GOOD LOVIN', GOOD PREACHIN'
Last week's Grateful Dead concert up at Gaelic Park was a usual Dead session, meaning that the band-to-fan-to-band electro-chemical process for which rock music is famed was on like high mass at Easter. Although I think I know most of the time what they are doing musically (Christgau will like this notion); I don't quite understand them electro-chemically. Like the New York Knicks of two seasons ago, they can do excellent things together though they are not a group of deathless superstars. Garcia gets his songs across, but he can't sing, and Bob Weir's voice rises to about average...maybe better when he gets to screaming and the music sweeps him along. I still find it difficult to recognize the Dead songs that aren't "Truckin'" or "St. Stephen" one from the other. I am not one of their fans, but seem to be one of their admirers. Their music speaks in a special language to their live listeners, and that language has the vocabulary of everybody else, but a convoluted syntax all its own. The note sequences are not completely dependent upon musical factors but are also dictated by how involved the band feels and also upon what kind of heat the audience is giving off. I'm trying to get to some essences of this thing.
The drama of a Dead concert revolves around the fact that wherever the band plays they know that a certain number (several tons) of their partisans will be there and that their crowd knows the Dead potential to excite them, but they also know that the Dead may not get into gear until the crowd begins to apply some heat, and so forth. Both parties also know that the concert will be long enough and informal enough for anything to happen on either side of the footlights, and so audiences improvise (smoke, go to the hot dog stand, kiss and snuggle, cheer, dance, listen like star-struck fools) just like their musician friends on stage (who play light and funny for awhile, retire backstage awhile, stand around, or get lost in a piece and turn on the heavy jets). Like good lovers, the Grateful Dead know the secrets of good foreplay, taking your time, surprising the partner for awhile, and then just reacting for a spell.
Last Thursday it happened in the drab little Riverdale soccer field Howard Stein has managed to turn into a summer rock mini-festival. It reminded me of a high school stadium I used to know - low stands, unfulfilled infield grass, mud holes here and there, beer sold at one end in some quantity. The formal shape of the concert was a general crescendo, light at the beginning and heavy-groovy at the end - not a shooting-star, call-the-law finale, just a heightened physical-emotional climate...the goods delivered as promised...sort of like good preaching in a church known to be a happy place. I did not enjoy their country-westernish opening tunes; maybe they didn't either, because the pieces were awfully short. But by the three-quarter mark they had involved themselves, the crowd, and me too.
First they got the rhythm engaged and finally, courtesy of Jerry Garcia's lead and interplays with Lesh and Weir, they went into the soloing and jamming which are the real magic music territory of this band. Much is made of the Dead soloists, but it became clear to me by last Thursday that bassist Phil Lesh plus those two drummers create the atmosphere that makes the Dead thing possible. The drummers were exceptionally understated, but Lesh kept bopping and thrumming away, heavily at all times, until his patterns were consistently getting the other players off. In the middle of "St. Stephen" there was a special coming together: Lesh had found a nice ambiguous but compelling set of licks; Garcia eased into a solo; Weir strummed a cross-time lick over all of it; it built; it quieted; Garcia started to play strange classical kind of lines; the drums dropped out; the audience got quiet; nothing at all could be predicted for a minute or so; then Lesh began to grope his way out with two chords and rhythms which began to regularize; audience began to jump and then to clap; guitars began to straighten out; the band came home to the cheers of the fans.
Good music-making. The listener goes home without a little tune to whistle, but he hears music. As if they were finishing off some personal solos based over the last riffs heard, the fans went out of Gaelic Park without a thousand encores and without a lot of fuss on the streets outside.
It's all very interesting, surprising, and I guess mystifying as before. All I know is that the Dead, or their fans, or the combination of both lure you into planning to return when they're all assembled and back in town again.
(by Carman Moore, from the "New Time" column, Village Voice, September 2 1971)