Jul 12, 2015

1969: Live/Dead Reviews

. . . And of course, the Grateful Dead . . . who need no embellishment here. Their live album, not released until June, but currently being previewed on KSAN, will give you some idea of what San Francisco has been like. It is probably the finest American album ever made

(excerpt from Peter Thompson, "The Music Scene," Stanford Daily, 30 April 1969)

* * *  


[ . . . ]  The day before yesterday the Wild West show was cancelled, the record stores are glutted with “psychedelic music,” and last week Bill Graham announced that he’d had it: nobody was grateful enough to him for making a million dollars off the community, so he’s splitting town in December. So long, Bill. [ . . . ] The vultures are moving in. The Iron Butterfly are hot in Peoria, Richard Nixon is down on dope, and Warren Burger is resting in the East. [ . . . ]
I have no doubt about it: within a year or so, the vitality and inventiveness that were the musical expression of our scene will be a memory. It’s been dying for two years now, and that’s too long a final spasm. So like swing jazz fans, people like me who care enough to write this kind of column, and people like you who care enough to read it, will be hoarding our records with the belief that it will never happen again.
And maybe it won’t, but there’s no small consolation in the record I am going to preview today: a double-album live recording of the Grateful Dead to be released sometime in the Fall. It’s the Grateful Dead record, in fact the San Francisco record that we’ve all been waiting for, a nearly flawless vinyl reproduction of what can actually go down at those concerts.
I say nearly flawless because there’s really no way that anybody is ever going to reproduce the feeling, the original feeling we might have had a few years ago about what was happening here, the feeling you still find yourself carrying around like a secret hope: nobody dances, nobody cares. No use to belabor the point; this is a music column and the proper topic of discussion is music. Except that with a group like the Grateful Dead it’s impossible to separate the music from those people and what they stand for. Witness leader Jerry Garcia, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, on what’s happened since the “good old days”:
“It was magic, far out, beautiful magic…a sensitive trip, and it’s been lost… Like Bill Graham, he was at the Trips Festival, and all he saw was a light show and a band. Take the two and you’ve got a formula… It’s watching television, large loud television.”

All right, the album: I don’t even know the name of it. I obtained it by recording it from KSAN last May, the only time to my knowledge it’s been played in its entirety. The tape I have, then, is a copy of the original master, which means that it might go through some changes before it becomes an album, and which means that it hasn’t yet been sliced up into sides and bands. And that’s groovy, and hopefully they will keep it this way: if you’ve ever seen the Dead on a good night, you know they don’t come on and say “now we’re going to play ‘Satisfaction,’ blah blah, then we’ll do this thing we learned from Albert King, blah blah, then we’ll do this far-out jam on ‘Louie, Louie!’”
In some pure sense, they just come on stage and play music.
That’s what this tape is: an hour and a half of uninterrupted rolling together music. It begins at a low pressure, with some excellent interplay between bassist Phil Lesh and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and ends with a mind-blowing ten minutes of amplifier electronics. Garcia’s guitar has never been so beautiful in its lyric, jazzy lines, and (surprise) even the singing is good. Of the numbers I can separate and give names to, they do “St. Stephen,” a happy, bouncing number from their latest studio album Aoxomoxoa, a jam following that which sounds like Richie Valens’ “La Bamba,” Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Lovelight,” where wonderful old Pig Pen struts his stuff, and a breath-taking “Death Has No Mercy,” featuring melodic feedback work by Garcia.
What can I say? What can be said about the Grateful Dead’s music without talking about a whole lot of things that are not supposed to be the proper concern of a rock music column? Buy the album when it comes out; it’s beautiful, and they need the bread.
Two things I leave you with (a note of optimism): one, there’s a dance this Sunday at Frost featuring the Sons of Champlin and the best unrecorded band in the area, Country Weather, a benefit for some people that need your support and your money. Go to it. Second, next time you’re buying an Iron Butterfly album and wondering when Bobby Vinton will be nominated to the Burger Court, remember that the Grateful Dead have something better for you just around the corner: “We’re tired of jerking off,” Garcia said in that same interview, “and we want to start fucking again.” Goodbye, Bill Graham, goodbye, summer school. I won’t miss either of you.

(by Dave Stevens, from the Stanford Daily, 15 August 1969) 

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The good Ol’ Grateful Dead, after wading through enormous piles of bullshit, have finally put out their double live album (with virtually no help from Warner Brothers), after a delay of four months. It goes without saying that Live/Dead (Warner Bros. 1830) is their best album yet; it transcends any mere value judgements one might have. You just listen to it, shake your head in wonder, and mutter to yourself, “the Dead, the Dead, the Dead…”
Ever since the beginning, while other bands have had more national success (the Airplane, Big Brother), the Dead have always been the San Francisco band. While other groups have broken up or changed because of internal hassles, the Dead have added two more members, Hart and Constanten. And today, as most of the third wave San Francisco bands flood the ballrooms with boring, imitative music, the Dead’s originality and brilliance stand out even more.
The album is a masterpiece – excellent cover artwork and inner leaflet with the words to the songs, and a masterful job of mixing by the Dead, the best quality for a live album I’ve heard.
The first three sides of Live/Dead were actually performed continuously. The Dead are very successful in creating a steady flow of extremely satisfying music, and within this stream is constant interaction, always with the rhythmic undercurrent of the two percussionists, Hart and Kreutzmann; Phil Lesh’s bass behaving like a second lead guitar.
It begins with Jerry Garcia’s muted guitar, demonstrating his ability to let the notes ooze out of the strings. Midway through the flow, Hart crashes the gong behind the vocals (which are fantastic throughout) – “Dark star crashes/Pouring its light into ashes/Reason tatters/The forces tear loose from the axis.” It’s so easy to get lost in this music…and Garcia’s quivering vocals fit “Dark Star” (and “Death” on the fourth side) perfectly.
“Saint Stephen,” which begins the second side, comes off much better than the Aoxomoxoa version, partially because when done live, Bob Weir sings lower voice, whereas in the studio Garcia overdubbed both parts. “Talk about your plenty/Talk about your ills/One man gathers what another man spills.” It blends into “The Eleven,” a Lesh tune.
Then comes Pig Pen’s big moment: ever since the Dead’s first album, Mr. McKernan has stepped further from the spotlight, and during performances he stands in a corner playing inaudible conga, but this was a matter of personal choice – he never has considered himself a musician. The Dead have left the rhythm and blues stage far behind, and Pig Pen with it.
But they still do a tune like “Lovelight,” and do it well, Garcia’s guitar as funky and fast as ever, Pig Pen working it out, joined by Lesh and Weir in the third chorus. It is simply another musical vehicle for the Dead, just as the slow blues by Rev. Gary Davis, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” the electronic feedback, and the “Bid You Goodnight” hymn on the fourth side are.
Nuff said. Buy the album and listen to it. You’ll see why Bill Graham introduces the Dead as “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world.”

(by Craig Okino, from the Stanford Daily, 3 December 1969)


  1. Some ecstatic reviews of the Dead's new live album. Historically, male college students would prove to be the Dead's prime audience, and that is certainly borne out here.
    The first brief excerpt was from a recent-albums overview by Peter Thompson, the Dead fan who reviewed the Fillmore West show in the last post. In a college paper, you naturally get a high turnover of writers, but the following music reviewers in the Stanford Daily were just as enthusiastic about the Dead.

    The Dead mixed the live album and were previewing it on KSAN as early as April 1969, before they had even finished Aoxomoxoa. So people who could tape it off a KSAN broadcast were listening to Live/Dead months before the rest of the country heard it. (The release date got bumped from June to November, and Aoxomoxoa was released in June instead.)
    Notice that the first reviewer doesn't know the name of Dark Star yet, and can only identify the Eleven by saying it sounds like La Bamba!

    In May 1969, the Stanford radio station KZSU-FM also aired a four-part documentary on the Dead, on Michael Wanger's "Lone Wanger and Bunky" show; this would also air on KSAN in June. Wanger & Vance Frost had interviewed the band back in December '68 and spent several months editing the documentary together. Also in August '69, as quoted in the first review, Michael Lydon's long article on the Dead ran in Rolling Stone. So people were now able to learn about the Dead's history from various sources, quote Garcia's thoughts, and hear their music in historical context. The first review compares the album to "the good old days" of 1966, and the second briefly compares the Dead to the other San Francisco bands.
    Notice how fast time moved then - already in 1969, one reviewer could write about the boring "third wave" SF bands, while another lamented how the music scene had been dying for the last two years!

    (Craig Okino would write in a 1/30/70 review of Big Brother, “Of the original San Francisco rock bands, only two have remained intact, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and even they have gone through personnel changes. The original groups were free of the pretentious bullshit so prevalent in most second and third wave bands, but internal hassles eventually led to the disintegration of some of the best rock groups the culture has produced – Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother.”)

    In August '69 the planned Wild West music festival in San Francisco was cancelled amidst much bickering and accusations against Bill Graham, who reacted in his usual over-dramatic style (as the first review mentions). Personally I think this was an even more telling "end-of-the-sixties-dream" moment than Altamont, which actually took place despite all obstacles; but it partly accounts for the gloomy mood of the first review.
    The writer mentions "the original feeling" people had "a few years ago about what was happening here" - now buried and replaced by a feeling that originality & excitement (and even dancing) have now disappeared, with audiences now sitting down to watch second-rate new bands; but he implies that the Dead are carrying on the true spirit. (As in the title - "the Dead are alive - are we?")

  2. Aside from the music reviews, there are a couple interesting observations of the Dead. One reviewer says that with the Dead, "it’s impossible to separate the music from those people and what they stand for," a sign that the band had become identified with countercultural ideals. (Garcia is already being used as a mouthpiece for these ideals, something he was later annoyed by; but he unwittingly set himself in that position with all his interviews.)
    All the writers also identify the Dead with San Francisco, agreeing that this album is "the San Francisco record that we’ve all been waiting for," one that finally reproduces what a concert is like - and, by extension, gives a true musical idea of the SF scene. There's a sense of hometown pride here.
    The second reviewer probably also alludes to Lydon's article in saying that the Dead have "waded through enormous piles of bullshit" and put out Live/Dead "with virtually no help from Warner Brothers" (which doesn't seem quite true to me).
    He's noticed that lately Pigpen has been left behind by the Dead's music - he "has stepped further from the spotlight, and during performances he stands in a corner playing inaudible conga." So people certainly noticed at the time that Pigpen was getting sidelined more by '69 - this reviewer concludes that Pigpen "never has considered himself a musician" (not sure where he got that from, though it may be somewhat true). But both reviewers like Lovelight, "where wonderful old Pig Pen struts his stuff."

    I omitted the first few paragraphs of the "Dead Are Alive" article, which compared 1969 to 1959 when rock's first wave was in its death throes - that section added nothing for me.