ESCAPING THROUGH THE LILYFIELDS

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Awesome 10-27-79 Review

This is an amazing review I saw today


30 TRIPS AROUND THE SUN – REVIEW #14 – OCTOBER 27, 1979
1979 was an interesting and transformative year for the Grateful Dead as they bid adieu to Keith and Donna Godchaux and welcomed Brent Mydland as their new keyboardist and vocalist. I was fortunate to attend both Keith and Donna Jean’s last show (Oakland Coliseum Arena 2/17/79) and Brent’s first one (Spartan Stadium, 4/22/79), as well as the Grateful Dead’s official inauguration of the Oakland Auditorium (later renamed the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium) as the new Winterland. Even though it’s been 37 years, it still feels like only yesterday. I remember the different keyboard tone when Brent was playing electric piano (my friends called it a “tinker toy” sound – and sometimes it seemed to be more superficial and lacking the depth and exploration of Keith’s playing) – and how amazing the Hammond B-3 organ sounded. I also remember how the band seemed more polished, professional – even slick – almost a showbiz feel – and thinking after the 8/5/79 show that the Grateful Dead had gone from an organic collective musical entity to the Grateful Dead Road Show. It also felt more like a boy’s club rather than the family feeling that Donna Jean brought. I mean no offense to the Grateful Dead – it was just the flash that hit me that night.
As a lot of you know, this is one of the most famous shows from the Fall ’79 tour – largely due to the huge Dancing in the Street > Franklin’s Tower medley and the Caution-esque jam between He’s Gone and The Other One. Indeed, this has been on people’s short list for an official release ever since the Dead started digging into the vault 25 years ago. Also of note, the first set has a very generous 11 songs – something we always appreciated back then. I will say the pre-drums is both high energy and adventuresome. They were really stretching and taking chances – something that would change in 1980 as they tightened things up in order to better integrate Brent in the band.
Some thoughts about the band’s sound. The Meyer sound system is excellent – very clear, great stereo separation and definition and presence (I saw a remnant of it at a club in Eureka, CA a few years back – still sounding amazing!). Phil’s bass is resonant and chunky. Weir is well articulated, and with Donna Jean gone, he has stepped up his game and moving more to a rock star persona. Overall this is the best sound they’ve had since 1974. As far as Jerry goes, he seems to have slipped a little bit more into opiate addiction and is starting to mix up verses, get lines wrong and mumble a bit. This largely went unnoticed at the time because all eyes were on Brent (the “new guy”). But there are hints of where this would take the band in the next few years.
Well, enough inside baseball talk. Let’s listen to some Grateful Dead from the Cape Cod Coliseum, South Yarmouth, MA – October 27, 1979.
FIRST SET
JACK STRAW – Good opener – one of their best. It’s clear and resonant, with good fidelity and stereo separation – excellent audio quality. The difference in the new Meyer sound system is clearly audible. Keyboard and vocal difference immediately obvious – plinky plink piano – high Michael McDonald-esque harmonies. Fat solid Phil – dropping bombs from the start. Jerry playing the jam high, light and fast – almost like the froth on a cappuccino – fast, but not digging in. Big crunchy Phil bomb coming back into the vocals. They leave a minute of tuning and background band chatter on the disc before the next song.
CANDYMAN – Great follow-up to Jack Straw, keeping the mood in the Wild West. They usually play this later in the set, and not often. It’s a rare treat, and its placement in this slow tells me they are in a good mood. Jerry plays a lovely, poignant jewely solo – but voice is wavering a bit – a little fainter than the year before – not growling out the “blow you straight to hell” line (but he does bark out “Won’t you tell everybody you meet that the Candyman’s in town”).
ME & MY UNCLE > BIG RIVER – Since this coupling became standard in 1978, I’m going to treat it as a single piece. We stay in the Southwest with Uncle. It has a different sound with Brent on electric piano - he’s very present and clear – playing non-stop. Jerry seems to fade in and out just the tiniest bit – playing fast and yet a little bit distant. Uncle as usual is tight and fun. The transition to Big River comes off without a hitch. Phil’s on the money, but a bit soft, as is Jerry. It’s like Jerry’s playing around the perimeter of the song – subtle, almost inaudible at times. Jerry’s first solo is again a bit distant and quiet. He’s cruising just fine, but sounds like he’s somewhat lost in his own thoughts. Brent’s solo is okay – but it takes me back to when I first saw him in 1979 and wasn’t exactly fond of his piano tone. After Bob heads down to Baton Rouge, he spaces for a second and thinks the song’s over and tries a second chorus line before remembering where he was. Jerry’s second solo is rather distant – not sure if it’s his amp or he’s just turned way down. Ahhh, and halfway through he gets dialed in, playing a nice sharp solo finally cutting a swath in the fabric of the song.
BROWN-EYED WOMEN – I love this song! It fits perfectly into the feeling of the previous four tunes. Not a whole lot to say except the band is dialed in and playing both solid and spry. Jerry’s guitar is happening – clearly audible and on – and his vocals are strong. Excellent version!
EASY TO LOVE YOU – And now for something completely different. After five sonic Norman Rockwell portraits, we shift to the first new original of the Brent era: a late 70’s, keyboard-dominated pop music with a tune that sounds like it would have fit in perfectly well with Michael McDonald. Over time, it grew on me. But initially I – and most of my friends – was like, “ Whaaaaa?”. Having said that, on the plus side it is a pretty tune (as opposed to a wrist-slashing buzz kill like, say, “Far From Me”), with some very sweet vocals. When it ends I find myself involuntarily waiting for the band to swing into Don’t Ease Me In, like on Go To Heaven.
MINGLEWOOD BLUES – From pop music to Bobby blues rock & roll. They altered Minglewood a bit since Brent came on board. Two things immediately stand out: 1) the almost tribal Native American backbeat; and, 2) the keyboard switch from piano to organ. Brent really shines on the Hammond B-3 (which, IMO, was his real strength and true genius). It reminds me of how nice the Hammond sounded with Pigpen. Halfway through Brent’s solo the recording flips from the soundboard to an audio patch – flipping back to the soundboard just before he’s done. Bobby comes in with his work in progress (he had a somewhat lengthy learning curve on stage) slide guitar solo. Just as Jerry’s hitting his final burning solo, Bobby decides to go into the final verses. Nice finale with a couple good size bass bombs. All in all, quite good.
STAGGER LEE – Nice follow up to Minglewood – and another western tale of bad choices and hot lead – it’s a pretty good version, though Jerry sounds just a wee bit distant at times, with his voice cracking a bit. Garcia plays a really nice solo – more thoughtful and detached than cutting. But he comes back in for the final verses with his vocals dialed in and singing stronger than in the beginning. Jerry steps it up a notch in his final refrains of “Look out Stagger Lee”, singing stronger then going for another buzzing guitar solo. The band finally comes together for a nice crunching and Phil bomb-laden finale. Nice!
LOST SAILOR > Finally we come to Bobby’s newest tunes – a coupling that Garcia once called Weather Report Suite put through a blender wink emoticon. I caught the debut of Lost Sailor in Oakland the previous August and immediately liked it. There was/is something about that seafaring vibe that is transportive, and a bit romantic. And the band manages to paint an almost holographic sonic portrait where I can feel the ship rocking back and forth, and the breeze blowing across the deck and filling its sails. I love how it gradually builds up, like the waves crashing against the deck pitching the boat back and forth, before finally hitting escape velocity and sailing into.
SAINT OF CIRCUMSTANCE > This is another song I liked from the start – and always preferred coupled with Sailor (as opposed to being played from a dead stop as they did in later years). It felt more complete that way. It’s got cool lyrics, nice danceable backbeat that compels you to get on your feet and dance. Phil really helps, practically carpet-bombing the crowd with his bass. I remember living in Cotati, California when they debuted these tunes, bicycling around singing “I sure don’t know what I’m going for; but I’m going to go for it, for sure” at the top of my lungs. Oh, and for what it’s worth, this is a great version – while still in its embryonic stage (lacking some of the vocal flourishes and extended middle “rain falling down” solo), this is rock solid and very impressive. As the final notes reverberate, Jerry launches into
DEAL – And we’re back to gambling in the wild west to finish things up – a very nice way to end a first set. The band is firing on all cylinders. Brent is cranking up the B-3, Phil’s playing fat and Jerry’s burning up the strings. They go for a major “Don’t you let that deal go down!” rave up. Brent’s high harmonies are sounding really good, and band playing large. This is an excellent way to wrap things up and have the crowd anticipating more.
SECOND SET
DANCING IN THE STREET > The Dead hit the ground running with this upgraded disco version of Dancing in the Street. I’ve gotta say, Brent’s synth work here sounds really good. This is another tune where the skills he brings to the table really shine. They jam the hell out of this – giving it a space age synth groove. No individual musician really stands out here – it’s just a great collective space/disco/funk groove. Then, at the 11-minute mark, Phil starts taking it low and dropping fat bombs. He’s really digging this new sound system. I remember how it sounded back then – at the Oakland Auditorium gigs on August 4 & 5, Phil was hitting sub-sonic notes I had rarely heard him play. He was shaking the auditorium. The same thing is happening here too. They come back in for the reentry licks and nail the landing. And then they’re off to the races with . . .
FRANKLIN’S TOWER – Jerry’s in good spirits, playing his butt off, fingers flying up and down the neck of his guitar. Bob’s rhythm accents are clear as a bell and sounding wonderful. Phil’s bouncing along, keeping the rhythm buoyant. I must say that as bouncy and fun as this version is, it doesn’t seem to be going on a journey anywhere– it seems like they’re just having fun bouncing ‘round the room. They just keep playing and playing – until finally they hit the last verse, play some more and go for a final 60-second flourish – and they’re done. Pause to tune and then launch into the next serious jam.
HE’S GONE > After the Franklin’s frenzy it’s time for a nice calm cool down with He’s Gone. This song benefits from Brent’s high harmonies, and his piano is pretty good. Again, the excellent production and stereo separation readily apparent – Weir’s accents clear on the left, Brent’s electric piano on the right – they seem to be patiently proceeding, laying the foundation for what is to come. Jerry reverses the “9 mile skidding” verse. Phil is fat and crunchy, and Jerry plays a clear, resonant solo. Excellent vocals on final chorus. Jerry does his little descending scale for the outro, and then takes them on a nice wandering journey for a few minutes before catching the scent of a big jam and darts off after it.
CAUTION JAM > Jerry goes into overdrive, hitting Caution velocity. It’s not really a true Caution jam – more a chaotic, Caution-esque frenzy, almost like the wheels are spinning off the wagon as it’s going a thousand miles an hour. This goes on for a couple of minutes, and then they get that Other One bug and pivot in that direction.
THE OTHER ONE > Phil’s playing deep and low, really driving this one, Jerry’s ripping scorching leads and Mickey is following Christopher Walken’s advice and digging into the cowbell. Bob takes the vocals, Jerry playing hot behind him – then it’s into the solo. They rage at first, then jerry pares it down to playing a traveling lead on top of spare drums and keyboards. Then Phil drops another megaton and drives them back into the second verse. On the “Coming Around” chorus (about the seven minute mark) it flips to an audience patch and stays there for about a minute before going back the soundboard and a crescendo of bass blasts, synthesize bombs and tracers (quite similar to that insane pre-drums jam on 8/4/79). Then it’s Rhythm Devils time.
DRUMS > Billy and Mickey dive right into the drums, with Phil hanging out for a bit playing off of Hart and Kreutzman. Then he leaves the stage so our favorite drumming duo can to do their thing. They initially start on their trap kits and knock out the rhythm there for a while, before Mickey takes on the Beast (the circle of giant hanging drums – the one big percussion change from 1978), beating out low, almost sub-sonic frequencies (it’s always fun hearing them do this indoors so they can make the walls breathe). As a note, the drums section has been pared down from 15+ minutes in 1978 to a few minutes by the fall of 1979. After a few minutes Jerry comes back out and starts playing the Bo Diddley riff.
NOT FADE AWAY > They start at a medium tempo – methodically building the foundation of the song. After the first verse Jerry takes off and burns up the strings against the rest of the band’s medium tempo NFA beat. They come back into the second verse – and the whole band rages – Jerry fanning his heart out and the band crashing around him. Then Garcia starts moving out into solo land. At the 7 minute mark, Jerry hits a really cool lick and works it for a couple of minutes before winding it down and bringing us to Black Peter.
BLACK PETER > This is a very nice, deep, soulful version. Jerry plays an excellent fuzz guitar solo and Brent’s Hammond permeates the sound – giving it more depth and almost funereal gravitas. The “See here how everything leads up to this day” bridge is huge – they really deliver on this one. And the final “run and see” rave up, while not as insane as some, is still very good. Definitely a step up from 1978 (where the song almost became a dire dirge). Excellent version!
AROUND & AROUND – Pretty standard – except, again, for the B-3 – it really takes the tune up a notch (and Brent’s piano tone on this one sounds more like a real piano). With Donna gone, Bob really throws himself into the vocals, making it a balls out rock & roller. They’re hurtling down the straightaway, Brent leaning on the B-3, the drummers crashing like whitewater rapids on boulders. Coming into the final vocals, Bob does the soft falsetto singing by himself – Brent opting not to replicate Donna’s part and instead letting his organ do the talking. This may be why they dumped the double time ending by the end of the year, replacing it with Johnny B. Goode or another rocker. They give it a nice hall-shaking, pounding finish – and that’s it.
ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT – Here’s another standard given new life with the Hammond B-3. They make this a huge screaming encore, putting a fat exclamation point on an excellent show. Easily the best in quite some time.
All in all, this is a very fine show with a few weak spots (Jerry just starting to fade) and a lot of high ones. There’s a reason this has been on Deadheads’ short list for decades. I’m glad they finally released it. Thanks, guys!
Next up: Lakeland, Florida – November 28, 1980
© Michael Turner 2016