The day after I’d seen the Grateful Dead at the Bickershaw Festival, my 19-year-old self wrote to a friend describing his impressions. This verbatim extract sums it up:
(L-R: Keith Godchaux: piano, Phil Lesh: bass, Bill Kreutzmann: drums, Bob Weir: 2nd guitar, Jerry Garcia: lead guitar, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: organ)
It was a chilly, wet weekend. Luckily I came across some people I’d met recently who had an old ambulance, so I could sleep in relative comfort rather than mud, and when Day 3 came round I wasn’t too bedraggled. I found a position by a scaffolding tower and stood/leant in front of it from around midday. Country Joe McDonald did a set in which we all joined in the Fish Cheer (F-U-C-K N-I-X-O-N), a chap set himself on fire and did a high-dive into a small tank of water (just what the mud in front of the stage needed!) and the New Riders Of The Purple Sage played for a couple of hours. Around 7pm, the Dead took the stage and, apart from a 20-minute break between sets, they remained there for the next 5 hours.
Another quote from that letter:
“I hadn’t eaten, drunk or smoked for 12 hours and had been standing and jumping around for 5 and didn’t feel hungry or anything really – the Dead just filled me in.”
Well, I’ve now listened to the concert again, courtesy of my good friend Casey. Then, because I was confused, I listened to it once more.
Weir: “See all the time we’re playing here we got about 20 or 30 knots and about 90 or 100 degrees of jet breath coming in on us from these space heaters over here. They smell like burning kerosene and make you dizzy, and make your guitar go out of tune.”
And there’s the rub: being there, experiencing it first-hand out in the open air, imperfect notes wafting on the breeze don’t hurt your ears. In your living room, they do. Much of the time taken up with re-tuning and sorting out the ‘technical difficulties’ (from equipment failure to Garcia’s glasses needing cleaning) in the first set doesn’t form part of the recorded performance, thankfully, but you can hear the effect on the music. But a lot of the banter is there, as are the sounds of fireworks being set off during the second set, making my old memories come alive and mitigating the imperfection of the recording.
The show they played in Paris a few nights before sounds better but that’s because they’d been able to do a sound check and they weren’t battling the elements or the jet breath: the playing here is, for the most part, at least as good, which is why about half of it has been released on other ‘highlights’ albums. So I’ve settled my confusion: it was an astonishing event to witness – for its length, variety of material and some excellently imaginative and energetic playing – but there are sound problems that prevent it from being the best listening experience.
Anyhow, here’s a little taste:
1. Next Time You See Me. Originally recorded by ‘Little’ Junior Parker, this gives Pigpen the opportunity to play some nice harmonica and the band to play all the right notes in support. And then we all wished Billy a Happy Birthday.
2. Dark Star. A shaky first 30 seconds before the magic show starts. Concentrating first on the beauty, the notes and beats are shared out perfectly, with some exquisite changes of direction (e.g. at 3:30 to 3:45, around 6:30, 9:50 and 12:00) before dropping back into the theme (at 14:20) and finally getting to the first verse (at 15:00). Then it starts to get stranger and uglier, as it heads towards Billy’s drum solo and then a half-hour deconstruction and re-assembly of The Other One.
3. Sing Me Back Home. Written from his own experience, Merle Haggard’s song has a devastating opener: The warden led the prisoner down the hallway to his doom/ I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest. Garcia sings and plays it from his heart. This emerged at a funereal pace from the dying notes of The Other One at Bickershaw but, given the tuning issues, I’ve supplied the version from Paris in its stead.