By the time they recorded their first album, the Dead had few 'jam-songs' of the kind they would become known for, and all those were covers - Viola Lee, Dancing in the Streets, Midnight Hour, Same Thing.... Through 1966 they'd focused mostly on doing covers, and I think Cream Puff War was the only original song they used to take off into a long Garcia solo. But by the time their album was released, they were already unhappy with it as being out-of-date (as Garcia and Lesh said on an April '67 radio show, "it was something we did, it's all over with, the next one certainly won't be like that in any way", and they were already talking about spending much longer in the studio to get well-engineered sounds as well as recording live sets at the Fillmore to capture the live sound they couldn't get in the studio). With constant practice they were getting musically tighter all the time and were eager to try material that was stranger, more complex, more 'psychedelic', and gave more room for jamming. As a result 1967 saw a huge burst of creativity within the Dead: within a seven-month period they started playing Alligator, Lovelight, the Other One suite, Dark Star, China Cat Sunflower, The Eleven, the 'Spanish jam'....and New Potato Caboose.
New Potato is one of the more mellow pieces they did that year, with its wandering pace, the melodic opening guitar riff (only used as the intro), Garcia's sweet fills, Weir's spacy vocals, and the meditative jam. It's unusual for a Dead-song in being a collaboration between Lesh and his beat-poet friend Bobby Petersen (their only one until Mars Hotel), and they seem to have taken pains to make it as weird as they could. I think in late '67 Lesh took a big creative role in the Dead's music; with his background in classical, jazz, and electronic music, he had the strongest impulse to push the music into a more avant-garde direction and create more difficult, challenging pieces to play. The Anthem of the Sun album has Lesh's fingerprints all over it, more so than any other Dead album.
As for New Potato, Garcia talked about it in an interview:
"It's a very long thing and it doesn't have a form, in that it doesn't have a verse-chorus form. It has two or three recurring elements, but it doesn't have a recurring pattern; it just changes continually, off of itself and through itself in lots of different ways - rhythmically, the tonality of it, and the chord relationships. There's lots of surprises in it, a lot of fast, difficult transitions. And there are transitions that musically are real awkward. They're not the kind of thing that flows at all, but we're trying to make this happen by taking something that's jarring and making it unjarring. Making it so that it happens without anybody losing their minds when it happens. And just to see if we can do it. As it is, it's a little stilted, cause it's all so utterly odd. But it has its points and I think that's one direction that we'll be able to move successfully in."
The lyrics offer a strange, awkward poetry that Robert Hunter was also exploring in his early Dead songs. But they're arranged in an interesting way: Weir sings (or tries to), and it's a lot like one of his later songs in being rhythmically odd and having unexpected changes in meter. Like Lesh's later songs, it's definitely not a sing-along, and the harmony singing is probably the most difficult thing for people to listen to today! But the harmony shifts are interesting to hear - Lesh is arranging the voices as if they were horns in an instrumental piece (which is the kind of music he'd been composing before). The "all graceful instruments are known" line is sung two different ways, almost medieval-fashion, as a kind of lyrical refrain; the second time it transitions into a circular jam that stays within the framework of the song, but has a soaring, open-ended feel until it closes with some crunchy riffs and a mind-spinning repeated-note finish.
The earliest performance we have is from 8/4/67, and it's totally confident and worked-out, without any hesitation in all the transitions; all the instrumental parts are there, though the jam section is shorter than it would become. Garcia plays a beautiful solo while Lesh slides all over in support.
On "5/5/67" New Potato comes out of Golden Road in a surprise segue. (Though dated May, this show is probably from August/September, as you can tell from comparing the Alligator to other shows.) The band sounds completely wasted in their stage banter, so it's amazing how well they play; in fact their jamming is extremely aggressive, so their many hours of 'acid-bonding' while playing have clearly paid off. There's only one point in the jam where they seem a bit confused, but they still blast their way to a note-perfect ending. Lesh is really strong here, almost playing Jack Casady-style lead bass in a duet with Garcia; Weir pretty much sticks to chordal backing.
On "1/27/67" the New Potato is incomplete and rather hard to listen to, since Pigpen's keyboards are louder than anything else. No loss though; as it happens, the Morning Dew and New Potato are from the same performance as the 10/22/67 tape, surprisingly captured on two different recordings. (We could probably date the show to late September/October anyway, since Alligator has now picked up its drum intro; I'm not sure if 10/22 is the right date either since Kreutzmann is the only drummer I hear.) In any case, this New Potato is very trippy; Garcia delays his entrance into the jam so his wailing notes have maximum impact when they float in. A couple times Garcia plays the riff to end the song, but then keeps on going - they seem to have practiced this since everyone is right there with him.
Pigpen is very upfront in the mix of all these '67 shows, so we can hear how dominant his playing was in the band's sound. Between Pigpen's shrill organ and Garcia's high-strung guitar, live tapes from this year sometimes have a freewheeling circus-calliope atmosphere. Given Pigpen's limited work later in '69-72, you wouldn't expect him to be playing through a difficult song and jam like New Potato, but he sticks in there all the way through with a well-defined part, and adds a lot to the song which might seem a little bare without him.
11/11/67 has a very laid-back New Potato. Some developments in the playing are now standard in each performance: Garcia lays out for a while after the verses while Lesh and Weir build the groove, then glides back in. The pace is a bit slower as the band pokes around the jam; Weir seems to have expanded the range of his guitar part. Again Garcia draws out the ending by playing the closing riff a couple times, then adding a few more solo lines (the effect is a bit like the way they'd wind up Eyes of the World with the repeated synchronized riff in '73) - this part would become especially lengthy later in 1968.
The versions of New Potato on the Northwest Tour of 1968 are very similar to each other. Surprisingly, they're not very exploratory - it's the nature of a Dead tune to stretch out over time, but through the tour they seem to be making an effort to keep New Potato within bounds, so it's a bit shorter than it was in '67. (Probably they were thinking of the album length.) The three guitars by now are more balanced, with Weir stepping up a lot more and confidently filling in Garcia's leads. Garcia is more methodical with his solos than in '67 - he starts out slowly as he enters the groove, and gradually climbs in intensity. The performances generally get better with each show - on 1/17 New Potato starts out a bit ragged, and on 1/22 it's relatively weak with Garcia going nowhere in the jam. But the February versions, 2/3 and 2/14 are more intense and quite good; the last one, 2/24 is more laid-back but has some amazing textures going on. 3/17 has the same meandering feel; the Dead must have liked this one since they used it as the center of the album version.
The 1/30 New Potato was just recently discovered (the only surviving song from that show), and not only is it unusual for not being part of a medley, it's much longer than the other versions on this tour; the jam goes on & on - perhaps sloppy at times. Garcia stops playing for a while so there's a Lesh solo - in fact parts of the jam are basically Pigpen/Lesh duets! At the end it almost seems like they're going to crash into feedback, but they just stop.
At the start of the tour New Potato shifted around in the set - on 1/17 it opens a medley, and on 1/20 and 1/23 it comes out of Clementine; but in every show thereafter Garcia starts it at the end of the Cryptical suite. They liked the effect of the hypnotic guitar wash emerging from the frantic breakdown of Cryptical, and kept it on the album. In almost all the shows, they segue from the closing blast of New Potato to the starting bang of Born Cross-Eyed (which they also kept for the album). Strangely, for all the times they did it, they hardly ever got it right, though it should have been an easy match, and that segue often sounds clumsy with either a dead stop or a little drum break or Phil nudge to help them re-synchronize at the start of Born Cross-Eyed - finally on 2/14 (the last time) it's a smooth transition. (3/17, on the other hand, features the only New Potato>China Cat medley.)
1/17/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd1968-01-17.sbd.cotsman.11795.shnf 8:30
1/20/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-01-20.sbd.jools.19470.sbe-fixed.shnf 8:29
1/22/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-01-22.sbd.weiner.8583.sbeok.shnf 7:53
1/23/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd1968-01-23.sbd.finney.4528.shnf 8:14
1/30/68 - Road Trips - 12:00
2/3/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-02-03.sbd.jools.14987.sbeok.shnf 8:48
2/14/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-02-14.sbd.kaplan.15640.sbeok.shnf 8:37
2/24/68 - Dick's Pick 22 - 8:41
3/17/68 - Download Series - 8:25
(A reader comments: "The first half of the jam on the Anthem version is from the show included in the official downloads series. At the repeated C-D-F#-D lick it crossfades into another version from a non-circulating show.")
(A note: the New Potato that's track 6, disc 2 of the 1968 "mystery reels" is actually a different mix of 2/3/68. It's odd to hear them abort the segue into Born Cross-Eyed that night and go into Hurts Me Too, unless the tape edit is deceptive.)
The last Anthem-era New Potato we have is from 3/29/68, one of a series of beautiful audience recordings made at the Carousel (the taper seems to have gone back on several nights, but mostly only caught parts of the shows). It's a gentle, langorous version, the ballroom echo suiting the song well and Garcia's sinuous guitar up-front; it's much like the Northwest performances though he is starting to stretch his solo out at the end a little more. He extends the repeated distorted-chimes figure that was used more briefly before, but would become a climactic highlight of later performances.
On Anthem of the Sun, the Dead decided to blend studio and live recordings of New Potato - the 'song' part is entirely studio-recorded which allows them to treat it differently than in a live show. They emphasize the musical emergence from chaos by turning the close of Cryptical into a Constanten piano-noise disintegration, and prolonging the opening riff of New Potato. (As Constanten put it, he was to whip the music "into a greater frenzy, ultimately causing it to explode, and out of the rubble of the explosion and the smoke and the ashes and everything would come the delicious sounds of New Potato Caboose." It never sounded quite like that at live shows.) The vocals are sung somewhat differently; the bass wanders in and out; there are many more instruments, including harpsichord, celesta, and a piano or two as well as organ, chimes, and several guitar dubs including an acoustic. But when they reach the 'jam' it switches to a continuous live version (or several edited together), without extra effects except Garcia is sometimes playing two guitars at once.
Anthem of the Sun - 8:26
Our next New Potato comes from an undated 'mystery show', probably from May '68 (though it has also circulated as 4/3/68). Most noted for having a brutally brief fragment of the earliest-known St Stephen, this show also features a major innovation in the New Potato. Garcia starts the song after easing Cryptical into a quiet, graceful finish (which sounds very mature for the early date). Rather than going into the usual post-lyrics New Potato jam, Lesh starts a pumping bass solo right away that turns into a familiar classical motif, often labeled the jam in thirteens. Unfortunately I can't identify the classical piece he is doing, would appreciate if someone could name it. (The Compendium says it's Chopin's Minute Waltz, but it's not.) Weir joins him with a few chords, but after a couple minutes they end it and the regular New Potato solo starts. Garcia, however, is not very flowing at this show - he didn't add anything to the thirteens jam, and his solo seems disjointed.
Mid-1968 is almost a black hole for Dead recordings, so the next versions are from a few months later, at the monstrous August shows.
In 8/22/68 an amazing New Potato comes out of a slow, lovely Cryptical jam; Lesh has really expanded his solo so it goes for several minutes, Pigpen playing in tandem as the rest of the band drops in delicate noises and feedback. When the classical theme starts, everyone lifts it up with great staccato rhythmic chords, turning it into one of the Dead's most exhilarating moments. (It is rather ragged tonight though; 8/24 is tighter.) Garcia immediately rolls out a smoldering solo - the jam ebbs and swells, extending past reason, the band swerving with him as he blazes into his cascading climaxes.
The 8/24/68 New Potato emerges again from a very sweet Cryptical jam. The song is nearly identical to 8/22, except that the Dead are more energized so it has even more drive. Lesh is booming in his solo, and teases the classical theme for a little while, supported by some chimes from Garcia and Pigpen and nice feedback waves from Weir; when they finally lock into it the effect is joyous. Weir in particular stands out, doubling Lesh's lines. They take it down for Garcia's solo - he seems quiet and laid-back at first, but they carefully build up into two more outstanding climaxes that are new to the song, climbing to a roar and then dropping down again, before the usual grand finish. This is the most transcendental version. (It's also unusual for going into Lovelight at the end, instead of Alligator as was common in this period.)
I might add that by now, Pigpen's style has changed - he's a lot more subdued on keyboards; his tone is different, blending in more with the others, and he seems to be playing a few notes at a time & rhythm backing rather than the huge colorful chords he was blasting a year earlier. (This is our last New Potato in which he plays at all.)
Two From The Vault 14:16
New Potato had found its permanent place following the Cryptical suite in a medley; but while Cryptical continued to grow (doubling in size in '68), New Potato had reached its farthest limit. The next few versions from the fall are disappointing. 10/12/68 is one of the best shows of '68, but does not have a top New Potato. The drummers are going wild with crashing cymbals, but there's some hesitation before Lesh starts his solo, and they only jam on it for three minutes - it's fast, delicious and dense and shows how strongly they must have been performing it in those months, but it rapidly breaks down for some reason into a drum solo, and they return with a great Caution-type jam.
By a cruel quirk of fate, the New Potato jams on both 10/13 and 11/1 are obliterated by tapecuts. 11/22 has a nice version - Lesh's solo is a standout, though Garcia's is shortened - but the distant, muffled audience tape is a challenge to listen to or enjoy.
10/12/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-10-12.sbd.eD.10909.sbeok.shnf 6:39
10/13/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-10-13.sbd.eD.10910.sbeok.shnf 2:58/
11/1/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-11-01.sbd.cotsman.18100.sbeok.shnf 2:20/
11/22/68 - http://www.archive.org/details/gd68-11-22.aud.cotsman.10088.sbeok.shnf 11:43
12/7/68 has some standout performances in spite of the sound problems they were having, and features another classic New Potato along with the only live Rosemary. Cryptical winds down delicately into an energetic Caboose. There's a new, dramatic entry into the jam: after the vocals everybody sings "whooaaa!" (first heard on 10/12), which remains a neat part of the song in the following versions. Lesh's solo is exciting and fast-paced, and a bit more sloppy than in August as the others don't always stay in synch. Garcia's solo is beautiful, as he's starting to play his lines in a different way (including one short volume-swell section), and he lingers on the Viola Lee-style spiraling climax. He drops out for a bit as new player Tom Constanten takes a brief solo spot; but though New Potato seems ideally suited for Constanten to add his baroque decorations, he never contributed to this song, perhaps feeling there wasn't room for him.
While New Potato had been a constant in the setlists of '67 and '68, in 1969 we only have three known performances. On 1/24/69 the Cryptical drops down to quietness before Garcia decides to start New Potato - it's a bit tentative in spots, so Lesh bludgeons his way into a sloppy solo. The measured grace this section had in August has gone missing, as the band offers only indifferent support, Weir really stumbling around at the end of the solo. Garcia's section is still performed well though, as he coaxes the band into a nice spiraling climax. Note how different New Potato sounds now that Pigpen's not playing and the song is guitars-only - Constanten is barely audible.
On 3/1/69 they played an intense set, but the New Potato is still rusty, showing how rarely they were playing it then. Check out, for instance, how slow the band are in backing the classical theme; Weir screws up again at the end of Lesh's solo, finally giving up on even finding the right notes. Garcia's solo is pretty short this time, and he seems in a hurry to end it, catching the band unprepared when he starts the closing riff. The spiraling climax is still very cool though, especially the way they come out of it.
http://www.archive.org/details/gd69-03-01.sbd.16track.kaplan.4030.sbeok.shnf (reviews only) 11:37
The first set of 6/8/69 is a remarkable, unique medley of Dancing in the Streets>He Was A Friend of Mine>China Cat Sunflower>New Potato Caboose. One would think that the final New Potato would be a shambles as the band tried to remember this dusty song - far from it, they must have played it recently, for it's a really good version, carefully performed. The band backs Lesh's solo perfectly this time; Garcia enters his solo triumphantly, and takes it to some interesting places; he hangs on for an intensely long climax, and the band swaggers to a joyful finish. It's too bad, after this almost note-perfect rendition, that the band would abandon New Potato; but they were returning in mid-'69 to simpler, more folksy material, and may have felt that this psychedelic piece with its complicated harmonies, tempo changes and demanding structure was no longer as enjoyable to play.