even the straight and sober might like this music
September 9, 2019 10:50 PM   Subscribe

When the Grateful Dead were actually good: the 6 night run at Port Chester, New York, Feb. 18-24, 1971

There's a lot to hate about the Dead's long career, but this pre-heroin run with original singer Pigpen (who died of liver cirrhosis in 1972) has most of the good stuff: neglected early songs (Hard to Handle, Easy Wind, Smokestack Lightning, Me & Bobby McGee); the debut of several classic originals (Bertha, Playing in the Band, Wharf Rat, and Bird Song), and multiple peak performances of epics The Other One and Not Fade Away => Going Down the Road.

This was the build up to another multi-show run at the Fillmore East in April 1971 that resulted in the excellent live album "Skeletons and Roses" (1971; originally titled Skullfuck but the label didn't approve for some odd reason). Drummer Mickey Hart left the band after the first show, some say in shame after his father embezzled money from the band, and he didn't return for more than 3 years. Arguably, much of the band's best music took place in his absence. They tightened up their sound even as they added an amazing number of classic songs in short order.

Ironically, for a band that prided itself on improvisation and toured for 30 years, the official live album versions of their iconic songs are usually the best (my opinion after many years of looking for better ones). EG "That's It For the Other One" on Skeletons and Roses; Truckin => Epilogue on Europe '72, and Dark Star on Live/Dead (1970). This run contains several arguable exceptions to that rule, such as the Dark Star => Wharf Rat => "Beautiful Jam" => Dark Star on the opening night, and the excellent Other Ones on Feb. 19th (meh), 20th, and 23rd (!!!), and the Not Fade Away => Going Down the Roads on Feb. 20th, 23rd and 24th.
posted by msalt (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I avoided the Grateful Dead for ages, save for a handful of their best-known numbers (there's no denying "Casey Jones," "Friend of the Devil," "U.S. Blues," "Touch Of Grey" etc). I bought into all the mockery and the rampant uncoolness.

Then awhile back I realized something: I loved long, freewheeling rock songs with plenty of solos and instrumental passages. I lived on prog rock, jazz-rock and artists who indulged in oddball experiments and mixed up genres like crazy. Heck, I was a Frank Zappa fan, how could the Dead be less cool? So, I went in and listened to their official albums starting from the beginning. It took a bit, but by the time I hit "Wake of the Flood" I was all-in (for whatever reason the Keith & Donna years stick with me the best, probably their most jazzy period).

After Jerry's death, their archival discography (for obvious reasons) becomes unwieldy as hell so I always appreciate heads up for their best concerts, so I'm definitely going to dive into this at my leisure. I already very, very, very much know and love the "Beautiful Jam" which is about as perfect as this proudly imperfect band ever got.

I'm sure it's been brough up before, but the Cornell 5/8/77 concert (recently officially issued for the first time) is as great as all the Deadheads advertise and I would strongly recommend it for newbies.
posted by HunterFelt at 3:34 AM on September 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Original... singer? I mean, Pigpen did some singing, sure, but...
posted by emelenjr at 3:44 AM on September 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine was a huge Deadhead and was at a lot of these shows. At the time I was not interested. Now she is gone, and I want to give these a listen to try and hear a bit of what they meant to her. Thank you.
posted by rednikki at 3:45 AM on September 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

You might like Grayfolded, John Oswald's (of Plunderphonics fame) experiment with Dark Star where he spliced hundreds of live versions of the same track together
posted by Zumbador at 6:51 AM on September 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is great and thank you but let's remember that lots of Dead fans like different periods. There's no need to ridicule what other people might like in order to point out something you think is great.
posted by treepour at 8:42 AM on September 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

I was born in '70, so 1971 was before my time. Bunch of my friends hopped on the Dead train back in the early '90s but I never clicked much with the music. I remember their 1971 live album (white cover with a rainbow?) as being the favorite that I heard.

Went to some of their shows at Soldier Field in Chicago. Not exactly an acoustics place. But the sound system they used was tremendous. Just amazing for playing outside in an open stadium. An incarnation of Traffic opened for one of the shows, and I remember really being impressed with them... had never paid attention to them before. Of course, we were indulging in some psychedelics. The shows I saw really were great experiences for the most part, even as a very casual fan. Seeing the hardcore burnout cases in the crowds was a little disturbing, but they were a tiny minority.

Jerry Garcia was still around for the shows I saw. But strangely, he was one of my least favorite aspects of the band. His playing and singing grate on my nerves. And I can do without another 38 minute rendition of "Good Lovin'" in my life, thank you very much. I will check out these recordings. Thanks.
posted by SoberHighland at 9:15 AM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

When they were actually good?

No 72-74? No 77??? Vibes to you and your family in this difficult time.
posted by stinkfoot at 9:32 AM on September 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

??? It's consensus reality that they were good then too. Also 68-70. From 78 on, results are more mixed. Anyhoo, the framing is aimed at people not familiar with different eras of the Dead, to encourage them to give it a chance.
posted by msalt at 11:17 AM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I know I’m just busting your chops, love seeing a dead post on the blue!

Here’s another one of my favorites from ‘71:

Grateful Dead • 1971-10-31 (2:16:00) • Ohio Theatre, Columbus, OH, USA

amazing dark star jam!
posted by stinkfoot at 2:31 PM on September 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Re: Barton Hall
The previous show (I think two days before) has an arguably stronger Supplication jam.

Re: Early Dead
Yes, people, give it a listen. Some crazy live experimentation. You can hear the evolution of nfa>gdtr
posted by j_curiouser at 4:30 PM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with stinkfoot, for the record. I did take some umbrage at the "actually good" phrasing but I'm also delighted to see the Dead on the Blue. Thanks for the post!
posted by treepour at 4:36 PM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Early Dead is just such a different beast than my era, (mid-late eighties), when their whole sound was so so smooth and elegant.
posted by Windopaene at 6:26 PM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

For those who like 1971 Grateful Dead: they don't quite stick the landing quite as well as 8/6/71 but the version from the backyard of Chateau d'Herouville in France on June 21, 1971 is tight AF and includes a film of the band playing.
posted by msalt at 12:46 AM on September 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Two shows before Barton Hall: Veterans' Memorial Coliseum on 1977-05-05
posted by j_curiouser at 11:30 AM on September 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

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