A Tale of Seven ‘Playing’s
So…I downloaded seven consecutive fall ’72 versions of "Playing In The Band" and burned them onto two CDs.
The Grateful Dead’s catalog is like the proverbial mountain once you see it, you can climb it, or try to ignore it, but you can’t forget that it’s there. Especially not now, with all of it (save for some moments snagged on official releases) available for free download from archive.org. Browsing through the three-part testimonial to the archive’s immensity, The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium, I came across some mentions of the Dead’s series of Texas "Playing" jams that intrigued me. So I downloaded all of those, five of them, plus the two bookend versions from 11/14 Oklahoma City and 12/10 Winterland.
Around the same time, I read Max Ludington’s Tiger in a Trance. For Ludington’s character the concerts provide a backdrop for sex, drugs and self-realization; for writers like me the recordings provide an excuse to spend more hours on the Internet and attempt to arrange my shelves more intelligently in the pursuit of musical experience. Equal opportunity saviors for hedonists and nerds alike; thanks again, Garcia and friends.
Just as Ludington’s hero’s outside-the-lot experiences color his views of the music, many elements of these recordings outside the notes influence the experience. Every Dead tape has a story: the wranglings and random kindnesses that got it released from the vault, the moments of distraction that resulted in reels resting unchanged and minutes getting lost, the feats of technology necessary to patch together an experience that often never quite happened in the first place.
These seven "Playings" all happen to be soundboards, but they remain distinct beasts. A particular concern is how much the mix fuses these five musicians into a coherent entity. The Oklahoma version puts Garcia and Weir up front, allowing the experience to be something like a coffeehouse chat between the two guitars. 11/22 in Austin, meanwhile, casts Garcia out in the middle distance while throwing Godchaux and Lesh into sharp relief, casting focus on Keith’s simple but prodding piano licks.
The first Houston version, 11/18, has an unusually thick, overmodulated mix that makes it the standout of these seven. It is the Angry Playing. There’s a startling moment around 17 minutes in when the jam mellows for a bit, only to have Kreutzmann hit a few quick snare notes and have everyone jump back into overdrive. After discovering that moment, I noticed a similar one on 11/24 in Dallas, but it’s less jarring the cleaner, more typical mix colors it as a friendly debate rather than a fiery battle.
Those of you who’ve read this far probably know the story about ’72 Playings. In early ’72 the Dead began exploring the ramifications of 10/4 in D minor by the fall, they had cast aside the meter (the tonality would stay, but was open to further debate a couple years down the road when everyone had cranked up the weirdness a few more notches) and jumped into a unique, harmonically-simpler-but-timbrally-richer-than-jazz space. It’s usually dominated by Jerry, but busy enough that whenever he drops out (often probably due to a broken string), someone else (usually Lesh) catches your attention, and can make you stay there even when the lead guitar returns. I think it was the 11/24 version where I ended up following a long portion as a Lesh melody with guitar, and other things, happening around it.
Having these two CDs be the only Dead I listened to for a month, I was still not able to get a complete handle on it. A challenge that is, indeed, for a series of improvisations averaging around 16 minutes. I noticed one new trend, though. In my early Dead days I sought the spacy brain-fry moments, while later on it was the jazzy conversation that struck me the most. This month, I had the thought of putting together a Siket Disc type series of certain passages, which I started to notice fairly regularly in these jams, when things quieted down and someone started a reflective musical thought that the others wove around. It may not be easy to isolate these moments, to set the boundaries between when they climax and when they mutate back into more ordinary fare (usually either more standard jamming or the vocal reprise).
However, this is one approach to conquering the mountain. I doubt it will be the last, and it may not be the best. But it’s something new, which is as much as one can hope for from thirty-year old music, even with up-to-date technological means of delivery.