by Aaron Donovan, 1999
With its easy, catchy guitar riffs, built-in jam section, and first-rate lyrics, this song was always a favorite among Deadheads. It was the archetypal Grateful Dead showstopper, and one of those songs they always played, year in and year out. It was never taken out of the rotation for more than 14 shows (the number would fall to 10 if the Dead performed "Sugar Magnolia" at one of seven shows in the summer of 1970 for which we do not have lists — as they probably did). Not including "Drumz," this was the second-most frequently performed song of all time after "Me & My Uncle." (And who can really explain how that one got up there.) You’ll hear no complaints from me that "Sugar Magnolia" was played too much. I, for one, will take a middling "Sugar Magnolia" over a fantastic "Around & Around" any day.
The studio rendition of the song version had a folk feel to it, but the Dead performed this song pair with an all-out rock feel, which is how Weir originally envisioned the song. If the Dead had given the album version the same treatment they did during live performances, they might have had as big a radio hit with it as they did with "Touch of Grey." At no time was the hard-driving rock feel more true than winter and early spring of 1971. The Dead fly through these versions at a breakneck speed, and with Jerry’s guitar in full wah-wah throughout the whole of both parts of the song, these early versions are simply spectacular. Blast one of the Port Chester or Manhattan Center versions from your stereo, and you will have to peel yourself off the wall on the opposite side of the room. The Dead later brought the intensity down a notch: Jerry limited his wah-wah effect to "Sunshine Daydream," as can be heard on "Europe ’72," and finally took it off completely.
The song began changing significantly during 1973. The Dead started putting a much larger gap before "Sunshine Daydream" than they had previously. On 2/9/73, the gap was 14 seconds, on 6/10/73, 26 seconds. Prior to that, the longest gap I’ve heard comes from the 5/4/72 version on the "Europe ’72" album: 6 seconds. Of the 57 complete, non-split versions I have of "Sugar Magnolia" the Dead played everything from no pause at all, on multiple occasions including 10/4/70 Winterland and 7/9/95 Soldier Field, to 33 seconds of complete silence on 7/13/84, Greek Theatre, Berkeley, CA. On average, the length of time between the two songs was 6.8 seconds. The weirdest gap was probably on 10/10/82 at Palo Alto. During the 14 seconds of silence, Bob says, cryptically, "Don’t forget to vote Yes on Tour, if you can vote."
With a long pause inserted before "Sunshine Daydream," the were free to experiment with the introduction to that portion of the song. During the fall of 1973, "Sunshine Daydream" evolved the familiar, strong beats in its introduction. From December of that year until the last show, the Dead played a "Sunshine Daydream" that was a lot different from what it had been, and was different from "Sugar Magnolia" proper. It’s the "Sunshine Daydream" we all know and love: WHOMP! "Sunshine Daydream." WHOMP! "Walk you in the tall trees." WHOMP! "Goin’ where the wind goes." WHOMP! etc. With the new arrangement being so different from "Sugar Magnolia" and with their new style of waiting for a up to half a minute before playing it, the Dead were now ready to experiment a little more. Specifically, they could now detach "Sunshine Daydream" from its formerly steadfast partner, an effect that added to the suspense and drama of any show in which it was done.
Though dramatic, shows with a split "Sugar Magnolia" were rare. Ninety-five percent of the time "Sugar Magnolia" was performed it led directly into "Sunshine Daydream." Because the two songs appeared on the album "American Beauty" under one name, and because they were paired so often, standard setlist shorthand omits the "Sunshine Daydream" completely when it comes on the heels of "Sugar Magnolia." However, between 12/10/73 and 6/10/94, there were 31 exceptions, or "split" versions of "Sugar Magnolia," in which the Dead performed some other song or songs in between the two songs. On four occasions, 12/31/79, 10/6/81, 5/9/87, and 12/31/89, the Dead split the pair up between sets, or between a set and an encore.
The second-longest "Sugar Magnolia" was played on 4/27-28/91 at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, U.N.L.V., Las Vegas, Nevada. The Dead opened the second set on the first night with "Sugar Magnolia," and as was common for a "Sugar Magnolia" that opened a set, they avoided the "Sunshine Daydream" coda. This time, however, they didn’t play the coda at all that show, instead saving it until the end of the next night’s second set. If both shows started at the time for which they were scheduled, 1 p.m., and Carlos Santana, who opened both nights, played for the same length of time each night, and the Dead waited the same time after each of Santana’s sets, then that version of "Sugar Magnolia" was 1 day, 3 hours, 9 minutes, and 5 seconds long.
But that is nothing compared to what was by far the longest "Sugar Magnolia" ever performed: "The Bill Graham Sugar Magnolia." Bill Graham, the Dead’s legendary concert promoter and operator of such eternal concert halls as Winterland Arena, the Fillmore Auditorium, and Fillmore East, died in a helicopter crash on October 25, 1991. Two days later at the Dead’s next scheduled gig, they opened the first set with Graham’s favorite song: "Sugar Magnolia." It was the first song that they performed after his passing. Something special was in the air that night, for this was no ordinary version. "The show opened with a truly spectacular Sugar Magnolia that was played out with such intensity that you would have thought we were already deep into the second set," wrote Brian A. Smith in DeadBase ’91 of that night. Then, several days later at the Golden Gate Park multi-artist tribute to Graham, the Dead closed their set with "Sunshine Daydream." Thus, all the music from the Dead’s first public appearance after Graham’s death until the end of the Bill Graham memorial show, including the Dead’s final Halloween show and Ken Kesey’s famous "Dark Star" rap, was encapsulated in the mother of all "Sugar Magnolias" — approximately 6 days and 18 hours long, the longest Deadheads ever waited for the end of a song. When it finally came there was a rush of relief to the symbolically-placed coda. "I was torn between expecting Sunshine Daydream and not believing that they were actually doing it," wrote Mike Dolgushkin in DeadBase ’91, of the 11/3/91 Bill Graham memorial show.
Last on the list of interesting split "Sugar Magnolias," there’s the little known 9/12/91, Madison Square Garden version, in which the "Sugar Magnolia" portion of the song itself was split. On that night, the Dead open the second set with the first half of "Sugar Magnolia" proper, 2:50 worth of the song, including all the lyrics, and then segue into "Foolish Heart." They don’t come back to the jam section of "Sugar Magnolia" until the end of the second set, when they play 2:59 more of "Sugar Magnolia" proper, including the whole jam section but no lyrics, pause 8 seconds, and jump into "Sunshine Daydream." The transition out of "Around & Around" into the "Sugar Magnolia" jam on that night is novel, but a little awkward.
Aside from these performances and a few others, after mid-1973 the song was nearly always left till the end of the second set. While some might call this an example of the band getting stuck in a routine, others would say the song was a perfect showstopper for Weir, whose signature at the end of each show was being able to get the crowd up on their feet — dancing and singing along in a state of energetic euphoria at the show’s grand finale. No song the Dead normally played at the end of a show was better at achieving those ends than "Sugar Magnolia." But there was another, more pedestrian reason why the song was left till the end of the show, as Weir has said: "I put ‘Sugar Magnolia’ at the end of the set because I’m going to blow my voice on that one. … I’ve learned through the empirical process that if I’m going to sing that one, I’d better sing it at the end of the evening." Just like anything with the Dead however, second-set closing status was not a hard and fast rule. Two notable exceptions to the norm occurred a) when the Dead decided to split the pair and b) on New Year’s Eve shows. Of the 15 New Year’s Eve shows that occurred after 1973, 10 contained a set-opening "Sugar Magnolia," six of which were "split" versions.
The song has a catchy and upbeat rhythm, and the same can be said for its lyrics. It’s easy to forget that Robert Hunter only wrote half the lyrics to this song, the rest being written by another Robert H. Robert H. Weir, that is. Weir’s lyrics flow together so perfectly with Hunter’s that it is impossible to tell who wrote which verses just by listening. Weir wrote verses 2, 3, 5 and 7, and Hunter wrote the rest (although Weir re-wrote "Sunshine Daydream" each time he sang it). Despite my strong feelings for the lyrics of "One More Saturday Night," I would have to say that these are clearly the best lyrics that Bobby, or indeed any on-stage member of the Dead, ever wrote. Like "Scarlet Begonias," this is one of the few Dead originals that is overtly and unabashedly about a woman. Unlike "Scarlet," which tells a story about a particular person, "Sugar Magnolia" is a ode to the ideal woman a la Pygmalion, that operates on both a dream-like psychadelic level and a down-to-earth pragmatic one as well.
The song paints a picture of a highly desirable but never outright sexy, fun-loving woman using pleasant, surreal images, and examples of great friendship. Much to the same effect as in "China Cat Sunflower," Hunter’s verses here are written to bring to mind images of the fantastic; he describes such a Tinkerbell-sized sprite swimming in a dew-drop and bounding through violet rays of sunny light. From a practical perspective, on the other hand, the woman is described as eagerly participating in mundane burdens of real life -- paying parking tickets, steering a car, waiting around backstage for a concert to end. The song’s setting in a natural environment out of doors; the woman is described as being outside, in and by a river, and under pine and willow trees. All the details in the song help the listener visualize the surroundings inhabited by the woman of our dreams.
"Sugar Magnolia" proved to be one of the Dead’s most successful original songs. It was a moderate radio hit, but more important, it was a crowd-pleaser. This upbeat rocker was one of their most useful, enduring, and beloved concert choices for 25 years. It’s the kind of song that you don’t have to be a Deadhead to like, and to date, various live versions of it have been released no less than seven times.
1: Gans, David, Conversations with the Dead (New York: Citadel Underground, 1991) p. 19.
2: Scott, John W., et al., DeadBase ’91, p. 175.
3: Ibid., p. 179.4: Gans, p. 136.