Tag Archives: Grateful Dead

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

The Lookout – Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs’s new album, The Lookout, begins with a run of four very strong tracks. Opener Maragret Sands, which features backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is built on Veirs’s strummed nylon-string guitar, with delicate touches of piano and lead guitar. A minute and a half in, though, the song takes a more menacing turn during an instrumental passage underpinned by a low, droney synth (I think it’s a synth, anyway). This subtly experimental sonic approach extends into single Everybody Needs You, where Veirs’s voice is multitracked, modulated and processed with echo. Tucker Martine (Veirs’s husband and long-term producer) surrounds her with the pingy delays of analogue keyboards and snatches of electric and acoustic guitar, topped off with a descending violin phrase that answers the chorus melody. Earlier Viers songs have played with these textures, but I’ve not heard anything from her that jumps so confidently into this territory.

More traditionally Veirsian, if perhaps a little more 1970s country rock than usual, is the lovely Seven Falls. This time, the arrangement is based around pedal steel and electric guitar arpeggios (it’s a little R.E.M., actually), showing how adaptable Veirs and Martine’s approach is – each song is given just what it needs and no more, by players who have been cast for their ability to play the right thing for the song. Seven Falls itself is probably my favourite on the record, not least for the indelible line “how can a child of the sun be so cold?” The matching of a resonant, evocative phrase to a melody line that seems to amplify the lyric’s meaning, as if the phrase always existed within the tune and was just waiting to be discovered, hasn’t always been a feature of Veirs’s writing, and the increasing prevalence of this mode of writing suggests (to me, anyway) a deepening and maturing of her perspective. Writing lyrics that are simple and relatable but simultaneously acute and penetrating isn’t something many songwriters can pull off, so this recent turn in Veirs’s work is impressive.

The next track is a cover of the Grateful Dead’s Mountains of the Moon, a somewhat fey piece of acoustic psychedelia from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. It seems Veirs and Martine are both long-term Deadheads: they realised only recently that they were at the same concert at Red Rocks, Colorado, 13 years before they met, which would have been during the late 1980s, when the Dead were at their late commercial peak after the success of Touch of Grey. Rather touchingly, Veirs learned to play the song as a Father’s Day present for Martine, and she does a more than creditable job with it.

The first side ends with the brief, delicately beautiful Heavy Petals. This song feels like something Veirs could have done at any point in her career, but she’d not have sung it this convincingly; for me, The Lookout is the first Laura Veirs record where her voice, previously somewhat monotone and inexpressive, is never a barrier to enjoying the songs.

The title track begins the slightly spottier side two. A stompy, cowboy-chord track, it’s enlivened by a string arrangement that once again has that odd Tucker Martine string sound. How is he doing that? Recording the violins and violas using DIs? Running the acoustic signal through compressors and overdriving them? It’s a completely signature sound that I’ve never heard any other producer create, but it’s all over Veirs’s work from the last few albums (including case/lang/veirs).

The Canyon is a song of two halves: a meandering acoustic verse, performed on what sounds like an open-tuned and amplified nylon-string guitar, that is succeeded by an atmospheric instrumental section with an overdriven guitar riff. A cut-and-shut job like this shouldn’t really work, but actually it’s great – one of my favourites on the album. The waltz-time Lightning Rod compares its subject to Ben Franklin, “drawing fire from the clouds”. It’s another striking image. When it Grows Darkest features what sounds like electric sitar as well as prominent bass guitar and Veirs’s picked nylon-string to create a deceptive, very cool 5/4 groove. Threading a compelling melody over an odd metre, ignoring the bar lines and letting the melody just flow, is really hard; the temptation is to observe the bar lines so rigidly that the melody sounds stilted. When it Grows Darkest sounds very natural, and I didn’t work out that the song was in 5/4 until I’d heard it a few times already.

The Lookout has only a few missteps – and obviously these are just my personal issues with the record, anyway. I’m one of those who think Sufjan Stevens shouldn’t be allowed near a microphone under any circumstances, so his unpleasantly strained, whispery falsetto is a major blot on Watch Fire, which would have been more successful performed by almost any other singer. The Meadow’s sparse piano accompaniment doesn’t really hold my interest, although the song itself isn’t a dead loss. I find the overdriven electric guitar tone of Zozobra distracting and a little overbearing in the context of the song. It tends to fight with the ambient feedback part in the background, which is largely happening in the same octave and carries a lot of the same frequency content as the lead guitar. The result of the two clashing parts is messy, and not in a way that I think Viers and Martine indended.

These are minor reservations, though. Overall, I’d still say this is the best Laura Veirs record I’ve heard (I should say, I’ve not heard all of them – nothing before 2004’s Carbon Glacier). With her lyrics getting more acute and deeper with each record and her voice becoming a more expressive and flexible instrument, there’s really no reason to assume the next album won’t be better still.

Long Strange Trip

Being British, and having only developed a deep love of the band’s music in the last five years or so, I got a lot out of Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, which I caught up with last week on Amazon Prime.

The strongest episodes may have been the last two, which tell the interconnected stories of the groups’s legion of fans, the Deadheads, and Jerry Garcia’s relationship with fame. A natural anti-authoritarian, he refused to assume the role of mayor of a travelling hippie carnival. So while Phil Lesh did PSAs asking Deadheads who didn’t have tickets not to come to the show anyway to party outside (Deadheads routinely did this in their thousands), Garcia couldn’t bear to tell anyone else how to behave. Instead he allowed the fans to do as they pleased, even as his iconic status effectively imprisoned him in hotel rooms for months on end where he ate and smoked himself to death.

The story of Garcia’s final years is as dispriting as late-period Dead shows (on the whole) are to listen to. The band could still rouse themselves occasionally, but Garcia frequently sounded disengaged, his voice worse for wear. The playing, too, could be ragged, the double drums of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann often at odds (truth to tell, I’m a Kreutzmann guy, and he was at his best during the period in the seventies when Hart left the band. Not having to worry about where Hart would be putting his emphases, he could just play his own feel). Yet the fans still turned up by the stadium load, loving Garcia to death, not allowing him any break from the rigours of being a countercultural icon.

Bar-Lev is extremely good at showing how this happened – how the machinery of a veteran band is so big and relentless that no one inside it (or at least, no one actually in the Grateful Dead) really understood what was happening until it was too late. He handles the whole issue sympathetically, and clearly doesn’t blame the band, although one of the talking heads obliquely accuses management of enabling Garcia in his addictions, simply because rehab would have meant cancelling tour dates. The toll such a life took on him was evident simply in his face. When he died, Garcia looked a couple of decades older than his 53 years.

As powerful as those final episodes are, there’s great stuff earlier on too. Joe Smith, the former head of Warner Bros. Records, talking about his strained relationship with the band in its early days is always a hoot. The group’s 1969 appearance on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy after Dark is a when-worlds-collide jaw dropper. It was fascinating to hear, too, about how Garcia’s obssession with bluegrass banjo bored his then girlfriend Barbara “Brigid” Meier so much that she ended things with him.

The highpoint of the early episodes is the section about the Wall of Sound. Owsley “Bear” Stanley, maker of (it’s said) the finest LSD anyone on the West Coast ever had, conceived (and largely built) for the band the largest PA set-up in the world at the time. Weighing over 75 tons and requiring four semi trucks to haul it, the system contained 44 amplifiers developing over 26k watts of power, driving nearly 600 loudspeakers and 54 tweeters. Each band member had his own stack directly behind him, and a differential microphone system that cancelled the noise on stage resulting in only their voices being amplified. The sound could be heard clearly a quarter-mile away without wind interference degrading it. It was an awe-inspiring creation, and when the crew and Lesh reminisce about it their enthusiasm for it is palpable. “I loved that thing,” said Lesh, his face shining like a schoolboy’s. “It was like hearing the voice of God”.

There’s good stuff all the way through the documentary. If you’re a fan, it’s a must. I’m one of those who tend to enjoy music docs even when I’m not into the musician being covered, as you still find out things about the era and the history of the music business they operated in. So even if you’re a sceptic, I think you’ll still get a lot from it.

2017 Clip Show Post

Hi all. And a happy new year to you.

I’m writing this in my den – the study/studio/mix room I’m building in the house I bought with Mel. With the move taking up so much time, I’m aware that things have been slow around here of late, and with much home-making/furniture-building chores still to do, I’m only cautiously optimistic that’s going to change in the immediate future. But still, I love doing this and I enjoyed it this year, particularly until around September when things started to get stressful, so there’s no danger of me stopping any time soon!

Once again, here’s a round-up of some favourite things from the blog this year. Some of these have gotten some decent traction, others less so, but I’m picking on the basis of what I enjoyed writing and what I’m still proud of now. If some of these passed you by at the time, you might find some of them interesting.

Day of the Dead, disc one

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part two

Give Some More to the Bass Player , Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was – Radiohead

OK Computer is 20 Part 2 – Guitars

Ladybug – Sera Cahoone

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – Joni Mitchell (because no year is complete without something by Joni)

At Seventeen – Janis Ian

More Thoughts on Tim Hardin

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

Stella Blue – Grateful Dead

Have a great new year, whatever you’re doing. See you soon!

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.

Attics of My Life – Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, ft Amy Helm

I guess if anyone has earned the right to take on Attics of My Life, it’s Larry Campbell.

Campbell is a cornerstone of a certain kind of American roots music, the kind for whom Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are themselves cornerstone records. At 61, he’s half a generation younger than the guys who inspired him, and he’s spent a lifetime learning from them, studying them and gradually becoming a trusted lieutenant for more of them than you care to name.

Let’s name some, just so you know he’s legit: Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Phil Lesh, Levon Helm, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Hot Tuna, even BB King – Campbell has played guitar for all of them. That’s his bona fides.

In 2015, Campbell and actress and singer Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife of 20-odd years) released a record together, the first time either had had their names on the front cover of any record. Their version of Attics of My Life, honed in concert over several years (they’ve performed it often with Phil Lesh, so it has the blessing of one of the masters, if that kind of thing makes a difference to you), closed the album.

Attics was the big vocal-harmony song on American Beauty, the track where the guys put everything they’d been learning about harmony singing (some of it absorbed from hanging out and jamming with David Crosby and Stephen Stills) down on record. In the Classic Albums documentary made on Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty, the pride Lesh took in their achievement on that song was clear. Jerry Garcia’s beautiful hymn-like melody and Robert Hunter’s lyric deserved no less. Still, there are rough edges, and that’s part of the recording’s power. There’s a palpable sense of self-discovery in Attics of My Life; you’re hearing the guys push themselves to a place they’ve never been before, growing and evolving even within the song’s 5-minute running time.

Attics of My Life is so perfect that a cover of it has to mean something different to be worthwhile. I think Campbell and Williams’s version of the song gets its power from a few sources. Firstly, Campbell’s adaptation of the music for one guitar is clever and flawlessly executed. Second, Campbell and Williams are substantially older than the guys in the Dead were when they cut Attics; Campbell is 61, Williams, I guess, in her fifties. Campbell’s oaky voice sounds its age. That adds another dimension to a lyric that is about the difference made over the course of a life by the grace and affirmation bestowed by another. Thirdly, whoever Hunter had in mind when he wrote those words (whether a lover, or some kind of spiritual or universal grace), when Campbell and Williams sing it, it’s impossible not to be conscious of their relationship and put out of your head the idea that they’re singing to each other.

Campbell, Williams and a guesting Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s late Levon Helm, who recorded Tennessee Jed on his final album) sing the song beautifully, slowing the tempo, caressing each note and breathing as one. It’s cover version as holy writ. It gives me chills.

Larry Campbell Teresa Williams

Day of the Dead, Disc Four – some thoughts

It seems unfair – not in the right spirit – to attack a band for choosing to rearrange a Grateful Dead song and do something different with it musically. I can’t even say for sure that the Dead never played this particular song in a Dylan-does-barroom-reggae style themselves. I can only say that I hate the Walkmen’s version of Ripple that begins Disc Four of Day of the Dead. It sounds lazy and self-satisfied to me, in a way that nothing else on the compilation does. Even when I don’t like what an artist has done with a tune, I don’t doubt their good faith. The Walkmen sound like they’re snickering behind their hands. Seriously, fuck these guys.

Marijuana Deathsquads (great name, by the way) completely transform Truckin’. I’m not even sure what you’d call the end result. There’s free-jazz saxophone, synth bass, warped vocals, isolated drum hits, and a double-time electronic thrashcore wig-out at the end. It’s bizarre, but it’s pretty great (and shows up the Walkmen’s half-assed hack job even more).

I can see the thinking that led to the Flaming Lips being approached for Day of the Dead, but they don’t actually manage to do anything interesting with Dark Star. They replace the iconic riff with a bass groove and drum loop, feed Wayne Coyne’s voice through the inevitable oscillators and modulators, and pair the chorus melody with mock-grandiose tympani and Mellotron chords. The problem is that the whole thing is so inert. The essence of Dark Star is the real-time interaction between the instrumentalists. Which, in all fairness to the Flaming Lips, isn’t their thing. Having constructed a framework, they layer some sound effects on top, but the thing never really goes anywhere. It starts and, six minutes later, it ends.

Local Natives’ take on Stella Blue seems to have used some of the song’s spookier chord change as inspiration, at least for the first half of the song, which is built over a half-time, vaguely dubstep drum loop. Once the band start joining in, the influence of their producer – inevitably a Dessner, in this case Adam – becomes plainer, and while frankly the arrangement becomes less musically interesting at that point, the vocal harmonies are very cool. So in Siskel & Ebert fashion, it’s a thumbs up from me.

Shakedown Street is the oft-reviled Lowell George-produced Dead-go-disco track from 1977. Unknown Mortal Orchestra remake it essentially note for note. It’s fine, but it needn’t detain us long.

Franklin’s Tower is a much denser text than it first appears, at least if we grant primacy to Robert Hunter’s explicatory essay (DH Lawrence’s maxim to trust the tale, not the teller would counsel us not to give Hunter the last word on the song simply because he wrote it). What is certain is that the song changes drastically for an Anglophone audience when it’s placed in the hands of Orchestra Baobab and its original lyric is abandoned. The muscular precision and simultaneous playfulness of the music becomes the main thing, and what a thing it is.

Tal National’s Eyes of the World is similarly exuberant. Tal National are from Niger (indeed, they are apparently Niger’s most popular band) and while they retain Robert Hunter’s lyric and pretty much stick to the vocal melody Garcia sang on the Dead’s version, they reconfigure the song at its rhythmic base. Eyes of the World was recorded when Mickey Hart was on sabbatical from the band and Bill Kreutzmann was its only drummer. Kreutzmann’s style for the studio version was straightforward two-and-four rock, but live, with Hart also in attendance, the song could get more polyrhythmic. Whether Tal National heard any of these versions, I couldn’t say, but their interpretation of the song begins where the most expansive Dead versions leave off. Drummer Omar practically bursts out the speakers.

Béla Fleck is a name I’ve heard many times over the years, but I must confess to having spent most of my life in avoidance of banjos, so I’d not actually heard any of his music. It was actually a huge pleasure to get acquainted with Fleck’s playing through his cover of Help on the Way (like Franklin’s Tower, a track from 1975’s Blues for Allah). Fleck plays in a bewildering array of styles – bluegrass, jazz, contemporary classical, rock, folk and more besides – so he perhaps stands greater comparison to Jerry Garcia than any other musician involved in this project. There are amazing musicians on these discs, but none whose virtuosity extends through so many styles of music. The passage from 4.20-5.30 of the track has about the most impressive section of soloing on all five discs, and the support from Edgar Meyer on double bass (bowed and pizz) and Zaakir Hussein on tabla is first rate.

Terry Riley has a link with the Dead going back to the band’s beginnings. Before joining the Dead, Phil Lesh and keyboard player Tom Constanten had been in an improvisational group with Steve Reich – the same group that premiered Riley’s In C, widely cited as the first minimalist composition. Riley, along with his song Gyan (the pair are credited as the Rileys), reinterpret Bob Weir’s Estimated Prophet as a raga-like instrumental piece, dominated by Gyan’s guitar, played with heavy delay, and chanted vocals from Terry. While it dispenses with John Perry Barlow’s lyric (inspired by the element within the Dead’s audience who, having taken too much dope, would get messianic and hang around backstage to try to deliver their sermons), the Rileys’ take on Estimated Prophet does capture its heaviness and religiosity.

stargaze’s What’s Become of the Baby is pretty damn well fantastic, replacing Garcia’s heavily filtered and effect-laden voice on the original (how did they do it?) with doom-laden bowed double bass and spooky woodwinds. It’s by turns gorgeous and unbearably tense.

King Solomon’s Marbles, from Blues for Allah, is a showcase for Mickey Hart’s north African percussion and Garcia’s fluid soloing (with sterling support as ever from Lesh on bass). On Day of the Dead, pianist Vijay Iyer’s imaginative exploration of the tune incorporates Hart’s busy drumming patterns before going off on fast scalar and arpeggiated explorations of Garcia’s melody, occasionally slamming down powerful bass chords.

After a disc that’s dedicated mainly to the Dead’s experimental side – the Hart/Lesh axis, if you will – it’s something of a surprise to finish on Bonnie Prince Billy’s reading of If I Had the World to Give. The recording is spare (much sparser the Dead’s Shakedown Street recording), just Josh Kaufman’s piano and Will Oldham’s voice. In this setting, with Oldham’s tremulous voice, the song sounds much frailer and less McCartney-esque. It’s pretty, but it’s perhaps a little too on the nose as an ending, goes a little clumsily for the heartstrings.

My keepers from Disc Four are Truckin’, Stella Blue, Franklin’s Tower, Help on the Way and What’s Become of the Baby.

Some recent music to stream or download (pay what you want):