September 18, 2010

Playlist Week of 9-18-10

* Hesperion XXI (Savall): La Folia 1490-1701 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Hesperion XXI (Savall): Altre Follie 1500-1750 (Alia Vox SACD)
* Schmelzer: Violin Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Biber: Harmonia Artificiosa (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Prod. 2CD)†
* J.S. Bach: A Musical Offering (Moroney, et al.) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Satie: L’Orchestre de Satie (Orchestra de Concerts Lamoureaux/Sado) (Erato CD)
* Stravinsky: Petrouchka (NY Philharmonic/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez) (Sony Classical CD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (d.3-6) (Columbia 8CD)
* Sun Ra: Sound Sun Pleasure! (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: Holiday for Soul Dance (Saturn/Evidence CD)
* Sun Ra: Janus (1201 Music CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (GTM) 2006 (d.2) (Important 4CD)
* Bill Laswell: Oscillations (remixes) (Sub Rosa CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: City of Light (Sub Rosa CD)
* Aftermathematics (Bill Laswell): Instrumentals: Rhythm and Recurrence (Sub Rosa CD)‡
* Bill Laswell: lo. def pressure (Quartermass CD)‡
* Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (Motown/MFSL SACD)
* Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin (Atlantic CD)
* Led Zeppelin: II (Atlantic CD)
* Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against the Empire (RCA-Victor LP)
* Paul Kantner & Grace Slick: Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (Grunt/RCA LP)
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips, Vol.3, No.4: Penn State-Cornell ‘80 (d.1-2) (GDP/Rhino 3CD)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 5-12-80 (d.1) (SBD 2CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Zoo Amphitheatre, Oklahoma City, OK 7-5-81 (SBD 3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Crimson, White, and Indigo (7-7-89) (d.2) (GDP/Rhino 3CD+DVD)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks: Hampton, VA 10-8 & 9-89 (GDP/Rhino 6CD)
* Grateful Dead: Nightfall of Diamonds (10-16-89) (d.2) (GDP/Arista 2CD)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On the Sky (d.1-2) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Boston Spaceships: Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/MFSL 2LP)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective & Danny Perez: Oddsac (Swiss Dots/Plexifilm DVD)



Well, it’s about time.

The Grateful Dead’s notorious “stealth” concerts at the Hampton Coliseum have been legendary amongst Deadheads ever since their performance October 8-9, 1989. Announced only week in advance and cleverly billed as “Formerly the Warlocks,” the band, the venue, and the local authorities were hoping to avoid the increasingly unwieldy scene that had built up around the band’s tours as result of “Touch of Grey” shockingly going Top Ten in 1987[1]. If the sub rosa aspects weren’t enough to get a well-connected Deadhead tweaked, a new album was imminent and rumors abounded that the band had actually rehearsed prior to heading out on the ‘89 Fall Tour. Wow! That was pretty much simply unheard of by this time in their career. And as if on cue, the Dead brought back a number of old favorites at these two shows, including the epic “Help On the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower” trilogy (unheard since 1985); the psychedelic magnum opus “Dark Star” (missing since 1984); the gut-wrenching blues “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (jettisoned from the repertoire in way back in 1970); the redemptive ballad “Attics of My Life” (a rare song to begin with, it was last played in 1972); and the a cappella calypso-gospel encore “We Bid You Goodnight” (performed just once between 1978 and 1989). Oh yeah, the boys pulled out all the stops on these two nights!

But it’s not just the spectacular set-lists that make these shows so special. Ever since Jerry Garcia’s Lazarus-like recovery from a diabetic coma in 1986, the band had benefited from a renewed focus and energy on the part of their ever-reluctant leader. While Garcia never really recovered 100% of his pre-coma facility on the guitar, he was quite obviously healthier than he had been in ages and this resulted in some of the most thoughtful and incisive playing of his career. In the Dark casually became one of their most enjoyable studio efforts and the unexpected success of “Touch of Grey” buoyed the band’s spirits as well as their bank accounts. All this sparked a renewed interest in songwriting, resulting in a batch of respectably ambitious songs, including Garcia/Hunter’s winkingly ironic “Foolish Heart” and Weir/Barlow’s angular and dissonant “Victim or the Crime.” Both songs had the potential to open up into areas of exploratory jamming, an element that had been in somewhat short supply over the past couple of years as Garcia slowly regained his chops[2]. By 1989, the Grateful Dead were about as tight and polished (yet as loose and improvisational) as they had ever been, evidenced by the numerous official releases from this period including Truckin’ Up to Buffalo (7-4-89), Crimson, White and Indigo (7-7-89), and Dozin’ at the Knick (3-90). These are all good shows and abundantly manifest the remarkable professionalism of this era. But taken on their own, they do not convey that ineffable sense that anything was possible, that the ordinary could be transubstantiated into the extraordinary, given the right circumstances[3]. This is what excited Deadheads the most. And these two nights in Hampton, Virginia were one of those rare instances where the stars aligned and what was ordinarily just very good became extraordinarily great. Each song is performed with intensity and conviction—and when they stumble, they gracefully recover[4]. So when they deign to revive the old repertoire they don’t just play it, they inhabit it; they are transported along with the audience on an adventure of (re)discovery and in-the-moment bliss. The elusive “X-factor,” that cosmic mind-meld of band and audience is clearly audible on these discs. Of course, any recording is necessarily mediated and third-hand (particularly a clinically close-mic’d multitrack recording like this one), but if you listen carefully, you can hear the almost two-minutes of delerious cheering that greeted the return of “Dark Star.” And in return, the band delivers a rare (even in the 1970s) “full version” containing both verses and then proceeds to take it out—way out—before giving way to the drums solo. These concerts are full of incredible music—heck, even “I Need a Miracle” is unusually compelling as Garcia simply shreds on the introduction out of “Space.” For mid-late-period Grateful Dead, this is about as good as it gets[5].

Of course, if you’re a Deadhead worthy of the name, you already have the soundboard tapes of both of these shows, recorded (and freely disseminated) by front-of-house genius, Dan Healy, and I admit they do sound very good. And then there are several fine sounding audience recordings available at which will give you that “you are there” experience (at the expense of instrumental definition). So you’re probably wondering, why should I buy this expensive box set? The answer lies in the fact that these shows were recorded to 24-track tape, providing pinpoint isolation and the ability to meticulously fine-tune and balance the mix ex post facto. The result sounds vastly different from any of the circulating tapes. Furthermore, Michael McGinn’s mix[6] is in-your-face aggressive, drum-heavy and worlds away from the more polite (yet heavily processed) mixes of Jeffrey Norman[7]. It also sounds much better than his previous effort, Crimson, White & Indigo, recorded just three months earlier (but that may be because the band as a whole sounds better). Even so, I wish there was a wider stereo soundstage and greater dynamic range—it sounds a little squashed to me. But it’s not the worst compression-job I ever heard and the sound really blooms at loud volumes; this is not an “ear-bleeder” by any means. Given the historical importance of these concerts, I will probably hold on to my “bootleg” soundboard recordings—but I will definitely be listening to these “official” CDs much more often. The clarity and balance of instruments and vocals allows the music to stand on its own instead of being blurred by on-the-fly mixing and cavernous acoustics. Does it sound like it did in the hall? No, of course not[8]. But you can hear the precise articulation of every individual note and drum-stroke and that is a perspective you could never have in the arena, certainly not at the microscopic level that multitrack tape affords. So while every recording is necessarily artificial, this one is at least detailed enough to warrant attention, even if you think you know what these shows sound like[9].

In keeping with the specialness of the music, the packaging of this box set is extravagantly lavish: The six CDs are housed in paper sleeves within a wooden “cigar-box”, complete with faux pyrography and sealed with a cleverly-designed “two-show” tax stamp, obviously referencing not only Virginia’s tobacco-laden history but other smoking-related proclivities of the band and its fans (“mellow yet mindblowing,” it says). There is also a touching and informative essay from Garcia biographer Blair Jackson (printed on the back of an accordion foldout of photographs from the shows) along with a bunch of related ephemera, including reproductions of the original tickets, postcards of the venue, the mailer sent to fans to try to quell the out-of-control “scene” in the parking lot, a home-made Halloween-themed "skull & roses" button, and a full-size facsimile of an article from the Charlotte Observer presenting a contemporaneous and fair-minded account of these shows and the fans who traveled far and wide to get there. As an object d’art, it is supremely well done and, as such, it is more-than-fairly priced. But at eighty bucks it is nevertheless quite expensive[10] and will necessarily limit its appeal to the already-obsessed and sufficiently well-heeled (or recklessly impecunious). Too bad as this is the Grateful Dead at their very best, providing an inkling of what made a Dead show something more than a rock concert. Maybe it’s too late anyway—you either get it or you don’t. I guess that’s fine. But this box set might be just the thing to convert the agnostic, creating a whole new generation of Deadheads fifteen years after Garcia’s untimely death. Therefore, Formerly the Warlocks is most highly recommended even to the merely curious—despite its high price-tag. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.


[1] The tactic sort of worked. But they only tried it on a couple other occasions in the Spring of 1990 before giving in to the reality of having to play only the largest arenas and football stadiums while periodically entreating their fans to behave themselves. Truthfully, Deadheads are, for the most part, a mellow bunch; but the sheer size of the “ticketless hordes” that had no interest in the music and only came to party in the parking lot continued to grow as the years went on. Some communities tolerated the temporary anarchy in return for a massive influx of cash into the local economy; others banned the Dead outright. The band returned to Hampton for two-shows in March of 1992, but that was it.
[2] Furthermore, both Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir had begun experimenting with MIDI technology in 1989, introducing a vast new range of sounds and textures to the music by triggering synthesizers and samplers from their guitars. One Usenet wag dismissed these efforts at the time as “Grandpa gets on AOL.” I'll admit that is a pretty darn funny quip; but I find the expansive sonic palette to be, for the most part, tastefully and appropriately deployed and, moreover, it is clear they were inspired by the cornucopia of sounds now available to them, contributing to the rejuvenated gestalt of this era.
[3] Nightfall of Diamonds, recorded a week later at the Meadowlands Arena on 10-16-89 is an exception; but as news of the hi-jinks in Hampton quickly spread north, the New York/New Jersey crowd expected to get their due, making the otherwise sublime second set seem a little bit perfunctory, coming as it does at the end of a rather routine six-night run. See also footnote 5.
[4] See, e.g. “Candyman” from 10-8. Hey, you try to keep upwards of a hundred songs in your head for instant recall at a moment’s notice! Let’s also acknowledge that the two-drum-set combo had a tendency to rush the beat when they got excited and sometimes the tension between the drummers and Phil Lesh’s bass threatens to unmoor the music (as for instance on “Row Jimmy” from 10-9). But this tension is part of what makes the Dead’s rhythm section so interesting. Besides, when you’re dancing, you hardly notice these fluctuations in tempo, the body just responds accordingly.
[5] Examples abound: Besides the aforementioned breakouts and various new songs which are performed with alacrity and élan, there is also a transcendent fourteen-minute “Bird Song,” a galloping, elongated “Eyes of the World,” and a monumental “Morning Dew” to be found on 10-8 while 10-9 features a super-funky “Feel Like a Stranger,” a joyously raucous “Ramble On Rose” and Brent Mydland’s soulful take on the “Dear Mr. Fantasy/Hey Jude” combo. Seriously, even Weir’s obligatory cowboy songs and Dylan covers sound inspired—a rare feat indeed. On these nights, the Grateful Dead bring it on!
[6] Michael McGinn is the long-time live soundman for Bob Weir’s Ratdog.
[7] C.f. Nightfall of Diamonds, which contains lovely renditions of “Dark Star,” “Attics of My Life,” and “We Bid You Goodnight.” Norman achieves a more spacious soundstage and retains a broader dynamic range but it lacks the ultra-vivid Technicolor presentation of the Warlocks set. While each approach might be less than my personal ideal, they have their own charms and both releases sound fantastic. Excellent sound quality has always been a hallmark of the Grateful Dead experience, both live and on record; I only quibble because I am so spoiled.
[8] NB: I was not at these concerts.
[9] For yet another sonic perspective, “Feel Like a Stranger” appears on Without a Net, mixed by none other than Phil Lesh himself (with recordist John Cutler). Further, substantial portions of “Dark Star” and “Space” appear on Bob Bralove’s experimental sound collage, Infrared Roses.
[10] It should be noted that the price-per-disc is in line with the previous box sets in the series (Winterland November 1973 and Winterland June 1977) while the packaging and production is significantly more elaborate, making Formerly the Warlocks a relative bargain, in my estimation.


I apologize for the way Blogger formatted the (admittedly extraneous) footnotes created in the original MS-Word document. Obviously, I need to research how to make this work if I wish to continue to pursue such frippery.


Sam said...

Yeah, the links to the footnotes embedded in the text go nowhere--but who cares? I love footnotes! I hope you keep using them.

Nice write-up. I will certainly have to seek out at least the "Dark Star" from this show. Sounds intriguing!

Here's my list from last week:

Playlist 2010-09-20

*Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions, disc 2
*DC Improvisers Collective: Triangulation
*Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop: 1959-07-04 Newport Jazz Festival (CDR)
*Roscoe Mitchell's Cards For Orchestra Project: 2009-08-30 Sant'Anna Arresi, Italy (CDR)
*New Loft: 2010-07-21 "Balance Shift Payload Maneuver" (wav)
*New Loft: 2010-09-01 "Vitalis and Slippery Fingers" (wav)
*Nine Strings Trio: The Sounding Table
*Sun Ra: College Tour Vol. 1: The Complete Nothing Is... disc 2
*Sun Ra: Live at Slug's Saloon (Transparency) disc 2
*Sun Ra: Cymbals
*Sun Ra: 1976-12-25 WXPN (CDR)
*Sun Ra: Lanquidity acetate (CDR)
*Sun Ra: Disco 3000: The Complete Milan Concert 1978 (Art Yard)
*Sun Ra: 1983-06-25 Brooklyn (CDR)
*Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley/Bill Dixon Trio: 2004-10-16 Donaueschingen, Germany (CDR)
*Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley/Bill Dixon Trio: 2004-11-15 London Jazz Festival (CDR)
*Cecil Taylor Quartet featuring Anthony Braxton: 2007-06-08 London (CDR)
*Henry Threadgill & Zooid: 2010-05-08 Amsterdam (CDR)
*Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Girls Girls Girls
*Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (2002 reissue, disc 2)
*Fela: Army Arrangement
*Flaming Lips: Embryonic
*Grateful Dead: 1972-05-04 Paris (CDR) "Dark Star"
*Grateful Dead: 1972-05-18 Munich (CDR) "Dark Star"
*Grateful Dead: 1973-02-15 Madison WI (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: 1973-02-19 Chicago (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: 1973-02-22 Champaign-Urbana IL (CDR)
*High Llamas: Beet, Maize & Corn
*Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted
*Rolling Stones: Nasty Music (boot CDR)
*Soft Machine: Middle Earth Masters
*Television: Marquee Moon
*UYA: 1990: "Black Drone"
*Various artists: Loud, Fast, and Out of Control (disc 4)
*Various artists: WSAM: Sure (CDR compilation)
*Robert Wyatt & Friends: Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Reading log 2010-09-20

*Birkerts, Sven: Reading Life: Books for the Ages (selected essays)
*Hiaasen, Carl. Star Island (started/finished)
*Huston, Charlie. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (started/finished)
*Hall, James W. Silencer (finished)
*Cross, Charles R. Room Full of Mirrors (in progress)
*Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side (in progress)
*Tanner, Tony. Prefaces to Shakespeare (in progress)
*Theobald, Lewis. Double Falsehood (Arden Shakespeare ed.) (in progress)

Andy Rogers online music marketing said...

Such a nice list of your gigs. Which reminds me of my years that I too always been up to music. Thanks much.