Stella Blue – Grateful Dead

I’ve written before about how much I love David Crosby‘s music. Several times before. In fact, in some of the earliest posts I wrote for this blog.

Not much has changed in that regard. It’s really difficult to sit down and with a guitar and a voice create music that sounds uniquely your own. It’s even harder to do that and have those results be pleasing. Crosby could do this. His musical territory is his alone: voice, tunes, chords, scat singing, sound, mood and atmosphere – all of them are his.

He has, though, one of the smallest bodies of work of any major musician, and of course, not all of it is on the level of his 1971 solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name and 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby. So if you’re a Crosby fan and love what he does, where can you get it.

I’ve spent a long time looking for music that shares the Crosby mood, as it’s the mood above all else that is so singular. I have a playlist on my iPod called Hippie Acoustic Mystical Stoner Stuff. That distinctly non-pithy name is the best I can do to sum it up; I can’t encapsulate it any more briefly. To fit the bill, the music can’t be too discordant, irregular or messy (so despite the evident stoner credentials, stuff like the Incredible String Band doesn’t make it). It may have a medieval tinge to it, a bit of modalness. It may be questing, visionary, concerned with God and infinite. It may look inward for answers. Sometimes it can be sparse, sometimes lush. It’s often acoustic, but not always. It’s psychedelic but not in that carnivalesque way we often associate with psychedelia. In some ways it’s post-psychedelic – music for the comedown. It’s not colourful; it feels like dusk or twilight.

I’ve written about some of it here before: Linda Perhacs, Judee Sill, Pink Floyd tracks like Fearless, Echoes and Breathe, early Joni Mitchell, certain Fleetwood Mac tracks (oddly not always by the same author: Danny Kirwan, Peter Green, Lindsey Buckingham, Bob Welch and Stevie Nicks have all at different times tapped into that mystical mood).

Recently I’ve been obsessing over the Grateful Dead’s song Stella Blue, from 1973’s Wake of the Flood. It absolutely has that mood I love, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to those other artists mentioned above, to try to determine if there’s a common thread musically.

I’m not sure that it’s to do with any one aspect of the writing so much as it is a confluence of harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, subject matter and mood, but certainly Stella Blue seems to tick all the boxes. It’s slow 4/4, with languorous changes. It has an expansive melody and a poetic, albeit somewhat inscrutable, Robert Hunter lyric. The arrangement is detailed, but not cluttered.

Best of all, it’s absolutely gorgeous harmonically. After a brief descending intro, it finds its way to E major, which after the first line of the verse slides down to a delicate Emaj7, then to A7sus4 and A, with Jerry Garcia’s vocal melody reinforcing the high G at the top of that unstable A7sus4. Then something beautiful happens: it slips into the parallel minor and, instead of the expected E major, we get E minor, C7 and B7, with the vocal melody once again singing that strong seventh (B flat) in the C7 chord – appropriately enough on the line “a broken angel sings from a guitar”.

Stuff like this absolutely kills me. Pop music just doesn’t go to these sorts of harmonic places often, and jazz tends to work with different types of chords that don’t have the same feel to them or lend themselves to the same kind of melody. I’ve started making a Spotify playlist of this sort of stuff (retitled Mystical Folk Rock, as Spotify insists you try to make titles catchy), and will add more as the inspiration hits and/or I discover more music that fits the mood, but hopefully there’s enough here to start you down the path to mystic medieval hippiedom.

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