I guess it isn't easy to be a living legend. I mean, what do you do for an encore? Since the early days of the movement then - and it was a movement then - the Grateful Dead has been known as a people's band. The free concert given by the Dead here in Piedmont Park in 1969 is something that nearly everyone who was there remembers fondly. I just finished listening to the first three Grateful Dead albums in an attempt to gain inspiration for this article. "Anthem of the Sun" - the second album - is probably the high water mark of psychedelic music. It is also the finest example of improvisation by a rock band available on record. Unfortunately, Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist and spiritual symbol of The Grateful Dead, would probably dismiss all that I have said as a lot of pseudo-nostalgic clap trap. In answer to the numerous requests for old Grateful Dead numbers, Jerry was heard to say, "That was two years ago, man. If you can't pick up on what we're doing now, I guess we'll have to leave you behind." Allow me to add that soon after saying this, the band played "Johnny B. Goode," a Chuck Berry song that is fully ten years old. Just who is living in the past, Jerry?
But I digress. Let me give you a blow by blow description of the concert.
The Grateful Dead was preceded by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, who are a country rock derivative of the Dead. If you've never gotten into the Byrds, the New Riders are a real knock-out with a clear almost piercing guitar sound and a fine, down home, country beat. Somehow, they lack the dynamics and simple beauty that makes the Byrds one of the all time great bands in popular music.
On the positive side, Spencer Dryden, formerly of the Jefferson Airplane, performed brilliantly on drums with the New Riders and gave the best individual performance of any of the fine musicians on the stage that night. It was only then that I realized what a great loss his departure was to the Airplane. In all, though, most of the New Rider’s material had an all-too-similar sound, and they had to rely on oldies like “Willie and the Hand Jive,” “Down in the Boondocks,” and the Everly Brothers’ “Mary Lou” to really excite the audience. This was a trend to be followed, much to my disappointment, by the Grateful Dead.
Pigpen, the mysterious organ player of the group and the first person in the world to play that weird, was not with the group on this tour. This was also the Dead's first appearance in Atlanta with only one drummer. Mickey Hart has left the group. Keith Goshow substituted for Pigpen and played some excellent piano though it was barely audible to most of the audience. Even for a band noted for their extremely informal stage presence, the Grateful Dead seemed to be very indifferent to this job. I found this to be truly the case when I met the band on their way out of the auditorium. Even their refusal to play with police present on the stage in the aftermath of the usual Municipal Auditorium crowd control hassle seemed to be a superficial matter of routine. The action looked as if it had been rehearsed.
Relying mostly on material from their new live album, "Workingman's Dead," and "American Beauty," the group moved listlessly through a repertoire of songs of pretty much the same tempo, structure, and of the same instrumental arrangement. Improvisation was at a premium, and the diehard Grateful Dead fans kept hoping for the band to take off on one of those legendary hour long numbers that used to leave them numb for hours after the show was over, but that kind of Grateful Dead music never came.
The only member of the band who played with anything resembling the brilliance and intensity of past performances was Phil Lesh, who is unquestionably one of the finest bass players in rock music. His intricate, flowing bass patterns are pure, sonic poetry.
If someone was going to write a book on how to be a hot shot band, he would have to recommend closing out the set with a Chuck Berry song because it is a sure fire crowd pleaser. By now, though, it's also an A-1 cop out. The Grateful Dead finished the show with "Johnny B. Goode." Draw your own conclusions.
It was good to see the Dead just for old time's sake, but I think I'll just be content to listen to their old albums from now on. On the way to his limousine, Jerry Garcia muttered, "Total Bummer." It wasn't that bad. But it wasn't any too good.
(by Joe Roman, from the Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta), November 22 1971)