Aug 27, 2019

1970-1971: More Vintage Dead/Historic Dead Reviews

The Grateful Dead - Sunflower (MGM) 5001

In the days when people still knew how to dance (1966), in a San Francisco ballroom (the Avalon), a band that was to become the standard bearer for the San Francisco Sound (The Grateful Dead) began playing esoteric mind-body music.
The Avalon at that time presented a totally different concept in dance hall entertainment, augmenting the music with light shows, strobe lights, flourescent chalk flowers, and the people from the streets of San Francisco. The poster designs that came from the advertisements for those dances, as well as the ones later presented at the Fillmore West by Bill Graham, opened the way for a whole new field of psychedelic art.
The latest album from the Dead certainly does not cover where they are today, having explored the possibilities only covered slightly in this recording. It was recorded live at the Avalon while the Dead were still being born, and provides signs of the direction in which they developed.
The recording lacks the polish and subtlety which later became part of the Dead sound. Garcia's guitar is dominant; the rest of the group almost seems passive by comparison. The interplay between Bob Weir and Garcia, the instrumental conversations that they are fond of holding when recording live, is absent. Garcia plays over, above, and in spite of Weir, fulfilling their functions as lead and rhythm. Garcia, however, is a tasteful, if not intricate, guitarist, and it shows even on this early recording.
Most distressing is the vocalization, a department in which the Dead have traditionally been weak. Pig Pen has always been the worst offender of all, and on this album he nearly destroys Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour." The song wins out in the end when after eighteen minutes Pig Pen and the Dead decide that they have done enough. Other songs include Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too," Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," and "Dancing in the Street."

(by Vernon Gibbs, from the "Records" column, the Columbia Daily Spectator, 15 October 1970)

* * *


It is possible that the Grateful Dead are incapable of doing any music badly. They seem to be able to transform any song, with the sheer power of their creative exuberance, into a thrilling sound. This ability is evident on VINTAGE DEAD, the newest release by the U.S.'s original underground group.
Side One consists of four standard pop tunes given the unique rock treatment that only the Dead can provide. The songs are quite a mixed bag. "I Know You Rider" is an old blues song; "It Hurts Me Too" and "Dancing In the Streets" are old standards; and "Baby Blue" is Dylan. But with the Dead's arrangements they all become Grateful Dead rock, boisterous and joyful.
Side Two is 18 minutes and 23 seconds of "Midnight Hour" as sung by Pigpen (Ron McKernan). While McKernan isn't a particularly well-endowed crooner, his singing has the Dead magic. He screams, implores, wails, and caresses the lyrics, completely carried away with the music and the happiness of being a part of it.
Throughout the album, Jerry Garcia's guitar work stands out. It was very well recorded, and Garcia's brilliance even then is quite obvious.

(by Dan Cook, from the "Record Review" column, the Observer (Case Western Reserve U), 13 November 1970)

* * *

Vintage Dead, MGM-Sunflower 5001

This is a big year for rereleases and gettin' stuff out of the can. It's also a big year for The Dead & the conjunction of these trends produces yet another different kind of triumph for Trips & Co.
Raggedly tight sounds with Pigpen's organ up in front, live from the Avalon '66 and capturing the flavor of the early days & all. Nostalgia?? Damn right, soon as they rip into "I Know You Rider" you get a blast of Hashbury air radiant with sunshine as orange juice and just as uplifting.
Second side is long "Midnight Hour" sortie a la Pigpen & sort of shows you why Mister Pen was as much a hindrance as a help & finally had to be reduced to mascot's pay. The long unavailable "Dancing in the Streets" makes up for it. Pen was also the American Alan Price and a forerunner of Augie Meyers, if wooly organ be your trip.
You may or may not be one of those who will want this album irregardless. Check it out to see.

(by Rich Mangelsdorff, from the "Music Wheel" column, the NOLA Express, 30 October 1970) 

* * *
(Sunflower SUN-5001)

As long as I'm dealing with bands that come out of a community and involve audiences as part of a total environment, not just as passive consumers, I can't leave out the Dead. This record was taped back in 1966 at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco; it's a live performance. It's interesting to see how far the Dead have come. Back then I guess they were just a local band from 'Frisco, doing other people's songs, and getting it on in a really good way, but not the outasight super-group they've become. This record sounds a lot like their first release, which isn't surprising. Sometimes the vocals are a little weak, and Jerry Garcia wasn't as accomplished as he is now, but Vintage Dead is a fine example of good ol' rock'n' roll. My favorite cuts are "It Hurts Me Too" and Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue." I really love the way the Dead do Dylan; I think it's better than Dylan, but that's obviously a matter of opinion. The Dead have always made me feel good in a way no other group can, and this is no exception. It's good to hear Pig Pen's organ again, meshing with the rest of the band, producing a get-up-and-dance sound that just doesn't get tiresome. This is nothing to really blow your mind with, but it's sure comfortable and fun.

(by Rockin' Raoul, from the "In Your Ear" record-review column, The Rag (Austin, TX), 16 November 1970) 

* * *

(Grateful Dead, Sunflower SUN-5001)

Pardon me, hip people, but I’ve never really seen the point of the Dead. They always seem less heavy, less important when I hear them than the hype has built them. I think their connection with Ken Kesey in the days of the Merry Pranksters has prolonged their in-ness, as it were. Because musically, they are so-so, despite Jerry Garcia’s abilities.

(by David Wagner, from the record review column, the Post-Crescent (Appleton, WI), 8 November 1970)

* * * 

(Sunflower SNF-5004)

Here’s another in Sunflower’s series of releases of live performances recorded in ’66 and ’67. I was kind of put off by the $5.98 list price for a total of 29 minutes of sound, and even more so when I heard side 1, on which the Dead sound like your average amateur rock band, certainly competent enough and fun to dance to if there’s not much happening elsewhere, but nothing special. My opinion of the record went up considerably upon hearing side 2, however. Evidently recorded at a different session, this side reveals the Dead as the killer band it is, getting everyone off with perfectly executed riffs and a fine level of interplay between the players. “Stealin’” is a short, good-timey piece in the Lovin’ Spoonful style. The high point is twelve minutes of “The Same Thing,” a song Muddy Waters has done for years, but never in the stretched-out, intricate acid improvisation way that the Dead play it. For the first time I really understood the name “Grateful Dead;” this song is slow and comes eerily from a distance, a sinister indication of strange and freaky things coming out of the night. Jerry Garcia plays from the gut, slowly increasing the tempo and intensity, but never losing the flavour of coming from the dark side of things, alien to the daylight world of straight jobs and plastic entertainment, something new and slightly incomprehensible coming from the bowels of the old and stale. This is a fine side for listening to while you’re spaced in the middle of the night. I still think the list price is too high, but hard-core Dead fans won’t want to miss Historic Dead.

(by Rockin’ Raoul, from “In Your Ear," The Rag (Austin, TX), 7 June 1971)

* * *

(Sunflower 5001)

That's right, there's a new Grateful Dead album, but it's not really new. The album was recorded at the famous Trips Festival at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1966. The Trips Festival is a very significant date in what's happening here, Mr. Jones. Ken Kesey persuaded Bill Graham to let him use the ballroom to re-create an acid trip without acid. Remember that it's 1966 and your fav gear band is the Beatles and you dig the Beach Boys and Herman's Hermits and you're saving up for a surfboard. Kesey is re-creating acid trips. The words 'hippie' and 'psychedelic' haven't been used yet. Psychedelic was invented at the Trips Festival. For the first time anywhere people looked at day-glo art under black lights, they saw their first light show, and they heard their first acid-rock. It would be that night which shifted the emphasis from England back to the West Coast. Owsley circulated through the crowd dropping droplets from his vial into people's cokes. Everyone was high, most thought due to the music and the atmosphere. Owsley knew better. When the police finally arrived, they didn't know where to begin. It was on that night that 'hippie' was born, and rock music became less something to listen to after school and more a lifestyle. That was when San Francisco was everything it is supposed to be now. The Grateful Dead played that night.
The Dead were Kesey's band. In getting it together, they would all gather in a room, Owsley would provide the acid, and they would play whatever they individually felt like playing. After a while the individual trips grew from conflicts to complements, they had learned to express their individual trips collectively, and a new music form was born. The individuality of the trips was still there, but there was something new, an interplay, a focal point, it would go round and round and up, building, growing, throbbing, into a tremendous mountain of sound, and then crash! it all came down at once. It has been said that an acid trip transcends language. The Dead learned to express it in music. The Dead's music was acid.
If you rush right out and buy this album, you'll probably be very disappointed in it. It's not 1966 anymore. Historically, it's probably the most important album of acid-rock. Musically, it's less than outstanding. Rock music has come a long way since then - Sergeant Pepper's didn't come out for another year. If you expect to have an experience as incredible as those who attended the festival, forget it. One side of the album is "Midnight Hour" and the Dead just don't get it on at all. Pig-Pen hogs the mike and the Dead don't get the opportunity to catch the music and pull it up. The best cut is "Dancing in the Street" because Garcia and Lesh  [--line missing--]  for the most part, just songs with little jamming, and there is little "deading." Seen in perspective, however, the album is overwhelming. If you are looking for the musical answer to LSD, this isn't it. It was in 1966, but it seems almost sedate now. It's still the Dead.
There is a new Grateful Dead today. The acid music has been more or less abandoned because the Dead found that they themselves couldn't control its incredible power. The Dead have calmed down and learned to sing and have a lovely time, as opposed to an incredible time. They still occasionally let the acid out in live performances, but it is doubtful that there will ever be another acid-Dead album. In dropping acid-music the Dead have increased their popularity tremendously (since the release of "Workingman's Dead"). If you like the Grateful Dead because "Uncle John's Band" is a catchy tune, you'll hate this album. If you're a hard-core Dead freak, you are probably out trying to get it by now.
According to the liner notes of the album, "Jerry Garcia once said, 'I don't believe the live sound, the live excitement can be recorded.' Well, here it is..." Of course the live sound can't be recorded. A record is at best a frozen musical moment - stagnant and repetitive. Live music is the ultimate rock experience. In spite of what the liner notes of the album say, this record is nothing more than a record. As to the music on it, their old music had to be entered slowly, tentatively, relaxing defenses slowly, while the sound built until you were either totally committed or totally lost. If you were totally committed, you finally understood the meaning of the word 'psychedelic.' If you were totally lost, you were probably bored to death.

(by Dwight Tindle, from the Kenyon Collegian, 15 October 1970)

Thanks to Ron Fritts.

These were the Vintage Dead album liner notes written by Robert Cohen:
"In the beginning there was the Grateful Dead." (Chet Holmes, 1966) And the Avalon Ballroom was part of that beginning. In early 1966 there began a series of dances with an entirely new concept. Light shows, fluorescent chalk, strobe lights, flowers and an awe struck audience of turned on people. What was amazing was that instead of just watching performers, the audiences were an integral part of the total environment. People swaying and dancing to music and lights that had a rhythm and sound all its own. The Dead helped provide that sound. The thing about the Dead is that they are so completely and absolutely together! Working and living together has brought them so close that they play almost as one mind. Phil Lesh described the Grateful Dead's music: "We orbit around a common center that is impossible to define but it has something to do with making good music of any kind." That is the Grateful Dead. This closeness, this ability to become one being is perhaps the greatest asset that any group can have. They perform best on stage with an audience in front of them. They have fun on stage and this obviously is where they want to be. This is why I recorded them. Jerry Garcia once said, "I don't believe the live sound, the live excitement can be recorded." Well, here it is, in its liveness, pressed on acetate for those who were not there when the Avalon was. A memorial to a period that all too soon passed us by.
Robert E. Cohen

See also: 

1 comment:

  1. I added another review of Vintage Dead found by music researcher Ron Fritts in the student newspaper of Kenyon College in Ohio. (Seems better to add reviews to the old pages rather than keep making new Vintage Dead posts.) This one's interesting for its sense of history and the development of the Dead.
    The album just says it was recorded at the Avalon Ballroom in 1966, but Tindle comes up with a whole story of how it was recorded at the Trips Festival, the Birth of the Psychedelic, and fancifully recreates the evening. (He'd probably read Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) His account isn't really accurate - this was just another show at the Avalon many months after the Trips Festival.
    But it's striking that, as in so many 1970 reviews, 1966 is already viewed as the distant past, and the music from that year has to be set in historical context for today's listeners. There's already the sense of nostalgia for a lost golden age of discovery. (Tindle was probably in high school in '66.) But as he says, "rock music has come a long way since then," and the actual 1966 Dead are "less than outstanding" - they're too sedate, don't jam much, and need apologies.
    For him, the Dead at their most powerful recreate the acid experience, and he's disappointed not to hear that in '66. He sees the Dead as progressing: "there is a new Grateful Dead today." They've abandoned "acid rock" because "they couldn't control its incredible power." Now they've calmed down, they sing catchy tunes, and they've become popular. Even though "they still occasionally let the acid out in live performances," the acid Dead are gone.
    It would be nice if he'd named a specific album or live moment that captured him, but he gives a loving description of the Dead's music as an acid trip in itself that the listener must surrender to. (Or else be bored to death.)