Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Greatness of The Grateful Dead

Stephen Stills once called The Grateful Dead the world's greatest garage band.  Stills is right in a lot of ways, but what he fails to note or refused to consider was something that most great rock and roll bands cannot do, play a half a dozen or so different styles.  The Dead could give you country, the blues, psychedelic, blue grass and some pretty amazing covers of some of the best songs written from greats like Hank Williams to Bob Dylan.

I was listening to "So Many Roads" on my iPod while out on a run tonight that was nearly strafed by lightning.  I have had the recordings for a long time but had not really given them a good listen as The Czarina really doesn't share my love of Jerry and the boys and my stereo is in storage.  Don't get me started.  As the music turned to this series of live recordings from early 90's, I began to think back how The Grateful Dead had morphed through its 30 years of existence.

Fans revel in the life experience of The Grateful Dead.  That's largely because you could see them five times in the course of a week and hear more than 100 different songs.  Their repertoire was endless.  The live experience could be a real disappointment depending on whether the band was in shape to play or often from the unreliable mix from Dan Healy, who was finally jettisoned by the Dead about a year before Garcia's death.

The Dead could sound amazing.  Out of the mere 16 shows I saw 4 were incredible, 4 were very good, and the rest, very uneven.  The band could sound amazingly thin and the loss of Brent Mydland showed that when I saw them in the early 90's.  Even with Bruce Hornsby sitting in with them, he couldn't and Vince Welnick couldn't deliver the depth and texture that Mydland did.  Although I will admit, some of the shows with Hornsby are incredible.

The band's best period was probably the two years before Mydland killed himself.  Some of the shows were mind blowing and Mydland was showing a confidence in having been with the band for the better part of a decade that was lacking in the late 70's and early 80's.  You can hear a lot of the soundboard and audience recordings from that period at

The best studio album without a doubt is "American Beauty," recorded in 1970.  It is a great collection of songs that were delicately produced.  That album along with its predecessor "Workingman's Dead," show what they could do when they really put their collective hearts and souls into their studio work.  Right after those albums the band did some of its best live performances.  Listen to the full volumes of Europe 72 and you can begin to understand the magic that Pigpen brought to the band.  The band was tight and reveled in the new music that had created in the early 70's. 

I didn't catch the band live until 1977 and even then the live shows were still very good.  Still, when you listen to some of the live recordings a year later you could hear The Grateful Dead degenerating on stage.  Keith Godchaux's keyboard work was ordinary and his wife Donna's harmonies were pitchy and downright awful.  It's no wonder they were fired.

But wander back to when it was all new for Keith and Donna Jean in 1972.  Pigpen dying from liver disease was no longer a force.  The extended releases of the Europe 72 are mind-boggling and yes Pigpen showed glimpses of what used to be.  But it's a the long awaited release in the last week of a show shot in a field outside of Springfield, Oregon that simply amazes.

It's called "Sunshine Daydream," and if you want to invest in the three disc set along with a movie shot of this incredible concert, it's worth it.  Still, save the money, download the digital versions and give it a serious listen.  Jerry's playing is marvelous, Bob is driving force on rthym guitar, Phil is running up and down the bass like a wild man and his harmonies on songs like "Jack Straw" are a thing of beauty and finally, this band simply sounds tighter and better when Bill Kreutzmann was the only drummer.  I'm sorry Mickey, but it gets ragged sometimes when the two of you played.

Buy it, revel in it, and remember, this tour de force recorded more than 40 years ago sounds just as vital and just as important in 2013 as it did to the 20,000 or so hippies who gathered in the sweltering August heat to smoke pot, dance naked and let it all hang out with the good ole' Grateful Dead.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I've Been Remiss

The urge to blog slipped away over the last week as we made our way back to Kansas for the wedding of my one and only nephew.  Fortunately, as weddings go, it was a quick and painless affair, although by poor sister Karen and her stoic husband Keith had to go through all sorts of non-sense to host the reception.  It was a stellar evening.  Better still, on the trip I got to see about 90 percent of the people I wanted to visit.  There never seems to be enough time to see everybody but we enjoyed ourselves.

The highlight was an unplanned trip to the new Kauffman Performing Arts Center where the Czarina and I saw the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra with Deborah Brown running through a tasty selection of American classics by some of our best composers.  I must embarrassingly admit I had never heard of Deborah Brown.  She's apparently all the rage of Europe.  Think Ella Fitzgerald with amazing range and you get the idea.  It was one of the best nights of music I can remember in a long, long time.

The main reason I wanted to blog is because I've headed by front page adding a couple of blogs that have become new favorites.  One is by running commentator Toni Reavis.  He's the king of announcing when it comes to the American road racing scene and he knows anybody that's anybody when it comes to running.

I also added Charlie Whitehead.  Charlie Who you might ask?  Charlie was a long time reporter for the Naples Daily News.  He's a bit of a curmudgeon, but he knows Southwest Florida politics about as well as anybody.  Since we're in the midst of a political scandal in Lee County right now, Charlie's launched his blog and I'm enjoying it so I thought you might too.  It seems County Commissioners in Southwest Florida can't avoid doing stupid shit.  I think we're in for an education over the next year or so with this political race and the upcoming Governor's showdown.  So sit back, relax and read.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Maggie Vaults over the Moon

The first time I was up close to a real pole vaulter I was 14, watching in awe as another boy my age, ran with a piece of fiberglass and made it bend in ways I didn’t think possible.  He looked at me and asked if I wouldn’t mind catching his pole while he practiced.  I couldn’t say no to Tad Scales.  Three years later Tad would run down that same runway in Allen Field House and break the Kansas High School record flying over 16 foot.

The beauty of the pole vault, is just like the beauty that you have learn to look for as you travel across the rolling prairie that makes up most of Kansas.  It is a beauty that is stirred by a heart-felt tale of a farm girl, learning to deal with life, along with the good and bad that it brings.  “Maggie Vaults over the Moon” instantly transported me back to my childhood.  I grew up around the combines, the wheat harvest, the cozy, the nosiness that living in small town Kansas brings.  I knew Maggie and the mythical town of Grain Valley where she went to high school.  I knew the jocks, that sense of community, where we all mourned losses collectively and together reveled in the triumphs.

The story of Maggie Steele is a celebration.  It’s a celebration in believing, of overcoming, and knowing that good people in the end, will help you overcome all the bad in this world.  Maggie’s world was shattered by the death of her older brother.  She found solace in the hayloft of their huge family barn, just like the one on my grandparent’s farm that once entertained myself, my siblings and my cousins, for countless hours, with adventures, real and imagined. 

Maggie finds herself and what she thought she had lost in that barn.  And along the way she finds a purpose to a life that seemed scary and without direction.  Author Grant Overstake takes us on Maggie’s year long journey from tragedy to triumph.  It’s an all too real journey, that defies imagination and tugs at your heartstrings. 

The story may be aimed at a younger audience, but it’s a story that will translate to anyone willing to allow themselves to be young at heart.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Not The Moody Blues

I was out on a run the other night listening to The Moody Blues on my iPod and started to get really mad.  I'm mad because this much deserving band is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I suspect somewhere along the line, when the band was at its peak in their popularity in the early 70's, they did something to piss off Jan Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine and the man who pretty much decides who gets in and who gets left out of the Hall.

I have friends that loathe the band, yes I'm talking about you John Broholm.  I understand their psychedelic light approach to rock and roll might not sit well with purists.  But this band made seven outrageously good albums over a six year period, starting with the groundbreaking "Days of Future Passed."  Outside of The Beatles, they were my favorite British band.  It broke my heart when they stopped touring and making music in 1974.  And I couldn't wait to buy a ticket when they reformed and started touring again in 1979.

The band's story is amazing in and of itself.  After a one off hit with a cover of "Go Now" in 1964, the band hit a wall and fell apart.  Enter Justin Hayward and John Lodge and this blues based band changed direction.  The epic "Days of Future Passed" launched the band and the group was off and running.  The band's use of a full orchestra was groundbreaking.  Mike Pinder made full use of a melotron, which mimicked the strings, long before digital keyboards came along.  They had a unique sound and produced concept after concept album. 

The Moody Blues were still making great music up to 1972's Seventh Sojourn, launching a world tour, one that I had hoped to catch.  But then suddenly it all ended.  The band called it quits. I think the constant touring and a lot of excesses tore the band apart.

When you talk of the great British bands of the 60's and 70's, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues belongs in that discussion.  They weren't a pop band looking to produce hit singles.  They took a different path and made some arguably great music in the process. 

Even when the band reunited in 1978, keyboardist Mike Pinder begged off touring and The Moody Blues have soldiered on since without him.  I've seen them live more than a half dozen times, a couple of shows with full orchestra's backing them.  I had the pleasure of meeting John Lodge, Graham Edge and Justin Hayward in 2004 before they played a show in Fort Myers.  Outside of getting to meet someone like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or one of the remaining Beatles or Grateful Dead, I don't think of anybody I'd rather meet in the field of music.

The Moody Blues almost single-handedly invented progressive rock.  Yet they get no love for it.  They had a hit song, "Nights in White Satin," which first charted in Great Britain in 67 but didn't hit the charts in the U.S.A. until 1972.  Ironically, ever member of the 1967 lineup is alive and kicking, although flutist Ray Thomas stopped touring a decade ago.  They deserve entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And by the way, so does Chicago.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Another Self Portrait

Slowly, but surely, Bob Dylan is opening his vault.  His 10th release of his remarkable bootleg series at first glance is a real head scratcher.  "Self Portrait" is one of the two or three worst albums Dylan has released over his unparalleled career.  It was so bad noted writer Greil Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone magazine back in 1970, "What is this shit?"

So along comes "Another Self Portrait."  Again, I say, what is this shit?  If you bite hard, which I did, and buy the massive box set of some 70 tunes or so, you come away stunned.  Dylan was in a musical no man's land at this time.  The original album came on the heels of the acclaimed "John Wesley Harding" and Dylan's foray into country, "Nashville Skyline."  At this point in his career you would have thought Bob would sit down and cut an album with The Band. 

The legendary collection of recordings made in Woodstock Dylan had made with Robbie Robertson and the boys were beginning to circulate, creating a whole industry of bootleg recordings.  Those sessions were so legendary a small piece of them would eventually be released as "The Basement Tapes."  But Dylan wouldn't record a real album with The Band until 1974 when they released "Planet Waves."

Instead Dylan fiddled and farted around in the studio doing a mix of cover songs and so-so original songs.  Then Columbia handed the mess over to Bob Johnston who tried to salvage the sessions by over producing a lot of the tracks.  What "Another Self Portrait" offers is the stripped down version of some pretty decent songs.  Some of the tracks are still complete shit, but there are some gems that deserved to be heard.

Two things caught my ears, songs that never appeared on the original album.  One of the outtakes features George Harrison doing his best Carl Perkins impression on guitar as Dylan rips through a song called "Working on a Guru."  The song is a send up but Harrison's muffled laugh at the end of the track is worth the price of admission.  Then, there are the live recordings from Dylan's appearance with The Band at the Isle of Wight festival.  It's simply amazing.

Dylan was still crooning in his syrupy "Nashville Skyline" voice as The Band delicately glides along with him through some of his new songs and some of his classics.  The outright joy of "Quinn the Eskimo," which appeared on the original "Self Portrait," makes me wish I could be transported back to 1969 when these songs were played before a live audience.  It was the first time Bob had faced a crowd in several years.  The live recordings stand in stark contrast to the "in your face" aspect of the 1974 tour that Dylan took with The Band which you can listen to on "Before the Flood."

Dylan's bootleg series is something to revel in.  The surprises he continues to serve up deserve our respect.  Undoubtedly, there is much more to come from America's greatest living songwriter, so much more indeed.