SUMMER OF DEAD 2014: Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, California, August 23, 1968
The Summer of Dead is heating up! Trip on back with Mark Milner in today’s installment.
It’s summer 1968 and the Dead were something of a live force. Sure, they weren’t the touring behemoth they’d become in the 70s, but even in the summer of love, they were a seasoned road band, who’d been everywhere from Toronto to Portland.
All the while, their sets were going through a remarkable metamorphosis: bluesy tunes like “Viola Lee Blues” or “Caution” were getting looser and longer and new tunes like “Dark Star” and “That’s it For the Other One” were giving the band room to stretch out and improvise. When browsing through tapes from this period, it feels like they were getting better every night, growing into a psychedelic powerhouse.
By summertime, they were in top form. With a recording truck in tow, the Dead hit Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium for two nights in August. They were on foreign turf and played with a fury, like they had to prove themselves to a skeptical audience. The results are nothing short of stunning.
"The Other One" opens their show, with the band exploding out of the gates like a sprinter. Next comes "Dark Star": while it doesn’t get as far out and spacey as the Live/Dead version, it’s full of tasty guitar riffage. It segues into “St. Stephen” (which sounds a little hesitant to my ears, but it was a new song at the time), which builds up to a frantic version of “The Eleven,” played with enough energy to power a locomotive. For over 10 minutes, Garcia weaves through a chugging rhythm section like a boxer finding his spots.
After a harsh cut, the tape picks up with a slow, mournful cover of Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Then comes the meat of this show: a half-hour suite of “Alligator” and “Caution.” Pigpen’s bluesy singing kicks it off as the band slowly builds up behind him, before dropping away to let Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann go at it on the drums. After a while Garcia comes back, his guitar going back and forth with their percussion solo. Soon the whole band roars back into an instrumental “Alligator” reprise, deftly segueing into a forceful version of “Caution” and finally ending in a squall of feedback. It’s 20-plus minutes of the band at a white-hot fury.
This is a show we’re lucky to have: the tapes sat for years, an unusable mess thanks to syncing issues. Somehow they weren’t erased or recycled and in the early 90s, technology was able to pick through the audio mess and put it back together like a jigsaw puzzle; the second show of this stand was eventually released as Two From the Vault.
Even if you have that record, check this out. The Dead played a lot of good shows after this, but I don’t think they ever played one more exciting from front to back: nary a second is wasted. If they were out to prove something to this LA crowd, they certainly did.
Mark Milner is a freelance writer and music fan who regularly contributes to Bearded Gentlemen Music. His writing has also appeared on The Good Point, Extended Play, and CTV.ca, among others. Find him on Twitter at @thejockocracy.