SUMMER OF DEAD 2014: Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois, June 22, 1991
More Summer of Dead action! In this installment, Mitch Carroll goes DEEP into a choice 1991 show. Terrapin! Dark Star! HORNSBY!
In selecting a show to review for the Summer of Dead, I had a few criteria in mind. If not a summer show, than at least a fun and bubbly Dead show rather than a dark psychedelic mind-fuck more suited for winter hibernation. Second, an unheralded show I feel is due some attention. Thinking of favorite shows that have gone under the radar, one that came to mind was 6/22/91. An excellent show, particularly the second set, which likely gets overlooked due to other standouts from the Hornsby era. It also fit the criteria of being a bright summertime show for kicking back on a sunny day, enjoying some cool ones, and mainlining some DMT.
Thinking back on this show, it became apparent that all objectivity would be thrown out the window. For a Deadhead, these cherished shows became the fabric of our lives, intertwined with our identities. And I started to think back to why I loved this show, who I was at the time, and what I understood about the Dead then vs. the present day version of my “self.” In 1991 I was a 15 year old living in the Chicago suburbs, just beginning what would become a life-long experimentation with hair length and mind-expanding substances. Unfortunately I wouldn’t get to see the Dead for the first time until the following summer, so this is the one that got away. And for me, this show is like a personal 5/8/77, the first great soundboard recording to fall into my lap. The energy, clarity, subtlety, and intricacy of the music was astounding. So come on back with me for a walk down memory lane…
I’ll be honest, I haven’t listened to this first set much, as the second set is where the goods are at. But there are some moments here to consider. You’ll be excused if you skip over the “Hell in a Bucket” opener as I usually do. Listening to the organ and chorus makes me think Bob may have been going for a “Stuck Inside of Mobile” feel with “Bucket,” but he missed the mark. Eventually it heats up at the end to a nice crescendo, and Jerry is clearly energized as he immediately noodles the “Shakedown” riff before the rest of the band joins in. “Shakedown” feels like a bonus opener in this slot, before the setlists became completely safe. The signature Grateful Dead bounce is in full effect, and the band sounds engaged in the conversation, chugging and swirling around each other. At the nine minute mark they’re locked in and open up the discussion to new ideas. Jerry busts out some tasty licks on the midi sax, which Bob counters with some trumpet bursts to mixed results, before they return to the chorus and finish the song off. Nothing incendiary, but it’ll get your head bobbin’. The rest of the set does tread in predictable territory, but with a fine collection of tunes for the era. “Wang Dang Doodle” may be my favorite of Weir’s blues covers, as it strives to continue “Shakedown”’s groove rather than going for vocal histrionics. But Bobby can’t be helped and is a bit over the top on this rendition. It’s also marred the same qualities that aided Shakedown - swirling band interaction and synth - and serves as a prime example of why purists accuse the Dead of musical gang rape. “Friend of the Devil” rolls along, a bit more upbeat than the crawl it often became. The dual keyboards, particularly Vince’s organ, overwhelm the tune at times, and the drummers even get in on the action as it builds up. But Garcia sounds vocally strong, this is a classic tune, the sun is shining, and you’re in a crowd of 50,000 people losing their marbles, so it’ll do. Crooner Bob comes out for “Masterpiece,” which I’ve always enjoyed, if not as much as the Garcia Band versions. Sadly missing are Jerry’s backing vocals, with Vince making his presence known on the refrain. Garcia’s playing is nimble though, and continues with the intro licks to “Brown Eyed Women.” A nice if unremarkable version. I’ve never been a big fan of “Let it Grow,” particularly without the Weather Report intro. And the woodcutter’s daughter line ranks among my least favorite lyrics all time. But along with “Shakedown” it provides the only real jamming potential in the set. Bob really lays on the midi effects, which may have sounded distorted and grating at the show depending on one’s state of mind. The band locks in and chase each other around toward the end of the jam, but like the “Shakedown” fail to break any new ground. All in all, a fine if forgettable set. “We’ll be right back.” And away they go.
Things seem to turn a corner in the second set, and the band finds a groove they can stick with. They tickle the intro to “Foolish Heart,” Bobby hinting at the “Do Re Mi” song, gently easing into the tune. Unlike many of the first set songs, this one is really perfect for the dual keyboard attack and the midi sounds of this era. Garcia has said in interviews that this song doesn’t have any pads, with each person playing their own unique line throughout. At times it could be a hot mess, but when it clicked and they all danced around each other it was magic, as they do here. The keyboards are shimmering, Phil’s bass is bubbling, and Garcia hits that bittersweet spot we all love. They take a few laps around the track between verses before locking back into the melody. Lyrically the song doesn’t rank among Hunter’s finest moments, and I’ve never heard a version where Garcia gets all the words right, but the vocals mainly serve as a pit stop between the jams.
"Foolish Heart" pairs nicely with "Looks Like Rain," which they glide right into. When I was 15, "Looks Like Rain" was a cool tune, still in the midst of slow dancing to "Wonderful Tonight" at homecoming and romanticized ideas about relationships. I’ve done some hard livin’ since then, and suffered my share of Donna Jean overexposure, so my feelings about this tune have changed over time. I’ve also been dealt my share of scars at the musical indiscretions of Mr. Weir, so it’s hard not to be jaded about it now. But if I can suspend those preconceptions and try to take the tune for what it is, I get the appeal. Garcia hangs in the background, able to focus on those silvery leads. Bobby builds it up and then falls back down to the gentle melody floating along, only to do it again. For a few measures it’s just Weir’s vocals and Garcia’s guitar improvising with each other on the refrain. If that’s not a quintessential Grateful Dead moment, then I don’t know what is. The keyboards trickle in, the bass rumbles, the drums thunder, and they work it up to a downpour. A triumphant moment to share in a large crowd of people. Without all the jean shorts and pink guitar inside jokes I would come to accumulate over the years, Bob Weir seemed like a rather normal dude who somehow got drafted by this motley crew. Little did I know he would turn out to be the biggest freak of the bunch. So street cats aside, the song and this version kick ass.
"Crazy Fingers" comes gently lilting out of the ashes of scorned lovers. A fine example of something uniquely Grateful Dead, with the band marrying a backwoods melody to an island rhythm, united by Hunter’s kaleidoscopic visions in eternal bliss. Garcia’s voice sounds a bit ragged, but the tune manages to blossom nonetheless. The outro jam finds them picking up where "Foolish Heart" left off, continuing the conversation almost as if it had never stopped. Hornsby finds "Dark Star"’s frequency and teases it for a few bars, as he did on a number of occasions during his tenure in the band. But the other members of the band are more tuned into Bobby’s jam vehicle, fiddling with it in the closing notes of "Crazy Fingers" before exploding into "Playin’ in the Band." Again, like "Let It Grow," not one of my favorite tunes but one with some good jam potential. This one seems rather brisk at around 10 minutes, never really taking it too far from the "Main Ten" theme. Hornsby continues to prod the rest of the band to join him in "Dark Star," but he just orbits around in his own galaxy before Garcia docks the ship at "Terrapin Station."
Hard to believe this folk-prog tune was the defining song of the second half of the Dead’s career, and the stadium hippie anthem it became. And amazing that I escaped my teenage years without a tattoo of Venus and a crescent moon on my shoulder. I guess there’s always my midlife crisis for that. To observe a stadium crowd entranced by this tune, it’s easy to understand how an outsider would view Deadheads as a cult. But “Terrapin” has many of the same qualities that make hypnosis effective, and given the right mind-set and setting, it’s conducive to accessing alternate states of consciousness. That experience is just not everyone’s cup of mushroom tea. This “Terrapin” is well played and does what any good version should, taking us on an internal journey with vaguely specific lyrics we can all relate to, the music bouncing along, seducing our unconscious. Maybe you’re reminded of another time or place you heard this song, a feeling you had, or something else. You might become more or less aware of sensations in your body, a sound outside, the temperature of the air, or some other thought that pops into your head. And you may lose yourself in a moment of eternal transcendence as the music gently builds and surprises you with a cry of “Inspiration!” And from there, all hell breaks loose, audience in ecstatic rapture, band storming heaven, busting down the pearly gates. The Ouroboros melody spins around, always ending up where it began. With the audience fully engaged, they’re more open to the weird suggestions the band has to offer. Like “Foolish Heart,” the jam out of Terrapin is really suited for this era, the band making full use of the sonic palette to reveal the pattern underlying the chaos. Tribal drums battle it out with synthetic flutes, a distorted bass snarls at a trumpet’s blast, Hornsby’s still lost in space, until the music becomes more meditative. The keyboard players paint the celestial auras they excelled at in this era (notably the jam out of “Let It Grow” on 10/20/90). Terrapin still lingers in the background, pulsing in and out, the signal fades and the drummers take over.
I’m not nearly high enough right now to listen to or comment on Drums and Space, and really would rather just get to the “Dark Star” that follows. I’m assuming you feel the same way. “Terrapin” and “Dark Star” only occurred together in the same show seven times, New Year’s Eve in 78 and 80, and five post-Brent era shows. Pairing the defining song of the Dead’s first 10 years with the biggest song of the second half of their career is certainly notable, but I digress. The band drifts into “Dark Star,” audience likely still not quite sure if they’re hearing what they think they are, following all the previous Hornsby teases of the tune. And then the band all join together to definitively announce those familiar notes, letting the crowd know, ‘yes, this is really happening.’ Hearing that melody makes Deadheads salivate like Pavlov’s dog, but rather than drool for meat powder, there’s a collective “HOLY SHIT!” exhaled in anticipation of the ego dissolution and face melting to ensue. Like the “Playin’”, this “Dark Star” never drifts too far from the shore, the band even sticking to conventional sounds throughout, and they fade out before arriving at the lyrics. They flow into a reprise of “Playin’”, which does allow for a bit of experimentation building up to the “Main Ten” before slamming back into the chorus, Cowboy Bob with guns a-blazing.
Garcia adds a bit of twang to the end of “Playin,’” nicely transitioning into the country ballad “Black Peter.” Seems like “Black Peter” was the post-space Jerry ballad I saw more than any of the others, so I probably took it’s genius for granted. Not quite as cosmic as “Stella Blue,” dramatic as “Wharf Rat,” or climactic as “Morning Dew,” this death bed lament of the lysergically over served does contain Hunter’s finest lyric in the bridge. The band is relatively restrained through the song, and come together nicely on the bridge to bring it to a strong peak. Following that, they drop away and allow more of the focus to fall on Garcia’s voice, starting as a tender plea before building up to a howl. These were the spine-tingling moments, a hushed stadium, a single spotlight on Jerry, emoting in a way that only he seemed capable of doing. Like “Terrapin,” amazing that such a huge crowd could be so mesmerized by such an un-rocking tune, but that’s a testament to the genius of the song and the band’s ability to connect to the audience.
From here on out, we’re riding the gravy train. The audience is so fired up it really doesn’t matter what comes next, the band could’ve had a farting contest onstage. But sticking with the formula, Bobby realizes it’s a Saturday Night and time to rock out. That they do, but frankly the keyboard sounds make this version pretty much unlistenable. Maybe these big sounds came across better in front a huge audience, but whatever the case it’s dreadful to listen to at home. “The Weight” encore that concludes the evening may not be as profound as “Baby Blue” or tender as “Brokedown,” but not quite the throwaway that “I Fought the Law” was or “U.S. Blues” came to be. It serves as a transition from deep space back to reality, the absurd lyrics and traditional song structure bridging both worlds. The crowd-friendly sing-along reorients our intrepid travelers, giving them something familiar to grasp onto, while practicing some communication skills for the world that lies beyond the stadium gates. It’s also an opportunity to shower each vocalist with a bit of adulation. A celebratory ending to a long summer night.
So there you have a show that is the 90’s Grateful Dead in a nutshell, adjusting to playing in front of huge audiences, with an expanded lineup and new technologies and sounds at their service. The first set contains some classic tunes for the era, but the band has trouble finding their footing, and the more traditional and shorter tunes don’t lend themselves to the environment or new sonic textures. In the second set, where the tunes open up, they’re able to find that groove and maintain it throughout. In the context of the 90’s, there were certain songs that worked better in certain parts of the sets. It was a formula that worked until, well, it became too formulaic, predictable, and stale. But that too largely depended on the playing and level of engagement of Mr. Garcia. There are still “Playin>Uncle John”’s and “Throwin’ Stones>NFA” from the era that are gorgeous.
Hope you enjoyed this “review.” If this show doesn’t do it for you, I’m sure you’ve got another one that can take you back to a certain time, memory, and feeling, and holds a special place in your heart that may not make sense to others. And while it may be self-indulgent to interject so much of myself into a review or go on a nostalgia trip, it seems impossible to do justice to the music without discussing the impact it had on me. I could say “Jerry played this, Bob played that, fliberty jib on the bippity bop,” but that does little to describe the sum of the experience. I can identify how the music affects me, if not necessarily why. And if anything, hopefully Dr. Shulgin’s passing reminded us that the entire universe is inside, if we look at it with the right kind of eyes. And Grateful Dead music does a better job taking me on these inner journeys than any other type of music I’ve yet discovered. They stoke the embers of our unconscious to wake it from its slumber, providing access to whole other star systems before they slip through our fingers like so many grains of sand, taking their secrets with them. Maybe that’s why we keep on going back for more. Shall we go…?
Mitch Carroll blogs and tweets about stuff and things at walklikeagiant.blogspot.com and @iwalklikeagiant.