Road Trips Vol. 1 No. 1

Fall of '79

Released: 2007

Tracks

Alabama Getaway [5:31]
Promised Land [4:44]
Jack Straw [6:47]
Deal [6:48]
Dancing In the Street [13:10]
Franklin's Tower [12:04]
Wharf Rat [11:15]
I Need A Miracle [4:04]
Bertha [5:52]
Good Lovin' [7:08]

Shakedown Street [15:32]
Passenger [6:04]
Terrapin Station [15:25]
Playing In the Band [22:17]
Not Fade Away [9:27]
Morning Dew [10:13]


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Liner Notes:

In Franklin's Tower there hangs a bell...

Although it could convincingly be argued that the Grateful Dead's essence--their exploratory spirit and the nearly magical interaction of the players--remained essentially unaltered during their entire 30-year history, it is also true that their occasional changes in personnel, particularly in the keyboard area, also affected their sound and approach in both subtle and obvious ways.

Nineteen seventy-nine was a transition year for the Dead. In the winter, Keith and Donna Godchaux departed after more than seven years with the group, replaced by Brent Mydland in what would become the band's most stable lineup ever--more than 11 years. The switch from Keith and Donna to Brent 14 years into the long, strange trip was as radical in its own way as the addition of Keith's piano to the psychedelic stew had been in the fall of 1971. This time the move was away from the occasionally monochromatic midrange that piano supplied; Garcia said the group was hungry for new and different colors from the keyboard slot.

Brent Mydland was hardly a well-known commodity in the Dead Head community, though he had been plucked from Bob Weir's solo band. A native of the dry suburbs east of San Francisco, he had played in a number of unremarkable local bands before moving to L.A. in search of steadier work and, of course, that elusive recording contract. After playing with singer-songwriters Batdorf & Rodney, he formed a country-rock group called Silver (who did land a deal, with Arista Records), then, with two of his mates from Silver, came into Weir's band, which at least gave him a taste of the Dead's approach, if not the whole enchilada. (He had also played the occasional Dead tune in earlier bands.)

Although Brent was definitely in the right place at the right time to move into the Dead, he also happened to be a good fit musically. He was a very quick study, already adept in the blues, rock, and country flavors that are the underpinnings of so many songs in the group's repertoire. And he made it clear at his first few rehearsals with the Dead that the all-important improv side of the band's music was not going to be a problem for him, either. So, by mid-April 1979 Brent officially had the gig and he made his first appearance with the Dead at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California, on April 22, 1979. The differences between Brent's and Keith's setups were immediately apparent: Brent's rig was dominated by--for the first time since Pigpen's day--a Hammond B-3 organ (and its accompanying pillars of wood-cased Leslie loudspeakers) as well as a stack of electronic keyboards; first mostly analog synths, then some of the early digital models.

There's no question that Brent's variegated keyboard textures, his sure, soulful vocals--particularly his sweet yet rough-hewn high harmonies--and his infectious physical energy gave the band a needed jolt of electricity. You could feel a new wind blowing both onstage and in the crowd. His initial tour with the Dead, during the first two weeks of May, took him to a couple of shows in the South, then up the Eastern Seaboard as far as Maine. At every tour stop, Brent was greeted enthusiastically, and the band as a whole played crisply and energetically.

Also new on that first tour with Brent was a huge new percussion construct known as "the Beast," which sat behind and beside Mickey and Bill's traps like some sort of mystical gateway to other worlds--which is what it turned out to be, of course. Originally put together for Mickey and some of his musician friends' work on a percussion underscore for Francis Coppola's hallucinatory Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, the Beast gave the Dead's drummers a whole new sonic palette to work with, from thundering low-toned booms emanating from the ring of hung instruments directly behind their kits, to various African and Asian hand drums (some brought back from the band's fabled trip to Egypt in September of 1978), to the unearthly sound of the Beam--a steel plank strung with piano wire that Mickey had used originally to simulate the sounds of a napalm attack for the Coppola film. Of course most of those fabulous percussion instruments got their heaviest workout during Mickey and Bill's mid-second set duet section, but the mere presence of this formidable arsenal onstage seemed to spark both the drummers and the crowd, too.

By July of '79, the group was working diligently on new material, with an eye toward putting out an album in the fall. As they had on their previous two studio albums for Arista (with whom they signed in 1976), they agreed to use an outside producer to facilitate the recording--this time it was an Englishman named Gary Lyons, who had worked as an engineer with the likes of Bebop Deluxe and Queen, and had produced discs by Foreigner, Wet Willie, and a few others. When Lyons signed on to shepherd the GD album that would become Go To Heaven, he was finishing up an album by Aerosmith, so clearly Arista boss Clive Davis believed Lyons could deliver a Dead album with commercial crunch; it was his specialty. Closer to home, the Dead tapped Betty Cantor-Jackson to help engineer the sessions at the Dead's Club Front studio in San Rafael, and before all was said and done Bob Matthews and John Cutler had helped out there as well.

A trickle of new songs came out beginning in early August and Garcia's insistent ballad "Althea" and Weir's evocative, slightly dissonant "Lost Sailor." Brent's first Dead tune, the popish "Easy To Love You" (which he'd actually written a bit earlier with the Bob Weir Band in mind) was launched in Denver in mid-August, while the final day of the month saw the debut, in upstate New York, of the catchy, rockin' Weir-Barlow song that would immediately be linked to "Lost Sailor": "Saint of Circumstance." As always, the introduction of fresh tunes added some adrenalin to the proceedings. Couple that with the New lineup becoming more self-assured with each passing show--as Brent felt more comfortable and increasingly found his way into the deepest corners of the repertoire--and you have a band suddenly on fire. His versatility was immediately apparent: He moved easily between bright electric piano sounds, beefy B-3 funky synth-clavinet workouts, and out-of-this-world space sounds from his Arp, Minimoog, Prophet, and other electronic keyboards.

The Dead tour documented by these discs was a sparkling three-week eastern swing (with a final show in Michigan) spanning October 24 through November 10, 1979, and typical of the era in many ways. It mixed mid-sized civic centers and large sports arenas: They had no difficulty selling out three nights at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum just two months after they'd packed Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, yet the scene around Dead shows was manageable enough in those days that they could also play two justifiably legendary nights at the more modest 5,000-seat Cape Cod Coliseum on this tour (and even smaller venues like the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh and the Uptown Theater in Chicago on the next one). The real explosion of the Dead's popularity was still a few years away, so they could get away with more intimate shows from time to time. An intangible element of this tour, too, was that the band went into New York's Media Sound Studios to continue working on their new album after their concerts at Nassau Coliseum (recording from after midnight until five or six in the morning) and on a couple of their off days, before Providence and after Philly. Clearly this was a band on a mission. (That said, Go To Heaven was not completed in time for a pre-Christmas release. It eventually came out in late April, 1980.)

A few notes on the selections you'll find here: The "Alabama Getaway," from Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, was just the fourth ever played by the band and the third time it was paired (appropriately enough) with Chuck Berry's "Promised Land"... "Franklin's Tower" had been unhinged from its original triumvirate with "Help On the Way" and "Slipknot!" since the beginning of 1978, but before this tour was mostly connected to "Mississippi Half-Step"; this is one of just three pairings with the propulsive discoized "Dancing In the Street"--an amazing 25 minutes of high-octane music!... A number of the versions of "Terrapin Station" from the second half of 1979 and early 1980 are notable for having a short but spacey jam toward the end of the "Lady With a Fan" section, adding much to the song's mysterious power... The "Morning Dew" that closes the second disc is a special one: The song hadn't been played in over a year and a half (and wouldn't again for another six months) and features a couple of unusual elements, including a very brief reggae passage (!) and a dynamic vocal buildup different from any other version--this "Dew" is truly the embodiment of the term ragged glory.

A couple of weeks after this tour, the band hit the road again, playing Southern California and a few cities in the Midwest, then ended the year in triumphant fashion with five superb shows at the Oakland Auditorium, which became the band's new Winterland after that storied venue closed after New Year's Eve in 1978. (In fact, the first show of the run, 12/26/79, became Dick's Picks Vol. 5). There's a raw excitement to the first tours of the Brent years that's captured beautifully here--it was a time of both discovery and renewal.

-Blair Jackson

 

Credits:

Grateful Dead:
JERRY GARCIA
MICKEY HART
BILL KREUTZMANN
PHIL LESH
BRENT MYDLAND
BOB WEIR

Produced by GRATEFUL DEAD
Compilation Produced by DAVID LEMIEUX & BLAIR JACKSON
Recorded by DAN HEALY
Edited and Mastered by JEFFREY NORMAN at GARAGE AUDIO MASTERING
Cover Art: SCOTT McDOUGAL
Package Design: STEVE VANCE

 

 



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This album was released in November 2007.



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