Jul 23, 2012

October 1970: Vintage Dead


Though the Grateful Dead is still very much with us, it is entirely appropriate for a nostalgic look at what it was five years ago and we have it on "Vintage Dead" (Sunflower SUN-5001).
The music, sometimes called "San Francisco sound," which this group was largely responsible for popularizing, is no more available to us now than new grapes from a noble harvest of the last generation are to a vintner for a new pressing. We have pressings, record pressings in this case, but the freshness is gone: light shows, fuzztone and wavy-lined posters are no longer experiments.
The big difference in San Francisco music - that it was for dancing - is not the case today. Bay area ballrooms have had some hard times and rock is again mostly for listening.

But half a decade ago the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore were thrilling names even on this coast.
The Dead was the very first San Francisco group, though Jefferson Airplane became better known, and it innovated not only in music but in style. The Dead was the first group to live together, constantly playing and developing and in effect performing 24 hours a day.
It's different now. Some of those pioneers are dead from drugs, some groups have split, some have reformed and then split again, and each success removed a bit of the exuberance that was so appealing at the first.

Fortunately "Vintage Dead" is not a studio album but a concert, recorded in 1966 at the Avalon.
The music is not by the Dead, but by Bob Dylan or Wilson Pickett, but the treatment is pure San Francisco. There may have been more typical San Francisco concerts, but this is a fine example.
The sound is smooth, with bounce enough for dancing. "In the Midnight Hour" is a jam, not soulful but graceful. Grace is the distinguishing characteristic of the first San Francisco music. When the Dead sings Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" it loses all the harshness and bitter sound that Dylan usually writes into his songs.
We won't hear this sound again, live. For even the Dead or the Airplane, its time has passed by. It had an innocence that didn't last long.

(by Harry Eagar, from the Rock On! column in the Norfolk Ledger Star, January 12 1971)

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"Vintage Dead," The Grateful Dead, Sunflower Sin 5001

Of all the rock groups who have come to symbolize the psychedelic way of life in 1970, the Grateful Dead are very high on the list of early trippers. It is not only their music, which is Americana freaked out rock n' roll, but it is the Dead themselves, their beautiful communal way of life and their insistence on free concerts. As far back as you can trace the electric explosion of music, the Dead are there.
As with many of the early groups, The Dead have never really come across on record the way they are live. Live they are just very good, but on their albums, with the exceptions of "Working Man's Dead," they come across as nothing special. "Vintage Dead" breaks this pattern and for once gives you an honest sound from The Dead. It is old and dated, but it is still worth listening to. This record was recorded at the Avalon Ballroom in 1966 and one side of the album is "In the Midnight Hour" which really gives you a feeling for the famous Grateful Dead riffs and freak outs, where they seem to hand the music from one to the other and then back again. "Know Your Rider" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" are part of the softer more mellow side of The Dead.

(from the Miami News, 26 October 1970)

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- The Grateful Dead (Sunflower 5001)

There are those of us who spend a lot of our time buying old records because we're frankly bored with much of today's music. For people like me, the Archive series on Together records is a pure joy. Of particular interest are the Byrds' Preflyte lp and the Early LA album. Anyway, MGM has created a subsidiary called Sunflower, and its first release is a live recording of the Dead at the Avalon Ballroom sometime in 1966. Now this record isn't geared to your average Dead freak. The music bears little resemblance to "Saint Stephen" or "Dark Star." There aren't two drummers, there aren't any intriguing lyrics. What there is on this record is pure, unadulterated Grateful Dead.
I bought the first Dead lp a few months after it came out, and I've loved everything they've ever done. But that first one really sticks in my mind. There was a joy, an urgency of energy about "Viola Lee Blues" and "Beat It On Down the Line" that even the Dead have had trouble getting back to. Vintage Dead has it, and in abundance.
The very first cut, "I Know You Rider," might be the best live Dead song ever. The three part harmony is reminiscent of the Workingman's Dead singing. The harmonics flow about each other, with no one person staying in a straight line. The music is also flowing, with Garcia and Weir weaving around Lesh's probing bass lines. Pigpen's organ, though admittedly dated in its Farfisa tone, is quite strong. Twice, the band goes into some intricate ensemble work that pushes you back to Frisco and happier times. The next tune, "It Hurts Me Too," has a genuine feeling to it. Pigpen's vocal and harp work do justice to the old blues number, and Garcia takes one of his funkier leads on it. Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" follows. There's nothing really special about the Dead's version, but you get the same feelings as when they did "Morning Dew" on their initial record. Garcia's high pitched, crackly vocal encompasses the words with amazing agility, and it's just nice listening. Side one closes with "Dancing in the Street," a song that they still do in concert. Though Weir's vocal is, I must say, rather weak (as it always is live), the music is unbelievable.
Side two is devoted entirely to Pigpen with "In the Midnight Hour." I guess this song, more than all the others, shows that in six years, the Grateful Dead are still the Grateful Dead. Their ability to do any material, r'n'b, country, or whatever, is what puts them miles ahead of other American music bands. "Midnight Hour" is almost exactly like "Love Light" in its structure. Pigpen sings a bit, the band plays a bit, then Pigpen raps, then more music, then a final verse.
In all these years, they have kept their heads above what's happening. As Phil Lesh has said: "We orbit around a common center that's impossible to define, but it has something to do with making good music of any kind."
This common center is evident on Vintage Dead, so I suggest that those of you interested in what makes a band work go out and get it.

(by Billy Altman, from the "Records" column in the Spectrum (Buffalo, NY), 30 October 1970) 

Thanks to Dave Davis.


  1. Later in '71 a second record from these '66 tapes, Historic Dead, was released. I'll be posting an October '71 article on the story behind these records.

    For now, a quote from Garcia when asked about these records by Jann Wenner in '71:
    "There's no point in going back to the past, for one thing, and for another thing, those performances weren't meant to stand around forever. They were for that night. And if you were stoned and there that night, that was probably exactly what was happening, but it's not what's happening now. It's just a source of embarrassment."

    Setting aside Garcia's embarrassment (which he usually felt with older Dead performances), this is an interesting philosophy, apparently opposed to the release of any old live shows as pointless!

    The article above, lightweight & uninformed as it is, I think has a more accurate perspective of this album.

  2. I added a short review from Miami, October 1970, shortly after the album's release. (It's a little strange that Vintage Dead came out a month or two before American Beauty did - no wonder the Dead were bugged by it - and perhaps not coincidental that they immediately started thinking about doing a new live album.)
    As a review it doesn't add a whole lot, recognizing that the music is "old and dated" but has an "honest sound" and gives a feel for 1966 Dead, way back four years ago when time was young... ("As far back as you can trace the electric explosion of music, the Dead are there," the review says, which is quite an exaggeration, but it emphasizes how distant 1966 already seemed.)
    But it has a good brief description of the Dead which is a perfect outline of why people liked them: "their beautiful communal way of life," "their insistence on free concerts," and their live music ("Americana freaked out rock 'n' roll").

  3. I added a third review from the Spectrum, the University at Buffalo campus newspaper. As often, the student review is much more in-depth than the reviews in the mainstream city papers. Altman was a heavy Dead freak, a fan from their first album who missed the youthful energy of the early Dead, and it sounds like he prefers '60s music to the new rock of 1970 as well, so it's natural he'd give a very positive review of Vintage Dead.
    Unlike other reviewers, he doesn't hear this 1966 show as "old and dated" (except for Pigpen's Farfisa), but notes how much it has in common with recent Dead - the harmony singing, the band jamming, the Pigpen showpiece. He's seen the Dead live, but draws no other comparisons except to say that Weir still can't sing Dancing in the Street very well! For him, this record is "pure, unadulterated Dead," as well as showcasing their ability to play different genres of music.