October 28, 2009

Brief Guide to 1975 Studio Rehearsals

Here is a short outline of the '75 studio sessions available on the Archive. A visitor to the 1975 page there will see lots of session dates, full of very repetitive track-listings (when the tracks are even labeled), and it can be daunting to find what's worth listening to....so I thought I'd put together a little guide to the sessions to help out those who'd like to dip their toes into 1975.

The Blues for Allah album evolved in a unique fashion. One reason the band taped so many rehearsals in '75 was because they'd decided to return to their 1967 method of creating songs through jam patterns. Instead of one writer bringing in a finished song for the others to learn (the way they'd recorded from Aoxomoxoa on), the band would simply jam in the studio and turn the most promising jams into new songs. Through '74 they'd worked out a number of new riffs, and after the "farewell shows" they seem to have practiced quite a bit before even returning to the studio.

Garcia: "We kind of made a ground rule for that record: 'Let's make a record where we get together every day and we don't bring anything in.' .... The whole idea was to get back to that band thing, where the band makes the main contribution to the evolution of the material. So we'd go into the studio and jam for a while, and then if something nice turned up we'd say, 'Well let's preserve this little hunk and work with it, see if we can't do something with it.' And that's how we did most of the album."

Many, many hours of rehearsals went into the Blues for Allah sessions - the few dates we have show the band going obsessively over and over a few songs, which can be very wearying to listen to. On the other hand, it's interesting to hear how different some of these early versions are from the album takes; and sometimes a great jam will pop up that they never played again.

Our first rehearsal is the most enjoyable to listen to - this tape surfaced only last year, but quickly became a favorite from '75. A few tunes are already well worked-out, but this session shows the band bringing in a number of fascinating jams that would soon be dropped. The Distorto is the same one that was a bonus track on the Blues for Allah disc - but it is super cool, such a different heavy-metalish approach to the Crazy Fingers theme. (It's hard to imagine Garcia singing over this track!) And track 3, the 'bouncey jam', is a caribbean-type thing that is one of the best jams the Dead ever played, in any year....I would encourage everybody to listen to at least these two tracks! Then they go into Stronger Than Dirt for a while, and other nameless jams (the titles aren't really accurate) - track 8, for instance, is a development of the funk jam they'd played sometimes in '74, like on 6/18/74. Disc two is slow going for a while, but picks up again with a fantastic Music Never Stopped jam. This song seems to catch their fancy, so they keep playing Music Never Stopped for 45 minutes....most of the session is just jamming, but this part sounds like they've started serious rehearsal.

This is a long session which features Ned Lagin and David Crosby practicing various Crosby & Dead songs. The two Crosby songs are quite dull, though if you're patient enough to make it through the full songs, they have interesting jams in the second halves. But it will take quite a dedicated listener to endure a half-dozen takes of Low Down Payment! Track 6 is a long, different jam which is the highlight - check it out to hear an unusual Dead jam with three guitarists and two keyboards. Later they practice Music Never Stopped and Stronger Than Dirt, over and over. Garcia is quite restrained during this Dead rehearsal; in fact, I wonder if he's even on guitar in this part, or if it's just Crosby & Weir. (Crosby was supposed to play with the Dead at the 3-23-75 show, which is why he's learning their songs.) Overall, not a recommended session.

This is much more interesting! The Dead practice Stronger Than Dirt and Blues for Allah a few times for the Kezar Stadium show a couple days later. They're in a very upbeat mood (rare in these studio sessions), and I found this 45-minute session a treat to listen to. It's basically straight jamming all the way through - from track 1, I was hooked. In particular, check out track 7 (a complete Allah>Dirt medley), which goes into an interesting, melancholy little instrumental in track 8.

A lot of this session seems to be just killing time in the studio, with Garcia noodling a bit while everybody waits around. Note that the music doesn't start until seven minutes into track 1 - but this happens to be a VERY unusual surf-style rock jam which doesn't sound like anything else the Dead did, so it's worth checking out! After that they try out an embryonic Lazy Lightning, but beware - almost all of track 2 is dead space. Then they go through the Blues for Allah intro in track 4; and track 5 finishes with a long Slipknot jam. (This may be from a different date; it's a monitor mix, so the recording is distant & we hear the band talking over the music.)

This is a very tired-sounding session where nothing exciting happens. At the start they go through a few different themes - Hideaway, The Walk, Music Never Stopped, then a few takes (tracks 6-8) of an extremely boring instrumental. In track 10 we hear Help on the Way surface for the first time - but it cuts during Slipknot. Then they practice Lazy Lightning a few times (like Music Never Stopped, this seems to have started as just a few chord riffs, before Weir came up with any tune). Track 16 is a unique blues-type instrumental, which unfortunately isn't very interesting. (Perhaps, like Lazy Lightning, it's the backing track to an unfinished song?) Finally, they settle on an extended rehearsal of Crazy Fingers, going through many false starts and a couple decent complete instrumental takes (tracks 26 & 28). Crazy Fingers is clearly pretty much finished at this point - as one reviewer notes, Keith has that ghostly Garth Hudson sound.

This session has David Crosby and the Dead rehearsing without Garcia - everything's a rhythm take, no solos or jams. It sounds like Weir is teaching Crosby a couple songs. The tracks are unlabeled, but 1-12 is Music Never Stopped; 13-17 is Low Down Payment yet again; 18-28 is Stronger than Dirt; and 29 is a slower take of Low Down Payment. (There is no Lazy Lightning, as the notes claim. The date may be wrong, since musically this seems to follow the 3-17-75 session, which would explain Garcia's absence.) Skip this session.

At first glance this session is even more intimidating than the last, featuring 43 unlabeled tracks, almost all of them fragments and false starts! It's more enjoyable, though. It starts with the earliest takes of Franklin's Tower (tracks 1-11), rather slow & cautious, with Garcia singing - these early versions are very interesting since the music is so different than the finished Franklin's, more mellow and reggae-like. Track 6 is a nice complete take; by track 11 they're faster and more assured. A long Help on the Way rehearsal follows (tracks 12-43), still instrumental; eventually they work on the transition into Slipknot. This part is a repetitive slog, since few takes are complete, so skip straight to track 43, the only complete Help>Slipknot here, though it's not very exciting. (The notes claim there's a Stronger Than Dirt in this session, but I didn't find it.)

Fortunately this session is well-labeled, so it's easier to find tracks! (It's actually a compilation of sessions from June 3, 4, and 5.) It starts with the blues instrumental again; then they practice the Crazy Fingers intro for a while, and manage a couple complete instrumental takes, which sound about the same as on 4-2-75. (I haven't checked, but this sounds like the same rehearsal tape under both dates; there doesn't seem to be any difference.) Then it's time for more Franklin's Tower - they work on different ways of playing the riff, with Keith's groove very dominant at this point. Check out the change from track 21 to track 29, which is getting close to the song we know - track 32 seems to be from a different day and is even closer (Weir plays the China Cat riff in it!). Finally we have a few run-throughs of the instrumental Help on the Way, which is probably a repeat from the other 6-5-75 file. Overall this is a nice, interesting session if you can handle repeated takes - and nirvana for Franklin's fans.

This is a long compilation which came out last year, a mix of sessions from March & June '75. Some of it is familiar from the other June '75 sets, but there's also a lot of freeform jamming. (The second half of disc 4 duplicates earlier parts of the discs, for some reason, and there are lots of unnecessary track breaks.) There's a lot of repetition, so it may be best sampled in small doses. Disc 1 is basically a selection of the various songs they were practicing: Crazy Fingers, Franklin's Tower, Lazy Lightning, Music Never Stopped, Boring Jam (my name for track 6 - more accurate than "funky stylish jam"), and Help>Slip. The 'meat' is on discs 2 & 3: tracks 10-11 (the "spacely>staccato jam") is probably my favorite jam here, it starts off with just Garcia & drums, but after the rest of the band joins in it gets pretty spacy & interesting. The proto-'Stronger than Dirt' jam after that (tracks 12-17) is kind of dissonant & chaotic; the 'nines' jam from March that ends disc 2 (tracks 20-23) also shows them working on their riffs, and it ends with a nice little 'space'. Disc 3 starts with an interesting long proto-Blues for Allah jam from March (tracks 24-31), then another long 'staccato' jam (32-34) which seemed a bit repetitive - but after all, it's all just practicing! Then fans of Help>Slipknots will be happy to find a few complete versions in a row (tracks 35-37), with plenty of Slipknot action. (One even segues into Franklin's, which is rare in these studio sessions.) We even get an early proto-Slipknot (tracks 39-43) and a few more primitive Franklins (46-48), with Keith's jaunty keyboard grinding into the brain.... Overall, this set is quite an extensive look at what the Dead were up to in mid-'75 and has a lot of unique themes that they dropped - it's probably better to listen in parts though, rather than one jam after another!

The tracks aren't labeled here, but there are a few interesting things to find. We start with a VERY nice Crazy Fingers (tracks 1-3), with Garcia singing, sounding much fuller than it did in June - these seem to be actual album takes since they're overdubbed (Keith is on both organ & piano, and Garcia is double-tracked). The reggae version of They Love Each Other follows (tracks 4-7, the last one complete); unfortunately Garcia doesn't sing. Track 8 is a fragment of a Slipknot, which is interesting because it goes into Franklin's (though they stop there). Then we have a long Stronger Than Dirt rehearsal (tracks 9-24) - there are several complete takes but they're not very different from each other; the band seems to be tiring, or perhaps it's just me. Track 25 is forty seconds of another slow, early Franklin's with Garcia singing; he stops it saying, "I can't hear this microphone for shit."

This is a bootleg compilation of highlights from different dates, kind of a sampler which is nice to listen to if you're not into hearing multiple takes.

Finally, I should include some rehearsals from May 28-30, 1976, when the Dead were getting songs ready for their new tour:
Lazy Lightning>Supplication - Attics of My Life - Cassidy - Cosmic Charlie - Playin' in the Band - Eyes of the World - Wharf Rat - The Wheel - Candyman
(Note: Though they mostly duplicate each other, each file is missing material - the Vernon file is missing some songs from 5/28, but the GEMS file is missing the early Playin' takes from 5/29. I'll use the track-listings from the GEMS file.)
Since these are practice versions, they're sometimes rather tentative and laid-back compared to the live shows of '76 - the Supplication jams are particularly mild-mannered. Attics of My Life, of course, the Dead decided not to do live, so this is almost the only version with Donna & Keith (there were a couple back in '72). Eyes starts out (track 9) as a jam, with the band apparently re-familiarizing themselves with the song. In tracks 10-12 they remind themselves how Playin' in the Band used to go (these are not "jams" as labeled, though there is some noodling), and track 13 has a complete Playin'. Garcia especially steps out here, and the jam is engaging with a slick return to the song. Then it's back to a strong version of Eyes (a complete take in track 14, and another jam in track 15). The complete take of Wharf Rat (track 20) is quite nice - Garcia uses a strange & different tone in the ending solo. There is also a strong Wheel (track 22), and Candyman makes a jaunty return.
There are many more rehearsals from April/May '76 that are not on the Archive, which include more Attics, slow versions of Might As Well, and takes of Crazy Fingers, Saint Stephen, Let It Grow, the "Peanut Butter Song", Estimated Prophet, and Born Cross-Eyed.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg...
Steve Brown's 1975 tapes, photo courtesy of Jesse Jarnow.