CAUGHT IN THE ACT: GRATEFUL DEAD
There's a lot of enjoyable bands around at the moment and there's a few exceptional bands around too. But there's only a handful of the exceptionally enjoyable - the enjoyably exceptional - in this world today and one of them played four nights at the London Lyceum last week.
The Grateful Dead, on an extended European tour, jamming exhaustively at Bickershaw and broadcasting from Luxembourg, started with an enthusiastic Tuesday crowd, built through an exciting Wednesday show, an ecstatic Thursday gig (the night I caught), and on to Friday's grand finale.
They attracted a larger proportion of Americans to the Lyceum than usual and the whole atmosphere must have been similar to that in the West coast ballrooms of the sixties with the uninhibited shouts and whoops of appreciation and encouragement.
There's no showmanship to the Dead. It's just a case of walking on stage - to great applause - and getting on with the job in hand, which is boogie, as in "Big Boss Man," a good, hard blues opener.
It's a very interesting stage, musically, that the Dead have reached. A well developed blend of their early rhythm and blues-rock roots with their Workingman/American Beauty country influences producing one of the most complete synthesis of white American music in an individual style.
Mighty guru Garcia stands smilingly at the back picking out the most relaxed and pointed lines while Bob Weir, to the front, stands with head on one side singing high and true. It's really only in live concert that the full qualities of Lesh and Kreutzmann as a rhythm section become wholly apparent. Added to Weir's rhythm guitar chord patterns, which play closer to Garcia's lead than to the actual rhythm team, Phil and Bill give the Dead's music that loose, rolling and purposefully fragmented feel.
It's a sensation that often teeters on the brink of anarchy. You suddenly think "This song is coming apart at the seams" and suddenly the whole band is together again tightasthis.
The insidious infectiousness of the Dead's music is clear. On Thursday there was never any need for the "c'mon everybody clap yo' hands" stuff, but, all the same, the whole Lyceum is suddenly clapping hands.
Pigpen's almost invisible, hidden at the back and to one side of the stage. But he comes out front for "Good Lovin'," perhaps a little weak to those who remember the Young Rascals' frantic rendition, but there's some nice organ from Keith Godchaux who takes over the keyboards from McKernan. Keith's wife Donna comes on stage for a fantastic "Playing In The Band," a title which reflects what the Dead are all about. Anyone who's ever picked guitar or smote the snare in anger would love to play in such a band.
A simple string of song titles tends to reduce the stature of the Dead's performance, but some of the notables were "Casey Jones" (which closed the first set), "Big Railroad Blues," "Uncle John's Band," and the smoky, moody "Wharf Rat."
The highlight, however, is still the epic "Dark Star." It's a marathon stellar piece launched by Lesh and Kreutzmann, fuelled by the consistently interesting interplay between Garcia and Weir with the leader pinging out high precise notes and the whole band building a series of stunningly powerful climaxes.
So how do you follow such a musical journey? Well, you relax and play what you want to. In this case what they wanted to play was a series of oldies and goldies going right back to an "El Paso" that Marty Robbins just wouldn't have believed.
All of this tended to eclipse the set played by the New Riders of the Purple Sage earlier in the evening. I enjoyed their first album but found "Powerglide," their second, disappointing. The NRPS set, notwithstanding an enthusiastic reception from U.S. expatriates, was similarly good/bad. "Last Lonely Eagle" (first album track) was fine with good steel guitar; "I Don't Need No Doctor" (second album and latest single) rocked well; "Louisiana Lady," "The Weight" plus "Willie And The Hand Jive" proved highspots in the set.
But the night was the Dead's, whose extraordinary musical stamina has given us four excellent nights at the Lyceum. Let's hope that other bands of equal stature follow their example. (Is four nights at the same or a similar venue too much to hope for from the Stones?).
(by Geoff Brown, from Melody Maker, June 3, 1972)
* * *
DEAD: ONE OF THE BEST
The Grateful Dead are an exasperating band. Carve away all the semi-mystical claptrap that surrounds them and they still have an indeniably high presence.
On-stage at the Lyceum last week they played so quietly, so completely laid-back that, you would imagine, an audience brought up on ear-battering rock and roll would become restive and bored. But as the music floated over in waves from the front of the stage and percolated into the crowded, labyrinthine maze of corridors and iron balustrades, they sat there gripped with wonderment that a band should fill the whole of the hall, not just with its music, but with its very presence.
The Dead seemed to be at home in the intimate warmth of the old-time Lyceum with its dim, smokey lights and tuned in perfectly to the people, who captured, magnified, and returned to the band that relaxed, magical good-time feeling. But the Dead are still exasperating.
On the Thursday of their four-day stint last week, their first set was beautiful, and as they ended with a red-hot Casey Jones, the second promised to take off sky-high - but didn't. It turned into a meandering, shambolic feedback jam illuminated with the occasional flash of dazzling, almost telepathic brilliance.
I picked them up at "Big Boss Man", which they play with great assurance, rolling bass from Phil Lesh and wailing harp, and stayed through until the end of the second set. Song-titles have never struck me as of great interest in the Dead's music: even the song-albums like "American Beauty" just flow through like a continuous set. The continuity is even more overpowering in performance, and breaks seem to come, not so much when the song reaches its conclusion, but when the band decide that they have explored to the full that particular feeling for that particular evening.
During the first set, what struck me most forcibly was not the role of Garcia as leader and controller, but Bob Weir, the best vocalist and the linkman. While Garcia takes off on his guitar excursions, it is Weir who pins the sound together, lifting the pace with his immaculate timing and full chords, then suddenly taking a stride forwards to the mike to pick up a chorus as Jerry Garcia's towering solos suddenly drop back into the main theme of the song.
The Dead's improvisation technique is actually quite simple: they take a song out to the end of an instrumental break; then, where others would reach a peak of intensity and fall back into the song, they take it on out from there, building beyond.
The intensity is not governed by volume, either: there are whole areas of space which are implied rather than hammered out (for which credit to Lesh's bass, whose silences are almost as eloquent as the fastest jumping runs), allowing the top layer of instrumentation (the interplay between Garcia's and Weir's guitars and Keith Godchaux's piano) to develop with almost telepathic understanding. The crowd understand it, too.
Some of the more complex transitions were incredibly achieved, drawing roars of admiration, but it was when they got to "Dark Star" in the second set that the cohesion seemed to be falling apart. Maybe I lost them somewhere down the line, but when drummer Kreutzmann peters out into tricky cymbal work and Lesh's bass loses the raunchy, jumping feel that underlies all the Dead's R and B-based music and leaves a throbbing pulse with no apparent timing implied, I feel that they start to degenerate into self-indulgent rambling.
Too harsh, maybe; but it is a sign of the Dead's assured status that they can carry it with an audience. From a playing point of view, the Dead have surely confirmed that they are amongst the best around bar none. For total impact there still remains a certain ambiguity - but it was a great evening.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage earlier proved themselves to be a stronger, raunchier band than their light, delicate country music album would suggest. Spencer Dryden is a powerhouse at the drums and by the end of their set they had the audience up on their feet and clapping.
(by Martin Hayman, from Sounds, June 3, 1972)
Thanks to Simon Phillips.
See also other Lyceum reviews: