SUMMER OF DEAD 2014: The Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California, July 18, 1976
Feel the spirit of ‘76! David Lopez writes up a San Francisco gig. Gotta admit that ‘76 is a blindspot for me to some extent, but this one is sounding great to me.
In my relatively short but dedicated experience as a Grateful Dead fan I have always held a special fondness for the year 1976. Always in the shadow of the hugely popular 1977, 76 shows have a certain loose and relaxed nature through which the band seems to effortlessly reach unexpected heights of beauty, quite different from the tighter and still brilliant but somehow more predictable sound of 77.
It’s no surprise then that my means of honoring the nineteenth anniversary of Jerry’s passing last Sunday, August 9th was by immersing myself in a 76 show. Having recently read wonders about the six night July run at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, I chose to plunge right into the 7-18 concert.
1976 saw the Dead back on the road after a 20 month hiatus. With drummer Mickey Hart back on the fold and a renewed repertoire full of new material (taken from 1975’s Blues for Allah as well as Garcia’s Reflections and the first album by the Bob Weir- fronted Kingfish), seldom played classics (“Friend of the Devil”, “High Time”, the return of “Cosmic Charlie” and, especially, “St. Stephen”, which was brought back after 5 years of absence to a thunderous crowd reaction at the start of the second set at Boston Music Hall on 6-9) and new arrangements (a disco-ish take on “Dancin’ on the Streets”, the breakneck speed version of “Eyes of the World”), the “new” Grateful Dead also exhibited a renewed energy. After over a year and a half away from the road and freed from the stress and high cost of traveling with their massive Wall of Sound P.A., it was as if they were rediscovering the pleasure of playing together all over again, choosing not to hurry things but gently aiming straight at the stratosphere.
After an East Coast tour in June, the Orpheum concerts were the first shows that the regrouped Dead played at their hometown of San Francisco, and boy did they live up to expectations…
The last night of the run, Sunday 18th, opens with a soaring “Mississippi Half- Step” that anticipates the wonders to come. Beautiful renditions of “Cassidy” and “Row Jimmy” follow, showing the mellower approach of the Dead in 76. Other set 1 highlights include a jammed-out “Scarlet Begonias” that clearly points at the monster improvisations that the song would become famous for the following year when paired with “Fire on the Mountain”, a swinging take on Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” that Bob dedicates “to our equipment crew”, and an energetic “Music Never Stopped” set closer.
However, the real meat, as usual, lies on the second set. After a couple of new rockers (“Might as Well” and “Samson and Delilah”) and a radiant version of the classic American Beauty ballad “Candyman”, the band launches into Bob’s “Lazy Lightning”. Not one of my favourites or a song that I ever look forward to, this “Lazy Lightning” is nothing short of incendiary, with Jerry soloing all over the place, pushing the longer than usual jam to a strong climax when it finally reaches “Supplication”.
The song ends but Jerry launches straight into “Let it Grow” without a break. The rest of the band seem surprised but they immediately settle into the song’s jazzy groove. The new two drummer arrangement is highlighted by a marching snare during the bridge and the tune develops into a majestic jam that subtly gives way to “Drums”. I really like this short drum duets prior to the “Rhythm Devils” routine of subsequent years but I think that they are best experienced through audience rather than soundboard recordings. Anyway, somebody counts to four and they’re all back into “Let it Grow”, which gently dissolves into a placid and luminous jam. Jerry points towards “Wharf Rat” but they take it easy and choose to explore a beautiful kind of middle ground between both songs for some time until finally completing the fabulous transition into the Skull & Roses classic.
“Wharf Rat” flows with a delicate cadence and I can’t help but think that few singers had a voice that suited this kind of slow, epic ballads as well as Jerry’s. The harmonies are spot on and, after a dramatic pause after the “live the life I should” line, the band returns with a triumphant beat for the “I’ll get up and fly away” refrain. The song leads to a peaceful jam until Jerry and Phil telepathically start playing some typically “Other One”-ish licks. The music then dissolves into a almost “Space” feel, with Keith providing some brilliant counterpoints to Jerry and the drummers adding great subtle details until García brings things up again. The whole band follows him and a second short “Drums” segment gives way to Phil’s earthshaking bass intro to “The Other One”.
After the first verse and a short jam, Phil seems ready to steer the ship back to the harbour and hints at “Stella Blue”, but Jerry is absolutely on fire and doesn’t seem willing to follow him. Instead, he chooses to launch straight into “St. Stephen”, and the moment he plays those iconic first notes the crowd goes berserk. The choice of song catches the others off-guard, causing them to jump into an uncharacteristically slow (even for 1976 standards) tempo that flows with a lazy, almost reggae strut that is brilliantly unique. This transitions gracefully into the waltz segment, highlighted by a gorgeous duet between Jerry and Donna (I’m a big fan of Donna and she sings like an angel throughout this whole show) and then into “Not Fade Away”. Like “Lazy Lightning”, “NFA” is never a tune that I particularly look forward to but this is by no means a by the numbers version. The band is brimming with energy and playfully deconstructs the main rhythm and melody piece by piece until a drum roll leads them perfectly back into “St. Stephen”.
The end of the song gives way to a gleaming take on “The Wheel”, all radiant vocal harmonies and cosmic country licks. “Wheel” concludes with the whole band softly coming down until the music is left suspended only by the thin thread of Jerry’s delicate arpeggios, and then Phil comes thundering back to start “The Other One” again. The second verse goes by rapidly and, after a short jam, Jerry is finally ready to bring things down. There is a loud initial crowd reaction as “The Other One” gently transitions into an awe-inspiring version of “Stella Blue”, but then the whole auditorium falls into dead silence, as if the audience was overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of Jerry and the band’s delivery. The whole song is brilliantly constructed as a subtle but constant crescendo leading to the climax of the bridge, which never fails to send chills down my spine, and the solo, in which Jerry seems to hit all the right notes. The tune ends on a glorious high and, after a few seconds of silence, Bobby starts “Sugar Magnolia”, a fittingly joyful way to put an end to over an hour and a half of uninterrupted magic. The band comes back for a quick “Johnny B. Goode” encore and Jerry bids the crowd goodnight: “thanks a lot, see y’all later”.
It’s hard to try to describe The Grateful Dead’s music with words. I was born in 1988 in Spain so I never got to see the band live and will never know what it was like to experience a Dead concert, but what I do know is the way that listening to The Grateful Dead makes me feel. I have never heard a band so boiling with ideas and pointing at so many incredible directions at once. The Dead’s approach transformed music into a organic entity that was living and breathing, unpredictable and imperfect as we all are, and overflowing with life and energy. Listening to the Dead jamming transmits a feeling of joy, happiness, comfort and light that I have never found elsewhere, and I will forever be grateful to them for that, as well as thankful that they chose to let it all be recorded so that the ones who, like myself, weren’t lucky enough to live those times can still enjoy the spellbinding beauty that they created on nights like July 18th 1976.
David Lopez of Madrid, Spain, blogs over at Shakin’ Street, where he writes articles about his favourite artists. He also plays bass in a hard psych band called Bubble Bones.