, ripping the head off a lion, smashing down castles. But, he has the deep red hots for Delilah, the sexy Philistine woman born to break his heart. Why, exactly does Yahweh give him super human strength through long hair? It’s a story that delves into primordial truths about desire—and fear of desire. Samson reacts to his betrayal of his desire—‘tear that old building down.” In other words, everyone dies and everything is destroyed. This Old Testament tale is as poignantly psychological as any Greek Tragedy. It’s our universal nightmare, as much of an archetype as Oedipus and a lot more subtext than the story we learned as kids—this heavy rocking version amps up the eroticism, adding to the subtext. When Weir sings, “Delilah sat about Samson’s Knees, tell me where you strength lies, if you please/and she spoke so fine and she spoke so fair...” well, we all know that hair is going to rhyme with fair and there’s going to be a heap of trouble when it does. But if a Delilah is sitting on your lap, what would you do?

I felt breathless after this thundering Biblical rocker. There will be no lollygagging here tonight—the Dead had yet to fall into their post-intermission exercise of “Space,” a combination of feedback, percussion meandering and electronic type noodling. But they are here to play and a suite of songs contained in one long jam is the core of the second set, beginning with “Estimated Prophet,” Weir’s disturbing Reggae song about a leader of a West Coast cult—a clever segue—old time religion meets scary Charlie Manson like religious leader. The liner notes say that the reggae rhythm uses a different time signature than other reggae songs. It sure does have that weird off-kilter feel.

This was a new song at the time, but still gets the crowd pumped. In 1977, Reggae had two followings in the U.S.—punk rockers and Dead Heads. It’s also one Weir’s best songs and here is the best version I’ve heard, filled with some really tasty Garcia licks—one thing I’ve noticed about Dick Pix CDs, some of Garcia’s best playing occurs on Weir songs. Maybe he wished he was a side-man all along.

Out of the fading reggae groove that ends “Estimated Prophet,” a swinging version of the Grateful Dead warhorse, “Playing in the Band.” emerges. An elegiac anthem to brotherhood and the benefits of camaraderie—“Some folks trust in reason/others trust in might/I don’t trust in nothing but I know it will turn out right”—“Playing in the Band,” is one of the last Hunter/Weir songs (Estimated Prophet was written with John Barlow). The melody is thick with hypnotic chord progressions; it’s a great guitar song that lends itself to a jam. The version here is upbeat and energetic, Lesh’s bass leads the charge and Donna Godchaux emits a powerful caterwaul during a concluding bridge. Optimism, solidarity—a signature Dead tune echoing their tried and true themes.

The song doesn’t peter out, but there is this not quite exploration as much as noodling as the song ends. “Terrapin Station” is next, and since this is the Dead, they don’t stop one then start another. This interim of exploration is cut in two here on the CD track listing, but it isn’t really a jam per say, although it is surely improvised. The guitars are talking to each other—albeit a clever though unprofound conversation—on-top of a loose bed of rhythm created by the percussion and key board. As the “Terrapin Station” melody begins one realizes, didn’t we just hear strains of that song in that interlude. Confusion and surprise, if you let yourself appreciate the Grateful Dead, when their improvisational jams are working, you get those dual pleasures again, again, and again.

If you aren’t predisposed towards the Grateful Dead, even the best versions—and this unquestionably is one of the best versions—are not going to convince you to get on the bus. But if you appreciate the Grateful Dead, this track will give you another reason to support your appreciation. Garcia is obviously having a good night and his guitar and vocals are commanding on this song.

The lyrics don’t make sense. Word is, Hunter actually wrote an entire cycle of songs based on this theme but Garcia only used a fragment of the complete suite. You can find the extra stanzas by some googling. If you can explain exactly what happens in this song, please email me. I can’t figure it out.

Hunter always had a touch of William Blake about him. The meaning of the often well drawn images is obscure, although the lyrics are still delightful. The song’s beginning echoes the intro of Homer’s Odyssey –“Let my inspiration flow in token rhyme, suggesting rhythm/That will not forsake you, till my tale is told and done.” Characters appear—a Sailor, who “Down in Carlisle, he loved a lady many years ago,” and a Soldier, “who came through many fights, but lost at love,” and a woman, “Eyes alight, with glowing hair,” who sets up a kind of competition for her love between the two gents, “Which of you to gain me, tell, will risk uncertain pains of hell?”

If you’re looking for some kind of resolution to this triangle however, try another song. “Since the end is never told, we pay the teller off in gold.”

A kind of lilting, troubadour-ish song—the melody of the first movement, could have been written for the lute—merges into another lilting melody, where Garcia gives a great vocal to the compelling (if still obscure) lyric: “from the northwest corner/of a brand new crescent moon/while crickets and cicadas sing/a rare and different tune.”

At this point, there’s no woman, soldier, sailor or story teller and we go from this wistful and pastoral setting to iconic American (and Grateful Dead) imagery, the train and a station, for an undisclosed reason, named for turtles—“And I know we’ll get there soon/ terrapin station/The train put its brakes on/and the whistle is screaming.” By now, the lilt has been replaced by an outrageously bombastic piece of drama, with the phrase “Terrapin Station” repeated like a haunting echo.

It’s a strange song, and about as close to the “prog rock,” format indicative of some 70s, pre-punk British bands—that the Grateful Dead ever got. There is no verse, chorus, verse familiarity. The song is in three parts—distinctive movements; I’m not sure what else to call them. The lyrics draw impressions, talk about a story that is never told, sets up a love contest that is never explored much less resolved, and concludes with train iconography complete with a train station inexplicably named for, well, turtles.

A lot of jokes can be made about the Dead Head crowd. Hippies are goofy, let’s face it. The band gave folks a reason to go on an endless and usually druggy vacation, something that made a lot more sense in say 1970 than 1977, not to mention 1987 or 1993. But the connection of these fans to the music was pure; they allowed this group of musicians to indeed, “let their inspiration flow.” By now you can tell that I love this three disc set and the fact is, this set wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t such an audience for this band, an audience as enthused to hear a new song than say one of the FM hits like Truckin.

Terrapin concludes with ‘Drums,’ a dual solo by Hart & Kreutzman. The self-indulgence they sometimes displayed is thankfully absent. Drums is only a few minutes and concentrates on the Bo Diddley beat of the next song in the jam, “Not Fade Away,” a staple cover by the Grateful Dead. Here again though, during an evening of musical exploration performed by a group of musicians prone towards musical explorations, the two drummers, while never straying far from the general Bo Diddley parameters, delve into this beat. Within its basic texture, there are different timbre of drums, snares and cymbals—sometimes the unison is so complete it sounds like one drummer, then the next moment it is hard to believe that all the musical ideas being spewed forth are coming from just eight limbs. They delineate all the percussive ideas that the enormity of this beat contains.

A simple sound, a sound anybody could tap out, but also a sound with roots deep in African tribal culture, saturated with religious and social import. Then the beat was translated through American slave culture, which meant it blended with different beats of various tribal cultures. Then it was transmuted by the Negro Spirituals that followed Slavery, adding another layer of religiosity. Jazz and Big Band musicians appropriated it for their famous Jungle Rhythms—Bo Diddley cited Big Band, not Delta blues (the source for much Rock & Roll) as inspiring him. Of course, the Lubbock Texas rocker Buddy Holly slightly tweaked the beat for “Not Fade Away.”

Soon the guitarists join the two drummers to explore other hidden nuances—there is a really interesting bass run—before the whole band roars into quick and explosive, full boar Rock & Roll—“My love is bigger than a Cadillac!” Weir follows this initial lyric with this really fascinating chord change strumming, a quick thing. These guys are just bursting with musical ideas. Even though this song rocks out, the exploration continues and phases into an interlude that discovers one nuance after another. The more well known version goes right into the depression-era “Goin Down the Road,” and you hear traces of the melody in the loose jam that follows, but they don’t follow that tune. They’re deciding what to play next, but doing so within the context of the song they are still playing—or at this point, deconstructing—they explore the multitude of musical ideas at the core of “Not Fade Away,” then deconstruct those ideas and the core, then explore the deconstruction.

And, upon repeated listens, you hear—I think it’s Lesh who first plays the signifying notes—of “Wharf Rat.” You hear these moments of passage on Dick Pix discs. The difference here—and it’s worth emphasizing—this is one of the best passages and it’s almost as if—and I’m not even sure I should say almost—that the passage, the jam, the improvisational interlude if you will, is as good as the actual song. Rarely the case.

“Wharf Rat” is similar to Terrapin Station—there’s no chorus, but there is a clear story. The narrator, wandering downtown by the wharfs, encounters a homeless, blind, wino, August West, who tells the narrator his story, basically a life ruined by the betrayal of some woman—sounds like the woman seduced him then made him a fall guy in some kind of scheme and winds up going to jail for some Mother-F’ers crime (a line that always brings on the crowd applause, which it does here)—and then the narrator, after hearing this sad yarn, leaves worrying about his girl—Bobbie Lee — “I’m sure that girl’s been true to me,” and you know he’s not certain at all, repeating, “I know she’s been, I’m sure she’s been.” It’s the dark side of empathy. Lesh’s fat bass lines packs in the poignancy at the ending of the song, when the narrator “got up to go, with nowhere to go,” then darkly ponders how much he should trust his Bobbie Lee. There but for the Grace of God is the message—at one point, August West says something about “If The good lord willing, I know that the life, I’m living’s no Good,” and after hearing the story, the narrator’s world is shaken. Then, just as you begin to process the full scope of the meaning of this song, the band turns on the dime and reprises “Playing in The Band,” concluding the journey with this optimistic anthem of brotherhood.

Makes you want to dance, the reassurance of this song. The journey which began with the “Estimated Prophet,” then traveled through the tale with no conclusion but implied the secrets of the cosmos—and a Train that came to the station named for turtles—then a thorough dissection of a rhythm that contains centuries of lost history to a deceptively simple story that is really about the most complex thing in life, our heart. And now, back with the bros and doing something worthwhile – “I’m just playing in the band/daybreak on the land.”

The last two songs are almost besides the point. One More Saturday Night, Weir’s Chuck Berry like party rave and Garcia/Hunter U.S. Blues, both solid versions but you just get the feeling the concert is over, there is no equaling the concluding jam. With that in mind though, the U.S. Blues is indicative—Garcia’s voice is sounding shot at this point, and the tongue in cheek lyrics are silly—“shake the hand who shook the hand of P.T. Barnum/and Charley Chan,” a list of Americanisms meant to be a conrast to the revolutionary protest songs of their 60s peers. The entire concert—in fact, the Dead’s entire career—is a weird but abundant catalog of American music—from the honesty of Woody Guthrie to the grandeur of Aaron Copeland. Everything is Rock & Roll. The folk melodies, the country inflections, the R&B, the blues, the old time religion, the reggae.

The Grateful Dead is the most American of bands, friend to the okie & the hippie, Steinbeck & Kerouac. In 1977, must have seemed an isolated point of view—and the record that was about to be released, Terrapin Station embodied that point of view, was a strident and committed statement that ultimately did not satisfyingly express the ambition behind it. “U.S. Blues” sums it all with a tongue in cheek sarcasm even the establishment could appreciate. Might take a few decades, but there will be a president with the Dead on his ipod and the surviving members will be playing in the band at the Inaugural Ball.

The best Grateful Dead concert ever? The epitome of what they were in concert? Can’t argue with it, but I hate to agree because that ends the conversation, sort of contradicting how the Grateful Dead approaches songs—as starting points to a performance where we are all open to discovery—and the fun that happens with all the confusion and anticipation that comes before you realize a discovery has been made.

There are moments that I might prefer on other Dick Pix Dead, but as a whole, this 3-disc set is about as close a document of what it was like to see them live—the experience of not knowing what will happen next and just letting yourself be taken on an incredible musical ride. Like the audience in Connecticut that night, this CD-set lets you share their sweaty (and in 1977, obstinate) joy.


  1. Just ran into this by accident. Great review - thanks!!

  2. Five stars on the performance and on your review. I actually read about half your review and then went to to give it a listen, and it had already been pulled due to the commercial release. It's hard to pull the trigger on a purchase for a Dead show considering the mass amounts offered for free, but I did, and I am in love. Truly a pinnacle moment for the Dead and for those who love the Dead.

  3. Great review..My first show was at Colt Park in Hartford in 1972. Pig Pen was sick and did not play...The Dead played 3 ripping sets. On the 3rd set they brought out members of the Allman Brothers. I've been a believer ever since...This sounds like an amazing show...