The first China>Rider we have was played on 9/30/69, 40 years ago - these two songs have a tangled history in the early years of the Dead, so I'll offer a brief introduction to how their performances evolved up to '74. (Note that this is not a guide to best-of versions; in fact, I won't even be mentioning the best versions.)
Our story begins with I Know You Rider, which first emerged as a series of floating blues verses in the '30s. In the late '50s it started circulating as a folk song and was covered by a number of people in the early '60s; Garcia picked up the song from the folk scene and brought it to the Dead - possibly they had even been doing it in the Mother McCree's jugband. Some of the alternate lyrics of other versions are here: http://www.whitegum.com/introjs.htm?/songfile/I1KNOWYO.HTM
The lyrics the Dead chose are very evocative in their compressed blues style, being somehow foreboding and hopeful at the same time. There's an excellent discussion of the origins of Rider here:
I Know You Rider was one of the first songs the Dead recorded, at the Autumn Records session in November '65 - not a standout version, but it shows they already had the arrangement in place, and it wouldn't significantly change during the next year. A somewhat better version was recorded at the Scorpio Records session in June '66; but one of the Dead's trademarks was already becoming apparent - their songs were better at live shows.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd66-06-xx.sbd.vernon.9513.sbeok.shnf (studio - these early takes were also released on the "Birth of the Dead" CD)
There are lots of live Riders from '66, mostly identical to each other - they turned this old blues into a happy pop song that fits in well with the mid-'60s folk/rock sound. Phil takes the singing lead with Weir harmonizing; the music is more upbeat and bouncy than later Riders, taken at a faster speed with Garcia's constant rhythm-guitar chirps and Weir's Byrds-style chords; the harmonies are straight folk. Garcia has a cool, poppy guitar solo, and he keeps soloing under the vocals in the second half, which is a nice touch. They sometimes sing the verse, "I'd drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log, than stay here in Frisco, be treated like a dog" - which would be dropped in later years.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd66-09-16.sbd.vernon.9127.sbeok.shnf (also in So Many Roads box)
The 9/16 version marks a change - it's longer with more verses and two solos, and it's the first time the "I wish I was a headlight" verse appears (sung by all). 12/1 follows the same format.
They apparently considered Rider for their first album, since we have an instrumental track of it from the album sessions in January '67. It seems stronger than their last studio attempt in June '66, but sadly they don't seem to have finished it.
After that, the song vanished from their setlists for nearly three years.
China Cat Sunflower was one of the first lyrics Robert Hunter wrote for the Dead - apparently he mailed it to them as a poem in mid-'67, and they later set it to music. The lyrics are quite consciously psychedelic:
When Garcia sang the words, they could sound like a string of nonsense syllables.....but the words weren't the focus of the song, they were more a backdrop to the music. China Cat is one of the Dead's catchiest pieces, with an unstoppable riff, intertwining guitars, and memorable soaring solos - it might make even a non-deadhead tap their toes. Bob Weir later said, "China Cat Sunflower is just about the only song where Jerry ever taught
me a riff and told me that's what he wanted to hear. That little
arpeggiated lick was his."
Our first live performances of China Cat come from the Northwest Tour in January '68, as part of a medley: Dark Star>China Cat>Eleven. These three songs were always performed as an indivisible unit - the segue from Dark Star into China Cat is like stepping onto a rocket, as China Cat blasts into hyper-speed with some screeches from Garcia's guitar. The Eleven fits so naturally into the China Cat jam it seems inseparable, like an extension of the same song.
China Cat is very different in early '68 from its later incarnation - it's full of that roaring '68 energy, taken very fast with lots of rattling drums and lots of solos from Garcia, and Pigpen doubling the lead riff with Weir - the song just rushes by. It's in a different key, which Garcia doesn't sound too comfortable with, since his voice is too low. By March they'd start to correct this - notice in the March versions how they change the key right after the opening riff. Also in the middle solo, the key changes again for a section of the solo, then shifts back for the verse - this part of the arrangement they would keep in later versions.
1-23-68 - Road Trips
2-23/24-68 - Dick's Picks (two versions, one out of Alligator)
http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-03-16.sbd.vernon.9388.sbeok.shnf (also in So Many Roads)
3-17-68 - Download Series (out of New Potato Caboose)
If there were any more live performances of China Cat in 1968, they've been lost. The Dark Star>China Cat>Eleven medley was broken up into its separate pieces that spring, and none of them were used on the Anthem of the Sun album (the Dead perhaps feeling they weren't fully worked-out yet). But when recording Aoxomoxoa later that year, China Cat was an obvious contender. It wasn't as much of a victim of studio over-experimentation as other songs on the album, and some of the changes they made became permanent - the song is taken at a more moderate pace, Garcia sings in a more playful way, and his loose solos capture a live feel. Aside from the rattling drums, the new intro of Garcia and Phil setting up the rhythm would remain standard. Constanten is now a big part of the sound with his organ fills, and he's a natural fit in this song; but one feature that's only heard on the studio version is the backing vocals, endearingly silly as they sing "na na na....china cat...." as if this will be their radio hit. Perhaps thankfully, they didn't repeat that in live shows! It's odd, though, that they didn't play China Cat live while they were recording it.
(A reader comments: "The original vinyl mix of Aoxomoxoa has Weir playing from the beginning. The 1971 remix has his guitar entering at the same time as the vocal - among other changes making this version sound more like the one they were playing live by then." The outro jam was also considerably shortened in the remix, losing the loose, stoned "live-in-the-studio" feel of the original album.)
The outtake here (sadly shortened) has quite a different intro, fewer overdubs, and a very druggy feel. Garcia's guitar part is less thought-out, but it's nice to hear the fadeout solo run to its conclusion.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-xx-xx.sbd.dodd.16760.sbeok.shnf (Aox outtakes)
China Cat makes a brief surprise appearance in the 12/16/68 Hartbeats show - around the 35-minute point of the "Creator" jam, Garcia plays the riff for a bit.
China Cat pops up again in early '69 - in the great Alligator jam on 2/7/69, shortly after the drums, Weir starts up the China Cat riff and the band grabs it. Garcia seems to be trying to remember how it goes, and he eventually drags them back to Alligator....
In April '69 the Dead's shows were generally becoming looser; the singleminded focus we can hear in the winter shows was dissipating. They were looking to break out of the tight format of their shows over the past few months, and shake up the setlist a bit - but what they didn't have yet were new songs - those wouldn't start coming until June. So one little-mentioned facet of the April shows is that they dug up a lot of the old songs that they hadn't done, sometimes in years! (I know, since so many '67/68 shows weren't recorded, a lot of these dates will be wrong, but I think the general picture is true.)
For instance, at the 4/6 Avalon show, they played Viola Lee for the first time since March '68, Beat It On Down the Line also for the first time since March '68, and It's All Over Now Baby Blue for the first time since 1966.
On 4/5/69, they resurrected It's a Sin for the first time since May '66, and did it a few times that month. (And of course, they also did China Cat Sunflower for the first time since March '68.)
At the 4/26 show they did Silver Threads and New Minglewood Blues for the first time since 1966.
At the 4/27 show they did Me and My Uncle for the first time since 1967.
They also started doing He Was a Friend of Mine regularly in April, which hadn't been in their setlists since 1967. And they started doing Sitting on Top of the World again, for the first time since March '68.
And on 5/7/69 they pulled out a couple more antiques - Good Loving for the first time since May '66 (with Jerry singing), and Smokestack Lightning (which we only have one version of from '68).
And, they started doing Hard to Handle (its debut show was 3/15).
So without writing any new songs, the Dead added about a dozen oldies to their setlists that month, almost all of them 'traditional' tunes or covers. The shift to more country songs and Workingman's Dead would come a few months later....
Anyway - on 4/5/69, China Cat was returned to the setlist, with an extended intro and a long exit jam. China Cat was more feisty and rollicking in early '69 than it would become - Garcia sings emphatically, Constanten adds his organ swirls, the drums bash all over, and the playing is very energetic. Though they're sloppier than later 'classic' China Cats, these early April-June '69 versions are all recommended for their exuberant feel. The jamming at the end sounds fresh and exciting, since they're playing 'free' without any set format of where they're going to go. On 4/5 the jam almost sounds like it's heading into Rider....but over the next few months, they'd segue into a variety of songs:
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-04-05.sbd.miller.18701.sbesok.shnf China Cat>Doin' That Rag
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-04-15.sbd.cotsman.6288.sbeok.shnf China Cat>Doin' That Rag>It's a Sin
4-26-69 - Dick's Picks - Mountains>China Cat>Doin' That Rag
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-05-24.sbd.kpfa.16177.sbeok.shnf Doin' That Rag>Friend of Mine>China Cat>Eleven>Death Don't
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-06-05.sbd.cotsman.15204.sbeok.shnf China Cat>Sittin' on Top of the World
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-06-08.sbd.cotsman.19285.sbeok.shnf Dancin' in the Streets>Friend of Mine>China Cat>New Potato Caboose
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-06-13.sbd.barbella.7775.sbeok.shnf China Cat>Morning Dew
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-06-21.early-late.aud-sbd.cotsman.16334.sbeok.shnf China Cat>Morning Dew (AUD)
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-07-05.sbd.cotsman.4282.sbefail.shnf China Cat>High Time>Mama Tried
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-07-12.sbd-aud.hanno.4645.sbeok.shnf Doin' That Rag>China Cat>Mama Tried>High Time (poor AUD)
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-08-21.sbd.cotsman.13850.sbeok.shnf Minglewood>China Cat>Doin' That Rag
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-08-30.sbd.barbella.8594.sbeok.shnf China Cat>Doin' That Rag
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-09-27.aud.hanno.14857.sbeok.shnf China Cat>High Time (AUD)
China Cat never came to a stop, but was always jammed into another song. Doin' That Rag was the usual segue, but other odd combinations were tried. Morning Dew was a strange song to try to segue into, but High Time was a diabolical choice - on 7/5 the attempt to slow down is quite awkward. 7/12 is a notably long China Cat; the Dead seem to have been somewhat dazed at that show, and the intro to China Cat is stretched out with Weir taking a long solo to start the song! - but they head into an intense jam. 8/21 is unusual since there's a guest playing flute and whooping through China Cat; the band tries to accommodate him, but he's very repetitive and doesn't add much. 9/27 is the last China Cat that doesn't go into Rider; it has a nice long jam, from which the Dead exit into.....a super-slow High Time.
On 9/30/69 the Dead played their first China>Rider. How they got the idea to resurrect this long-dead folk song and pair it with China Cat, I think has been lost to time, but they must have been happy with the result. Due to the recording quality, it's hard to hear the vocals in I Know You Rider, but it's clear the song hasn't changed much despite the long hiatus - it's less of a chirpy pop song and sounds a bit more somber now, but other than a few slight changes (mainly in Garcia's playing), the parts are much the same. Rider has a very 'closed' arrangement, and over the years it would develop very little, aside from some extra verses and Garcia's solos. As for China Cat, it would now forever be tied to its folky partner.
Our next performance is from a month later, another audience tape of 10/24/69, and is worth noting since it's the first time Weir takes the first solo after China Cat. From then on, he would have an increasingly dominant part in the China Cat jam.
The first two China>Riders we have are from pretty low-fi audience recordings; the first soundboard China>Rider is from 10/31/69, and we can finally hear it clearly. China Cat is notable for coming out of Cryptical (the only time this happened); there is a long transition solo out of China Cat which is all Weir - Garcia seems to sit out the solo entirely. Weir is actually quite good here - it's not the standard China Cat solo he'd develop over the next year, but a little more in Garcia's style.
One more China>Rider that needs attention is from 12/5/69. Not only does it have the longest transition jam for years (five minutes), but it's also the first time Garcia sang the "I wish I was a headlight" verse. Though not the big climax it would become in later years, this verse was striking from day one; with the later versions in our memory, it's interesting to hear how he sings it in December '69.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-12-05.sbd.cotsman.11256.sbeok.shnf (exc AUD)
At this point there's no need to provide links for the China>Riders, since each version is much the same as the next, and changes come slowly. By this time China Cat was sounding tamer than it had been in the spring; but late '69 is one of my favorite periods for this song - Constanten adds a nice presence, I like Garcia's raw '69-style guitar sound in this song, and the transition jam is looser and less rigid than it would be for the next few years. They have a questing feel coming out of China Cat and they're free to explore it for a few minutes, without rushing straight into Rider. By February '70 the jam had shortened down to a couple minutes, where it would stay for a couple years, with Weir taking his usual solo and Garcia often doing little more than setting up Rider with a few notes.
In their acoustic sets of 1970, the Dead debuted a third version of I Know You Rider. Though the acoustic arrangement was simplified, it was a lot slower and more dirgelike; they replaced the three-part harmony with Garcia's lead vocal sounding very stark and mournful. Garcia also revived the "I'd rather drink muddy water" verse that hadn't been heard since 1966. This was always a highlight of the acoustic set - of course they never played China>Rider at the same show.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd70-04-24.aud.remaster.sirmick.27205.sbeok.shnf (poor AUD)
5-2-70 - Dick's Picks
For me, 1970-71 are the least interesting years for China>Rider, due to most of the versions being very short (each one is about ten minutes) - Garcia solos in the transition jam only briefly, or barely at all. Also, after Constanten left, Pigpen didn't play any organ in this song, which further simplified it. That said, otherwise most of the time it's played very well.
There is an interesting tryout of China>Rider from Keith's first rehearsals with the band: http://www.archive.org/details/gd71-09-29.sbd.cousinit.16891.sbeok.shnf
However, they didn't perform China>Rider very much in the fall '71 tour - once in October, twice in November, thrice in December - which is odd since they normally played it at nearly every show. They did, though, introduce China Cat jams into the Not Fade Aways. They'd done this sometimes in 1970, most famously 9-19-70 (as I mentioned in the Fillmore East '70 post); by late '71 Not Fade Away was hitting a new peak and becoming more jammed-out than it had been in early '71, and some of the best versions come from this tour. These are the Not Fade Aways with China Cat jams in them:
and a later one -
It may be worth mentioning the few China>Riders that have unusual places in the set. Up through '74 China>Rider could appear anywhere in the show, first or second sets, but it was almost never attached to another song. The exceptions are:
http://www.archive.org/details/gd1970-06-24.aud.lee.5339.sbeok.shnf - St Stephen>China>Rider
http://www.archive.org/details/gd70-07-10.aud.cotsman.17351.sbeok.shnf - Good Lovin'>China>Rider>Good Lovin'; here it replaces the usual Good Lovin' jam.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd72-01-02.sbd.eD.8709.sbeok.shnf - Good Lovin'>China Cat>Good Lovin'; here China Cat comes out of a great '72-style jam and returns to Good Lovin', minus Rider. A must-hear.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd72-09-24.sbd.jeffm.2202.sbeok.shnf - Dark Star>China>Rider
http://www.archive.org/details/gd73-02-17.sbd.carman.11771.sbeok.shnf - Here Comes Sunshine>China>Rider
The Dead were pleased enough with China>Rider in their Europe '72 tour that they included it on the album, and this is probably the most 'classic' China>Rider format in people's minds. Some of this may be due to Keith: he is so much at home in China>Rider it's hard to remember what it was like without him. In 1972 the China>Riders are slowing down (especially noticeable in the fall), and the playing sounds more precise and methodical. With a more relaxed groove, they start building the dynamics of the music a little more - the second line of the "headlight" verse in particular starts to get the extra kick in fall '72. Weir has his solo down to a science and it's nearly the same every time; Garcia's solo into Rider is more unpredictable, and sometimes in late '72 he stretches it out a bit, depending on his mood - some of the transitions from these months are great.
The China>Riders in February '73 mark a change from '72 - though not longer, they are considerably more peppy, with Garcia downright hyper sometimes. The transition jam from 2/28/73 (on Dick's Picks 28) is particularly explosive, one of the finest - the Dead were ready to inject new life into this medley.
A new character now enters our story: the Feelin' Groovy jam, which the Dead had adopted back in fall '69. The first Feelin' Groovy jam appears in the 9/26/69 Dark Star, around the 11-minute mark, unfortunately hard to appreciate due to the sound quality:
Since it's an audience tape, most people probably haven't heard it - but this one from the Dark Star a month later is well-known:
- and just a week after that it had one of its best performances:
Feelin' Groovy appeared in many Dark Stars thereafter, too many to cite - some of the best-loved versions might include 1/2/70, 2/13/70, 5/15/70, 9/19/70, 10/21/71, 4/14/72, and 5/25/72. From the end of '69 and through '70, Dark Star had a particular format: after the first verse the band would evaporate into space, explore weirdness for a while, then slowly return back to melody - and here the Feelin' Groovy jam (or sometimes the Tighten Up jam) would emerge, like bright joy after the darkness. Over time the Stars changed, and became more dense and complex; particularly after Keith joined, the '72 Stars got jazzier with more jamming elements and meltdowns, and the Feelin' Groovy jams often became more brief and fleeting - sometimes just a hint from Phil. Late '72 saw the end of its stay in Dark Star - one instance is 10/18/72, a classic version at the end of the Star, after the Philo Stomp:
- by contrast, from 11/13/72 we have an extremely fast version in a Star filled with intense meltdowns:
The last time I recall Feelin' Groovy being played in a Dark Star is 11/26/72, a great version that should be known by more people - the end of the Star has a bass solo>Feelin' Groovy>Tiger meltdown - Garcia's tone in the Feelin' Groovy is just amazing:
A couple times the Feelin' Groovy jam would appear 'solo': on 10/2/72, in the post-Truckin' jam it's one of the themes after Nobody's Fault But Mine and is played very loosely, leading up to Morning Dew:
- and on 2/24/73 it's part of the jam coming out of Eyes of the World (unfortunately the more complete audience tape isn't on the Archive), and follows a long bass solo - Garcia initiates it and they play it very sweetly:
The first time Feelin' Groovy entered the China>Rider transition was on 3/16/73 - the Dead started the show with it, as if eager to show off their new jam. Though it would never leave its new spot, Feelin' Groovy was a very welcome addition to China>Rider - played simply and briskly and sliding into Rider, it extended Garcia's solo and brought a new emotional lift to the medley as Garcia's cheerful notes soar and peak. The audiences in '73 certainly seem surprised to hear it, and it often brings cheers.
The rest of March '73 offers the same pattern; one unique variation happens in the 3/31/73 show, where out of an Other One space they suddenly shift into Feelin' Groovy, and from there head naturally into Rider without bothering with the China Cat:
The new China>Rider format remained basically unchanged through '73/74. These China>Riders are probably most people's favorites, and there are numerous discussions of various versions from this era; so there's no need to provide links to examples, as you will probably have your own favorites on-hand. I'll just mention that in the summer and fall of '73, China Cat grew much longer as they really started jamming the solos, and even longer in '74; almost every transition during this period is fantastic, and the Riders are much improved from earlier years, with wizardly solos and growled "headlights". And I'd be remiss not to mention the longest China>Rider ever played, on 6/26/74:
The last linkable '74 China>Rider on the Archive is from 9/20/74. Ironically, it's one of the poorest versions of the year, very disjointed as if the Dead are too spaced-out to focus, though they do manage to build up a bit of heat in the transition. So it's worth a listen just to hear a comically weak China Cat from this peak year, with the Dead stumbling around the song unable to connect - it's rare in '74 to find them like this.
(Update: 10/20/74 is now streamable - though the mix here is rather poor, with Weir buried in the back, it's the last China>Rider from the early years, and has a good example of the long, unwinding transition with a Feelin' Groovy jam.)
The Dead decided not to carry China>Rider over the touring break, and aside from one revival in 1977, didn't start performing it again til 1979. From then, they played it steadily til the end -- but that's a story for someone else to tell......