THE YEAR OF THE DEAD
The Grateful Dead are on the way up. But whether it be from a growing musical acumen on the part of their audience, a starring role in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or simply that they are one of the only living reminders of the Summer of Love, nobody can really say for sure. The only thing that does seem sure is that suddenly (?) great gobs of people have turned on to the group, giving them a series of packed houses, screaming audiences and fans whose devotion borders on the mystical.
I doubt if even the Dead themselves could give you a reason why. Whatever it is, it certainly didn't take much to prove the point to the overflow crowds that jammed The Tea Party during October's first weekend. By the third number, the audience was invariably on its feet, if not dancing, then at least rhythmically swaying throughout the set.
Dead music is unlike any other, and thus brooks no comparisons. They have a magnificent texture, layers upon layers of lead riffs coagulating over each other, coiled, nearly a form without a form. On stage, they are loose almost to the point of nonchalance, switching off instruments, resting while the song runs through its changes. They encompass all varieties of music, from Jerry Garcia country to Pigpen blues to somewhat 5/4 jazz.
If you need a word try Flow. There is nothing calculated about a Dead performance. There is lots of searching, lots of trying this or that, lots of times when the song lays down and waits for someone to tell it where to go. On Saturday, they meandered around for close to half an hour, finding something, losing it again, finally coming around ever so slowly to catch a piece of Anthem of the Sun. You can feel the group relax when they hit the mainline, watch them settle in, know that it's now just a matter of time until the energy beams connect and things rise just another level.
It's been a good tour for the Dead. Previous to Boston, they played New York's Cafe Au Go Go. Though the club is notorious for having dead acoustics, their performance on Tuesday night (Sept. 31) stretched on until six in the morning, with most of the available space taken up by dancers. Think of New York, and think of dancers and you'll see that The Dead can perform wonders, given a time and place.
They even staged their own version of the Rock and Roll revival this time around. "Every once in a while we like to bring back some of our old numbers." and so Friday night they brought back the grandaddy of their golden oldies, 'In The Midnight Hour'. They had referred to it as "ancient history" even as far back as their first trip east over two and some years ago. but suddenly there it was, fresh and new as ever, updated by Garcia's wonderfully long ride on the pedal steel.
There were lots of good moments from The Dead's stay in Boston: the best drum solos from them in a long while, some discreet organ work by Tom Konstanten. Pigpen's enjoyable and altogether too-brief appearances. But over all of this, above any musical things that might have emanated from the stage, was the particular set of vibrations that The Dead manage to bring out in their audiences. They attract a mixed bunch — cycle gangs, hard core freaks, spaced and very strange people that seem to stay underground until their arrival. Together, they certainly do not make for the usual Tea Party crowd.
And The Dead seldom let them down. In a strange way, the group brings the spirit of California with them wherever they go. It's a good feeling, and though its reality out west may be as mythic as one of Pizarro's cities of gold, it still feels nice when it happens here.
(by Lenny Kaye, from Fusion, November 14 1969)
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HAVE YOU SEEN MY BONZO DOG DOO DAH?
The Bonzo Dog Band played with The Grateful Dead at the Boston Tea Party on October 2, 3, and 4. I attended on the evening of the 2nd and arrived just as The Dead were about to begin their first set, an insipid and seemingly endless group of pantomimes for which they received an enthusiastic round of applause.
It was interesting to note that the most enthusiastic member of the audience was a young man sniffing glue out of a brown paper bag. There then began an unreasonably long wait for the Bonzos to appear (one could see them hovering in the wings or sometimes catch the glare of a flugelhorn bell) during which time a horde of newies, oldies, and new pseudo-oldies (Cat Mother) was played over the PA.
The music inspired some frenzied dancing, the most outstanding participant being a young woman wearing ballet slippers and what appeared to be the entire stock of a rather sizeable Morgan Memorial who danced with a savage frenzy rarely found amongst the civilized peoples. She eventually found a partner in the glue sniffer, but unfortunately his style was much too ethereal and on more than one occasion he missed the beat. Disgusted she whirled off into the darkness in search of another partner, leaving him alone with his brown paper bag.
The music continued to blare, the oldies evoking the most response which brings us to: Digression One — Is the current "popularity" of oldies symptomatic of a stagnation in rock? Perhaps. More likely it is illustrative of the power of real and imagined nostalgia. Many people might contend that it is a revolt against the increased complexity of rock, a harkening back to the simpler ways. I don't think so. Most rock was and continues to be musically simple and lyrically pedestrian. Granted, the lyrics of 'Queen of the Hop' are easy to sing and understand but so are those of 'Sugar, Sugar'. What makes 'Queen of the Hop' more loveable than 'Sugar, Sugar' is the same element that makes Stu Erwin more loveable than Dick York: time. We tend to forget that things were just as screwed up during the "Golden Age of Rock" as they are now. Only the good things from the past remain in our minds ready to be conjured up at the drop of a needle on a dusty forty-five.
Well, to get back, the Bonzos finally appeared on stage, tuned up. and began their set with 'Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?' a humorous and cutting (though unfounded) jab at white bluesmen which ended with Roger Spear in blackface mouthing "Mammy". The set continued with a long and rarely amusing reading by Vivian Stanshall and a few syrupy ballads by Neil Innes. Even the Spear's electronic gadgetry and the usually sparkling showmanship of Legs Larry Smith failed to get the show off the ground.
The performance on the whole was shoddy, lackluster, and uninspired. To one who had heard the Bonzos on record or seen them performing at their best (and at their best they are quick, inventive and hilarious) it was a painful experience. All of which brings us to: Digression Two — Is the Bonzo Dog Band a revival of vaudeville as the sludgier critics contend? Probably. They usually do manage to put together an entertaining melange of satire, farce and music, but then as long as they're enjoyable who really cares?
(by Loyd Grossman, from Fusion, November 14 1969)