Mar 4, 2018

1969: Live/Dead Review


LIVE/DEAD - Rating: 2-1/2 stars
VOLUNTEERS - Rating: 4 stars

In a way, the Dead's double album is a valuable document: it's a typical set. A few moments of inspiration scattered amid more than 70 minutes of aimlessness. These are seven musicians who know their axes and know what all the others are likely to do, and can go with them. That's half the battle for an improvisation group; the other half is to improvise something of merit, and there's damn little of that here.
One has to like them - is obliged to. They were there are the beginning. Kesey, Trips Festival, Acid Test, the San Francisco Sound. (If there is one, theirs is it.) And the word on the Dead is always that they're erratic, but when they get it on, they're the best band in the world.
Damned if I've ever heard them get it on. Certainly not on record, where they've either been too hung up with electronic diddling to make music, or, as here, just not together.
From the opening seconds, it's clearly The Dead: rhythm setting up a static pattern while Garcia wanders with short, single-note, on-beat figures gradually expanding into longer lines emphasizing triplets, and creating a climax. If only those climaxes weren't so inevitable. And the first three sides of the album melt into each other, the separate tunes distinguished only by the tempo changes and the lyrics, which aren't notable. Until Lovelight, The Dead's standby, which is a gas - the only fully realized group performance on the records, everybody helping everybody else. Garcia playing his best guitar solo of the set, tough, hard drumming by Hart and Kreutzmann, insinuating bass lines by Lesh, funky vocal. Yes, yes, yes.
The last side is tighter than the first three. Nothing mindblowing, but Rev. Gary Davis' Death is effective, and the electronic play on Feedback makes some sense in spots.
I don't know; maybe this is the best band in the world. But they sure can keep a secret.

The Airplane, on the other hand, is at the very least the best band in America, and so it's difficult to rate this set. By any other standards, it's four stars and maybe more, but it's less good than Crown of Creation, and of course nothing can touch Baxter's.
Some of the songs are sensational, but there are too many throwaways: Shepherd, Farm, Turn My Life, Seasons. And the two revolutionary pieces, Together and Volunteers, while musically beautiful, are too self-congratulatory and facile. (The latter was originally titled Volunteers of America; RCA had the Airplane delete the last words from the title and the printed lyrics, though the line is sung intact at the end of the song. The printed lyrics for Together have been bowdlerized. And although the Airplane has done wonders for itself, RCA's recording techniques are still terrrible.)
But the good songs...oh my God. Frederick, in the same mood as Rejoyce, has gorgeously dense lyrics by Gracie, and she sings it brilliantly. The vocal is followed by an exciting Kaukonen guitar solo that builds to a long climax, then diminishes into a light, even 4/4 with a fine complementary piano line by Hopkins, and slides into a heavier 4/4 signaled by Casady. Crescendo and out and incredible.
Turn My Life is said, and Kaukonen's vocal is effective, but it's not a great song. Wooden Ships, conversely, is. Written by Kantner with Stills and David Crosby, it's a mournful, uncertain leave-taking of the silent dehumanized majority by the loud, musical minority. Kantner, Miss Slick, and Balin alternate the vocals, and each section slides inevitably, logically, breathtakingly into the next. At one point during some harmony, Gracie sustains the end of a verse, knifing into the next. Tear your guts out, Jim. The counterpoint at the end is typical Airplane, which is to say marvelous.
The last Slick song is perhaps the best, in terms of lyrics. Eskimo compares the vast natural forces to man's smallness; the middle verse suggests music as a possible bridge. The refrain, "But the human crowd/Doesn't mean shit to a tree" carries a double sense; the obvious, colloquial meaning, naturally, but also, "shit" makes trees grow, and why don't we acknowledge our links with nature instead of priding ourselves on our machines and sound-proofing and euphemizing our bathrooms? Another clean, sharp Slick vocal.

One of the points of reviewing these two sessions together, apart from the fact that these are the two longest-lived San Francisco bands, is that both started in more or less the same place. Kaukonen has freely admitted that his guitar style owes a great deal to Garcia's. But Miles Davis said the same thing about Ahmad Jamal, and while the Dead may have been, may even remain, a greater social presence than the Airplane, the latter has grown into a musical force that has long since outstripped its roots.

(by Alan Heineman, from Down Beat, 5 February 1970)

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  1. A dissenting opinion of Live/Dead! As a Down Beat reviewer, Heineman primarily covered jazz music, so perhaps it could be expected that he'd look down on the Dead. But Heineman had given a glowing review to a Cream concert earlier in 1968, and was very impressed by them, and clearly he was an Airplane fan as well ("the best band in America"), so it seems the Dead just left him cold.

    Despite the Dead & the Airplane being considered the twin giants of San Francisco rock, it's rare to see them compared or reviewed together in the '60s. Another Down Beat reviewer who saw them both in March '68 thought the Dead were stronger musicians; Heineman admits they play well, he's just not interested in their music.
    So the covers, Lovelight and Death Don't Have No Mercy, are the highlights for him! As his review of the Airplane album shows, he paid close attention to lyrics and songcraft, so I suspect Hunter's oblique poetry meant nothing to him. (He says the lyrics "aren't notable.")
    He condemns the band's playing as "not together," their musical patterns too obvious, their tunes barely distinguishable, their improvisations without merit. And their studio records are just "electronic diddling!" I'm not sure if he'd actually seen them live, but if so, he wasn't impressed - "a typical set" is aimless and erratic with only "a few moments of inspiration...I've never heard them get it on."

  2. I've posted Heineman's review of Cream and Airplane shows back in 1968:

    Heineman did a couple other reviews of San Francisco bands. In the 12/26/68 Down Beat, he reviewed the first Quicksilver Messenger Service album, giving it 4 stars:
    "This is the perfect record to lay on skeptics who think lyricism and beauty are incompatible with genuinely hard rock. This group is uncompromising and solid; yet, in passage after passage, the only appropriate descriptive adjective is 'lovely.'
    The subtlety and understatement of the quartet...grows and grows on you; the fine musicianship of each of the players, their expert interplay and their dense but never-cluttered texturing of apparently simple tunes become clearer with each hearing.
    The two long tracks are the most interesting... [The rest of the review describes Gold & Silver and The Fool, calling them 'highly moving' and 'fascinating.'] The solo passages are impressive largely because of the interplay among all four musicians...
    It is a measure of the excellence of Quicksilver that even this fine first session was greeted with a bit of disappointment by those in the San Francisco area who have heard the group often. But there is no bad track on it."

    And in the 1/23/69 issue of Down Beat, Heineman reviewed a live show by Country Joe & the Fish at the Psychedelic Supermarket in Boston, late '68. He was less enthusiastic about them:
    "It's hard to pinpoint exactly why this group is not particularly exciting. Of all the bands purportedly in the acid-rock bag, the Fish came closest to earning the label. Their music is often trippy and spacey, and many of their lyrics deal explicitly with...psychedelia.
    They can do other things too. Their current single, Rock and Soul Music, is a good example of their hard-rock approach; and they are capable of occasionally appealing lyricism. And all five are fine musicians.
    Yet they don't make it - for this listener, anyway. There are two chief drawbacks.
    First, McDonald is not much of a singer...
    Second, the group is highly improvisational - admirably so - but the soloists are scarcely ever original. They have a fine tightness when they play arranged material, but they get ragged when they ad lib...
    [He describes the set, with praise for the playing in Flyin' High.] The best performance of the night was turned in on Section 43... There were no brilliant solos, but the interplay within the quartet reached a high point here and should serve as something to shoot for more frequently."