Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Grateful Dead's "Cornell 5/8/77"

I'll be 60 later this month, which is when the Japanese say your second childhood begins (although I've long maintained that mine began at 45), and as I am no longer burdened with having to write stuff on spec (although I'll still pen an occasional review if someone sends me something that resonates), I'm free to explore stuff that interests me. The last five years or so, that's included delving deeper than American Beauty into the Grateful Dead canon, a body of work formidable enough to be forbidding to someone whose experience of the band, besides the aforementioned album, was knowing some entitled jerks who were part of their fan base before said fan base became a full-blown industry in the '80s; being impressed by a bunch of townie kids I heard playing "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider" on a flatbed truck in a park in Albany, NY, one Sunday in the spring of '75; and attending a Dead show so lousy (12/22/78) that fans don't even trade tapes of it, where my Deadhead buddy I'd gone with informed me that the secret to being a Head was "knowing when to wake up" (after he'd slept through more than half the show).

(NB: I say "entitled jerks" in regard to the early Deadheads of my acquaintance because competing to see who could attend the most shows seemed to me, who always seemed to be missing bands I liked because I was broke or had to work, to be a form of conspicuous consumption -- although I'm aware that the Dead's band-audience gestalt was exactly the kind of music-as-locus-for-community that made the Who and their Mod cult, or the MC5's politicized commune, so intriguing to me.)

I recently made a mix CD-R for a curious buddy that included the entahr first side of Anthem of the Sun (which I now view as the great underappreciated American progressive rock album); "Mountains of the Moon" and "China Cat Sunflower" from Aoxomoxoa (the former a beautiful example of the Dead as "song band," particularly with the overdubbed choir that was excised from the '71 remix, and the latter heavier on organ and vocal harmony here than it'd be in its later live "China > Rider" incarnation); "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven" from Live/Dead, once extravagantly hailed as "the finest rock improvisation ever recorded" by Robert Christgau (hey, it was 1969) but nevertheless a good supporting argument for the Dead as the best listening improvisers in rock, and a fine example of the nasty tone Jerry Garcia used to get before he switched from an SG to a Strat; and two tracks from Sunshine Daydream, the released version of the Dead's August '72 stand on the hottest day of the year in Veneta, Oregon (a "Playing in the Band" that's a better candidate for the "finest rock improv" stakes and a "Sugar Magnolia" that's not as good as the one on American Beauty but representative, at least).

The way real Heads like to listen, it seems, is not by album but by show -- recorded with the band's blessing and traded hand-to-hand, fan-to-fan (in this subculture, no money changes hands) -- where the ebb and flow of the performance is part of the total experience. After the death of original rabble rouser Pigpen, this meant alternating between the transcendent moments of conversation-with-instruments that fallen bluegrass muso Garcia and his accomplice in experimentalismo, bassist Phil Lesh, led the band through (flow) with intervals of Garcia or callow kid brother Bob Weir fronting the Dead-as-competent-C&W-and-rockaroll-bar-band (ebb). Once they returned from a brief mid-'70s hiatus, the Dead played ever-larger venues, ultimately becoming the highest-grossing American band while sacrificing their unique sense of connection and communication with their audience. It's ironic that Garcia, the bandleader who just wanted to play and have fun, wound up destroyed by addiction when his band (and the attendant infrastructure) grew too big for him to quit.

Folks in the know say that the show the Dead played at Cornell University's Barton Hall on May 8, 1977, is one of their best, and it's been a popular item among tape traders and in their online archive for years. It captures the Dead at a moment where their musical gestalt was at a peak and they were in a position of having to prove themselves to an Ivy League college audience. Rhino recently saw fit to release it as a triple CD to coincide with the show's 40th anniversary. Now Heads and non-Heads can now enjoy it without having to deal with crappy computer speakers.

(I'll admit to having positive feelings about Cornell -- where the bells rang out Dead tunes to celebrate the show's anniversary -- that date back to my own misspent yoof, when my best buddy from middle school and I used to hitchhike there from the upstate NY farm where he'd moved after 7th grade, there to impersonate college students, buy wine, shoot pool, and shop at the record co-op. Also, my uncle went to Cornell on the postwar GI Bill and lived at Watermargin, an interracial and inter-religious fraternity formed in response to on-campus segregation. He was washing dishes in the kitchen the night Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit.)

The most striking thing about Cornell 5/8/77 on first listen is the astonishing clarity of sound -- the result of their LSD chemist/sound designer Augustus Owsley Stanley III, aka "Bear," hating audible distortion almost as much as he loved distorted perception, and recordist Betty Cantor-Jackson's penchant for placing the listener squarely in the middle of the sound. There's plenty of headroom, and you can hear all the instruments in exquisite detail, even at low volumes (which is how I listen to music at home these days), as the Dead come galloping out of the gate with "New Minglewood Blues," a take on the "Rollin' and Tumblin'" blues trope from their debut LP, here providing Garcia and keyboardist Keith Godchaux with a base from which to spin out lots of intricate lines.

Garcia's guitaring is as redolent of Django Reinhardt as it is of bluegrass -- a certain vibrato he uses, and those half-step bends to the tonic -- and he's one of the great single-coil pickup men, using the "in-between" toggle switch positions as adeptly as Richard Thompson, even venturing into Roy Buchanan territory with his molten-silver bridge-pickup forays on "Loser" here. His voice has the same cry in it as his guitar playing, like a less powerful Richard Manuel. The form on "Deal" from Garcia's first eponymous solo album wouldn't have been out of place in Louis Armstrong's repertoire, reminding us that the Dead were the most American of bands in more ways than just the Western imagery (in both the cowboy and beatnik senses) of their lyrics. The first set also includes Weir's hat-tips to Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard, as well as a few items in a Band or Little Feat groove, culminating in a long "Row Jimmy" that features some slithery slide in standard tuning from Garcia.

The second disc of Cornell 5/8/77 gets down to business with the last song of the first set played at Barton Hall, the disco-inspired version of "Dancing in the Street" that I found intolerable on FM radio when it was new, and which now sounds a little light in the bottom for a band with two drummers. Still, Garcia manages to salvage it with his highly idiosyncratic, envelope filtered lines. (Is there another rock guitarist who can sustain a solo as long? Nope. Not Hendrix, not Beck, not [insert name of your fave here].) The show hits its first peak with the sequence "Scarlet Begonias" > "Fire On the Mountain" that opened the second Barton Hall set. It's a particular favorite of mine; I must have listened to it a hundred times online. All the elements just gel somehow, the open-ended structures of earlier extended jam vehicles like "Dark Star," "The Other One," and the aforementioned "Playin' in the Band" here replaced by Latin jazz rifferama that recalls the (unfounded) rumor that Garcia played on the Champs' 1958 instrumental hit "Tequila." The disc closes with Weir's reggae-flavored "Estimated Prophet," my least favorite song in the Dead canon after the disco "Dancing," and seemingly a firm favorite on the XM radio Dead station, based on the innumerable versions I heard when I had a renter with the service for a couple of months (and whither "Dark Star?"). Again, Garcia's auto-wah excursions save the day, and the tune seems like a period piece from the era when Steely Dan ruled the FM airwaves.

The third disc provides the set's tour de force, as the Dead dust off "St. Stephen" for a stately and majestic rendition that contrasts starkly with the manhandling they gave the song on Live/Dead. Instead of "The Eleven"'s odd-metered romp (replete with distressed Appalachian opera singing to rival the Who's on "A Quick One"), the Dead then segue into "Not Fade Away," riding the same Bo Diddley beat that Quicksilver Messenger Service (whom one wag dubbed "the good-looking Grateful Dead") parlayed into a career. Garcia again stakes his claim on Roy Buchanan's turf, squeezing out stinging lines that throw off high harmonics like sparks, before the group mind takes over and the jam wends its way back to "St. Stephen" for a minute, then into "Morning Dew." That song's vision of a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland is sadly as topical today as it was in '67, and the Dead's plaintive treatment seems more apropos than the Jeff Beck Group's jazzier approach on Truth. Then Bobby takes it out with "One More Saturday Night." Overall, I'd rate the whole third disc as the Dead at their live best.

Being the polar opposite of a completist, I don't feel compelled to hear a ton more Dead shows in their entirety. But when that's what I'm wanting to hear, this is probably the one I'll be reaching for, even more than Live/Dead or Sunshine Daydream. While it's not "all the Grateful Dead music you and your family will ever need," it's one of the five or six things I'd recommend if you're a newb of a mind to check 'em out. As live things go, I love this as much as I love the '69 Velvet Underground and the '64 Mingus band, and that's saying a lot.