December 1972 is an unsung month of that year - it's kind of a dark corner after the famous '72 tours, shadowed by dodgy sound issues and mixed reviews. Most of these shows also feature bad cuts, which of course always happen in the worst places, with no patches.... But for those who venture within, many surprises await. The Dead only played five shows that month, but three or four of them are great shows with fantastic jams that carry on the dark, ragged intensity of the November '72 tour. So I thought I'd write a few words about them....it was a challenge, though, since the jams are so enormous, they sound different every time you hear them. I'd try to describe the music, and the next time I listened I wouldn't even recognize it! Much of what's going on here is in a place beyond description.
But without further ado -
Our recording is missing almost all of the first set, except the last three songs. The mix changes periodically through the show - apparently there was an uncertain hand at the mixing desk! (I should mention that these mixing shifts occur in several of these shows, the levels changing sometimes between sets but often in mid-song, which can be jarring and distracts from the music.)
Bertha is revved-up, and it's worth checking out Garcia's fierce, wailing solo! As they descend into the Playing in the Band jam, Garcia is already deep into space and wastes no time diving even deeper. This is one incredible version - Garcia digs into his keening notes, sometimes speeding up with rapid runs, then slowing down and letting the high notes hang & echo - sometimes he'll bite into the strings with sharp intensity, then the music will become drippy, bending and oozing. He plays notes as if through a prism, refracting in a dozen directions. He enters a quiet wah-wah section halfway through, which builds up to an explosion and then dissolves, which blows the crowd's minds. As he slowly floats back to the reprise, notes and feedback slur into each other deliciously, inchoate and nebulous.
The band decides not to end the set there, but finishes off with a calming Casey Jones. The second set starts out in standard fashion, and includes a delicate early Stella Blue which unfortunately cuts out in the end solo. In China Cat, after Weir plays the usual solo he played every time, Garcia burns a path to Rider with an exciting transition, and keeps up the heat with a couple stomping solos in Rider. (Alas, he's a bit low in the mix at this point.)
As you might expect, the jam out of Truckin' is on fire, Garcia spitting out a slew of hot notes, but soon calms into a quick bluesy strut that never quite makes it to a Nobody's Fault jam. Kreutzmann seems to be itching for a solo, so Garcia starts teasing the Other One before the band drops out for the drum break. The entry into the Other One is subdued, but becomes more energetic - they keep the jam at a low simmer and soon head to the first verse. Garcia's explosive phrase during "Spanish lady comes to me" is jaw-dropping! Once the verse is over, he jumps right back into an incredible long Hendrix-style sustained burst of feedback. The band drops into near-silence, punctuated by some fingerstyle-chimes from Garcia - slowly they work their way into a mutating groove and proceed into freeform unhinged-funk improv. But there's a jarring huge cut at eleven minutes - suddenly on the other side, we're left in a spooky realm of wah tendrils and menace. This steadily builds up, Garcia circling round & round as he approaches the whirlpool of the Tiger. It furiously bursts and disintegrates, and the band drifts back into silence. A few melodic notes stab out from the void, but the band seems content to stay in quiet formlessness for a while. Gradually, chords cohere and they embark on an interesting Eyes-style chordal jam without any Garcia solo for a couple minutes. Finally he starts putting some tasty lines over the top - the intensity increases, and he takes them back into the Other One zone. The reentry sounds almost threatening as Garcia spirals in & out, the band turning up the volume until the Other One chords slam back in. He signals the end of the jam with a fiery Other One theme - but after the verse, they quietly stop without any segue. The set closes with a few unremarkable short rockin' tunes, and Uncle John's wraps up the show with some nicely laid-back Garcia solos (and some more tapecuts).
The highlight of the first set is the very strong, delightful jam out of He's Gone, a forerunner of a couple excellent versions to come. China Cat is unfortunately cut to shreds, with Garcia's transition entirely missing.
Playing in the Band is fast & rough this night, with Lesh loud in the mix. The jam starts normally, Garcia testing the waters with echoey wah flutters. But the low-key vibe evaporates and a more menacing feel takes over. The band propels Garcia into a faster, edgy jam, all the instruments kicking hard. This jam is full of fast runs and trilling by Garcia, sometimes almost falling into a Tiger, as Lesh thumps discordantly and the others press forward relentlessly. The effect is especially trippy, with sudden mood swings from ugly to melodic, and time loses all meaning. Once Garcia hints at the reprise riff, they rush into it, rather than lingering as usual....Lesh is hypnotized by one harmonic note, and ends the song with a neat sliding line.
The second set starts with an energized Mississippi Half-Step which Garcia takes into a sweet prolonged instrumental at the end, almost like He's Gone - this could be one of the best versions of the year. After a couple more hot, quick rockers, the Dead decide it's time to drop right into a slow jam....
Dark Star starts quietly, calmly, the band taking their time as they explore a variety of themes. Garcia carefully drops notes into the changing tapestry, the group weaving naturally around each other in perfect sympathy. Little by little, the pace and energy increase as different ideas are taken up and dropped - Lesh even pushes in Feelin' Groovy briefly, but the jam keeps changing direction with no one player taking charge. Eventually Garcia takes the lead as he steers them through several varied passages, pulling out one blissful melody after another, at last returning, in a wonderful feedback-laced transition, back to the Dark Star theme - they have to slow down significantly for the verse! (Which is sixteen minutes into the Star.) The verse gives way immediately to anticipatory feedback as the audience whistles - Garcia stays in the feedback zone as the others drop in eerie notes and drum rumbles. The tension becomes hair-raising, Garcia lingering in long cries of feedback and Lesh plucking notes of doom for several minutes..... Finally the drums and piano start to get percussive and there's a bass/drum/piano break, with Godchaux using an odd muted guitar-like tone. He even sounds like Tiger-style Garcia, and things get even wilder when Garcia bursts back in with the same guitar tone! They travel through a strange jungle of cackles and growls, scratching their strings in a cacophony, feedback still piercing in now and then - then they fade out again for a drum break, Lesh and Godchaux adding quiet notes. Garcia slips in with a ghostly tone, and they wander into a sinister jam, the band stabbing fiercely into a raging, screeching Tiger. Crashes and cries of pain dissolve back into feedback, Weir and Godchaux draping creepy washes of sound, and Garcia delicately returns to a melodic run.
Before anyone can recover, Garcia quickly starts Stella Blue out of the darkness. It begins quietly, but they really attack the bridge, and the drums can't calm down after that. Garcia ends it with a short, pretty solo.
Afterwards, Weir (as he often had to do in late '72) explains to the audience, "Pigpen is still convalescent from multiple and serious illnesses, and he will probably be back with us shortly after the first of the year." They cheer at this optimistic news.... The Dead finish the show with a few random short country-style tunes. (Sugar Magnolia and Casey Jones are missing from the SBD, but are on a poor AUD.)
The mix of this show can be troublesome - Weir is very loud all through the first set, and Lesh is a bit distant throughout the show. The mix changes though, and improves for the second set. There's a good AUD of the second set from this night, a bit echoey, but all the instruments are clear. (Actually, it's better-mixed than much of the SBD - but it's only partially available in the old, incomplete Archive SBD source.)
Not many highlights in the first set, aside from a wonderful Bird Song. The jam gets into a spacy, groovy rhythm, with the players all echoing each other - in the second part, Garcia breaks into his own bird-song.
Playing in the Band opens the second set with a bang. This version is more driving than spacy - the jam starts slowly, but soon becomes jagged and turbulent. The band sounds very unified and closeknit (especially in the AUD, where the difference in dynamics and sound-melding is enormous). There's an interlude in the middle where they calm down and Garcia wafts on dreamy wah echoes, then suddenly they veer back to the choppy Playing jam. Garcia keeps hinting at the reprise now & then, but the others won't follow, so they tear into more bouts of jamming. Finally he tugs them back to the theme, and there's a nice long, spacy return to the reprise.
Garcia quickly starts He's Gone, which band and audience both get into. There's a nice climb into the jam at the end - Garcia hits some deep runs and unexpected twists in the long jam, with some great picking. They stick close to the theme, and slowly 'fade out' by getting quieter at the end, without a segue.
Weir introduces Truckin': "Is there anybody here from Turlock tonight? When you're in love, the whole world is from Turlock, right?" The Truckin' jam starts out in usual style with Garcia hitting the high notes, but he soon decides it's time for the blues, and swerves into an instrumental Nobody's Fault But Mine for a couple verses. That's cast aside as he quickly starts teasing the Other One - and then drops out for a bass/drum interlude which is quite uneventful. (Although at one point, Lesh is clearly playing the end-of-Eyes riff from '73!) Garcia sneaks back in and they quietly play around with the Other One theme for a few minutes, without ever announcing the Other One Intro. The band strays into jazzy vamping for some time before finally committing to a scratchy Other One verse. The jam stays unadventurous for a while, never leaving the main theme - slowly Garcia turns up the heat with some repetitive, frustrated-sounding lines, as if ending the jam. Instead they move into a slow passage with Garcia & Godchaux echoing off each other (reminding me of the Hundred Year Hall version). This section gets very quiet, everybody turning down, Garcia busily noodling to himself while Kreutzmann bangs away. They steadily turn up the volume, magnetically pulled back to the Other One theme, and jam closely on that for a while. As the song ends, Garcia starts the melancholy Sing Me Back Home riff....this song (the Death Don't Have No Mercy of 1972) begins slow and quiet, and stays that way aside from Garcia's fine but typical solo.
It's now end-of-show time with a series of rockers (interrupted by Weir's strange "bee story"). Goin' Down the Road forsakes the usual Goodnight coda to go straight into Saturday Night. There's a double encore - Uncle John's with a couple twisting solos, into Johnny B Goode.
The first set is mostly notable for Lesh and Godchaux being very upfront in the mix throughout. Once again, the mix keeps changing - the short transition in China>Rider is one spot that suffers from an abrupt sonic shift. (In any case, that tune doesn't really take off til the last Rider solo.)
Playing in the Band, however, is fantastic. With Godchaux so loud in the mix, this is one of the rare Playings that starts with a prominent piano drone! The jam is seriously heavy - Garcia is more in the background, so the guitars poke out desperately from the fray. There's an ominous, relentless feeling, with Garcia especially inspired, pulling out an array of tortured sounds throughout. He almost sounds like he's musically fighting the others, by turns frantic and resigned in his playing. This Playing is similar to the big November '72 versions in its angry intensity - it never quiets down for long before a storm boils up again. Finally they edge back into a swirling reprise riff as if falling into a whirlpool. Afterwards, they ease back into normality with a set-ending Casey Jones.
The second set starts with a smoldering Greatest Story, and it's clear the Dead are already warmed-up for this set. He's Gone is very spunky - the vocal reprise at the end keeps climbing in fervor until the jam just bursts out. The jam here is really excellent, with Garcia especially intense. Again there's no segue, but they bring the song to a stop before they start Truckin'.
In the Truckin' jam, Garcia doesn't stay for long in the usual Truckin' stomp, and after a little blues syncopation, the band rapidly dives into a freaky space, with Garcia's peals of feedback emerging from Lesh's bass booms - beautifully timed! Immediately the band are in an unknown place, happily adrift and throwing out searching musical lines that float a while then disappear. Piano and drums start a loose groove, over which Garcia starts playing in a tender Dark Star style. Lesh comes up with a jazzy riff that pushes the music into a more driven jam. Everyone contributes here - Weir and Godchaux jump right in, expanding on the riff, and before long this unique jam is confidently racing ahead like they've played it countless times, unfolding every possibility in the theme. Once it trickles out a few minutes later, Lesh takes the lead again - the band loses their footing for a bit - then there's a Garcia/Godchaux duet (with the piano stuttering around a single muted note). The others spring off this into a new jam, which transforms magically with a single hint from Garcia into a Dark Star jam.
Now that the Dark Star theme has started, Garcia sings the verse right away - they sound a bit slow and uncertain here, with Godchaux still hovering around his single note. After the verse they return to the Truckin' feedback space, a horizon of darkness and quiet foreboding - Garcia takes a lovely volume-swell solo over waves of feedback - this becomes tides of harmonized feedback that rise and ebb, as Lesh and Godchaux make little stabs of punctuation. Garcia emerges ready for the Tiger, and the band edges closer to the abyss in discordant crashes and sparkles. They back off though, and wander in atonal conjunction. Garcia hints at the opening note of Morning Dew - the others cohere around this return to melody, and the transition to Dew is remarkable.
Once they start Dew though, it's somewhat slow and clumsy (they hadn't played it since Nov 13). This is a langorous, emotional version, highlighted by the ending jam. Weir quickly cools things down with a scrappy, show-ending Sugar Magnolia & Johnny B Goode.
Technically this show was the first of '73, starting at midnight and continuing til around 4 am on January 1! But the second set shows no sign of weariness - if anything, it's one of the most inspired sets of the month.
From the first set, Playing in the Band starts out strong, with the Dead raring to go. Garcia descends into the jam playing drippy wah-wah around the theme. The jam picks up speed as the band pushes and prods - Weir slashes, Lesh pumps out strange counter-riffs, and the drums and piano are very prominent. This Playing is a steady version, the band jointly tied into one group mind as they flow in unison - perhaps more upbeat than the earlier versions, this is like a dance of the instruments. The jam gets intense in spots, but backs away from any psychotic climaxes - in the middle they quiet down after one flareup as if they're heading back to the reprise, but they're not ready, and more jamming ensues. Finally Garcia announces the main riff, and the band coalesces around him for the finish. (The end of the song fades out.)
The second set starts out with a few standard tunes, highlighted by another strong Mississippi Half-Step with a haunting, too-short end solo. But what follows is amazing.
A fine long jam comes out of Truckin', not explosive but full of anticipation as Garcia sounds eager to roam. He starts playing excited Other One runs while the rest of the band is still in Truckin'. They stay in this transition a long time - Garcia won't let go for the usual drum solo, instead the Other One slowly emerges as Garcia dashes from one new theme to the next, the jam getting more inspired as it goes along. After Lesh finally plays the Other One Intro, the band oozes into a very pretty, drippy jam.
They abruptly pause for a drum break, followed by an aimless Lesh solo - as he goes into a repeating bass riff that would be very common in '73, the band spins out of this into a fullbore jazz jam. David Crosby has joined them on a twelve-string, giving them a more dense and cluttered sound - he fits right in (he had also played on the 9/10/72 Dark Star), playing chordal backing along with Weir. The jam speeds up, Garcia barrelling along at warp speed, the atmosphere electric, more happening than the ear can catch - Godchaux in particular is outstanding throughout this night's jams, in his element as he drives the band forward. All of a sudden they stop for a very spacy wah-wah interlude, Godchaux's piano-tinkles and Crosby's bending chords ringing out loudly. Garcia slides into feedback, Lesh pushing him with loud rumbles, the band jabbing in spikes of fizzling confusion, and they rip into a short but powerful Tiger. Dazed, the band drifts, Garcia's guitar creaking and rattling as Crosby adds to the mayhem. Somehow out of this, Weir bursts into some chords and it sounds like they're going into Me & My Uncle - but it turns out to be a new jam. Just as it gets hotter and seems due to explode, Garcia drops out for a while and it's time for a Weir chordal solo - once Garcia rejoins him, the band drops nearly to silence. Out of some drum taps, suddenly Lesh rumbles into the Other One again, and we're treated to a very hot entry into the verse.
The biggest surprise of all happens after the verse - instead of an Other One jam, all of a sudden Garcia slows down the band *on a dime* into a superb, sweet instrumental that must be heard to be believed - it's not at all like the Dead's other jams in these shows. It almost sounds like they rehearsed it for just this occasion, it's so tight and evocative. Garcia's lead is simply fantastic, one of the most transcendent pieces I've heard him play. Lifting to an even higher level, this passage ends with Garcia's violin-like volume-swell solo - Crosby backing him with graceful notes - which slides fantasy-like into a dreamy Morning Dew.
Crosby & Weir add a very phased sound to Dew - Garcia's singing is heartfelt, and he plays a powerful middle solo. The ending jam, growing out of Garcia/Crosby twin leads, is very deliberate and extended with Crosby's heavy chords and Garcia's fanning, ending this long jam medley with an emotional bang.
Afterwards, Weir thanks Bill Graham and they play a really excellent Sugar Magnolia for him, the best of the run with an extra-long jam. (Possibly Crosby's still in there too, playing grungy chords?) After that, Garcia chills everyone out with a fine, dignified Sing Me Back Home (his solo is somewhat strangled, though). They round out the show with a sputtering Johnny B Goode, and a goodbye Uncle John's (with some very nice solos) & Saturday Night.
And with that, the Dead bid farewell to 1972. The next month would be a busy one, writing and rehearsing several new songs - and in February, they'd come back to the stage with a smoother, more relaxed style.... But that's a story for another day.