My pal Ari Fink asked me (and my Tales from the Golden Road cohost, Gary Lambert) to pick some seminal tracks to play on the Jam_On Channel‘s “Roots of the Jam Weekend,” airing now through Sunday (11/30/14).
Here are the four pieces I contributed:
Dark Star – Live Dead, recorded 2/27/69
The Grateful Dead didn’t invent jamming, but they did create a unique form of collective improvisation that set them apart from their contemporaries in the San Francisco music scene and inspired whole generations of musicians who grew up listening to them.
To my way of thinking, the most significant and satisfying music the Dead made was a little ditty called “Dark Star.” The original studio single was barely two minutes long, but it contained the genetic code for nearly infinite musical expansion, and great variations of feel from sweet and lilting to gnarly and noisy. I have often said I’ve never met a “Dark Star” I didn’t like, and I have listened to literally hundreds of recordings. Saw quite a few of ‘em live, too!
When all is said and done, the “Dark Star” on the 1969 album Live Dead is truly a peak performance. This is great music for driving across the desert, by the way. Take this with you on your next trip to southern Utah and I’m sure you’ll agree!
Playing in the Band – Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings (5/10/72)
One of my favorite Grateful Dead songs/jams is “Playing in the Band,” which began with a ten-beat melody given to Mickey Hart by the Indian music master Alla Rakha. Mickey and lyricist Robert Hunter turned it into a song for Mickey’s 1972 solo album Rolling Thunder (titled “The Main Ten (Playing n the Band)”, with the help of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Bobby started playing it with the Grateful Dead in 1971, and beginning with the Europe ’72 tour the band opened up a section in the middle of the song for exploration and expansion. There’s a very cool studio performance on Bobby’s 1972 solo album Ace, but of course the live performances are where the real magic can be found.
The Dead played “Playing in the Band” at every one of the 22 shows on the Europe ’72 tour (and twice on 4/21/72, during the Beat Club TV taping), and from that time on it was one of the band’s most important vehicles to JAM ON. This one, recorded on May 10, 1972 in Amsterdam, goes to some very interesting places before the musicians reconvene and bring it home for a big finish.
Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam – So Many Roads (1965-1995), recorded 7/27/73
The Grateful Dead are pretty much the founding fathers of the “jam band” genre, of course. The band was famous for never playing anything the same way twice, and for combining a brilliant collection of original songs and borrowed tunes with wild and often beautiful group improvisations. Nobody else did things quite the way the Grateful Dead did ‘em.
The Dead played a gigantic show in July of 1973 at the Watkins Glen Raceway in upstate New York on a bill with the Band and the Allman Brothers. The crowds were so huge waiting to get in that the promoters opened the place up a day early, and the sound check turned out to be a performance of sorts. So some several thousand fans were lucky to be on the premises when the Dead played this amazing bit of pure improvisation. The tape cuts in as the jam is beginning, but it seems pretty clear that this music did not emerge from a song – it’s just pure free-form. My co-producers and I all agreed that this jam belonged in the boxed set So Many Roads (1965-1995), and we gave it a very straightforward title: “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam.” It’s a thing of beauty, utterly unique in Grateful Dead history.
Beautiful Jam – So Many Roads (1965-1995), recorded 2/18/71
The Grateful Dead were famous for their great original songs, unique interpretations of other people’s songs, and of course for making up brand-new music onstage in real time – the very definition of the word “jam.” I would like to share with you one of the sweetest piece of music I have ever heard, by anyone in any genre. It was performed at the Capitol Theater on February 18, 1971, coming out of the very first public performance of “Wharf Rat,” deep in the second set. I just fell in love with this the first time I ever heard it.
I had a chance to play this for Phil Lesh when he appeared on my radio show in Berkeley a while back, and it was really a treat to watch his face when he heard it for the first time since the band played it. This is a showcase for the sweetness of Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar and the sensitivity of the group mind that created it on the fly.