by Hugh Barroll, 1999
For many years, Bird Song was Hunter and Garcia's hidden elegy to Janis Joplin. In electric shows it was a high point to many first sets, and it was a mainstay of the band's acoustic performances in the early 1980's, offering a sweet, mournful lyric and frequently inspired jamming. Finally, with the publication of Robert Hunter's Box of Rain lyric book in 1990, the Grateful Dead community at large learned the Bird Song was "for Janis", and a new dimension was added to Jerry's crooning and the band's increasingly wild performances.
The Story of the Song
On October 4, 1970, Janis Joplin died. Her loss rocked the music world, and, in particular, the San Francisco music scene. She had first appeared on the Bay Area radar screen as an acoustic blues singer, working the same coffeehouse circuit as the young Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen (with whom she played from time to time). She became a driving force of the electric unfolding of San Francisco when Chet Helms lured her back from Texas, and hooked her up with Big Brother and the Holding Company. In addition to her inspired performances, she was a much loved member of the community, contributing money and her talents to helping keep the fragile bubble of the Haight afloat, as well as providing a much needed reality check with the bubble floated too far afield. Her ridicule of the idea of a bunch of hippies running the Carousel Ballroom was scathing and to the point. She was a good friend of the Grateful Dead. She was particularly close to Pig Pen who was always proud to claim that he taught her to drink Southern Comfort, a memory with painful ironies given the circumstances of both their deaths.
On the night Janis died, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Hot Tuna performed at Winterland. It must have been a traumatic night for all involved. Marty Balin did not show up to perform with the Airplane, starting his break with the band. [Actually, he did perform, but unhappily. – LIA] The Dead managed a workmanlike set, mixing some solid performances with some major flubs. After the show, in the finest tradition of attack journalism, reporters demanded reactions from the musicians coping with the loss of one of their own. Jerry Garcia was one of those quoted. His comments, which were to the effect that everyone has to die and that Janis would want us to be happy because that was the kind of person she was, have been criticized by many, including Myra Friedman (one of Janis' biographers) as insensitive. In Bird Song, Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia were able to offer a far finer reflection on this tragedy.
I find the lyrics to Bird Song work best when read as relatively straightforward song of loss, mourning and consolation. Hunter's acknowledgment that the song was for Janis aids in this interpretation, and represents one instance where a word of explanation from the songwriter helps in the appreciation of the song.
The opening two lines of exposition set out the basic tragedy of the song: "All I know is something like a bird within her sang/All I know, she sang a little while and then flew on." In addition to describing the loss of a beautiful songbird, however, these lines make clear that the singer will not be able to offer any explanation for this loss. All he knows is that she sang and then flew on.
At this point the song shifts to the second person, where it stays for the remainder of the song. This permits the singer to directly engage the listener in sorting through the loss of the songbird. Using the second person in a song to directly address the listener is a risky approach. By abandoning the expository approach, and not using dialogue between characters to tell the story of the song, Hunter is abandoning conventional distancing techniques that make songs less personal, both from the perspective of the singer and the listener. Hunter uses this technique to great effect here and in songs such as Ripple and Foolish Heart. The danger of this technique is that it can sound preachy. I don't believe Day Job would have generated the hostility it did, had it not been directly addressed to the audience.
In Bird Song, the singer's conversation with the listener opens with some fairly bleak images: "Tell me all that you know/I'll show you/snow and rain". In essence, whatever the listener can offer about the life and passing of the songbird comes down to "snow and rain". This is a wonderfully chosen image, since snow and rain are two of the perils of a bird's existence, evoking concisely the perils of mortal life. In addition, I hear echoes of the traditional folk image of "wind and rain" in this line. The Black Mountain Boys, among many others, sang to us of the cruel wind and rain. The central image of Bob Dylan's lovely Percy's Song is the cruel rain and wind.
The next verse opens with a poignant, unanswerable question for the listener: "If you hear that same sweet song will you know why/Anyone who sings a song so sweet is passing by". This takes the very specific tragedy of the loss of Janis Joplin and connects it to the broader tragedy that the creators of art, which can be eternal, are themselves evanescent mortals. More specifically, it ties the passing of Janis to the heartbreaking tradition of beautiful singers and musicians who have died much too young. When I hear this question, I hear echoes of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Pig Pen and Jerry Garcia among far too many others.
From here, the song becomes more open to interpretation. The singer appears to still be addressing the listener, however the imagery is the imagery of a bird: "fly through the night, sleep in the stars". What works best for me is to imagine the listeners as birds, and the singer as offering us consolation and encouragement to continue with our lives despite our losing a beautiful voice from our flock. Read this way, the remainder of the song works wonderfully. We are advised to "laugh in the sunshine/sing/cry in the dark/fly through the night". This reminds us that to grieve is not to abandon oneself entirely to loss. Yes, we may cry in the dark, but there is still room to laugh, sing, to continue with life as one flies through the night.
Finally, in the bridge, the singer advises the listener that grieving too must come to an end: "Don't you cry anymore". However, it is not enough to simply stop crying. One sign that the listener has resolved grief is when the listener can achieve a state of inner peace. This is how I read "Sleep in the stars". Besides being a simply beautiful image, it evokes a sense of tranquility and ability to accept the mortality that is the fate for all of us. Finally flying offers the listener the opportunity to "dry your eyes on the wind." Thus, getting on with life can be the final stage of the grieving process.
The Performances - 1970-71
Hunter and Garcia worked swiftly to create their elegy to Janis. Barely two months after her passing, Garcia was trying out the earliest known version of Bird Song in the rehearsals for the David and the Dorks/Jerry and the Jerks shows at the Matrix on December 15, 1970. The song may have received its first public performance at one of these gigs. If it did, no tape circulates.
It is unlikely that the Dead performed Bird Song in public prior to its presumed debut on February 19, 1971. It is possible that they performed it at one of the shows around the New Year that does not circulate. However, the band did a serious work-through of the song during the rehearsals for the February ‘71 Port Chester run. All the other songs on the rehearsal tape were debuted by the band at Port Chester, so it is reasonable to assume that this marked the debut of Bird Song.
The first performance of Bird Song is, unsurprisingly, a bit primitive. The Dead are notorious for arranging their songs onstage, and Bird Song is fine example of this. For the song's concert debut, only Jerry and Billy have a clue as to how to play the song, despite the band's efforts to rehearse. Pig Pen is absent, and I believe he never did play the song in concert (unless he is buried in the mix for some of the later ‘71 versions). Phil almost capsizes the intro when he tries to invent his part on the fly. Bobby is almost absent. Billy's playing strongly echoes his part on the Garcia solo album, suggesting that he had already been working on the song in the studio with Jerry prior to its public debut. In its debut arrangement, Jerry sings the song twice. Since the song reprises the first verse after the bridge, this results in Jerry singing this verse four times in its first performance (an arrangement repeated the next night, then dropped). This arrangement includes three brief instrumental breaks each launched by a guitar statement. No jamming develops.
The second performance of the song the next night shows Jerry starting to develop some ideas. The instrumental break after the first reprise contains the first statement of the searching/yearning guitar line that launched many Bird Songs through the years. Jerry does not extend this line far from the Bird Song theme, but it is the song's first indication of its ability to open. Similarly, in the third performance of the song on February 21, Jerry is looking for extensions in his leads, but he is getting little to no help from the band. Much of the song is a Jerry/Bobby duet, with almost no rhythmic support.
After a night off, Phil finally learned his part on February 23. The growth in his playing in two days in stunning. One must suspect he did some homework. He underpins the song structure and adds significant depth to the jam. Given someone to play with, Jerry starts pushing the jam a bit toward the outside. The playing is still nothing special, but you can hear that the band is starting to get some ideas.
Following the Port Chester run, our next version of the song is from the legendary Princeton show on April 17th. It is unclear whether other versions of the song exist from March ‘71, since tapes from the period are so sparse, but several early April shows that we have on tape are missing it. [April 14 is the only known version in this interval. – LIA] The Princeton version is not memorable, but it includes an elegant descending then ascending figure from Garcia in the final instrumental break that I believe is unique.
For the finest of the early Bird Songs, I commend your attention to its next appearance in Providence on April 21st. Like all 1971 Bird Songs, it is relatively brief (under 8 minutes), however this is the first version that I feel truly soars. As with so many Grateful Dead jams, the key to making this version special is Phil. He is dominant in the mix and drives the song through the verses. His strong lead launches the jam at the first break. Jerry joins in for a thoughtful and inventive (though too brief) dialogue. One of the best thing about early ‘71 jamming is that the stripped down arrangements required by the personnel created space for Jerry and Phil to interact directly through out the jams. This Bird Song is a fine example of this communication. The brief second jam in this version contains Phil's quick quote from Dark Star. The third break is dominated by a more conventional Bird Song theme from Jerry, but Phil offers strong support to drive the jam.
[Bird Song was then played three times at the Fillmore East. – LIA]
One last ‘71 Bird Song worthy of note is the Yale Bowl version from July 31st. This is the first Bird Song connected to another song. This does not occur again until 1980. It is also the only time it was connected to Dark Star, a frequent source of jamming material for Bird Song. This is not an exceptional version of the song. It kicks off with a bang out of Dark Star, and the arrangement is delivered confidently. However, when Jerry tries to seriously weird out the jam at the end, the band doesn't really pick up the thread and the jam sort of peters out.
[After two more performances in August and a September rehearsal, the band dropped the song. – LIA]
The Garcia Solo Album
After the band had dropped Bird Song as a performance piece, Jerry finally got around to releasing it on his first solo album, Garcia, in early 1972. Yes, we have yet another chapter in the band's complete obliviousness to its commercial product in making up its set lists.
The album version is nice, with a bouncy tempo, but not particularly inspiring. Instrumentally, it is dominated by Jerry's electric guitar and straightforward organ riffs. It doesn't include any significant instrumental play until the end, where a brief jam slows the tempo just prior to the fade.
There is one mystery on the album version. Early on, there is, very briefly, a women's voice wailing, buried deeply in the mix. It comes right after Jerry sings the opening line. This is uncredited, leaving plenty of room for speculation as to the vocalist. My pet theory is that Donna overdubbed it, since she was in the Dead's orbit prior to the release of the album. Other speculation is that it is Mountain Girl or a sample of a Janis recording.
The 1972-73 Revival
After August ‘71, the band abandoned Bird Song for almost a year, reviving it after Pig Pen left the band in June 1972 (another bird that sang a little while and flew on). Upon its revival, it became a mainstay of their 1972 sets, appearing in almost every show from July through December 1972. After December 1972, it became an occasional treat, livening up first sets until it was dropped after September 15, 1973.
Clearly, the band, especially Jerry, gave some thought to how to bring back the song. The new arrangement introduced a formal structure to the jam at the first instrumental break. In all 1972 and 1973 versions of Bird Song, this jam opened with an improvised section which would close with a statement of the Bird Song theme. The jam would then move to a brief solo statement from Billy, followed by the full band offering a forceful, yet spacy, statement of one of Bird Song instrumental themes originally developed by Jerry in the early 1971 versions of the song. To my ears, this theme appears to be closely related to the chord pattern the band uses to introduce the bridge of the song. In some late ‘72 and early ‘73 versions, I hear the band using variations on this theme in their playing of the bridge, particularly during the reprise. In 1972, the band also developed a closing jam after the reprise of the lyrics. While this tended to be a relatively brief jam, it often was quite dynamic, and frequently provided a contrast to the generally more contemplative opening jams. Once this arrangement fully evolved in August 1972, the Dead found themselves with three distinct jamming statements in Bird Song: the opening jam at the break, a jam after Billy's brief solo, and the closing jam.
Another major development in the 1972 Bird Songs was the growth of Bob Weir. In 1971 versions of the song, he was generally not a significant factor. For the new arrangement of the song, he developed a distinctive jazzy pattern of chording that was key to the framework both of the song and much of the jamming. This chordal pattern freed Jerry to explore wide ranging lead lines, and offered a sensitive framework for the band to react to. Bobby and Jerry also worked out unison lead lines for the verses, similar in concept to their playing on China Cat Sunflower, which gave more authority to the presentation of the lyrics.
While the basic structure of the new arrangement was worked out in advance, the band, as was its wont, spent the first several tries of a new arrangement working out the kinks. On occasion in the early versions (such as 7/18/72 and 8/12/72), one can hear Jerry directing the band. The debut of the new arrangement occurred at Roosevelt Stadium on July 18, 1972, the second show after Pig Pen's departure. This version is more than a little bit rocky. Jerry totally dominates the opening jam, which stays fairly static. After the drums, the band restates the basic Bird Song theme rather then hitting the theme used in all other 1972 and 1973 versions. The post-drums jam quickly falls apart. Another, I believe, unique, element of this version is that the closing jam comes after the reprise of the first verse. In all other 1972 and 1973 versions, the closing jam comes at the very end of the song. Phil kicks off the closing jam, eventually joined by Jerry. This jam does not cohere particularly well, and lacks the drive that is central to most of the closing jams in this era.
While we are missing most of the next version of this song, the fragment we have of 7/22/72 shows substantial progress in the development of the new arrangement. The post-drums jam and the closing jam are much better organized, although neither soars. 7/25/72 is also a tad pedestrian, but offers the first clear statement of the post-drums theme that will be a centerpiece to the remaining 1972 and 1973 Bird Songs.
By August, the band is making substantial progress with the new arrangement. The 8/12/72 version from Sacramento shows the band much more comfortable in the instrumental groove, and much more confident (though still off-key) with its vocals. The band asserts itself much more strongly in the opening jam, pushing the energy and creating some interesting tension with Jerry's very drawn out lead lines. The post-drums jam quickly abandons its signature theme for a yearning theme more characteristic of the opening jam. It's nice, but doesn't take advantage of the opportunity for thematic variation that this arrangement of Bird Song presents. The reprise jam, on the other hand, shows significant evolution. Jerry kicks off with a spacy start to the jam framed by Bobby's inventive chordwork. Jerry moves to a more driving, Other One related line, then moves back to a yearning theme supported by Phil. Then, as a harbinger of things to come, Phil moves out front. He's just building up a head of steam as the jam ends, leaving us wanting much more. This is by far the finest reprise jam to date.
The two versions from the Berkeley Community Theater (8/22/72 and 8/24/72) show the continued evolution of Phil's role. In both versions, Phil is dominant from the intro onwards. These versions also show how the whole band's communication is improving. Neither of these versions is flawless, the band still hasn't figured out what to make of the post-drums jam, but the overall playing is showing substantially greater depth. [A longer version was also played on 8/25. – LIA]
Next up is Veneta 8/27/72. I do not subscribe to the school that maintains this show to be a monumentally unique Grateful Dead experience. However, I do think this was a very special show, and that the band responded by pushing their playing to a higher level than in the earlier post-Europe shows. Their performance of Bird Song illustrates this point. This is the first version of the new arrangement that completely works. It is substantially longer than any previous version, running close to 12 minutes, and the band makes great use of the extra time. The singers show their growing confidence with the song. Even the harmonies start to gel, as Bobby finds a way to fit in. Jerry kicks off the jam with his standard yearning themes. He then pushes the tempo, and the band responds fluently as the jam swells, recedes and swells again. Jerry's leads extend the opening jam much further than the earlier 1972 versions, and the band is with him every step of the way. The band seamlessly flows into the restatement of the Bird Song theme leading to the drums. The post-drums jam finally works as distinct statement, as the band picks up on the signature theme and, for the first time, develops variations on the theme. Phil's leads underpin the singing in the reprise. Bob's chords kick off the reprise jam, and Jerry plays off of them beautifully to develop a supple and exploratory jam that flows perfectly into the close.
Following Veneta, the Grateful Dead started one of the finest periods of their career. Almost every performance is memorable, and every jamming song they performed reached great heights. Bird Song was no exception. Every Bird Song from this era is worth serious attention, as the band's jamming reached almost telepathic levels of interplay.
The 9/10/72 Hollywood Bowl performance is an example of the band's interplay at its finest. It is possibly the longest performance in the 1972-1973 era, running about 13 1/2 minutes (although 7/27/73 competes for that honor). Phil ornaments the verses with intricate melodic lines, giving the first hint at the depth of this performance. Phil and Bob launch the jam, with Phil's lead lines dancing through Bob's chord patterns. Jerry's yearning lead completes the picture, and the three guitar players develop an extended and exploratory conversation, in a relaxed mood. The jam smoothly flows into the restatement of the Bird Song theme, Billy's drums and a brief post-drums jam. The reprise jam resumes the guitar players' intricate three-way conversation. These are not a powerhouse jams with dynamic surges. But these jams have an intricate beauty that is worth a close listen. One footnote to this performance: after the close, Bob tries to connect Bird Song to Jack Straw, but no one will follow him. Had the connection been made, it would have been the only 1972 or 1973 Bird Song to segue into another song.
For something completely different, I recommend 9/17/72. Here, after a confident reading of the song, Jerry hangs back to let Bobby build a chordal structure to open the jam. Jerry then blasts down this structure with piercing lines. This is as high energy as Bird Song opening jams got in 1972. Jerry drives this jam with authority, poaching some rock and roll lines from a Truckin' jam. Bobby's support keeps the song anchored as he explores variations on the Bird Song theme. The closing jam is also noteworthy in that here Jerry explores the yearning themes ignored in the opening jam. This is a comparatively concise version (only 10 1/2 minutes), but it is a powerhouse.
The earliest Bird Song released by the Dead (and one of only four) also fits in the powerhouse category. This is the tour-de-force version from the Stanley Theater on 9/27/72, release on Dick's Picks XI. This is the version Phil proclaims to be dynamite at the close. My favorite parts of this one are the Dark Star elements Jerry introduces near the opening jam, and the driving closing jam. Bobby opens and closes this jam with patterns derived from the post-drums theme. Jerry uses Bobby's framework to launch his high energy lead, and to bring it back to earth as the jam winds to its close.
One surprise in 1972 Bird Songs is the reticence of Keith. I find this puzzling, because Keith plays a key role in much of the year's jamming. Fortunately, there are a couple of noteworthy exceptions. The 9/21/72 version from Philadelphia is, as noted in Volume 1 of the Compendium, one example of Keith out front. In this version, Jerry launches the jam with his typical yearning themes. After wandering up his fretboard, though, Jerry drops out, and Keith takes charge. Robert Goetz speculates in Volume 1 that Keith took over when Jerry broke a string. My guess is that it was planned. After some initial patterns with Bobby, Keith moves over to electric piano and favors us with some subtle and quite nice wah wah phrasing. This is the first use of electric piano I am aware of in Bird Song, and Keith's first use of the wah wah effect that I know of anywhere. I think Jerry stepped aside to let Keith try out his new toy. Eventually, Jerry strolls back in for a nice conversation with Phil, leading to the drum break. In addition to 9/21/72, I would also commend 9/15/72 to the attention of Keith fans. He isn't out front, but he makes several strong contributions in the verses and the closing jam.
For Phil fans, I would recommend two of my very favorite 1972 Bird Songs: 9/26/72 and 11/22/72. The kickoff to the 9/26/72 opening jam shows Jerry and Phil in telepathic communion as Phil punctuates Jerry's extended lead lines with a dancing melody. Their communion deepens as they develop an intricate dual lead jam. 11/22/72 is a tape "flawed" by a bass-heavy mix. This is a flaw I can live with. We get to again hear Phil beautifully ornamenting Jerry's introduction to the opening jam. Phil then pushes the tempo and energy of the jam up a notch, bringing Jerry along for the ride. The jam slows to an elegant, melodic theme, with some Dark Star hints from Phil before the drums. This version is also notable for the return of Keith's wah wah electric piano. Here it accents the post-drums jam, the vocal reprise and the start of the closing jam.
Of the remaining 1972 Bird Songs, I would particularly recommend 10/19/72 and 11/19/72. However, all are worth a listen.
The early 1973 Bird Songs do not impress me as much as their brethren from the late summer and fall of 1972. This may be, in part, because the early 1973 shows don't thrill me as much as the end of 1972. Another factor is the decline of Bobby's role in the arrangement. His chord work was a key element of the song's structure in 1972. Somewhat inexplicably, Bobby pretty much abandoned his distinctive chordal pattern in 1973 Bird Songs (with the notable exception of 3/22/73). This was not entirely a bad thing. Bobby backing off opened space in the arrangement that gave Keith and especially Phil more room to play. But nothing in the 1973 arrangements really took the place of Bob's chord work, leaving a looser and somewhat more disjointed arrangement of the song.
The early 1973 Bird Songs do not impress me as much as their brethren from the late summer and fall of 1972. This may be, in part, because the early 1973 shows don't thrill me as much as the end of 1972. Another factor is the decline of Bobby's role in the arrangement. His chord work was a key element of the song's structure in 1972. Somewhat inexplicably, Bobby pretty much abandoned his distinctive chordal pattern in 1973 Bird Songs (with the notable exception of 3/22/73). This was not entirely a bad thing. Bobby backing off opened space in the arrangement that gave Keith and especially Phil more room to play. But nothing in the 1973 arrangements really took the place of Bob's chord work, leaving a looser and somewhat more disjointed arrangement of the song.
The highlight of the early 1973 Bird Songs are two versions where Phil makes his presence felt. In both the 2/22/73 and 3/16/73 versions, Phil enters into extend dialogues with Jerry. 2/22/73 is relaxed and spacy version that stays close to home, with elegant variations on the Bird Song theme. 3/16/73 is more adventurous, with Jerry injecting Other One hints in the opening jam, and Phil bringing elements of the intro to Truckin' into the closing jam.
In Vancouver 6/22/73, the Dead offered one of their finest ‘70s-era Bird Songs. For the first time, Keith played the whole song on Fender (something he continued in most of the later 1973 versions), a delightful change of pace. This change, however, doesn't disrupt the arrangement. To the contrary, every piece of this version falls into place, from Jerry's leads down to Billy's swinging cymbal accents. Weir gives us a taste of his chord work in the first verse, although he essentially disappears from the arrangement afterwards. Phil makes his presence felt in the first chorus, then Keith steps out for the second verse and the bridge. Phil, Keith and Jerry open the jam in a gentle, contemplative space, exploring variations on the Bird Song theme. Gradually they pick up the pace, while retaining the spacy melodic feel. Like 9/10/72, the jam swells and recedes seamlessly in telepathic communion. Weir finally resurfaces in the mix just as Jerry explores more variations of the Bird Song theme before the drums. The post-drums jam is a further extended conversation between Phil, Jerry and Keith, with Keith reintroducing his wah wah. The closing jam continues the conversation as it builds to an understated, but well-structured climax.
The last four 1973 Bird Songs are all very different except in one critical respect: they are all monsters. Roosevelt Stadium 8/1/73 gives us a powerhouse rendition. Keith is again a star on Fender. Billy also makes his presence felt in the opening jam pushing the energy upwards. Keith and Jerry respond to this, building to a mountainous climax. The only flaws in this version is some quirkiness in the mix of the reprise, and a high energy but too brief closing jam.
The final three Bird Songs only circulate on less than splendid audience tapes. Each is worth the patience it takes to experience the Dead's jamming at its finest. 9/7/73 is a cousin of 9/10/72 and 6/26/73 with its fine interplay and intraband communication. Jerry and Phil's dialogue in the opening jam is particularly noteworthy as is the fully developed postdrums space jam.
The 9/12/73 version from William and Mary launches the opening jam directly towards space, using circular patterns reminiscent of the revolving jam central to 1969 Dark Stars. This jam eventually peters out, and Jerry brings up more conventional yearning themes, but with a strange, off-kilter edge. Jerry and Phil push the jam further towards weirdness until a climbing pattern develops to build energy towards the return of the Bird Song theme. Keith is the initial star of the postdrums jam with rippling Fender lines. Jerry and Phil then take over for a delicate and strange space. The closing jam is a nice mix of power and weirdness. It doesn't develop so much as mutate, introducing increasingly odd facets to a basically static framework. If and when the band shows the good sense to make the William and Mary run a Dick's Pick, I hope they do not neglect this gem from the underappreciated second night.
Then on 9/15/73, for the last performance of Bird Song for seven years, Jerry reminds us that this is his song. Before letting go of this song, Jerry has a few things to say. He launches the opening jam with high pitched arpeggios similar to the revolving themes of 9/12/73. He then moves into yearning themes, with a tense, angry edge. Jerry similarly drives the postdrums jam and the closing jam. The closing jam hits strongly on Other One themes, opening with drive before spacing out gently for the close.
It is hard to figure why the band dropped Bird Song just as they moved into another of their finest jamming periods in late 1973 and 1974. Possibly it got squeezed out by the band's interest in bringing forward material from Wake of the Flood and, in 1974, Mars Hotel. It is reasonable to speculate that Here Comes Sunshine, Weather Report Suite and, in 1974, Scarlet Begonias offered the band new opportunities for exploring jamming opportunities within a song framework. Another possibility is that, by 1973, Bird Song was firmly entrenched as a first set song. Late 1973, despite its legendary jams, does show the band cutting back on its first set jamming. See, for example, the set lists to 9/17/73, 9/24/73,10/23/73, and 10/27/73. Regardless of the explanation, I will always regret that the band dropped one of my favorite songs just as they entered one of my favorite eras.
The Acoustic Bird Song
Seven years later (almost to the day) after its departure, Bird Song returned in its first acoustic incarnation. The acoustic Bird Song was spawned during the period of intense creativity and work that generated the acoustic material for the extended residencies at the Warfield in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York. Two of these versions have been released, one on Reckoning and the 10/31/80 performance on the video Dead Ahead. Outside of these runs, the Grateful Dead played Bird Song acoustically only a few times. However, the acoustic arrangement lived on in acoustic performances of Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. I had the good fortune to see five acoustic Bird Songs: three from the 1980 Warfield run, the 12/31/80 performance at the Oakland Auditorium (later known as the Kaiser), and finally the Phil and Friends version from the Berkeley Community Theater in 1994. Each version was memorable.
The acoustic arrangement of Bird Song abandons many of the structural elements of the 1972 and 1973 versions. The drum break at the center of the main jam disappears in 1980, as does the distinctive figure, adapted from the bridge, that followed the drums. Also, the closing jam disappears in 1980, never to return. In addition, the order of verses is substantially reshuffled in 1980, then reshuffled again (whether intentionally or not) almost every night they played the song. For the debut, Jerry sings the entire song, including repeating the first verse, before the jam. After the jam, Jerry sings the first verse, skips the second verse, then sings the bridge and repeats the first verse for the fourth time (he repeated this pattern on 12/31/80). On other nights, Jerry goes from the jam straight into the bridge (9/27/80), and sings the second verse three times (10/9/80). On 10/2/80, the band more or less settles on the verse arrangement most commonly used in 1980 Bird Songs, singing the whole song before the jam, then going to the second verse after the jam, followed by the bridge and a repeat of the first verse.
As with the earlier arrangements, it takes the band a few tries at the song to wipe the cornstarch off its mukluks and get settled. The revival version opens the show on 9/25/80. I believe this is the only time Bird Song has opened a set. This version finds Jerry and Phil engaged, but finds the rest of the band well and truly lost. The drummers, in particular, lock into a totally inappropriate nervous pulse. The brief jam introduces Jerry's stabbing acoustic guitar lines, a prominent feature in many acoustic Bird Songs. The 9/27/80 version shows the band, especially the drummers, still out of synch. The drummers are much too busy, and working at far too speedy a tempo. One begins to understand Bobby's complaints about the drummers overplaying on ballads. The jam here shows Jerry starting to stretch out as he explores new angles. By 9/29, the arrangement starts to fall into place. The drummers are back in their cage, and the band in general seems more confident. The high point of this version is Phil stepping out for some lead lines in the still too brief jam.
The next two versions are also strong versions for Phil, and are my two favorite Warfield versions. The 9/30/80 performance runs about 8 minutes, the longest acoustic version to that point, and Phil and Jerry take full advantage. Phil does a delicate, melodic dance through the verses. Jerry kicks off the jam with rapid fire lines, then backs off the tempo only to push hard again. Phil tracks the ebb and flow from Jerry, ornamenting every step. On 10/2/80, Phil remains fully engaged. His lyrical leads dominate the verses, and he enters into an extended exploratory conversation with Jerry in the jam. 10/2/80 also shows the harmonies becoming much sweeter, as Jerry, Brent and Bobby develop a delicate rapport. Some of my very favorite Bird Song vocals are from the later Warfield shows.
Two other noteworthy Warfield Bird Songs are 10/9/80 and 10/10/80. 10/9/80 features some more fine Phil and Jerry interplay. This version features high speed rippling lines from Jerry, with Phil bouncing imperturbably around him. This version also has Jerry singing "If you hear that same sweet song again" rather than "When you hear". This is noteworthy because Hunter wrote the line as "If you hear". Until this version, I don't believe Garcia had ever sung the line as written. 10/10/80 is a Garcia tour de force. He drives the entire jam, as he explores a wide range of variations on the Bird Song theme. This version reminds me Jerry's approach to the song in his duets with John Kahn.
Following one performance in New Orleans, the next Bird Songs were from the band's residency at Radio City Music Hall. Generally, I prefer the later Warfield performances to those from the Radio City run. A big reason for this is that Jerry's voice is in much worse shape at Radio City. The other reason is Phil. With one noteworthy exception, I just don't hear him stepping up to the plate for this run. This may be due, in part, to the fidelity of the audience tapes. But I think he simply wasn't giving it his all
From Radio City, one version certainly worth a listen is 10/25/80, thanks almost entirely to Mr. Garcia. He offers one of his better readings of the lyrics, then sails out strongly in the jam with piercing notes. He forces a tightly focussed and intense jam that bristles with energy.
My other favorite from Radio City is 10/31/80: the night Phil came to play. Jerry launches the jam, lyrically ascending and descending his fretboard. Phil is much more of a presence than earlier in the run, as he underpins and ornaments Jerry's flights. One wonders if Phil is showing off for the cameras. Jerry extends his rippling lead lines away from the Bird Song themes, with Phil pushing him every step of the way. Brent starts the return to the main theme, but Jerry resists, setting up some tension that gives more strength to the jam, and a nice sense of release when the reprise falls into place.
Following the Radio City run, the band gave us two more acoustic Bird Songs in 1980. Both are noteworthy. The first is from one of the band's 12/6/80 show in Mill Valley, a rare all-acoustic concert. This show offers a wonderful performance, but a frustrating tape. On the tape we can hear Phil clearly enough to tell that he is active and fully engaged, but not clearly enough to really hear what he is doing. An upgrade is called for. Jerry's playing makes the performance. He launches the jam with some fast pitched stabbing notes, like a Martian telegraph. He builds the jam with rippling lines that have a bit of a hard, dissonant edge. This is about as stormy as the acoustic Bird Songs get.
The final Bird Song of 1980 came on New Years Eve, and it remains my favorite acoustic Bird Song, a culmination of the 1980 revival. The fact I was at the concert might color my judgment a bit, but it is definitely worth a listen. Phil and Jerry launch this jam together. Jerry is out front with rippling lines. Phil underpins Jerry's flight in a manner similar to his approach on 10/31/80. Jerry shifts direction away from standard Bird Song themes, bringing in a dissonant edge not unlike the Mill Valley version, but also with a blues feel. The band does a very nice job of building the energy of the jam in support of Jerry's lead. Then, with a nice sense of dynamics, the band quiets and Jerry flies almost alone before returning to the Bird Song theme.
The final full band acoustic version of Bird Song comes at the legendary OOPS concert at the Melkweg in Amsterdam on 10/16/81. It is a winner. The jam here is relaxed at the start, with Jerry strolling out accompanied by Phil and Brent. Jerry and Phil then push the tempo and energy. A very strong full band jam builds, bristling with ideas. Both Jerry and Phil essay some sweet lead lines, and the band moves into and out of Other One related themes a couple of times. The electric set from this show justly gets most of the attention, but this highlight to the acoustic set is arguably the most serious jamming of the night.
After the Grateful Dead abandoned the acoustic arrangement of Bird Song, it lived on in two forms: as a Garcia/John Kahn duet in the 80's and as a highlight to occasional acoustic shows by portions of the Grateful Dead (these were generally benefit shows). Unfortunately, Jerry never introduced Bird Song to his shows with David Grisman.
The Garcia/Kahn duets start in the summer of 1982, and are a common occurrence from late 1984 through early 1986. I have only heard a few of the Bird Songs from this era. There are two versions, though, that I can strongly recommend. The version from
Dunsmuir House in Oakland on 8/18/85 has a very nice blues orientation in the jam. This gives Garcia and Kahn a good grounding for the jam, and lets Kahn contribute without interfering with Jerry's flights of fancy. Another version that shows Garcia and Kahn in synch in the jam is the lively version from the Ritz in New York on 1/28/86. Here the jam kicks off with a playful melodic dance from Jerry. Jerry shifts to chording patterns that introduce darker themes that he carries into his lead lines. Meanwhile, Kahn keeps up the bright melodic themes. This sets up a tension that resolves in a well executed climax to the jam.
The acoustic Bird Song only resurfaced in five shows by subsets of the Grateful Dead. The first is from the Disarmament Benefit at the Warfield Theater on 5/22/81. This is a performance by the entire Grateful Dead, except that John Kahn replaced Phil. This version of Bird Song is not terribly distinguished, but it does kick off a novel suite of material, going into Ripple then Drums then Oh Boy. The second, from Garcia and Weir's duo concert at the Melkweg on 10/11/81, is unique in that it is the only version I know of without a bass player. This is not a monumental version. Jerry and Bobby do take the jam out for a bit of a spin, but never wander too far from home. Still, it is nice to hear the boys trying something new. The third version from 12/17/87 is noteworthy in that it is the shortest version of Bird Song known, even shorter than the version on Garcia's solo album. The brevity of this version is generally attributed to Jerry cutting off the jam when Joan Baez appeared on the stage, apparently intending to join in. (the show was a benefit she had arranged). The fourth version is from another benefit, the San Francisco Gift Center benefit for poster artists on 3/22/89.
The final acoustic Bird Song is one of my finest Grateful Dead memories, coming from the Phil Lesh and Friends show at the Berkeley Community Theater on 9/24/94. This is the show where the band left the drummers at home, and played their last acoustic concert. This is an uneven show, with the near collapse of the group's attempt at Dupree's Diamond Blues, and serious sound problems in the early part of the show. Still I love the band's willingness to experiment and fail. 1994 is not a year of great innovation for the Grateful Dead. At this show, at least, they offer us something new.
The Bird Song from this show is one place where the band's sense of adventure pays off. This version is more than a bit ragged in the verses. The band misses the drummers here. The jam, however, is heavenly. Jerry launches with a reflective and spacy lead line. After being inaudible much of the night, Phil is a delight underpinning Jerry's lead. Vince, in his only performance with the acoustic Dead, provides sensitive support. Bobby serves the critical role of holding down the groove. After a slightly melancholy opening jam, Vince and Jerry shift towards space. Phil digs in as the jam gets more and more abstract. This portion of the jam is as close to an acoustic Dark Star as I have ever heard from the band. Eventually Jerry attempts to impose thematic order on the chaos, but fails as Vince and Phil remain in space. Eventually, after several detours, Phil, Vince and Jerry return to the Bird Song theme, and the final acoustic Bird Song winds to a close.
The Electric Revival
After the Radio City Music Hall run, the band wasted little time in reintroducing Bird Song to their electric repertoire, where it remained for the rest of their career. The new electric arrangement is very similar to the acoustic version in that the jamming is almost exclusively concentrated in the middle of the song, and the band never settles on a fixed pattern for the verses. The most common verse structure is for the band to sing the song all the way through, including repeating the first verse or second verse, followed by the jam. Starting in 1994, however, the band frequently starts jamming directly out of the bridge. After the jam, the band generally returns to the bridge, but this is by no means fixed. Usually, but not always, the band concludes with the first verse, with Jerry crooning "snow and rain" several times (as many as seven) to close the song.
The electric versions from 1980 on are almost always in the first set. There are a few second set appearances in 1981. In the early ‘80s, Bird Song most commonly appears in the middle of the first set. Occasionally it closes a set in 1983, and on rare occasions it appears in a suite of songs to open a show. In 1986, the song begins its slow migration to the end of the first set, and from 1987 on it almost always closes the first set either on its own or in combination with one other song (usually its odd-couple partner - Promised Land).
As with earlier eras, the latter-day Bird Song is pretty much a stand-alone piece. It almost always starts from a standstill. Segues from another song are very much the exception. There are a few songs it segues into: most notably Promised Land, but also the occasional Red Rooster and Looks Like Rain. But even with the segues, there is rarely the jamming connection between songs that the Dead feature with so much of their other material. Bird Song always retained a very distinct identity. Even in a segue you can clearly tell when Bird Song stops and starts. I believe this is probably due to the very distinctive melodic figure that clearly announces the beginning and end of pretty much every Bird Song. To jam into or out of Bird Song the band would either need to jettison this figure, or compose music to literally connect this figure to the connecting song (as the band did with Dark Star and St Stephen). The only time I really hear the band jamming from Bird Song into another song is on 11/17/81, the night the band jettisons the reprise.
The first electric revivals on 11/30/80 and 12/14/80 are very strong. One of the first noticeable changes in the 11/30/80 version is that the drummers have been set free. It works nicely in this version, with some nice touches added to the dynamics of the jam. The jam kicks off with typically rippling Jerry lead lines. Solid support from Phil builds a nice strong jam. Bobby adds chordal support reminiscent of his approach in 1972. Jerry's climbing lines build to a solid climax, followed by a gentle return to the Bird Song theme. The 12/14/80 version is more Jerry's show and features a jam that succeeds in spacing out without losing its punch. This version also revives Other One elements that would strongly figure in many of the subsequent electric Bird Songs.
Following these initial versions, I find the early ‘80s Bird Songs a bit erratic. 1981 features some truly unique and unforgettable versions, but also a number of versions where Jerry takes the jam out, but doesn't really bring the rest of the band along with him. I put 3/12/81 and 5/9/81 in this category. This pattern continues until the mid-1980s when I hear consistently stronger intraband communication in the jamming, and greater variety in the directions the jam could take.
One 1981 version worth serious attention is the 3/7/81 version from the Cole Theater. In Deadbase, Simon Friedman extols this version as a must for Jerry freaks, and I heartily concur. This is Jerry's showpiece, although Phil and Bobby provide nice support. It is also, possibly, the longest Grateful Dead Bird Song. My version runs over 16 minutes, and my tape is quite fast. [It’s 17:27. – LIA] This is, by no means, a perfect version of Bird Song. At times, the jamming gets a bit stagnant or unfocussed, and there are some serious glitches in the reprise. It is still a pleasure to listen to. Jerry keeps finding new toys to explore as he moves into and out of Other One themes, a variety of melodic patterns, and rippling and stabbing lead lines.
Deadbase also gives praise to the 3/9/81 version from Madison Square Garden, and again this praise is well deserved. Interestingly, this version is completely different from the one just two days earlier. This one clocks at just over 10 minutes, and it is a full band powerhouse, with nary a wasted note. Jerry kicks off the jam with rippling lines, accented by Brent's electric piano. After some noodling, Jerry builds a melodic pattern to jam around. This wakes up Phil, who echoes Jerry's pattern. Jerry drives the jam, while Phil maintains a very sympathetic support. Jerry introduces a new figure that develops into a revolving jam which sounds like a piece of a 1969 Dark Star. The band pushes out of this figure, then returns to it just before the return to the bridge. The band offers a quick return to the jam just after the bridge, as a nice reminder of how special this performance has been.
A final 1981 Bird Song of note is the truly unique version from Paris on 10/17/81. The previous night at the Melkweg must have inspired the band to shake things up a bit. Here we get Bird Song in the second set (for the last time), and, for the first time since 7/31/71, not from a standing start. A fine Truckin' jam quiets and flows almost seamlessly into Bird Song. This version features a gentle, contemplative Jerry lead line, with elegant and subtle support from Phil. Jerry pushes the tempo, then introduces Other One themes, then moves in the direction of space. Phil is on top of every twist in the jam, maintaining a spirited dialogue. In many ways, this strong communication between Phil and Jerry reminds me of the wonderful Bird Song from 9/10/72. A push from the drummers moves the jam further away from Bird Song and towards the blues. The jam slows and quiets almost to Jerry solo, then moves into Brent's Never Trust a Woman. This is probably the only version of Bird Song after 1971 that did not include some form of a reprise.
I am not familiar with most of the 1982 Bird Songs. The ones I have heard all have interesting elements. None of them blow me away. The 1982 Bird Songs I have heard do show Brent playing with greater verve than before. On 2/17/82, he pushes Jerry to the jam's early peak, and follows Jerry out as the jam extends. On 4/17/82, Brent livens up the verses, and plays a key role in the weirder section of the jam, setting up obstacles for Jerry to work around. My favorite 1982 Bird Songs, though, are the ones where Phil comes to play. On 5/21/82 and 7/31/82, he is a critical force in giving depth to the jam and pushing Jerry to new directions. Still, even in these versions, I don't sense a lot of new ground being broken.
1983 is a not completely satisfying year for Bird Song. One thing I find frustrating in the Bird Songs of this year is that Phil and Brent are becoming even more substantial in their contributions to the jams, but Jerry is often not picking up on their ideas. This gives me the sense that the band is not communicating well with each other. 4/22/83 is an example of this. Phil is dominant in the groove, laying down powerful lines. But more than once I hear Phil trying to turn the jam in interestingly twisted directions that Jerry appears to ignore.
There are a couple of 1983 Bird Songs that are something special: 4/16/83 and 12/28/83. The jam on 4/16/83 starts cautiously, but quickly takes off with a sweet ethereal lead from Jerry, complimented by a parallel line from Phil, and Brent's accents and color. After Jerry enjoys an extended lead, Phil moves out to compete, which provokes Jerry to raise the stakes with a flurry of notes. This brings the jam to a too short climax, with Phil roaring along. Phil is having enough fun with this one to continue his lead lines through the reprise.
12/28/83 does not start auspiciously. Jerry's vocals are strained, and he makes a hash of the second verse. The jam, however, is another wonderful dialogue between Jerry and Phil. The surprise here is Bobby. He sounds like he is having a wonderful time slashing through Jerry and Phil's conversation with some very fuzzy attacks. After a few minutes, the jam quiets and Bobby backs off. But once the jam reforms and accelerates, Bobby responds with even more manic assaults. After pausing for a brief exploration of a theme that sounds vaguely like a piece of Wharf Rat, another high speed jam develops, but this time Bobby joins in for some high speed picking. It takes the band awhile to find its way back to the Bird Song theme from this jam, but it's worth the trip.
1984 is another inconsistent year for Bird Song. The band stretches out its jams a bit this year, with several versions clocking at well over 13 minutes. However, with a few exceptions, the jams do not develop far. Generally speaking, the band develops one jamming theme and explores its variations, rather than exploring multiple ideas. This makes the pleasures of 1984 Bird Songs subtle ones of nuance and interplay
The Greek Theater version from 7/15/84 is the best version of this type of 1984 Bird Song. It is really quite lovely. Jerry sings with authority, and Phil offers an intricate lead throughout the verses. Also in the verses, we hear carefully placed cymbal splashes, providing a nice structure to this arrangement. This device is carried through to the jam, and works quite well. Jerry lays back at the start of the jam, with Brent out front and Phil continuing his nonstop lead from verses. Jerry picks up on Brent's lead and they enter into a dialogue, while Phil threads his way in and around their byplay. Brent and Phil are the mainstays of this jam, with Jerry wandering on the fringes and Bobby offering gentle accents. The band executes a seamless turn to open up a few slightly more dissonant angles to explore. After an extended, thoughtful discussion, the band builds the energy just a bit, then releases into a quiet space before returning to the reprise.
The 10/8/84 version from Worcester is a glorious exception to the rule of understated 1984 Bird Songs. Jerry kicks off this jam with a searching lead, articulate and carefully structured. He accelerates the jam as he climbs the fretboard, and Bobby and the drummers push the energy of the jam forward. Jerry backs off a bit with a return to searching themes, then accelerates again in a lower register as Bobby begins restructuring the groove. Jerry picks up on Bobby's new groove, and they lead a potent jam. The band makes a quick shift to a revolving jam which quickly evolves in the direction of Dark Star at Jerry's direction. The jam wanders in the direction of the Other One then quiets as Jerry explores Bird Song variations with echoes of Dark Star. Slowly the band reconstructs the Bird Song theme, building to a nice climax as they return to the reprise.
I did not expect to like 1985 Bird Songs as much as I do. I like 1985 Grateful Dead. But, generally speaking, this is because of the band's willingness to shake up its set lists and try new material, rather than finding new jamming adventures. Many of the jams in 1985 are considerably shorter than previous years, and jamming is the heart of Bird Song. It is true that Bird Songs in 1985 are generally shorter than previous years. I know of only two that exceed 10 minutes. Still, this is my favorite year for Bird Songs since at least 1981 because of the quality of the performances.
4/7/85, 6/21/85 and 11/5/85 are all fine examples of the joys of a compact Bird Song. 4/7/85 features excellent communication between Jerry and Phil throughout the jam. They open the jam with a dual lead, working very closely together. Phil drives the entire jam from beneath, while Jerry floats free on top with an active and inventive lead. 6/21/85 is an interesting curiosity. It features someone, I assume Brent, playing a synthesized horn figure that adds a novel color to the jam, and foreshadows guests to come on other days. This jam also develops some nice Dark Star elements. 11/5/85 features excellent band interplay, and a lively. dancing Jerry lead. Jerry develops a repeating figure that helps pull the jam to a nice climax.
My favorite of the compact Bird Songs is 8/30/85 from Houston. This is likely to be a controversial recommendation, since I think it is the debut of the dreaded "bird sounds": synthesizer wobbles that Brent uses as bird calls. I'm not a great fan of this technique, which pops up from time to time until early 1987, but it doesn't bug me as much as many listeners. I like this version, however, for its jamming. Phil and Jerry launch the jam together with a dual lead similar to 4/7/85. Jerry quickly builds the jam to a climax, then, rather than backing off, explores variations, moving between Other One themes and Bird Song themes. At one point the band integrates the themes into a wonderful combination of the Other One's driving rhythm and Bird Song's delicate melody. Phil shifts through these thematic shifts in perfect synch with Jerry. Bobby offers some unusual slide accents that prompt a stinging retort from Jerry, and a second climax builds, then fades for the return to the bridge.
Springfield 3/28/85 is the prize long version of the year. From the start, Phil announces that this will be special, with a thoughtful, melodic lead throughout the verses. He keeps the action going as the jam kicks in. After a restrained start to the jam, Jerry climbs the fretboard and a potent, high energy jam develops. The jam quiets and Phil's pulsating groove moves out front. Jerry looks for a new angle. Phil follows, and a multitempo jam develops. At this point, the playing is a little unfocussed, but the band finds some interesting corners and crevasses. Energy builds as the drummers set up a new groove to support Jerry and Bobby's rhythmic riffing. After peaking, the jam quiets and closes with a return to Bird Song themes.
Early 1986 is a seriously underrated era. While shows from this year are often erratic, the band's jamming shows a great sense of adventure. If more of these shows were available in good soundboards, I think the period would be much better appreciated. The four Bird Songs from this time are all delightful. In addition, the band adds a couple of interesting elements to their bag of tricks for the song that they would carry through into the future. The most noticeable new element to the band's Bird Song jamming is how the band handles the transition to the reprise. In the most other years, the band would almost always quiet its jamming, and have the reprise appear out of near stillness. In early 1986, the band launches the reprise out of a climax in the jam. This completely changes the energy of the reprise, a very nice change of pace.
Another new element is the jamming theme that the band introduces to build this late climax. The vast majority of Bird Song jamming is based on extended lines of notes from Jerry and Phil. This new jamming theme is based on aggressive strumming riffs from Jerry and, to a lesser degree, Bobby. It has a rhythmic pattern very similar to The Other One, but a distinctly different melody. This approach is jarringly different from conventional Bird Song jamming themes, although given its rhythmic similarity to The Other One, it offers the opportunity for the jamming to shift back and forth between themes based on The Other One and the strumming theme. The band fully exploits this in 1990 and 1991. As this theme develops over the next nine years, it becomes the signature theme of the powerhouse Bird Songs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and pops up in some form or other in almost every Bird Song from 1988 on (although it is missing from some of the best).
My favorites of the early 1986 Bird Songs are 2/11/86 from the Kaiser and 3/21/86 from Hampton. Both feature very spirited kick-offs to the jam, with the whole band contributing ideas and reacting nimbly to each other. This full band approach sounds quite different from how the band would open the jam in the early ‘80s. The 2/11/86 version is then pushed by Bobby and the drummers into a high energy jam that Jerry crowns with an early climax featuring several peaks. The jam quiets except for slashing riffs from Bobby. Phil and Jerry build a new conversation in and around Bobby's riffing, followed by Jerry's first tentative exploration of the strumming jam theme, which leads to the reprise. On 3/21/86, after the opening jam, Jerry and Bobby pick up a revolving thread that spins into a gentle, spacy jam with Jerry floating on top. Bobby then mixes in rhythm and some unusual lead lines that builds another unique jam. This unwinds into a bouncy jam, similar to the jam's opening. This gradually builds to a crescendo, as Bird Song themes emerge and the band launches into the reprise.
After Jerry's coma, the band's jamming seems to retrench a bit. While I'm not as familiar with 1987 Bird Songs as I am with other years, my general sense is that they backed away from the free spirited approach of the early 1986 versions. This is not to say that 1987 Bird Songs are dull. The band is generally playing well, and there are some interesting structural developments. The most noteworthy change is the development of the strumming jam. Starting with 3/2/87, it is frequently a major structural element of the end of the Bird Song jam. The ideas the band developed for this jam in 1986 are now in full flower, and the jam comes across with the power of a 1972 Tiger jam, albeit without the feedback.
My clear favorite of the 1987 Bird Songs I've heard is the 3/26/87 version from Hartford. The jam here opens with a low line lead from Jerry, complemented by Brent and Phil. Brent pushes the jam in a spacier direction and Jerry follows along. Jerry briefly introduces a riff from The Other One, then pulls out in favor of a singing lead line. This builds to a couple of nice peaks from Brent and Jerry, with the second one being particularly wild. We get another brief echo of The Other One before Jerry builds a strumming jam that builds to an even higher crescendo before returning to the reprise.
By 1988, the band was ready to take more chances. Many, although not all, of the versions I've heard contain at least one section that devolves into pretty much a free for all, with multi tempos forming and players heading hither and yon in their playing. It doesn't always work. On 10/14/88, Jerry forces the band out of chaos through repeated stating the basic figure for the return to the reprise. It's almost as if he's saying, this is screwed up, let's cut our losses and get out of here. But when the quest for the strange works, it is one of the places where "it" emerges. This is where Bird Song joins the continuum from 1968 feedback jams through Dark Star Playing in the Band and Other One jams and the best of Space to offer us a chance to hear music a new way. This willingness to sail into the unknown started poking through in 1986. By 1988, it is an integral part of the best Bird Songs.
12/28/88 is a fine example of Bird Song heading out towards space. After opening the jam with a relatively conventional lead, Jerry backs off and a confusing, multi-directional jam develops. Jerry takes a whack at reintroducing elements from his opening lead, but the band will have none of it, and pushes towards space. Jerry then tries a singing lead line that the band coalesces around, while staying quite on edge. After briefly stopping, the jam turns in an even stranger direction with an angry Jerry lead competing with mysterious tones from Phil. Jerry then launches the strumming jam. After some interesting resistance, the band joins in and drives to a peak, where Bird Song themes reemerge just before the return to the bridge.
From 1988, I would also recommend 2/16/88 even though it does not get exceptionally strange, 7/3/88 because it does, and 10/18/88 because it offers some of Bobby's finest playing on a Bird Song. This one gives us Bobby and Jerry in space, and they both shine.
Many listeners divide 1989 into the pre-Warlocks and the post-Warlocks era. Generally speaking this is a gross oversimplification, and leads to much fine music being ignored simply because it predates the legendary October 1989 Hampton run. However, with Bird Song, this division has quite a bit of merit. As a group, early 1989 Bird Songs do not impress me. Some, like the version I saw at the Frost Amphitheater on 5/7/89, just don't work.
It is hard to pin down what is unsatisfying about this era, but at least two things are in play. First, the band backs away from exploring the edge of chaos in its jamming. Nothing in early 1989 goes nearly as far towards space as the monsters of 1988. Second, I think the band becomes overly dependent on the strumming jam. They play it in every 1989 Bird Song. This is not a complaint about the strumming jam, I always enjoy hearing it, and they find lots of new angles to explore. But I think this focus on the strumming jam diverted attention from the remainder of the Bird Song jam. At points it seems like the band is just waiting for Jerry to get around to launching the strumming theme.
From the early 1989 shows there are a couple of noteworthy points. 3/30/89 includes some very sympathetic playing, and a nice unearthly mood before the strumming jam appears and drives things to an extended peak. The AIDS Benefit from 5/7/89 is significant in that it includes the first guest appearance on Bird Song: Clarence Clemons on saxophone. Clarence is not a good fit on Bird Song, he doesn't really find anything to sink his teeth into until the strumming jam, where he digs in and wails a bit. He then, however, runs into the bane of almost all Grateful Dead guests, as he nearly disappears in the mix. 8/18/89 balances an elegant Phil and Jerry dialogue with a monstrous strumming jam. I also have fond memories of this Bird Song because I heard it from outside the Greek Theater while strolling my three year old up and down the street. 9/29/89 is also noteworthy in that it offers, I believe, Jerry's first use of MIDI, a portent of things to come.
The next Bird Song, from Hampton 10/8/89, is not a monster. It does show Jerry stretching out a bit on MIDI, exploring some more effects, and it shows Bobby and Phil taking advantage of the additional room in the mix. The Meadowlands 10/12/89, on the other hand is an absolute monster. Jerry is in MIDI heaven, from his first rude blast of the MIDI pipes to kick off the jam through the synthesized guitar that dominates the angry jam leading into the strumming theme. Give this twisted version a serious listen, and be sure to check out the electric xylophone effects.
Each of the remaining late 1989 Bird Songs is wonderful in its own way. Philadelphia 10/18/89 includes a terrific, deeply abstract jam that would be right at home in the deep space of 1988. Charlotte 10/22/89 is completely different. It is understated and thoughtful with lots of delicate interplay and lots of Phil. Its approach is reminiscent of 9/10/72. As noted in Deadbase, 12/8/89 is one of the highlights of Without A Net, although on the tape you get to hear Jerry blow a lyric or two. 12/27/89 from Oakland includes some very nice Phil and some very nice Space.
In 1990, the band kept up the momentum they had built in late 1989. It was a wonderful year musically, despite the tragic loss of Brent Mydland. It was also a wonderful year for Bird Songs. I recommend them all unequivocally with the exception of 6/8/90, which I haven't heard, and the infamous jet lag show of 10/13/90, where the jamming is subpar and the blown close is painfully sad.
Despite the profusion of great Bird Songs from the year, it is easy to pick my favorite: Nassau Coliseum 3/29/90 - the night Branford came to town. Bird Song is Branford's first song with the band, and it's a great choice. He is instantly at ease with the material, chiming in with his ornaments after the first verse. Phil is also on in a big way in the verses, showing off for Branford. Phil opens the jam out front. Branford snakes his way in and sets up an extended dialogue with Jerry, trading ideas over Phil's mobile and inventive lead. Jerry then shifts to MIDI, and Phil pushes his lead even more aggressively. Branford picks up on Phil's line and a new, high energy jam forms. Jerry starts to introduce the strumming jam, but everyone ignores him. Phil and Branford are having too much fun. Jerry eventually picks up their thread, and a very complex jam develops. Jerry then reintroduces the strumming theme. This time Phil and Branford are ready to play ball. After a few rounds, Branford takes over the jam and invents a complex and dynamic line on the fly. The jam quiets, as Phil's lead line reasserts itself. Jerry and Branford move into a strange and reflective space. After a brief Other One tease, multiple tempos and themes evolve. The jam eventually organizes into a kaleidoscopic array which dissolves for the return to the bridge. At the close, Branford wails along with Jerry's final snow and rains. He's not ready for this jam to end, and neither am I.
Branford appears again for the wonderful 12/31/90 Bird Song. He is an absolute star during the lyrics, totally dominating the accompaniment. Interestingly, he only plays a small role in the very inventive jamming that is largely dominated by Vince. Vince shines on this one.
Another interesting and unusual 1990 Bird Song is from Shoreline 6/17/90. This is the only version from 1989 or 1990 that does not include the strumming theme. You can hear the point where Jerry's thinking about introducing it. Fortunately he doesn't. The band is in transition between an Other One based jam and a jam based on weird angular riffs from Bobby. The strumming jam would have been routine by comparison.
9/7/90 and 9/15/90 are also both worth a serious listen for the fine jamming, and also as Vince and Bruce's introductions to Bird Song (although you can also hear Bruce on accordion on 7/10/90). The two offer an interesting contrast. Vince immediately stakes out a major role in the arrangement of Bird Song, both during the verses and the jamming. Bruce is much more limited in his contributions. Other than his accordion version of 7/10/90, I'm not aware of any Grateful Dead version that he really shines on.
A final Bird Song from the year of note is 7/21/90 - Brent's last. After Brent died, several band members commented on how inspired his playing had been on his last tour. This performance shows Brent at his best. From the start, Brent is on, with dancing and rippling lines through the verses. He joins Jerry and Phil in kicking off the jam, ornamenting Jerry's leads, both his guitar and MIDI flute lines. Brent and Jerry turn away from Bird Song themes, while Phil remains locked in the Bird Song groove. This sets up tension in the jam as Jerry and Brent keep fighting towards space. After a low-key run through the strumming jam, the jam moves to a quiet place before returning to the bridge. Brent left us with a sweet Bird Song.
1991 is another fine year for Bird Songs, although some of the longer versions are open to criticism for wandering a bit. Also, Jerry freaks may prefer earlier years. As the year progresses, Jerry starts to back away from the dominant role in the jamming that he had maintained since introducing the song. Often, Vince takes his place as a lead voice introducing jamming themes and butting heads with Phil. When this works, which it frequently does, it works very well. Check out 6/11/91 for Vince night. At times, though, Vince gets wedded to developing variations on the strumming theme, and this can work to constrict the range of jamming. I hear this on 9/13/91.
Jerry is still the dominant voice with Phil in my favorite Bird Song of the year: Greensboro 4/1/91 (one of my favorite shows of the post-1974 era). Phil and Jerry kick off the jam with relaxed and melodic leads which build both in intensity and weirdness. Eventually, Bobby, Vince and Jerry (on MIDI) are all playing separate themes and tempos, while Phil stays home in the Bird Song groove. Then Vince introduces The Other One to the jam. Jerry picks it up and the band swings into a wild spiraling Other One jam, which dissolves back to Phil's Bird Song groove. After several more strange jamming themes based on the strumming jam, the band finds its way back to the bridge.
Shoreline 5/11/91 is a serious candidate for the longest Grateful Dead Bird Song at almost 18 minutes. While it includes plenty of nice jamming and a fine strumming jam, it does wander more than a bit in places.
A version that does not wander is 4/28/91, with Carlos Santana on guest lead guitar. This version develops three distinct variations on the strumming theme as the organizing principle for the jam. This is a good call, in that, the variations work well with each other, building to a well developed crescendo by the third go round. Also, using one theme as the basis for the jam lets Carlos find his way in, adding some fine playing after being introduced to the theme the first time around.
When looking for good Grateful Dead, one rarely starts with early 1992. Bird Song appears to be an exception to this rule. Two of the versions I have heard are quite good - Hamilton 3/20/92 and Buckeye 7/1/92 (the last show before Jerry's collapse). Both of these versions feature Jerry fully engaged in the jamming. At Hamilton, early in the jamming, Jerry pushes the band out of its conventional jamming groove and a lively and quite abstract jam develops, with a very nice climbing theme organized by Jerry. Buckeye is a very sweet and delicate jam with very sympathetic listening and nice subtleties.
The third early ‘92 version I've heard is Cal Expo 5/21/92, and it is flat-out amazing. After a cautious start to the jam, Phil pushes out of the groove to develop a lumpy and erratic bass line. Bobby adds fuzzy atmospherics, then Jerry launches a soaring lead over Phil's twisted terrain. Vince pushes dissonant themes that Jerry follows, sending the jam further into the ditch. After quite a bit of strange land is explored, Jerry introduces a skeletal outline of the strumming theme with coloration from Vince and Bobby. Jerry then moves to a fast-picked version of the strumming theme, which builds to a peak followed by another peak based on a more conventional rendition of the strumming jam. After this the jam slows and descends for the return to the Bridge.
A lot of Deadheads, including me, were holding their breath waiting for the return of the band in December, 1992. The Bird Song from Oakland 12/12/92 provided plenty of reassurance that the band could still jam. This is Phil's night. Jerry kicks off the fun with some very Dark Star-like jamming early on, but Phil is instigator that opens up the jam to a variety of spacy themes. After a very complex and abstract jam, Jerry tries to launch the strumming theme, but the band, especially Phil and Vince refuse. This opens the door for a wonderfully jazzy Phil lead. After Phil has his say, Jerry takes another swing at the strumming theme, but Phil still resists. Jerry eventually prevails and a strange, off-kilter version develops with lots of conflicting themes. The jam abruptly shifts to a quiet, abstract space. Bobby interjects some blues patterns. The strumming jam almost reforms, but instead shifts seamlessly to the bridge. This is one of my favorite Bird Songs of the 1990s.
The 1993 Bird Songs I have heard are a decidedly mixed bag. To their credit, all are adventurous. In particular, each takes a novel approach to that warhorse of Bird Song jamming, the strumming jam. However, I have to consider the early 93 versions I have heard (1/24/93 and 5/15/93) ambitious failures. 5/15/93 features a massive strumming jam early on in the proceedings. However, after this, I get the sense the band can't figure out where to go next, and much of the jamming wanders. 1/24/93 features a wonderfully mutated strumming jam, with a barely recognizable rhythmic and melodic pattern. However, the early jamming seems confused and uncertain. I like the late ‘93 versions a lot more. 8/21/93, 9/28/93 and 12/19/93 all feature extensive "acoustic" guitar from Jerry. Jerry's use of the acoustic guitar effect in late 1993 has generated intensely mixed reviews. I find it works quite well in Bird Song (a song with a long and noble acoustic tradition). It also opens up the mix quite a bit for Phil. Finally, use of the acoustic effect for the strumming jam gives a fresh perspective on the theme. Check out 12/19/93 for a fine "acoustic" exploration of the strumming jam.
The truly great 1993 Bird Song is Madison Square Garden 9/22/93 with David Murray on sax. I am massively prejudiced on this one. I've been a big fan of Murray for many years, and I saw this show from the floor of the Garden. But a serious listen to the tape offers solid proof that this is a Bird Song for the ages. Murray's exploratory lines kick off the jam, intertwining with Jerry's guitar, while Phil thuds and bumps beneath. Murray quickly takes charge, with deep tones and soaring lines rising to an explosive peak. Phil then steps out for a lead that is alternately throbbing and jazzy. The jazzy line attracts full band accompaniment. Jerry essays a flying lead line, as the jam heads towards space over Phil's walking line. Tempos multiply and the jam gets quite weird until Phil launches a fast tempo that draws Murray back into the fray. This develops into a very complex jam, rooted in The Other One, but very challenging and strange. There is no trace of the strumming jam tonight. Murray and Jerry move into a dialogue, with Jerry on top and soaring with Murray squawking beneath. Jerry finally realizes this can't continue all night and restates the Bird Song theme for the return to the bridge.
1994 and 1995 are generally considered part of the erratic decline of Jerry Garcia. You would not know that from listening to the Bird Songs from these years. Every version I have heard (including the stellar Phil and Friends version discussed earlier) is lively and very ambitious, with significant ventures into deep space. Jerry is on top of his game in the jamming, although his vocals are a bit dodgy. Bird Song is a place to find some of the finest late Grateful Dead.
Eugene 6/19/94 is a fine example of an adventurous 1994 Bird Song. It launches its jam after the bridge, and what a jam it is. After a peaceful start, Vince's rising line sets the stage for Jerry to kick off a high-pitched lead that picks up the tempo, then veers towards space. Jerry introduces an Other One theme, which spirals upwards a bit, then spaces out further. Another ascending figure leads to a MIDI section with Jerry on flute and Bobby on brass. We are well out there. After yet another ascending figure, Jerry shifts to "acoustic" guitar for a relaxed jam based on Bird Song themes. This is followed by a relatively mild-mannered run through the strumming jam, followed by a descending figure that leads back to the bridge.
My favorite 1994 Bird Song is the last of the year: Oakland 12/12/94. Unfortunately, my version of this tape is a lot like my tape of 12/6/80. Phil is sufficiently audible that one can hear he is a big time player, but not audible enough to really hear what he is up to. An upgrade is needed. Still, even given the tape quality, this version is a stunner. It runs well over 16 minutes, and leaves me still wanting more. Jerry starts this jam in a cautious, exploratory mood, but gradually pushes the jam into space. After an initial exploration featuring Jerry and Vince, the jam quiets, looking to reform, over a severely twisted rhythmic structure. Bobby and Vince push the next round, which leads to a nice quiet piano statement. Jerry moves to MIDI flute, and Bobby interjects angry tones. Vince climbs and descends on synth. Phil finally breaks through the murk to push the tempo. Jerry responds with an aggressive and spaced lead, and the band follows with a full-throated, stormy jam. In the midst of the storm, Phil moves in with a jazzy walking bass line. Jerry brings us out of space with a searching melody that brings us back to Bird Song themes. The band moves in and out of Bird Song themes, not willing to let the jamming end. Jerry makes one quick pass at the strumming theme, which gathers no support, and the band at last surrenders to the bridge.
In 1995, I saw two Bird Songs. I rank both among my very finest Grateful Dead experiences. I've already written about the Seattle 5/24/95 version in my review of that run. The other was from Shoreline 6/2/95, my last Grateful Dead concert. It could well be the most challenging and intense Bird Song I've ever heard. This version starts jamming out of the bridge. Jerry's opening solo is based on the melody of the unsung verse. Phil is engaged from the start of the song, and at the start of the jam promptly joins Jerry in very sympathetic conversation. After extended searching themes from Jerry and Phil, Jerry gives a taste of wah wah (a very late innovation in Bird Songs). Jerry then pushes out of the Bird Song structure and multiple themes develop, including the slightest hint of the strumming jam. Phil at this point is holding down the Bird Song groove. Vince essays some blues riffs. Jerry picks up on this as the jam starts to get angular and dissonant. A very stormy jam develops, not at all for the faint of heart. After some intense waves, Jerry and Bobby (on MIDI) develop a spare and highly abstract dialogue accented by bizarre patterns from the drummers. This jam intensifies, and Phil launches a jazzy walking bass line through and around the strangeness. This part reminds me, at least in spirit, of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz period. The jam eventually quiets but stays strange as multiple themes develop. No hint of the strumming jam here, just more space. Jerry and Vince build another peak, with blues and Bird Song themes emerging at the same time. Eventually the Bird Song themes prevail, and Jerry returns to sing Bird Song to me for the last time.
Bird Song resonates quite deeply both as a song and a performance piece. It now can be heard as an elegy for Jerry Garcia and the multiheaded collective entity that was the Grateful Dead. This, at least, was my reaction upon hearing The Other Ones and Phil and Friends perform it. Its sweet and sad personality is very true to the persona communicated by Jerry Garcia through many of his best loved songs. This, in part, I believe is why Jerry kept playing it for so long with the Dead.
As a performance piece, I always felt Bird Song brought out some of the best facets of the Grateful Dead. Like Dark Star, the Other One and Playing in the Band, it was a given that, when they took that high dive into the jam, the band would at least try to find "it", the place where the music plays the band . I also find it amazing that this is one major piece of music that never grew stale, where the very last rendition I ever heard is very likely my favorite. As such, the song was a ray of hope in the troubled times that marked the end of the Grateful Dead, just as the lyric offers the listener hope in face of the loss of the sweetly singing bird.