A Grateful Dead Road Trip from the ’60s
The Grateful Dead will dip back into the ‘60s for its latest archival release. Road Trips Vol. 4 No. 1 will look back on the band’s performance at Florida’s Big Rock Pow Wow Festival in May of 1969. Dead historian Blair Jackson explains:
The winter and spring of 1969 was a particularly exciting time for the Grateful Dead. They were finishing up their long-awaited third album, Aoxomoxoa, and playing with a passionate intensity unequaled in their nearly five years together. The group’s epic Fillmore West run at the end of February gave us most of their masterpiece, Live Dead — not to mention the gargantuan, out-of-print, 10-CD Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings (and the superb 3-CD compilation from those shows). This is the era when “Dark Star” really blasted off into space, when tunes like “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven” were peaking (along with the audience!), and just about every night was a wild adventure for both the crowd and the band. The Dead played 146 shows that year—the most of any year—criss-crossing the country a couple of times and playing all sorts of interesting and far-flung destinations, blowing minds at every bend in the road.
Without a doubt one the coolest places the Dead played that year was the Seminole Indian Reservation in Hollywood, Florida, just north of Miami, at a rock festival known as the Big Rock Pow Wow, May 23-25, 1969. The Dead headlined the first two days of the festival, and their complete sets from the Pow Wow, recorded by the Dead’s inimitable soundman in that era—Owsley “Bear” Stanley—are spread across the three discs that constitute Road Trips Vol. 4, No. 1. Whoo-hoo! Unlike some of the other huge festivals held during 1969, the Big Rock Pow Wow was a fairly low-key affair—it attracted just a few thousand folks, mostly locals, many of whom camped in the woods and meadows of the sprawling reservation grounds and convened each afternoon and evening for ten or more hours of music featuring the likes of Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters, Joe South, The Youngbloods, Sweetwater, Aum, NRBQ, Rhinoceros and a handful of South Florida favorites. There was Seminole dancing and chants onstage and off—and the adjacent restored Seminole village was bustling with native crafts-makers (and sellers), as well as various hippie merchants peddling their wares. Because the festival took place on Seminole land, there were no police or conventional security. Timothy Leary’s “people” were somehow involved in putting on the event and Dr. Tim wandered the grounds and occasionally spoke from the stage. “Orange sunshine” acid was everywhere.
The Dead provided their own very psychedelic soundtrack for the weekend with two fiery sets that show the group at their exploratory best. The first show was built around what would become known as the Live Dead sequence: “Dark Star” > “St. Stephen” > “The Eleven” > “Turn On Your Lovelight,” each piece jammed powerfully and with purpose, flowing like electric lava—bubbling and spurting and occasionally exploding as it erupts out of the speakers and into the crowd. There are all sorts of fascinating twists and turns in the jams (including a couple prompted by Garcia breaking strings!) and the “Lovelight” has Pigpen leading the charge for a very funky half-hour rock’n’soul romp. Also notable from the first show is a superb “Morning Dew” (which appears on Disc 3 due to the timing limitations of the CD format)...
The next night (beginning Disc 2 here) the Dead open with another excursion through “Lovelight,” but as you might expect, this one has its own unique feeling—same song, different vibe. From there it’s a tour through some of the other chestnuts of the era, including the then-new “Doin’ That Rag,” the wonderful ballad “He Was a Friend of Mine,” which eases into “China Cat Sunflower,” followed by another slammin’ “Eleven,” before arriving at a haunting and potent “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” What a rollercoaster! The reminder of the second show (on Disc 3) includes “Alligator”—appropriate for what is most definitely alligator-country!—a drum duel with Mickey and Bill calling on the native spirits, and a version of “St. Stephen” that begins unlike any other version from this era… and ends in eerie feedback before a final “We Bid You Goodnight.” Saturday evening reportedly ended with Timothy Leary requesting that all stage lights be turned off and then speaking quietly to the dazed and buzzed crowd about the light show going on in the sky above—planets and constellations and shooting stars. Ya gotta love the ’60s!