Test of the Boomerang: Soundchecks, Rehearsals and Outtakes, Part One

Written by Music, Test of the Boomerang

The Grateful Dead collection at the Live Music Archive contains not only thousands of Grateful Dead concerts, it also holds a good number of band rehearsal, soundcheck, and studio session recordings. As the latest incarnation of The Dead kick off their 2009 tour, I wanted to take a look at some of these hidden gems.

Today we’re looking at a couple soundcheck jams from the ’90s, and a rehearsal from 1976. In future installments we’ll look at some of Keith Godchaux’s first rehearsals with the band, some more backstage antics in the later days, and a look at what studio outtakes are still in taper circulation, ie: the stuff Rhino left off the studio album reissues.

March 17th, 1995, The Spectrum, Philadelphia
Of course by now, virtually no stone has been left unturned in the Dead’s back catalog. Between Phil Lesh and Friends, Ratdog, and Mickey and Billy’s various projects, we’re pretty far removed from the days when rumors of “they soundchecked ‘St. Stephen’!” ran like wildfire over motel payphones, archaic BBS systems or in actual Grateful Dead fanzines.

When the Grateful Dead had settled into a fairly rigid template for songs and sets, any deviation from the formula or “break out” of an old tune was cause for much celebration and a renewed enthusiasm within the group-mind of band and audience. The best-known example of this is the great Hampton Coliseum ‘Dark Star’ breakout of 1989. The band’s signature psychedelic showcase had fallen in and out of the repertoire since the 1970s and was back in rotation throughout the early 1990s.

But while fan favorites like “St. Stephen” and “Cosmic Charlie*” never reappeared, in the otherwise bleak year of 1995, the Grateful Dead did blow collective minds when they broke out “Unbroken Chain” at the Philadelphia Spectrum on March 19th.

“Unbroken Chain” originally appeared on the band’s 1974 sleeper From the Mars Hotel — a proggy Phil Lesh composition with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Robert M. Petersen. The song was one of the handful of songs on the album that were never performed live. It’s a complex tune filled with unusual chords, myriad changes and a funky, funky bridge.

This remarkable tape recorded two days prior to showtime illustrates Phil’s enthusiasm and intensity for teaching his bandmates the material. He even uncharacteristically bitches out a roadie at one point. Even Jerry is on-board and enthusiastic about breaking out this long, lost gem.

Phil – “…we’re gonna end up performing it before we’re ready. Just like we always do.”
Jerry – “That’s the way to do it, man!”

While the band never really nailed it in concert, the return of “Unbroken Chain” was something magical, perhaps the last magical thing before that miserable summer.

For another look back at “Unbroken Chain,” here are no less than four takes of the song from the original Mars Hotel sessions in 1974. Also included in the sessions are multiple takes and alternate versions of your favorite Mars Hotel songs. This particular tape features a version of “Crazy Fingers” that is clearly not from the same sessions.

the real Mars Hotel, San Francisco
the “real” Mars Hotel, San Francisco

June 25th, 1993 RFK Stadium, Washington DC

In 1992, the band began to debut more new original material and also a slew of eccentric covers. The band were peppering their sets with everything from “Baba O’Riley” to “I Fought the Law”. Old favorite encore stompers like “Gloria” vanished from view.

Here’s the band (with Bruce Hornsby sitting in on piano and accordion) working out a breezy version of the old R&B rave-up “Aint That Peculiar” before starting their run at RFK. Bob Weir recorded a version of the song on the best-left-in-the-’80s Bobby and the Midnites album Where the Beat Meets the Street.

While the rest of the band tears through the song with gusto, Jerry gripes that Vince Welnick’s keyboards are out of tune, and then about not knowing his part for the song. Bobby and Vince are really into the song, but Jerry calls it “cheap” and states “if you’re going to learn something, learn something great.” Vince cleverly diffuses the situation by suggesting they play one of Jerry’s tunes – “New Speedway Boogie”.

May 28, 1976 Club Front Studios, San Rafael, CA

While the last two tapes have focused more on band dynamics and backstage banter, this gem focuses on the jam. Taken from the band’s lengthy rehearsal sessions in the Spring of 1976, the band works out a handful of songs and becomes reacquainted with classics like “Candyman,” “Wharf Rat,” “Eyes of the World” and “Playing in the Band.”

“The Wheel” was originally recorded on Jerry’s first solo outing — Garcia in 1972, the song didn’t become part of the repertoire until 1976, where it became a “post-drums” staple of the second set. Some of the 1976 and 1977 versions feature some exquisite opening jams. The rolling waves of guitar and bass were always a lovely respite after the storming chaos of the Rhythm Devils. There are lots of fun jams on the Wheel theme here before they really get rolling with the tune. Forgive the terrible pun.

If you can get past the eight takes of “Lazy Lightning” you will find some truly inspired playing here. The different takes of “Attics of My Life” are the last recorded versions of the song until Hampton 1989.

*(I was in attendance for the great Cosmic Charlie fake-out of 1994 — coming out of “The Other One,” Jerry started playing the main chord progression for “Cosmic Charlie” before reeling it back into “Wharf Rat” — you never heard a bigger collective sigh of frustration caught on tape.)

That’s all for this week, kids. Have a good time out there on the road, and I’ll meet you back here next week.

P.S.

HAPPY EASTER – THEY HAVE RISEN!

P.P.S.

One of my favorite blogs – Hidden Track has just posted an interesting ‘Other Ones’ rehearsal from 1998 as part of their Stormy Mondays mix series. It’s a rehearsal of the Mickey and Bobby song “Banyan Tree”. Go check it out and tell them I said Hi!

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