RIFFS: Be Grateful You’re Dead
May 16, 1968
The Grateful Dead have lost a lot of weight. Pigpen is almost svelte, and Bill the Drummer doesn’t look so good. Musically they’ve added so much weight that their old album (new one due in July) now sounds like your speakers have turned to sieves. You first heard it in December those two night at the the Village Theatre. What is the the same is the purity. No tricks, just music, hard, lyric, joyous — pure and together, dense and warm as a dark summer country night. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.
That spiraling new riff that comes through almost everything they play now — including the old stuff, pushed hard by Bill and the New Drummer, winds above you, around you, swoops you into a driving, pulsing, always always musical solid state of energy — enough to (incredibly) lift at least one New York audience to its feet dancing last week. Sunday in the park. They nearly caused a civic disturbance by stopping when the permit said they had to (disturbance cooled by Bill Graham). It was beautiful. The audience — a little wiped out from hours of Butterfield Blues, Airplane, crush, and waiting — milled and sat. The Dead played: it was New York, but it was a free concert, in a park on a sunny Sunday. The Airplane, back in the bandshell listening, grooved. The Dead started cooking. Suddenly teeny bopper was up down front, all lime green and longhair and motion. The row of photographers in front of her were up. Then the audience, not in rows, but en masse, was up, dancing, screaming, frenzied. A firecracker went off onstage. Bubblegum flew. A drumhead popped and drumsticks flew. The band grooved on. Everyone onstage was dancing. Suddenly it was over. There WAS something like it once before. Newport, Duke Ellington, Jonah Jones wailing in the wings on rolled-up newspaper, 27 choruses by Sal Salvadore. The audience was wild. The Newport cops requested and got an end to that. There was no riot then. But that was Newport, and New York audiences don’t come lightly to their feet. There was no riot this time either, of course — there was football in the meadow and a promise of three nights at the Electric Circus.
The night before, in a set without a break that lasted over two hours, they played one epic number that lasted over one hour. The Dead were at Stony Brook, but the audience was nowhere at all, perhaps partly because the lightshow, which was good, very good in its own right, but inexperienced, was off on some trip that intruded on the music instead of backing it.
Tuesday the Dead opened (at a stiff $4.50 a head) at the Circus, which has good acoustics and is a generally relaxed place to listen. Their first tune is always a shambles — “You’ll have to wait till we figure out who we are and what we’re doing here,” says Jerry Garcia. When they find out, Garcia climbs all over your head with those beautiful riffs shot out of outer space; Bob Weir is there, always there, building, building; Phil Lesh, those long sets; Pigpen, riding everything. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.
Wednesday, after one set that was nearly perfect, they busted eardrums with a full-volume “Viola Le” — retaliation on a non-dancing audience, not their best sound or act. It’s a drag that they’re dragged by non-dancing. New York’s not quite ready, but if they stayed here it would happen sooner. It’s still hard to move and hear simultaneously, but at least they raised one audience last week,
Thursday they played a touching “He Was a Friend of Mine,” then I understand some Kew Gardens mama invaded the stage and broke up the last set. Lesh booted her where appropriate, drumsticks flew again (aimed this time), Weir got beaned by a flying cymbal, the drummers stalked off. I wouldn’t know. Suffering a back strained by nearly a week of sitting backless and standing for the Dead, I was kacked out in the dark rear of the Circus. Where do THEY get the energy?