Felt Forum, NY
Set 1: Bertha, Beat It On
Down The Line, Big Boss Man, Brown Eyed Women, Muddy Water, Jack
Straw, Mr. Charlie, Tennessee Jed, El Paso, Deal, Playing In The
Band, Next Time You See Me, Comes A Time, Casey Jones, One More
Set 2: Truckin', Ramble On
Rose, It Hurts Me Too, Sugaree, Sugar Magnolia, Dark Star Jam >
Me & My Uncle > Dark Star Jam > Sitting On Top Of The
World, Me And Bobby McGee, Big Railroad Blues, Mexicali Blues, You
Win Again, Not Fade Away > Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad >
Not Fade Away
E: Johnny B. Goode
Something pulls me to 1971
today -- nothing I could really name, except maybe a vague desire to
hear "Big Railroad Blues". Seems like any 1971 show should
have one, so why not 12-05-71 at the Felt Forum?
Wow -- how great it must
have been to be at this show! Pigpen was freshly back on board;
Keith had just joined but was already proving himself a great
addition. And Bill Graham introduces each band member with an honest
enthusiasm that makes plain how deep the relationship ran between
him and the band. After such an intro, the show itself is in danger
of being anticlimactic!
You knew I had to kidding,
of course. The band comes out flying from the first, as Jerry
inserts little mini-solos between his vocal lines in
"Bertha". This nicely compensates for the poor keyboard
levels -- we can barely hear Keith, and Pigpen even less. Still, the
intensity is well represented by the fact that the band is out of
tune half way through the song. "I'll let you guys keep
this" Bob announces afterward, to no evident meaning but plenty
of guitars being tuned. "BIODTL" goes fine, and "Big
Boss Man" marks Pigpen's turn at the mike. Not the same Pigpen
of the year before, to be sure, but he wasn't about to miss out on
that European tour they'd been wanting to do for so long.
The tunings are getting
faster now -- just small adjustments -- and Bobby initiates a little
tuning jam which Jerry quickly joins (interestingly, Deadbase
doesn't note this). Just another part of their early character that
disappeared in later years!
Women" lacks bridge harmonies but proves otherwise fully
realized; Jerry adds Bobby-type fills before the choruses. Bobby
talks to the radio audience a bit while Phil changes the battery in
his bass (it sounded fine to me, but what do I know?). Perhaps it's
just to pass the time while he does so, but Jerry starts up
"Muddy Water", and Bobby and Bill quickly follow. Keith
quickly catches on, and fills out the sound with an improved piano
level. Jerry starts to sing, and it's just like they played it all
the time. Phil comes in halfway through the verse, and -- voila! --
another world premiere by the band. Even Pigpen can be faintly heard
on the organ.
More tuning follows, and
Bob politely demurs an unheard audience request; finally they seem
ready, as Phil asks if someone in the audience is smoking coconuts
[?!]. A slapback echo seems to have been added to the sound on
"Jack Straw", most notably affecting the drums; this
disappears about 90 seconds in. Keith proves his mettle with sly
fills and solid chording; in fact, he may be the high point of the
song. "Here's yet another new song" Bobby announces,
inviting radio listeners to get their recorders running, and the
audience hears their first "Mr. Charlie". It's a bit
slower than Europeans would hear the following spring, but still a
solid down-and-dirty pulse: Pigpen oozing over Billy's darkest crash
cymbal and Jerry's suggestive guitar lines. As the song ends, Jerry
wrings out a few more notes of lemon-squeezing intensity, almost
like Stevie Ray Vaughan would a decade later.
In contrast, they then kick
in to "Tennessee Jed" with a startlingly bright tempo --
Jerry carrying his sound over from the previous song, but of course
a different mood. Meanwhile, it seems that someone's turned up
Bobby's guitar. This is not a perfect tape/CD; the listener
necessarily endures an ongoing line of minor sonic anomalies that
belie the original FM source. Static, crackles, and the occasional
minor level change are simply part of the listening price of an
otherwise remarkably clear recording; I really only notice them
between songs. Ironically, this is where a lot of the fun listening
is found, as we hear the audience requests -- including, in this
case, "Me & My Uncle"! Later, he'll get his wish; for
now, he gets an upbeat "El Paso", and Keith chooses to
emphasize the off-beats, following Billy's ride cymbal instead of
the bass drum.
Afterward, the audience
requests include "Earth Angel" [!], which might not seem
so bizarre to anyone who'd heard them perform with the Beach Boys
earlier that year. The song the band actually plays
"Deal", a much more likely choice, and Phil is notable for
his ebullient bass notes. Things go well enough, and Jerry's solo
sounds like he's tearing the notes out of the very guts of his
guitar. PITB follows, threatening to be just as dark and extended as
it would actually be the next year, and it's on to the next disc.
Fade in on somewhat rough
sound and we're straight into "Next Time You See Me": very
much as it would sound on 4-26-72, but with the mix strongly
favoring Pigpen's vocal mike (& therefore harmonica solo), which
is just fine. Many audience suggestions follow, and Bobby admits
their indecision; finally Jerry strums up "Comes a Time",
which still includes the falsetto note that makes the 11-7-71
Harding Theater rendition so memorable. There may be performances of
this song that don't hit the mark, but this isn't one of them; both
the middle and end solos reach down deep.
Afterward, Jerry actually
talks to the audience a bit about seat-jockeying, and proposes
"Casey Jones" to "help ease the pain" [?].
Whatever you say, Jerry ;-) "Casey" benefits from Pigpen's
presence on the organ, and they belt out the end choruses with all
the usual gusto. "Saturday Night" closes the set as it had
for the past month, suffering slight alteration at the mixing board;
they must have been pushing the levels. One verse is not quite what
it would be the following month when committed to an album; still,
not bad for Bobby's only effort as sole composer.
Bobby chortles over their
AM chart success in Turlock, California, and "Truckin'"
starts the second set. Lively tempo, confident band. Billy closely
follows all changes, but so do they all; they've come out swinging.
Full-blooded performance all around, no regrets. Afterward, Bobby
addresses some of the audience who seem to be blocking something;
one can only suppose it all worked out somehow.
We move on to "Ramble
On", and it sounds like we've moved to an alternate source:
Phil's bass is much louder, and Bobby's and Jerry's guitars have
switched sides in the stereo image. By the time Jerry starts
singing, the master volume has been edged down, which cuts some of
the power of the performance -- a shame, despite the somewhat
wavering harmonies; Jerry really belts it out. Comically, his solo
starts out just as intense, then stops for no apparent reason -- I'm
guessing some inaudible snafu, such as catching the guitar cord on
something. Jerry picks up again like nothing unusual happened, and
doesn't let it dampen his singing.
After malfunctions and
tuning, Pigpen sings his third & final lead vocal for the
evening, introduced by Jerry's tremulous slide: "It Hurts Me
Too". I always wonder what Phil the Far-Out College Composer
thinks of songs like this, but there's no denying his support for
even the most basic of blues songs. As Pigpen harps in for the
second half of Jerry's solo, they capture some of the chaotic order
typical of Muddy Waters' Chess-era band -- a noble achievement,
despite Pig's simply OK vocal performance.
But Pig was definitely IN
THE BAND and contributing; the opening chords of "Sugaree"
show a sprinkling of quiet organ notes even before Jerry starts
singing, and it's good stuff. Billy keeps a crisp 6/8 beat going.
Bobby and Keith trade chords and Jerry sings it well, but by now you
may well be wondering: aren't we in the SECOND set? We surely are.
But we're also in 1971, so keep your shirt on, junior; there's
plenty of time left. Besides, did you hear that nice crescendo in
the third chorus? These guys still got enough to keep us going all
First, though, there's some
more tuning. I guess Deadbase should keep track of that; it would
exceed "Drumz" for most-performed sequence.
finds the band stuck with the slapback sound again, but it's removed
before Bobby starts singing. And get this: just seconds before it
starts, someone shouts out something that sounds JUST like
"Free Bird"! Explain that if you can. Some technical
anomalies cloud a bit of the middle jam, but not enough to ruin our
appreciation. I'm guessing that whatever 'inspirational aid du jour'
they favored at this time started to make a difference during this
song; listen for yourself and see if you don't agree.
Bobby howls at the end
while Phil gets unusually throbby; suddenly it's over, and the
tuning sounds more liquid than before. Are you ready for the third
disc? I'll bet you are.
It's probably not a good
idea to try to put "Dark Star" into words; often I simply
resort to recommending that any interested parties should hear for
themselves. At this time, the band was simultaneously reinventing
and rediscovering themselves -- so many new songs in the fold, such
new dimension allowed by Keith's uncanny intuition, and Pigpen's
return to active duty -- all these things needed to be explored,
assimilated, exploited. Somehow, this was also a time of reinvention
for "Dark Star", evidently thanks to Keith; until his
enlistment, it had been steadily dropping from their sets since its
last great glorious performance on 2/13/70. Suddenly, in the last
ten weeks of 1971, it saw rotation as often as it had the first
eight months of that year. 1972 - 73 would see it return to the
prominence it had enjoyed in 1969.
Here, we enjoy a nice intro
jam, then things turn very strange indeed. somehow, Bobby pulls
"Me and My Uncle" out of this, to which the band accedes,
but this is really only a different kind of weirdness. As if to
prove it, the band goes past "Uncle" to the weirdness on
the other side, which is of course so much weirder than the
weirdness on *this* side. Because anything else would be, well, just
You know what I'm talking
about, don't you? I'll bet you do. And if you don't, then I suppose
this would be an excellent place to start. After all, we all need to
have Class A examples of "Insect Fear", just in case
anyone should ask. Some comical moments intrude as well; Pigpen's
minimally-mixed organ perks up here and there, only to be
steamrolled by Leshian feedback or Garcia's trills. I thought maybe
a Tiger, but they just don't seem intent on that kind of relief.
Things get moving a bit when Bill steps in, and Keith takes up a
repetitive riff that gets things moving into a real "Jam",
but it soon falls apart; today's theme is a lot closer to what would
later transpire in May at Rotterdam: brooding, dark, and yet still
inquiring. some technical difficulties appear to still be happening,
or is it intentional? That Bobby .... Amazingly, Phil manages to
pull things back out to a place that is recognizably "Dark
Star" (the song), and the rest follow.
You might notice I haven't
said anything about Jerry's singing on this performance; that's
because there isn't any. Somehow, they never seem to get there. Even
here, with the band all ready to go, Jerry finds an out -- he starts
wagging a couple intro notes for a different song until the rest of
the band catches on; once they do, they're off. Hilariously, it's a
sort of disaster: though they'd played it six weeks earlier, Jerry's
singing is anything but confident, and he does actually forget a
line or two. There are no harmonies. When it comes time for the
solo, Jerry actually plays in the wrong key! This causes a little
disjunction, and Jerry actually has to stop soloing to figure out
what the heck is wrong. Not exactly something you'd want to play for
a newbie ;-)
For the faithful, however,
there is this: the vocals improve, Jerry finds the right key, and
they make it to the end of the song as a band -- a happy ending.
Tuning ensues, but without
commentary; we've passed that stage. Still, there's room for more
music, and it arrives in the form of "Me and Bobby McGee".
Not surprisingly, after the intense psychological exploration that
preceded it, they seem a little unsteady here -- or maybe it's just
Jerry; everyone else seems solid.
Of course, this is just
another example of how amazing Jerry could be -- probably flying on
one substance or another, and yet so intuitively connected to the
communicative aspect of musical performance that he could still
credibly play lead guitar on a simple country song. Still, by the
song's end, the show is feeling a bit stalled; it took a while for
the set to really step out, and now we're back to first-set songs.
It's a bit like drinking more of the cheap stuff after you've had a
good draught of the quality brew; sure, it still "works",
but you know what you're missing.
Next up is the "Big
Railroad Blues" I'd wanted to hear when we began this show;
it's fine but that's about it. "Mexicali Blues" follows,
and Bill seems to have that slapback sound again (good place for it
too). Had I been a newbie attending this as my first show, I would
probably have thought: " -- And now: back to the regular
show" at this point. Bobby certainly knew what to do with new
material destined to be recorded the following month; he had the
band play them every show until they were polished to a gleam.
and Jerry starts right into "You Win Again", also destined
to be recorded in the following months. No doubt about it now; we're
in the home stretch. Nothing wrong with that -- the boys make it a
good one, though Jerry seems to be faltering a bit on his singing
A glitch in my disc
obscures precise listening here, but they may well have cut
instantly into "Not Fade Away" -- one of their most common
set-closers, whether then or later. Interestingly, they insert a
short but distinct "China Cat" jam -- which even includes
a semi- "Stephen" jam -- before "Going Down the
Road". It's mainly of academic interest, but still ~~ they did
do it, and it's quite a surprise to hear! Also surprising is that
Deadbase doesn't list it, though they do list exactly such an occurrence
from 11-20-71. Is my copy of 12-05-71 corrupted with material from a
nearby date? Maybe. What I can say for certain is that this GTRFB
rocks like it should, a downhill freight train of a performance.
In the reprise of "Not
Fade Away", it becomes clear that it's Bobby's guitar that has
the technical difficulties, as it briefly disappears into a cloud of
crackling just before the vocals return. Somehow it returns for the
finale, and Bobby sings his voice out as was his wont. Not so much a
triumph as simply a decent ending, and that's it for my copy -- no
"Johnny B Goode" encore, despite the listing. No problem,
really; it was a good show, and well worth hearing. And it's not
like they would never play Madison Square Garden again ;-)
Ramble On Joe ©
the Grateful Dead's concert performance on 12/5/71, at the Felt
Forum - New York, NY.