The Rewind: One From The Vault 08/13/1975
by Shain Price
The Rewind is a bi-weekly column that digs into records from the past.
It’s the summer of 1975, you’re in your younger 20’s living in San Francisco. Your favorite band, The Grateful Dead, who you’ve been seeing throughout San Francisco for almost a decade hasn’t toured for 19 months. This is unheard of for the band, as their touring repertoire tends to be almost year-round, cross-country. You open your mailbox and there’s an invitation for a ticket to the Great American Music Hall on August 13. The Grateful Dead have returned.
As you’re in the venue, you can't help but feel like this is a special show. After all, the Grateful Dead have clearly established themselves at this point, and yet here they are playing an invitational show at a modest venue with a capacity of about 450 people. The ceiling above you boasts 1920s style design, and the lights dim as a man steps out onto the stage, Bill Graham, famous promoter for the Grateful Dead, and owner of the Fillmore East venue that they were known to play in. Behind him follows the rest of the band, picking up their instruments.
“Good evening, we welcome you, on behalf of the group, we should introduce… On the piano, we have Mister Keith Godchaux, on the drums, on stage left, Mister Mickey Hart, on bass and vocals, Mister Philip Lesh, on rhythm guitar and vocals, Mister Bob Weir on the drums, on stage right, Mister Bill Kreutzmann, on the vocals, Mrs. Donna Jean Godchaux, on lead guitar and vocals, Mister Jerry Garcia. Will you welcome please, The Grateful Dead!”
As Bill Graham finishes his last few words, the band launches into “Help on the Way/Slipknot!”, a song off of a studio album the public wouldn’t see until September 1st, Blues for Allah. In fact, five out of the fifteen songs that night would be from that album. The band showed eagerness to shake off the rust, breaking off Bill Graham's last sentence to start the song. The song had been tested out across a couple of shows in 1974, however, with the release of its studio version being a month after this show, it was the most polished version yet. As the band starts to explore and improvise, they start to unleash what can only be described as pent-up energy from not touring for almost two years.
Each member, as the tension rises higher, starts playing off of one another. Jerry takes the lead with a tone that cuts through the entire mix, centering himself as the conductor for this journey. As the song peaks, the band switches immediately into a very ambient groove to transition into “Slipknot!”, a contrast to the high tempo beginning section. As they play the last notes, Jerry and Phil simultaneously begin the first notes of “Franklin’s Tower”, an upbeat song in the key of D major, while “Help on the Way/Slipknot!” takes place in the key of C minor. This creates a perfect transition, and suddenly it's a new song.
“Franklins Tower”, which would become the 2nd song on Blues for Allah, joined the band's long list of touring favorites after its appearance at this show. The happy and upbeat feeling the song exhibits can be explained by the band's famous use of the Mixolydian mode. Without getting too deep into music theory, it is another way of expressing the major scale that we all know and have heard throughout western music, with a different touch. The use of the Mixolydian mode was prevalent in the improvisation of the band over the course of their entire career and was a signature part of Jerry Garcia’s sound.
As Jerry finished up his solo towards the end of “Franklins Tower” and the band was singing its final lyrics, “Roll away the dew”, they quiet down to a dull whisper still singing. As it almost becomes silent the band, all together, goes back into the last chords of “Help on the Way/Slipknot!” and finishes with the song we started with.
While the crowd is still processing what just happened, the band goes right into “The Music Never Stopped”, another song that would be appearing on Blues for Allah. This version features a short but sharp solo by Garcia, with fiery support by Godchaux on keys, going back and forth before giving us a much-needed break from dancing, with “It Must Have Been The Roses”. One of the slower songs in the catalog, it still boasts perfect playing from everyone in the band. Keith lays overarching chords across every verse, making you wish for someone you don’t even know.
I could go on about every song from this show, as the music clearly shows how much they missed playing for people to hear. Every note played feels like it’s been waiting to come out for 19 months. More highlights include the “Eyes of the World / Drums”, “Sage and Spirit”, “Blues for Allah”, and what’d be the 3rd of only 6 live recordings of “King Solomon’s Marbles”.
“Eyes of the World” tends to be a calm, and free song in the Dead’s catalog, with a dreamy E major 7 chord anchoring throughout the song. This version, however, falls in tune with the rest of the show, possessing exhilarating energy from all members of the band. Phil Lesh opened the song, soloing along the opening chords laid out by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. Jerry and Phil complement each other playing once again, following each other up the neck of their instruments before grounding themselves in the opening verse.
The song has many breaks before each verse, allowing each member to solo with one another and create tension that is resolved into the next verse. With each break, you expect the band to rise to a crescendo and finish the song, but it goes back into its verse. As the last section ends, Phil takes up the lead while Jerry and Bob relax on rhythm. It was during this time that Phil Lesh was using his infamous bass guitar, nicknamed Mission Control, due to its number of over ten knobs controlling various effects. With Phil pushing the momentum of the song deeper and deeper, you can feel it in the drumming from Kreutzmann and Hart too. The rest of the band picks up on this as they then transition right into “Drums”, where the two drummers lay polyrhythms and solo over one another. “Drums” was used by the Dead to give the rest of the band a break from time to time, as it was just a drum solo.
The last song from this show that demands to be talked about is this version of “Blues for Allah”. This song is a very strange one in the band's catalog. It was only performed five times in the entire band’s career, all in the year 1975. This version holds a 21-minute run-time, containing some of the weirdest sounds and ambient noise I’ve heard from a rock band.
The whole beginning of the song contains cricket noises playing over the lyrics being sung by the band. The crickets were from Mickey Hart, and he was trying to integrate the sounds of the live crickets into the performance of the song. However, the crickets would escape and not be heard for the 2nd half of the song. Believe it or not, Bill Kreutzmann spoke about these crickets in his book, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs With The Grateful Dead. He said, "The crickets joined the revolution and staged a jailbreak. They liberated themselves...and made the Great American Music Hall their home. They were granted asylum. It was a very bright, clear, expressive night for the whole band. It was also just a really big moment for me, personally. It was the first time that I thought we could be a band again.”
The rest of the song contains slow, almost ritualistic-style drumming, with very quick, tremolo picking from Garcia to create a strong sense of uneasiness across the whole venue. This goes on for several minutes, with the sounds of wind and storm seeming to come out of thin air from the band. The wash of noise and eeriness continues and leaves the crowd silent, in shock at the ambient noise being created by the band. The noise calms down as the band comes back into the last verse and suddenly the song is over. Still silent, a handful of claps break out as the crowd is still putting together what they just heard, before Bob Weir says, “Thank you!” and the band exits the stage.
The Dead’s performance from 08/13/1975 is certainly a legendary one. They weren’t known to take long hiatuses like the one they did from 1974 - 1975, and at the time fans were starting to speculate about their future as a group. With the performance at Great City Music Hall and the subsequent release of Blues for Allah, the Dead were catapulted back into their position as one of the best rock groups of all time. “The Music Never Stopped” would go on to become their highest charting single since “Uncle John's Band” in 1970, reaching #81 on the charts. Known mostly as a touring band, this increased their popularity across mainstream media, pushing them into one of their peak years, 1977. This show continues to prove the point that The Grateful Dead were put onto this world to spread their music, and this was their first time being able to do that in 19 months. Talk about separation anxiety.
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