Talk From The Rock Room: Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead- September 2, 1968 –Betty Nelson’s Organic Raspberry Farm

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead- September 2, 1968 –Betty Nelson’s Organic Raspberry Farm

As Summer turned to Fall in 1968, a gathering of tribes and a collaborative of some of the most famed musicians on the planet joined as one at a nondescript berry farm in Sultan, Washington. The purpose,  a cosmic weekend of mind-bending music. The Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter than Air Show was exactly that with a lineup that included but was not limited to, James Cotton, Santana, It’s a Beautiful Day, John Fahey, Country Joe and the Fish, and the focus of today’s Put the Boot In feature, the Grateful Dead. Being one of the first festivals of its ilk in the States, there were no precedents to be made or guidelines to be followed.

Forty performers and 15,000-20,000 fans gathered for a typically 1960’s festival weekend full of logistic issues and rain. But, by all accounts the festival was a stunning success with music beginning on Saturday at 9:30 AM and running all the way through Monday. Betty Nelson whom owned the farm had responded to an ad in a local ‘head’ paper and the next thing you know here farm is making musical history! The aforementioned Grateful Dead made their appearance unannounced (not listed on the poster) and disseminated in the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion on of their finest sets of the ‘primal’ era.

The recording jamming in the ‘rock room’ today is a circulating Charlie Miller soundboard reel with highly acceptable sound quality which can be enjoyed on the Internet Archive. The drums snap like a wet rubber band, Garcia is amped, and Lesh and Weir are nestled perfectly into the mix. The ‘rock room’ has had this performance on cassette for a number of years, but this currently circulating upgrade is where it’s at. The Grateful Dead played on the final mud covered day of the festival, September 2, and go on to propagate an aggressive and psychedelic set. All of the group’s era specific ‘suites’ are on display; ‘Dark Star->St. Stephen->the Eleven’, ‘Cryptical Envelopment-> That’s It For the Other One’ and a molten reading of ‘Alligator->Caution’.

The tape begins with an MC introducing the band and some brief onstage adjustments before the show begins confidently with a quickly maturing ‘Dark Star’. The band comes begins the show with a shifty tempo and edgy metallic Garcia lead line. I can smell the euphoric tincture of mud and pine emanating from the tape. The band, typical to this era stay relatively close to the theme of ‘Dark Star’ in the first pre-verse section.

Garcia leaves for a few segments (possibly due to guitar issues) before returning a three minutes with some melodic turns on the theme. Weir is right with him with filigreed dressing. At a bit after four minutes Jerry lands on a unique and funky groove that acts as a pathway to the first verse. Hart opens the gate with a flash of gong work. Leaving the orbit of the first verse, Lesh gets busy and while still keeping home base in sight the jam starts to stretch due to the warmth of the instruments. A well-played ‘Dark Star’ jam develops with Weir, Garcia and Lesh weaving lines against the back drop of Pig’s organ mantra. Jerry plays through the verse melody on his guitar and then inspects it under rays of musical sunlight equating to a dynamic peak.

While not completely breaking new ground this ‘Dark Star’ exhibits the constant growth that has taken place in the song since its premier on live tape on January 17, 1968. The framework is being constructed for future improvisations and the suite of songs, ‘Dark Star’, St. Stephen’ and the ‘Eleven’ is already wearing ruts into the roads where future moments of musical glory will take place. Seven months of work on 'Dark Star' in 1968 would soon pay dividends by the Winter of 69, when the band's perfect vision was captured on tape.

‘St Stephen’ follows to huge applause that can be discerned on the tape. This is played briskly and full of fire as will become the standard for performances at this concert. An extended and fiery ‘Eleven’ per its usual segue emerges from the ‘St Stephen’. Surpassing twelve minutes, this is a top shelf 1968 reading with only a small stumble during the lyric portion as Garcia just won’t stop playing as Weir and Lesh begin to sing. Not that that’s a problem! All hands are on deck for the first portion of the song. Following the aforementioned verses things get interesting.

The drummers erupt beginning from seven minutes forward with nuanced and kinetic playing. Garcia and Lesh follow the theme before the launching of the ‘Eleven’ and thrashing off into unexplored lands. The band is moving on its own momentum now with a high tempo and explosive improv. Garcia lets free with a series of expressive licks. You can smell the energy being created on the stage.

From ten minutes forward things get violent, the band detonates musical clusters across the stage leaving nothing but remnants behind. Lesh thumps out a strange series of notes around twelve minutes which morphs into a ‘Santanaesque’ groove that soon dissipates into particles before landing perfectly in the tall grass of ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’. Unfortunately ‘Death Don’t ‘is cut just before the verse begins.

The ‘Other One’ suite is also a recipient of the same cut and begins with just a bit shaved from the intro. A hypersonic version of the 'Other One' shreds through space and time with a multitude of peaks and valley's. On it's way to reaching full maturation, this version plays to the sky in an electric outdoor venue. At four minutes the central summit becomes clear through candied clouds. Garcia chases his own tail with a circular and repetitive lick to which the rest of the band digs its nails into. Weir sings verse two before the band drops into the 'Cryptical' outro. Dynamically the band initiates a rugged jam that swings between glorious and hallucinatory. Garcia triumphantly wales away, nudging the band this way and that. A small flash of feedback brings the 'That's It For the Other One' suite to a proper conclusion while leaving a smoking crater on the minds of all the witnessed it. A huge excited response comes from the crowd at the song's conclusion to which Lesh responds, 'It's a good thing you all got up on your feet because now you can dance'.

‘Alligator->Caution’ acts as the crushing 25 minute finale to the proceedings with some of the best playing of the ‘primal’ era. The band begins the song, an ornery beast stirring with one eye cracked. ‘Alligator’ begins with its usual crawl through the swampy verses before falling into the deep end with a drum duel. Bill and Mickey ignite the drum break like flash paper. Around 9 minutes Garcia enters into a triad with the percussionists playing with an elliptical tone and initiating some playful call and response with the drummers. An off mic shout of excitement can be heard on the tape. It’s getting serious and soon enough the band freight trains their way into ‘Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks). There is some obvious distortion on the reel when the band enters but that is soon forgotten as the jam careens around corners and tips to one side of the musical rails.

The first musical madness takes place at about three minutes where a sticky distorted jam quickly changes its mood to euphoric. Lesh tears his neck up hitting the ‘Seven’ lick and a shimmery stained glass acid jam begins to levitate. Garcia hits on a siren call to which Lesh responds and the jam becomes a rolling series of peaks bubbling with psychedelic energy. Soon streaking hints of melody originating from Donovan’s ‘First there is a Mountain’ and the traditional ‘Goin Down the Road Feelin Bad’ and even 'Not Fade Away' tickle our synapses. The band is fully linked at this point with the drummers approaching the precipice of ‘out of control’. Garcia hits the wiry scrubbed tempo of 'Caution' proper increasing the energy.  Garcia then tweaks a melody at close to four minutes that turns some knobs before the entire band pours a frothing wash of sound from their collective. Palm mutes, peeling paint and reverberant strings announce the band’s decent into ‘Caution’s’ verses. Pig goes down to see the gypsy and the band stays outside the back door lending well timed asides.

The drums churn with aggressive punctuations and the pinging bell of ride cymbals providing a sparkling back drop for Pig. Weir, Lesh and Garcia soon join Pig for a dizzying 'all you need' vocal chant interlude. The band gets properly crazy before Pig signals 'just a touch of mojo hand' and the collaborative falls down an ancient well as one unit. A moaning flood of feedback washes over the crowd before Garcia emerges into the daylight triumphantly with the clarion call of 'Caution'. 

A kinetic jam is again initiated before punctuating the groove with the recognizable segment where Lesh carpet-bombs the room in a descending power riff. The tempo again increases leaving this piece in the rear view and the intensity of the jam is now careening uncontrollably. Primal Dead at it's best vintage, Garcia is now pouring florescent notes from a vial of sound while Lesh stands proudly on the summit of his fret board. 'Caution' appears at varying moments as the images outside the train car window would pass in a blur.  As the band percolates a unique and jagged jam ejaculates from the remnants, Lesh plays an alien series of notes, and the band shovels chunks of  aural fuel into the fiery furnace before the musical steel rails descend into feedback. 

A bizarre plethora of clicks, hums, buzzes and cymbal shimmers forms a weightless 'space'. Here, the shared silence works in the same effective way as the electrical forces playing games with the crowd's mind. One must envision thousands of music lovers getting their heads properly blown in a rich smoky Fall forest of the great Pacific Northwest. The feedback matches this beautifully strange scene. Lesh in musical lab coat plays magician scientist, drawing odd creatures from the mossy caves of the wood with the blue electric waves emanating from his digits.

Soon, the feedback concludes in same silence from which it was born and the crowd explodes in joy back at the band. A stellar performance in a wonderfully perfect setting for a group of musical visionaries concludes. In typical 'Grateful Dead' fashion the band breezed into town, morphed the musical landscape forever, and left like a shadow in the night. The 'Dead's' performance at Betty Nelson's Organic Raspberry epitomizes the 'Primal Dead' era of the band. A youthful energy, paired with a willingness to experiment solidifying the foundation for an enduring career.



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