Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Beware the Ides of March

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.

Looking back on this day in history, 15 March is a significant date for a number of reasons. For starters, it's the Ides of March, which was the day in 44 BC when Julius Caesar was stabbed in the base of the Curia - ouch! More recently, it's also the birthday of two of my favourite people: Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and genius filmmaker David Cronenberg. Long live the new Lesh! Plus, the movie The Godfather was first released on this day in 1972, directed by Deadhead Francis Ford Coppola - after seeing a Grateful Dead show in 1979, he was inspired by the rolling thunder effect of the two drummers, and enlisted them to play on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack. Which brings me to the point: on this day in Dead history, the band made one of their more bizarre appearances back in 1969.

Picture the scene: you're invited to The Black & White Ball at the San Francisco Hilton, a fundraiser for the San Francisco Symphony. A group of hippies shamble onto the stage, plug in their instruments and unleash a cacophony of baroque psychedelia and a song about trying to sleep with a 17-year-old girl. 

They were never invited back.

The complete setlist is uncertain, but what exists is this electrifying recording, taped by countercultural icon Owsley "Bear" Stanley - more on him another time. The tape begins with a fairly shambolic version of Otis Redding's Hard to Handle, which they'd never played live before, and by the sounds of it, never practised much either. Things pick up with Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, a perfectly acceptable subject to sing about in the '60s, before the boys launch into their typical 1969 run of Dark Star -> St. Stephen -> The Eleven -> Lovelight. And it's glorious - particularly The Eleven, a song I've written about before. Despite a cut in the recording at the start of the track, this is up there with the best they ever played it - an electric dose of colourful improvisation in 11/8 time. Just imagine going to a black tie event 28 years ago today, and being confronted with that.

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