The summer of 1989 was when the Grateful Dead got big. I mean really big. The success of 1987′s In the Dark lead to an influx of new fans – kids who grew up on tales of Woodstock, draft dodging, thunder machines, merry pranksters and LSD. The Grateful Dead were the last bastion of your long-haired AP English teacher’s days of lysergic yore.
By 1989, the audiences were so large that the band could no longer perform in their former Bay Area homes – UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater and the pastoral Frost Amphitheater at Stanford. So then it was off to enormo-domes and massive stadiums – in the cities that would have them, of course. Mobs of unwashed hippies descending upon main street USA was too much for some, and many places banned the Grateful Dead from performing and barred nomadic hippies from bathing in public fountains, panhandling and drinking from garden hoses.
But perhaps this newfound notoriety inspired the band, because on stage, the playing was hot in the summer of 1989. While I’ve always been a big fan of 1989′s brilliant fall tour (the “Dark Star” bust-out and its two consecutive performances in October), I’m discovering more and more than there is hardly a bad night on the summer tour.
Crimson, White, and Indigo captures every note of the band’s July 7th, 1989 concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia on the hottest day of the year (shades of Veneta, Oregon?) — three CDs of gorgeous 5.1 sound mastered from the original 24 track tapes – and the accompanying DVD features a professional multi-camera shoot and not just the stadium’s crap video feed. Even better, there are no annoying video effects – no dated Video Toaster graphics, no stock footage of pyramids and galaxies, just the band sweating, and giving it hell.
I’ll admit, shamefaced, that I never heard this concert before I read the press releases. I listened to some beautifully clear audience recordings that really whet my appetite for the whole package.
Watching the Grateful Dead on video is never the most engaging thing — there’s no real stage show, no props, it’s always about the performance (or in the case of the great unseen Sunshine Daydream – the naked hippie girls in the audience). In this case, there is a lot of fun stuff going on – the usual dour Jerry is all smiles as he shares inaudible jokes with Brent and Mickey. Phil Lesh, ever the fashion plate, is suited out for phys ed in a t-shirt tucked into gray sweatpants, New Balance sneaks, and a wrist band.
The show opens with a peppy “Hell in a Bucket” that segues into a rare first-set “Iko Iko” — as good an indication of Jerry’s mood as anything. The rest of the first set didn’t look all that exciting on paper, but everything is so strong and well-played, even “Little Red Rooster,” which is a great reminder of the Dead’s roots in blues. This is one of those versions where Brent throws in a cuss-filled ad-libbed verse.
Jerry’s guitar in 1989 still had some real bite to it – a crunchy overdrive that gave his solos an extra edge. (In the early ’90s, he traded in the crunch for a almost-acoustic sounding clear tone.) This really brings the fire to Bob’s “Let it Grow” — the only remaining piece of his abandoned “Weather Report Suite.” It was a hit or miss tune with me; some renditions percolate along with Bobby and the drummers battling for tempo control, but others close out first sets with an absolute bang. This one is definitely the latter. It fucking smokes. It may be Bob’s tune, but Jerry owns it; he rips it to shreds and drives it home for the closing coda.
As the sun finally sets on that sweltering day, Brent closes the first set with “Blow Away” — as strong a tune that Brent ever wrote for the band. Brent looks positively terrifying – sweat pouring down his face and glittering in his beard as he sings all husky and wild-eyed. For all the beauty and joy in the Grateful Dead’s music, it is forever tainted by the downright senseless death of Brent just a little over a year after this show was recorded. Not to mention Jerry Garcia.
Second set opens with a trifecta of “Box of Rain,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “Fire on the Mountain.” There’s that bouncy and fun groove throughout. The linking jam between “Scarlet” and “Fire” features these sweet chiming arpeggios that are unique to this performance.
If I have one gripe about the show, it’s that it’s fairly light on the jams. “Estimated Prophet” just starts to go places, when Jerry gives us “Standing on the Moon.” While it would become one of Jer’s signature ballad, it’s in a strange position in the set – a relatively mellow launch pad for the “Rhythm Devils” / “Drums” segment of the show.
We see Billy and Mickey wail gleefully on the “Beast” and the “Beam” — a homemade instrument that features a series of metal strings over a giant guitar pick-up. Mickey plucks it, swats at it, kicks it, to produce the downright unearthly soundscapes. “Drumznspace” is far more engaging when you see what the musicians are doing. Watching Bob summon a cascade of bell-like tones from his speedy fingers is fun to watch.
In one of the best moments on the disc, Phil launches a rumbling bass-bomb into for “The Other One” — he’s jamming along, his fingers quick as anything over the frets, he looks to his comrades, digs in and brings the swirling chaotic jam into the body of the songs. It’s a riff that we’ve heard Phil play on countless recordings, but to see him do it, it’s just too cool. “The Other One” reaches some real intensity in what is otherwise a very mellow second set.
The show closes with a fiery (albeit quite brief) “Lovelight” before a stately reading of “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.”
As the band entered the 1980s, Brent’s voice and Hammond organ became key hallmarks of the band’s sound and brought a garage band exuberance as he lead the band through playful romps on tunes like “Hey Pocky Way” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” There’s a lot of interplay between Jerry and Brent on this set. Those crisp ethereal licks during the “Scarlet” transition that Brent reads back to Jerry, a nod, a gesture, a smile. Maybe if the band took more time off to mourn their fallen comrade, things might have worked out differently. Maybe the band could have been stronger and more able to deal with Jerry’s addictions and ills.
Like all of these archival releases, they’re as beautiful as they are bittersweet. But invite your friends over, open a few cool ones, take your shoes off and let yourself drift away to that hot day in the sweet American summer of 1989.