Thursday, 23 April 2015

There's Mosquitos on the River

As you know, I love everything in the world, with the exception of three things. One of those things that I love is the Grateful Dead.

The only reason I'm still writing this blog is an obsessive need to keep posting once a month, so I might as well do the inevitable and turn it into a Grateful Dead appreciation blog - after all, on this day in 1977, the Dead played one of my favourite shows.

23 April 1977 was a rainy day in Massachusetts - I wasn't there (or born), but I have been to Massachusetts and I've experienced rain, so close enough. The Grateful Dead walked on stage (again, this is all speculation) at the Springfield Civic Center Arena, now called the MassMutual Center - named after an insurance company, like all good rock venues.

The band kick off with a beautiful Sugaree, and the Matrix recording (above) strikes the perfect balance between crystal-clear music and excited crowd sounds. Straight away, the audience are having the time of their lives, and I hate them for that. Then it's time for a stunning Cassidy - say what you like about Donna Jean Godchaux (and Deadheads often do), but her harmonies with Bob Weir are gorgeous.

The next song is arguably the highlight of the show - the best version of Loser I've ever heard. The painfully slow tempo, that desperately low groove, Jerry Garcia's electrifying solo... perfection. When it comes to evoking the Old West, the Dead are up there with Sergio Leone - you can almost feel the dust on your skin. 

I won't mention every song, though I easily could. Let's skip to the phenomenal Scarlet Begonias, whose ka-ka-ka intro is one of the best ways to start any song (see also The Joker by the Steve Miller Band). The segue from the upbeat party sound of Scarlet Begonias into the spaced-out majesty of Fire On The Mountain is a thing of beauty.

After a break (and a round of America's favourite game, "Take a Step Back"), Keith Godchaux rolls his fingers down the keyboard into a transcendent Estimated Prophet, whose deep bass and unusual time signature envelop us entirely. 

Bertha is at once dancey and laid-back, a seemingly incongruous combination that characterises the Dead's unique style. This continues in the disco-inflected vibes of The Music Never Stopped - though no disco song ever started with the lyric "there's mosquitos on the river."

Then comes the centrepiece of this second set - Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower. The rhythm section drives this mini musical journey, from the locomotive effect of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart's drumming, to Phil Lesh's basslines winding all over the place but somehow holding the whole thing together.

The show rocks to a close, ending with One More Saturday Night as an encore (it was a Saturday - stop me if I'm getting too technical here). It's a song that shows the Dead's ability to cease their psychedelic jamming and a deliver punchy rock 'n' roll number. 

1977 is generally considered the peak of the Dead's powers, moving so effortlessly between psyched-out jazz, cowboy songs and sometimes even rock music. Whatever it is, they make it look easy - and on more drugs than Rob Ford at a disco. Most people that high would struggle to even find their guitars, but the Grateful Dead played the roof off theatres every night.