We at jambands.com don’t have regular agenda meetings, but sometimes there are uncanny parallels between our musical pursuits. For instance, I saw that Jesse has been exploring the Grateful Dead’s tapes from 1970. That was intriguing, since I happened to be spending some time listening to their shows from…1971.
Jesse appears to be embarking on a mission of cosmic chronology. My incentive was that I was trying to get rid of some CDs.
That may be a less complex matter, but it requires me to muster up a lot of anti-sentimentality. In this case, my merciless eye fell on Ladies & Gentlemen, the 4-CD Fillmore April 71 set from the fat days of the early 2000’s. For a while, I’ve thought of 1971 as not much more than a long warm-up to 1972, and this set presents much evidence for that. The guitars are often out of tune. The performances are slower and sloppier than they would be a year later. The jams don’t get very far out there.
However, I listened to it again. And listened more. (The old danger of the Dead: even their worst stuff has this way of starting to sound good the more you hear it.) And I listened to a few of the complete Fillmore 71 shows recently made available by master Dead tape restorer Charlie Miller.
The Dead could do a lot, but in some eras they limited themselves. In terms of repertoire, early 71 was less limited than early 68, when they devoted most of their time to mastering the Anthem Of The Sun material, or early 69, when they took a shot at perfecting the Live/Dead medley night after night. However, in the first part of 71 they limited themselves much of the time to the “saloon band” style Garcia touted in a Rolling Stone interview around that time. The Weir cowboy tunes became an expected feature of each show. Garcia’s new offerings (most of which would go to his first solo album) became still more earthy and less psychedelic, with the exception of “Bird Song.” The “Other One”s made their first efforts to get into space (as can be heard on Three from the Vault and Skull & Roses), but they came back to the riff quickly.
One quirk about the Dead is that it’s possible to get multiple versions of the same event. In the case of that Fillmore 71 run, we have Grateful Dead (aka Skull & Roses), which puts forward the “saloon band” image and fixes many of the ragged vocals. On the downside, the record tries to conceal that Pigpen was in the band, offering only one lead vocal and (perhaps more justifiably) ditching a lot of his organ work. We have the board tapes, with a nice, raw-power mix with roaring Phil Lesh bass, but also with long tuning interludes and some other ragged bits. And we have Ladies & Gentlemen, which gives us four “imaginary” sets from this run and which compensates for the Pigpen deficit of the previous album. It has a deeper-textured mix than the unofficial tapes, but works Lesh a bit too much into the background.
Not a lot of the music ranks with the Dead’s best. (The versions of “Hard To Handle” have a shot at it – perhaps they should have ditched the alternate takes of “Mama Tried” or “Me & My Uncle” and put a different version of that song on each disc of Ladies & Gentlemen.) But all of it has a scrappy energy that would become rarer as the Dead gathered its strength, added the Godchauxes and made the push towards its prime era.
At one of the Fillmore shows, the Beach Boys hijack the stage for a few songs, and one of them mentions that they are going to “take you back to your adolescence” by playing “I Get Around.” In a way, this era is the adolescence of the Dead’s music. The responsibilities of adulthood are coming into view, but it’s the final gasp for childlike energy and rambunctiousness. It’s an awkward time, but has its charms.
So I didn’t get rid of Ladies & Gentlemen. I did part ways with a batch of other discs. Perhaps I will miss some of them in the coming years.