Talk From The Rock Room

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead - January 8, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium 'Electric Dixieland'


Spinning today in the 'rock room' is the earliest circulating live recording of the 'Grateful Dead'. While the group played their first live show in May of 1965, here we find the first recorded documentation of a 'Primal Dead' show. Taking place at the 'Fillmore Auditorium' in San Francisco on January 8, 1966 we find the 'Dead' as the house band for an early acid test. The tapes of the groups earliest show’s sometimes feel like turning the key in a car that been put up in the barn for the winter. There is some grinding, some strange noises and maybe even a strange fluid leaking out from a crack somewhere. But once that engine warms up and everything starts to mesh at an optimal level you can start to discern an unique rock and blues band.

The quintessential quintet, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir and Ron 'Pig Pen' McKernan made up phase one of this Grateful Dead. In spite of the virtuosic talents of Garcia, Lesh and Kreutzmann, these guys were really amateurs on electric instruments. The band’s eventual second sight and learned ability to play off one another was born of learning how to play their instruments with each other. Hard months of practice during the winter of 1966 paid dividends in the available circulating recording we are playing today.

These guys worked hard at developing their craft. This is an underappreciated aspect of the ‘Warlocks/Grateful Dead journey. These moments of captured on stage musical clairvoyance were the result of hours of musical discussion and off stage practice. The available practice tapes recorded in January and February 1966 show a band willing to talk a out and a stern  Camaraderie in turn breeded a stern accountability as can be heard on the recordings. Lesh has already asserted himself into a leadership role and aligned himself Garcia’s co-visionary at this early juncture. 

Youth, drugs, enthusiasm and an internal drive to develop a unique musical expression united the group in a common vision. Garcia came from a bluegrass background, Lesh classical (and had never touched a bass), Pigpen the blues and Bill and Bob, 'rockers' for lack of a better term. Vibrato was king and folks can liken the band's aesthetic during 1966  to a charged alien surf band.

As previously stated this first audio documentation that we have of the ‘Grateful Dead’ hails from January 8th, 1966 at the Fillmore Acid Test. Show lists and various documentation show that the band played sonically undocumented shows at the Matrix in the week leading up to this performance. This soundboard line recording throws us into the deep end right into a heady brew of Prankster chaos. This is the first available documentation of the live concert experience that would define the band’s next 30 plus careers together. Prior to the 'Dead' taping all of their shows, the Pranksters took it upon themselves to do so. Thanks Kesey!

Additional handfuls of concert and rehearsal tapes of tapes circulate of the Grateful Dead in 1966. That being said, many more live recordings than most any other bands of the era.  Many are dated poorly or not at all, many have cuts missing songs and missing reels. The sonics emanating from the January 8th Fillmore tape sound like florescent ectoplasm, an electronic wasteland peppered with calls for stage power and an annoyed ‘Pig’. “Stop babbling and fix the microphone” he shouts to Ken Babbs. The recording is littered with LSD inspired chaos. The alchemy of the 'Grateful Dead' and the acid tests is the organic looseness and lack of any sort of order. This freedom allowed the 'Dead' Looking through the multicolored mists of an acid dream we are dropped straight into a loping ‘King Bee’ on the recording. As we will find, a highlight of these early shows, Bill the drummer is extraordinary at galloping along with the white boy blues, but this band is about Garcia and Pig.

                                      

It's obvious by looking at the setlists of the available recordings ‘King Bee’ was a focus of the early Grateful Dead performances. Probably one of the first songs learned collaboratively the Slim Harpo number played to the band's strengths at this point in time.. These guys were the 'Pigpen Blues Band' at this early juncture. The song was a straight blues in which they could stretch their legs as well as developing a sympatico with one another. In the song's framework there was ample opportunity for exploring the song's changes, eliciting call and response moments as well as sharpening their blues chops. 'King Bee' skips on Bill the drummers nimble snare work. Already a stellar rock drummer, the tapes bear out that he was already on par with the much more practiced Garcia.

Lesh plays a loopy legato slide, playing much nearer to the root that usual. Pig lays down gritty harp, but once Garcia comes in for his first solo, flashing images of the future Grateful Dead flitter in the atmosphere. Pig screams soulfully in the background as Lesh and Garcia probe the 12 bar for clandestine doorways to new avenues of expression. Here the 'Dead' dig into a basic blues, but played with a unique renegade attitude. 

Amidst the charged atmospherics of the recording, the tape then cuts in with the band playing ‘Hog For you Baby’, a Leiber and Stoller hailing classic from Pig’s fathers record collection I’m sure. This reading contains all of the groovy hallmarks of later Dead covers such as 'Walkin' the Dog' and 'Big Boy Pete' This one sways like a go go girl's behind, with a delectable groove and ‘Pigpen’ with both hands on the wheel and in full control of the band. Garcia’s soloing is scattershot, excitable and glittery. In the solo break Garcia lays down a strip of candied dots across the percolating strobing grooves. Grateful Dead dance band at your service. Even at this early juncture the group is definitely practiced, abundantly eager, yet garage basic.

A highlight of the tape and a discernable distant gleam can be witnessed though what is one of the band’s first collaborative original songs and their first improvisational pieces, ‘Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)’. Obviously influenced by the song, 'Gypsy Eyes' off of 'Them's' 1965 debut The Angry Young Them, the jam is a clanging of rail joints and squats as the train rounds the bend. Based around an amphetamine 'Bo Diddley' groove, the 'Dead' peeled their arrangement from Van Morrison's blueprints.  

A studio recording of the song is available as it was attempted during the ‘Warlocks’ debut visit to the recording studio in 1965. Even in the confines of the sterile studio the song contained a certain amount of ‘it’. This introductory live concert version cuts in during an already bubbling jam heavy with attitude and wining Pig harp. The band is frothing with energy. Garcia enters with brash prickly scrubs as the band passes the ball around the room before meeting the middle and hitting on an agreed up lick.

Weir’s guitar is somewhat inaudible, but Lesh and Bill continue propelling the jam forward. The group is pulsing while some off mic yelling can be discerned, I’m sure we can’t even begin to imagine what is taking place around the stage among the hipsters, tripsters, and real cool chicks. The band disseminates some ‘Yardbird’ like adolescent ‘rave ups’ with plentiful Mississippi saxophone by ‘Pig’. There is no doubt that at this juncture, that ‘Pigpen’ was in full control of the band, but something outside of jug band and rock and blues realm is observing from the peripheral. 

The genealogy of  these early ‘Caution’ jams  is an important focus when listening to the initial concert excursions of ‘Grateful Dead’. As Pig drives the intensity higher Garcia responds encouraging the band into a whirling dervish of sound. Around three minutes Weir gets into it with some slashing excitable rhythms. Garcia soon let's loose with the recognizable 'Caution' siren that signals the music to drop and Pig  to let the assembled crowd know 'what they need'. Following Pig's lyrics an eager jam follows with Pig and Jerry trading twisted blues quotes while the audience cheers them on initiating an additional Pig diatribe.

Closing the available recording from January 8, is our first available rendition of Reverend Gary Davis’s ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, a idol of many if not all of the folkies come rockers around the San Francisco scene. This is not definitely not party music, but this is an early example of the ‘Grateful Dead’ taking delicate concert attendees to the precipices of ‘Ying and Yang’. On the available recording as Garcia hits the ascending opening lick into the song you can here Babbs close by the mic let out a laugh, obviously tickled deep by Garcia's sonic jab. The song falls directly out of 'Caution' and surpasses nine minutes. 

Highlighted by Pig's horror show organ and Garcia's youthful and invested vocals, 'Death Don't' is just the dose of musical reality the band would become famous for administering. Screams of delight come from the crowd as the group rises and falls with Garcia's almost unbelievable screaming of the verses. Wobbly chorused notes pour from Garcia's vessel as Lesh and Kreutzmann bring the groove down low. The mood shifts to introspective for Garcia's second trip around the cemetery lot. Lesh shadows him, supports his patient riffing before landing at the appropriate place at the perfect time together.

The available tape ends with additional Prankster madness while they clear the house. Kesey, Weir and others make the exit of the 'test' a most interesting way of leaving. Weir askes Jerry if they should play 'On the Road Again' to get everyone on the road. The rest of the reel is quite discombobulating with mindless chaos, liquid verbalizations, hallucinations and concluding with a demonic reading of the 'Star Spangled Banner'. 

This recording reveals the early aural tentacles of the Grateful Dead reaching out and making critical connections. It acts as proof of the band’s first developmental steps in helping to understand their connections as artists and disseminators of some greater musical cosmic truth. Always reaching for an unknowable golden ring that when caught can lift both artist and receptor to storying heights. The band was beginning to understand what powers their talents and collaborative strengths provided them and how they could use them for the greater good.

By July, the formative foundations hailing from all of the five members shared performing experiences would begin to pay dividends in ways beyond their wildest dreams. Based on my analysis, within just weeks the band would take a stiff blues aesthetic and elasticize it to far reaching corners of multifarious genres and cosmic sonics not yet curated by a normal rock and roll band. This was only the beginning. 

Grateful Dead January 8, 1966


Saturday, April 9, 2022

Take One: Sonny Boy Williamson II - Don't Start Me Talkin' - 1955 Checker Record 284

Spinning in the 'rock room' today is an influential and important 7" cut during the heyday of early  electric blues. Aleck Miler, Alex Miller, aka Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II was a master harmonica player and songwriter in the blues idiom. This is the man who taught Howlin' Wolf how to play the harp as well as the man who carried 12 harps and a bottle of whisky in his briefcase.

Sonny Boy Williamson II's first single for Checker Records (a subsidiary of Chess Records) 'Don't Start Me Talkin', Checker 824 was released in September of 1955. Sometimes referred to as 'Don't Start Me To Talkin', the single was b/w 'All My Love In Vain' and was featured in the September 24, 1955 edition of 'Billboard', Williamson has a very funny side here, as he warns the gossips of the neighborhood of the dirt he is going to spread about them if they don't stop talking around his back. The aforementioned 'A' side would eventually climb to number three on the R and B charts. It would also be featured on Sonny Boy's 1959's full length LP Down and Out Blues, an album that would collect a number of his early singles.

The needle drops and the song begins sounding like we have caught the band already in progress. The well defined guitars develop a circular lick in conjunction Sonny Boy's harp line before falling into the start and top rhythm of the verse. The Chess band collected on this single features a venerable 'who's who' of the blues. The rhythm section is comprised of Willie Dixon (bass) and Fred Below (drums), Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters (guitars), Otis Spann (piano) and Sonny Boy on vocals and harmonica. Oh my lord!

Keith Richards refers to the 'ancient art of (guitar) weaving and it is on formative display on 'Don't Start Me Talkin' as Waters and Rogers tie the stringy two guitar attack into a tight knot. Mellow but rustically funky Spann comes alive in the turnarounds splaying his well known runs into a tinkling downpour soaking the chugging arrangement. The Chess sound in alive and moving with an honest urgency, the talent of the backing band obvious.

The song features a flashy cast of characters including Rosie, Fanny Mae, Jack, Jim and our good ol' reliable narrator. Sonny Boy slyly warns his fellow friends and enemies at the end of each verse, 'I'm gonna break up this signifying, cause somebody's got to go'. Williamson composed a complex small hood narrative of back stabbing, cheating and dire warnings lending the accelerate and then break groove of the arrangement a sharpened edge. The group as to be expected is tight but loose. The guitar and piano work is especially busy with detailed coloring running continuously through the darker reaches of the mix. A classic sound and performance.

In addition, a fine later era performance that can be found here is Sonny Boy II's December 1963 performance on UK television with a backing band made up of British cats. While the arrangement is straight, Sonny Boy lays down a one man clinic on harp for his British fans. The definitely don't make 7" like 'Don't Start Me Talkin' anymore says the 'rock room' curator while yelling at clouds. Featuring an almost unbelievable cast of musicians as well as a funky smooth reading by the one and only Sonny Boy II, the track is an essential and foundational block of electric blues. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Tim Buckley - 'Merry Go Round at the Carousel' June 15-16, 1968 - 'Bear's Sonic Journals'

It's mid June 1968 at the Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, California. Tim Buckley is performing two opening sets for 'It's a Beautiful Day' and 'Booker T and the MG's. He is in the midst's of arguably his most creative era. Throughout his entire career Buckley was always experimenting in one way or another, with trends, lyrics, sounds and drugs. Today in the rock room spins a lovingly curated for release soundboard recording by the Owsley Stanley Foundation. The Foundation was created to save and delve into legendary soundman, LSD chemist and recording engineer Owsley 'Bear' Stanley's legendary cache of recorded concerts.

Featured is the majority of two sets hailing from June 15th and 16th 1968 with additional tracks available for download from the website with a code provided in the liner notes. While there are some cuts in the tapes, the sonic clarity is crystalline and features Buckley's deft line up of Carter C.C. Collins on percussion. John Miller on bass and David Friedman on vibes each represented in technicolor sound. Those familiar with Tim Buckley and his career changes understand that these tapes focus on an important moment between the traditional folk leanings of Buckley's early career and the aural fantasy and atonal expressions of 1970's Starsailor. It is during this time Tim was using alternative instrumentation, experimental vocalizations and uncommercial recording methods.

Both Buckley's April 1969 release Happy/Sad and 1970's Blue Afternoon were being developed on stage in real time at the loose as a goose 'Carousel' performances spotlighted on this recording. Another additional detail worthy of note is that Buckley was also working in the studio on his off days developing an album while also curating launching points for his nightly excursions with the band. On June 17th and 18th following these shows Tim and group recorded a number of performances also found on these tapes which can be investigated on the This Dream Belongs to Me and Works In Progress releases.

Additionally, the 'rock room' has previously reviewed a performance from this era, one that takes place only a bit over a month later at the Newport Folk Festival here. There is also an official release from a month earlier in May from Chicago which spotlights the genesis of many of the songs found on the Carousel release. All of these available recordings can trace a creative arc that comes to beautiful fruition on the official release Dream Letter which hails from Buckley's European Tour and is from October 7, 1968 at the 'Queen Elizabeth Hall' in London.

Back to our focus, the opening set from the 15th begins with the fluttering drift of one of Buckley's finest melodies. 'Buzzin Fly' is a glistening opener with Buckley's churning acoustic strum the only guitar, allowing bassist John Miller to act as a 'lead' instrument. The most accessible song of the set (though still unreleased at the time). Buckley will play a collection of song that act more as meditations than actual set pieces. Buckley begins the show with a relatable acoustic mantra dressed in resplendent melody for the eager Carousel crowd. 

A cut that would remain unreleased on an official album but acted as a favorite improvisational vehicle throughout 1968-1969 in 'I Don't Need It To Rain' follows. Centered around a whirlpooling and bobbing John Miller sliding bass line this version lasts ten minutes though much longer attempts exist on tape (see Copenhagen). Buckley walks a netless tightrope lyrically letting loose with a stream of consciousness rap. Often the verbalizations Buckley emits are just as vital as the words. Here he investigates the corners of every syllable and available dictation with determination. Friedman and Miller rise and fall with the percussive aggression of Buckley's guitar strokes. Verbally, sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses, but that is the risk taking of a constantly evolving and improvisational artist, Though his lyrical diversions always come back to the new cosmic blues statement of not 'needing it to rain anymore'.

'Blues/Love', as its referred to on the release notes rises from the extinguished embers of 'I Don't Need It To Rain'. John Miller plays an active exciting bass line while Buckley free forms through a familiar set of changes but with a blurry autobiographical tinge. The group races forward initiated by an edge to Buckley's raw throat. Pauses in the band's dynamic sprint allow for Buckley to scat while also expanding his his vocal chords when reentering the 'verses'. A total free musical expression.

A totally hip conga solo by 'C.C' adheres to the theme of the set being performed as one evolving and constant piece of music. Buckley reenters with vociferous strumming and the band falls into place around him. A hallmark of this era, Buckley directs the drift of the group with the dynamics of his approach. His strumming as much percussive as musical. Tim would again explore a similar theme with the expanded 'Gypsy Woman' on Happy/Sad which some formative elements can be discerned here. 'Blues/Love' again surpasses ten minutes before segueing into 'The Father Song', another cut destined to never see an official release. Buckley did attempt the song in the studio as well which can be heard on the official release Works In Progress.

'The Father Song' may have brought it a little to close to the home front porch for Tim's liking. The song resides in the same melodic basket as 'Sing a Song for You' and  'Once I Was' though a deeper look inward in content. An additional cool creative glimpse is the segment labeled on the CD as 'A Lonely Life'. This fragment is a piece of the upcoming song cycle 'Love from Room 109' which would feature prominently on Happy/Sad. These melodic shards are scattered throughout the collection. The aforementioned download only tracks from the 15th are wonderful as well and spotlight 'Happy Time' and 'Hi Lily, Hi Lo' a film song Buckley had an affinity for but never officially released. Though a number of lacy live versions hit the spot as does this one.

The second set of the collection from the 16th begins with Buckley idol and folk legend Fred Neil's 'Green Rock Road' from his self titled 1966 album. Actually, this reading by Buckley is a conglomerate between Neil's 'Green Rocky Road' and Buckley's own original vamp 'Who Do You Love'. Neil's influence on Buckley is well documented and obvious. Neil had released his Sessions record in the fall of 1967 and Tim's major directional shift in his approach was initiated by Neil's own movement on this record.

The second version of 'Happy Time' on the set is airy, brisk and fully realized, a bit tighter than the previous days reading. Close to an album worthy rendition with crisp and attentive playing. A Buckley arrangement of the folk standard 'Wayfaring Stranger' follows and surpasses ten minutes. This track contains Buckley's wildest vocalizations of the show. While for the most part singing with a stony restraint throughout the Carousel run, here Buckley litters the confident jamming with off mic directives and gritty lyricism. A highlight performance.

'Buzzin Fly' is again given a test flight for the 16th's show and is as sticky sweet as the first. The last segment available on the recording is titled 'Strange Feelin Suite' and is a twenty plus minute musical investigation of the later to be released Miles Davis influenced jam. What makes this particular recording so vital is the inclusion of a number of early song fragments and melodies nestled inside of the 'Strange Feelin' bookends. 'Strange Feelin' would eventually end up as the opener of  Happy/Sad but here, similarly to most of the songs on the CD it floats, a feather on air.  The song hasn't gained it's namesake lyrics just the churning instrumentation and bluesy central melody line. In this version Buckley freestyles and focuses on innocence, freedom and flight as opposed to a yet to be discovered 'Strange Feelin'. John Miller is again a glorious star chasing Buckley, initiating the search for new musical heights.

After seven minutes Buckley tries on his new fragments of song directing the group into the central portion 'Love from Room 109' and then a early reading of the special 'Sing a Song For You' which would close Happy/Sad. It's stunning to hear Buckley set up one of his finest songs with the delicate melodies that comprise the internal magic of 'Room 109'. This is uniquely special stuff. In spite of a stumble negotiating the key of the song Buckley provides a stellar rendition complete with bowed bass by Miller.

Buckley then releases some well timed moans as he slips seamlessly back into the 'Strange Feelin' groove while reciting 'Merry-Go-Round' from Fred Neil's aforementioned Sessions record. These whoops and groans would grow to their full potential by 1969. The group digs it as referenced by the additional ten minutes on the groove while Buckley pleads vocally. Again, as is the case with the 16th show, Buckley finds some locales of abundant inspiration vocally. He is undoubtedly turned on by the jamming.

Tim Buckley's 1968 performances at the Carousel Ballroom fill a void in the picture of Tim's musical mid 1960's journey. What was once a live recording dearth has now become a wealth of material from the period. Thankfully 'Bear' and others had the foresight to document these moments for eternity.  While Tim Buckley fans will find solace in every note, music fans unfamiliar with Buckley's influence will discover a time when improvisation was encouraged and artistic freedom was in large supply. Buckley was always a forerunner in following his own internal weather vane, pointing his inspiration to clear skies and unlimited artistic horizons.