Des Moines State Fair Grandstand - Des Moines,
Set 1: Bertha, Mexicali
Blues, Row Jimmy, Beat It On Down The Line, Scarlet Begonias, Black
Throated Wind, Sugaree, El Paso, It Must Have Been The Roses, Jack
Straw, Ship of Fools, Around and Around
Set 2: U.S. Blues, The Race
is On, Eyes Of The World > Big River, Playing In The Band
Set 3: Tennessee Jed, Me
& My Uncle, Deal, Greatest Story Ever Told, Truckin' >
Nobody's Fault But Mine > Wharf Rat > Goin' Down the Road
E: Casey Jones
Three Heavy Sets -
Every now and again, it's a
pleasure to sit down & pay careful attention to a first-rate
blue-blood of a show.
For starters, we know in
advance that it's going to be three sets. So it's no big loss that
the first few songs find the mix way off (as on 6-18 two nights
later). Actually, it's even more worth hearing, because the one
person we [mostly] hear well is Billy, rat-a-tat-tatting in response
to everyone else -- a real drummer's-ear perspective, showing the
subtle emphasis he's busy putting in here & there. In fact, he
remains well-mixed through all three sets, which is one of this
show's delights. Hard to imagine another drummer fitting in!
The mix improves a bit thru
Mexicali, but the vocals are way low. No matter; the mix eventually
flips to mostly vocals & no instruments, settling in time for a
fine 'Row Jimmy'. Jerry shows his magical ability to play slide
lines that are somehow intense without being aggressive. In fact, he
amps up the band so much that the section following is actually too
fast, but it's one of those strange Dead moments where it's
simultaneously flawed & perfect. This is my new nominee for Best
'Row Jimmy' performance; not a dull moment. After that, we know
we're in for a great show -- so much time left, and such a strong
performance early in set one!
And , of course, that is
exactly right. 'Scarlet' is bouncy & funky, reminding us there
was a time when funk was fresh. 'Sugaree' seems strangely the low
spot [not helped by a vicious reel change that skips the main solo],
compensated somewhat by a rather fast 'Roses'. Bobby sticks to more
standard fare, strongly played if not standouts. The exceptions are
a still-robust 'El Paso' & a 'Jack Straw' which has clearly
picked up a lot of heat since 1972. Jerry responds with 'China >
Rider', which naturally contains a 'Groovy' jam (this being 1974) --
and something else. Most of the transition is the stuff we normally
expect (and nicely done), but Jerry's got a little surprise for us
near the end that portends great things for later in the show -- a
burst of bluesy intensity unlike anything i've heard him play before
or since. Rave on Jerry! Bobby sees him & raises with the most
blistering 'Around & Around' this side of Purgatory. Holy moly
Batman -- WHAT is going ON here? And there are still two sets to go!
Understandably, they come
back more ready to groove than burn -- there's a lot left to come.
'US Blues' & a peppy 'Race is On' get us back to speed, and
launch into 'Eyes'. Ahhhhh, like a cool drink on a hot day (which it
probably was); a fine, wonderful jam that Bobby somehow turns into
another cowboy tune -- we can hear 'Big River' coming LONG before it
arrives. I suppose there are 'better' versions of 'Eyes', but at
this level, does it matter?
I can't answer that,
because the PITB that follows it erased all memory of the preceding
jam. Make that 'the preceding LIFE'. It's an interesting comparison
to later PITBs in the 80s & 90s; about eight minutes into this
one, it sounds like they're attempting to segue into Drums,
something they often did in the later eras. But of course it's 1974,
so they just keep going. Eventually we arrive in some weird Space
permutation, exploring more jams before finally surfacing with the
reprise -- very much the same kind of emotional journey as in we
will hear from them in later eras, just not explicitly divided into
song - drums -space - song. I guess the band wasn't so very
different; here it's all contained under the PITB heading, and just
as emotional & intense, concluding set two. What, there's more?
Hold on to your seats!
Jerry starts off light:
'Tennessee Jed', which gets my almost-three-year-old daughter Julia
Joy prancing around the room a bit. I don't know what's been going
on backstage, but Bobby seems to think things just aren't
interesting enough already -- and Keith agrees. Between these two
youngest band members, some amusing freakiness develops as each
makes various noises using signal processors -- Bobby using what
sounds like a phase-shifter, Keith putting the electric piano
through some rapid vibrato. Keith's been trying out some synth or
organ throughout the show, although he never really sounds like he
has his heart into it. But on 'Tennessee', he & Bobby are like
two mischievous kids in class, blowing spitballs & making fart
noises until the teacher [Jerry?] looks up -- at which point they
sit quietly with angelic smiles. Jerry seems to simply tolerate it
-- after all, they cut out the clowning & go serious during the
guitar solo -- but Billy seems to think it best to ignore them, as
if thinking maybe they'll settle down. Of course they DON'T, and
Jerry hesitates to trust them on the main solo. By then Billy's
decided to lick 'em by joining 'em, and Jerry finds a way to fall
in. It's not as obvious as, say, the vocal clowning on 5-11-78
[DP-25], but there is some great playfulness here.
After a standard 'Me &
My Uncle' [had this song worn out it's welcome even by then?], Jerry
cranks up a 'Deal' that [like 'Jack Straw'] shows considerably more
energy than it had in 1972. Until now, I had not heard a
pre-retirement 'Deal' to match the later energy, but here it is. If
you want to call it one of the Best Ever, I won't argue: they manage
all the fire & intensity of a set-closing 80s Deal without
resorting to the distortion guitar solo. I don't miss it in the
least. Bobby once again shows his ability to follow a Jerry
show-stopper with one of his own in a hot 'GSET' -- one could be
excused for thinking it was the END of a set, because the 'Ship'
that follows completes the picture of
blowout-ending-plus-quiet-encore. But of course, it's only the
By now, we're well into
disc four, so the Boys could be excused if they were a little tired.
We've already had three hours of great music; we could go home
satisfied. And then 'Truckin' starts the show all over again.
Hot mama! Who are these
guys? Because the Cosmic Joy Ride kicks in at wide throttle. Jerry
even tosses in a quick 'Hideaway' lick after one of Bobby's verses,
then takes his time after the final chorus before firing up the Holy
Explosion. This band has LOTS of time, before blasting off to a
Never-Ever Land of a bluesy hue. Nobody's jam appears, but the bus
only stops there briefly. Because, you see, the bus doesn't really
exist except on this here album cover I'm holding .... and there
goes our grip on reality, ZOOP! right out the window. Welcome to
wherever you are, because it just slowed down & is now speeding
up! Are you rounder yet? ;-) Because it's time to get serious. After
a few percolating jabs, and a near-Caution attack, the band finds
itself furiously cooking as Jerry WAILS the Nobody's theme in
full-throated bluesy glory.
Not content with that
success, Jerry steps down to a cleaner intensity, but the band is
having none of it; Keith stabs & feints like a jitterbug drunk
on Mountain Dew, and Billy sounds ready to blow himself & Bobby
off the stage. Phil finally talks them down a bit, but then finds it
too much fun to resist as Jerry leaves him space to take a lead. The
mood turns sunnier. Does anyone even care what the last song was?
Bobby engages them with a relative of the MLB jam, and Bill ramps
the intensity up & down. Suddenly changing gear, we're back in
the blues -- Jerry somehow having found a slide in his hands. It's
fifteen minutes since we left 'Truckin'; do you know where you last
left your mind?
Jerry left his in 'Wharf
Rat'; could the bus stop there? Sure, why not! Bear in mind that any
objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear -- and they
seem to be your eyeballs. The band does indeed shift to 'Wharf Rat',
but without leaving their 'psychedelic jam' mode, resulting in a
shimmery version indeed. It's as if not one of them gives any
thought to chords, tempo, or changes -- or even song -- and yet it's
all there passing through them. I bet their collective impression
was that they were simply still jamming, and Jerry happened to sing
a verse or two of something that seemed right ... whatever it was.
The song doesn't end so much as dissolve. Des Moines, you've just
been treated to a unique moment in time unparalleled by any other.
There's more: sensing that
goals have been achieved, Jerry fires up 'Going Down the Road' and
the band kicks in behind him with gusto. Despite Phil's audience
farewell, they return for a final salvo of 'Casey Jones'. It might
get better than this, but that all depends on how you define 'it'
Ramble On Joe ©
the Grateful Dead's concert performance on 6/16/74, at the State
Fairground in Des Moines, IA.