December 24, 2013

Eyes of the World: A Field Guide (Guest Post)

Guest Post by Kell C. Mercer

“Eyes of the World,” with lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Jerry Garcia, was first performed live by the Grateful Dead on February 9, 1973, at the Maples Pavilion at Stanford University. [1] “Eyes” was performed live by the Grateful Dead 381 times. [2] The song appears on the studio album “Wake of the Flood,” released on October 15, 1973. [3] It was the second single from the album, and was also released as a promo with mono and stereo mixes. [4] “Wake of the Flood” was recorded between August 4 and September 1, 1973. [5] The recorded performance of “Eyes” on “Wake of the Flood” includes guest Benny Velarde [6] on timbales. [7]

I. Musical Origins

Some believe that “Eyes” musically grew out of a thematic jam, known as the “Tighten Up Jam,” which was frequently played during “Dark Star” and “Dancing in the Streets” during 1969 through 1971. [8] Good examples of this jam are found in Dick’s Picks No. 2 during “Dark Star” [9] and Dick’s Picks No. 8 during “Dancing in the Streets.” [10]
The “Tighten Up Jam” comes from the song "Tighten Up," performed by Archie Bell & The Drells.
( ) Archie Bells & The Drells hailed from Houston, Texas. Their single “Tighten Up” was written by Archie Bell and Billy Buttier a/k/a Billy Butler. “Tighten Up” reached #1 on both the Billboard R&B and pop charts in the spring of 1968. It is ranked #265 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is considered to be one of the earliest funk hits in music history. While the rhythm and tempo of “Tighten Up” and “Eyes of the World” are somewhat similar, the chords and melody are different. Thus, any connection to “Tighten Up” may be coincidental.
Some also note the similarity between “Eyes” and the Bob Weir-led Kingfish song “Hypnotize,” from their 1976 album Kingfish. [11] ( )

Blair Jackson asked Hunter and Garcia in 1991, “I gather ‘Eyes of the World’ was an older lyric when the Dead got around to recording it in 1973.”
Hunter: “I’m pretty sure ‘Eyes of the World’ was from Larkspur…”
Garcia: “I don’t remember writing ‘Eyes of the World,’ but I do remember that basically it wanted a samba feel, which it still sort of has. It was kind of a Brazilian thing.”
Hunter: “It has so many lyrics it needed a fast tempo to get them all in.” [12]

Garcia had also been asked about the song in 1977 by Adam Block: “Which songs feel too dated to perform any longer? For instance, when ‘Eyes of the World’ was released, it caught flak from critics for being ‘hippy-dippy.’ Hunter said he agreed, but that, after all, the lyric was five years old when you got around to using it. The song is dated, but you still do it.”
Garcia: “I’ll tell you why. That had been sitting around my desk for years. I would notice it and think, ‘That is such a nicely conceived thing, all the ideas and the way they’re linked together.’ I tried all different ways of setting it to music, none of which I liked very much. Finally I thought of a good way to do it, and it was like, it didn’t matter to me whether it was dated or not. It was an idea that was there, and whenever I did it, I knew I had to do it. It was already in my head, so it didn’t matter what the sense of it was, or whether it communicated that idea to anybody or not.” [13]

II. Lyrics

For the lyrics, see [14]

Lyrically, the last verse has a notable similarity to a verse from the American folk song “Goodnight, Irene” which was originally recorded by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in 1933. The verse:

Sometimes I live in the country,
sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a great notion,
to jump into the river and drown.

Whether this is intentional or not is unknown. A portion of the same verse served as the title to a Ken Kesey novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” published in 1964. [15]

The chorus may also refer to a line from Blaise Pascal’s 17th-century Pensees: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” [16]

Garcia faced some challenges in setting these lyrics to music. The chorus is set to a kind of jaunty march that clashes with the natural rhythm of the words. Notice that the first verse has more lines and comes to a different melodic conclusion than the next two verses. It was also a feat to set, to an identical melody, verses with two completely different rhythms and syllable-counts, which is evident if you speak the lines:

“Right outside this | lazy summer home
You ain’t got time to call your | soul a critic, no”
“There comes a redeemer | and he slowly too fades away
There follows his wagon | behind him that’s loaded with clay”

“Right outside the lazy gate | of winter’s summer home”
“The seeds that were silent all burst into bloom | and decay”

The lyrics have been ridiculed, for instance in Rolling Stone’s original review, where the chorus was quoted: “The lyrics on much of Flood plumb new depths of dull-witted, inbred, blissed-out hippy-dippyness… Jonathan Seagull would blush.” [17]
Hunter has written, “What people can't readily understand in my work has been written off as hippy dippy tripping. ‘Eyes of the World’ is a good example -- a young song about resolution of the subject-object conflict with overtones of Santayana.” [18]

Hunter said in the ‘80s, “‘Eyes of the World’ was quite mystical and, I think, a very right song for the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Looking back on it now, it’s kind of dated… It’s a song about compassion, as I understand it. Being able to see things from someone else’s point of view. It’s always a right message, but I think it can be overdone. It can be made corny. Of course, there are eternal verities. You can’t avoid those too much if you want to say something.” [19]

For one lyric interpretation, see Eric Wybenga’s book Dead to the Core, p.100-102.
The meaning of the second verse is discussed by Paul Glass in his chapter "Buddhism  Through the Eyes of the Dead" in the book "The Grateful Dead and Philosophy:  Getting High Minded about Love and Haight." Glass believes that "Eyes" makes reference to one of the "central images of Mahayana Buddhism."  Glass interprets Robert Hunter's "redeemer" as a "bodhisattva bringing all sentient beings to nirvana in a great wagon."  Glass sees the "seeds" in the verse as "karmic seeds" "extinguishing their karmic debt and ending the cycle of rebirth." [19a]

III. Performance History

From its debut in February 9, 1973, except for a brief period coinciding with the touring hiatus from October ’74 to June of ’76, “Eyes” was played regularly through ‘95. The song was played most frequently in ’73, with a total of 49 performances. According to Dead Base, the following represent the number of times played in each year:

‘73 – 49 shows
’74 – 23 shows
’75 – 1 show
‘76 – 11 shows
’77 – 20 shows
’78 – 25 shows
’79 – 22 shows
’80 – 18 shows
’81 – 21 shows
’82 – 13 shows
’83 – 13 shows
’84 – 13 shows
’85 – 16 shows
’86 – 10 shows
’87 – 15 shows
’88 – 17 shows
’89 – 17 shows
’90 – 17 shows
’91 – 15 shows
’92 – 8 shows
’93 – 11 shows
’94 – 17 shows
’95 – 9 shows

In ’73-’74 “Eyes” was frequently paired with “China Doll,” with a total of 24 performances of Eyes> China Doll. Also in ‘73, “Dark Star transitioned into “Eyes” ten times. [20] Two excellent versions of this transition are November 11, 1973 and December 6, 1973. The November ’73 transition includes a “Mind Left Body jam” between “Dark Star” and “Eyes.” (This has been released on the Winterland ’73: Complete Recordings box set.) The December 6, 1973 performance of “Eyes” at Public Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, follows a 43+ minute “Dark Star” that teases “Wharf Rat” before going into “Eyes.” (This Dark Star> Eyes was released on the Road Trips 2011 bonus disc, out of print now.) [21]
In ’73, “Eyes” more commonly came out of “Truckin’” or “The Other One,” with eleven Other One> Eyes and thirteen Truckin’> Eyes in ’73-74. These pairings would become very rare thereafter, done only a few times in later years. Another common combination in ’73-’76 was Eyes> Stella Blue, which was played 10 times. [22] After ’76, “Eyes” would never again be paired with “China Doll” or “Stella Blue.” [23]
In ’76 and early ’77 the Dead were very flexible in where they placed “Eyes,” but this changed in May ’77. After the debut of “Estimated Prophet” in ’77, Estimated> Eyes was paired 172 times, by far the most common Eyes combo, and the reverse Eyes> Estimated was played 13 times. The Estimated> Eyes> Drums sequence was played 149 times. In 1990 the Dead started becoming more flexible again in “Eyes” placements, and the “Estimated” pairing became rare in the ‘90s.

Garcia talked about the Estimated> Eyes transition in 1988:
"The interesting [transitions] are the ones that have a lot of interim playing possibilities, like 'Estimated Prophet' into 'Eyes of the World' - even though that's one we do a lot. They have an interesting key relationship to each other. You can play an E-major 7th scale against the leading F-sharp minor in 'Estimated Prophet' without changing a note. So it's the same intervals exactly, it's just in different places on the scale. That makes it so you can play through a lot of places. And while we're making that transition we can go from, like, B-minor to C-sharp 7th, to a little E-minor, a little C-major. There are all these possible changes, so that just by changing one or two intervals, all of a sudden they'll work; but sometimes we have to discuss them because they're not all that obvious. It's not obvious what the leading tones are. Also, the rhythmic relationship is very 'off.' So I can find a pulse in there that'll be just a perfect tempo for 'Eyes of the World' regardless of what tempo 'Estimated Prophet' was at, and that makes it interesting for me 'cause it's wide open... If there's a formula that works...we tend to repeat it and do it to death. It depends how many shows you go to - you start to think, 'These guys sure love this transition. They're doing it all the fucking time!'" [23b]

Through the late ‘70s and ‘80s “Eyes” was almost invariably placed in the predrums slot; the Eyes> Drums sequence was played 195 times. Typically the music would trickle out into spacy tinkling to make way for Drums; sometimes in the late ‘70s there would be more full-blown “Spaces” after “Eyes,” and sometimes in the ‘80s there would be little Weir or Brent jams after Garcia left the stage. Starting in 1990, the inevitable transition to Drums became much less common as “Eyes” was more often played earlier in the second set, allowing more varied segues.

“Eyes” was almost always a second set song. “Eyes” was a second set opening song 6 times in the ‘70s (mostly, but not exclusively, pre-hiatus) and 33 times in the ‘90s. Interestingly, in the ‘80s, “Eyes” was never a set opener. The following shows feature a rare first set “Eyes”:
September 8, 1973 – Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
October 29, 1973 - Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, Mo.
June 18, 1974 - Freedom Hall, Louisville, Ky
August 6, 1974 - Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, N.J.
September 21, 1974 - Palais des Sports, Paris, France
October 19, 1974 - Winterland Arena, San Francisco, Ca.
August 13, 1975 - Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, Ca.

The following shows feature an even more rare “Eyes” encore: [24]
October 19, 1973 - Oklahoma City Fairgrounds Arena, Oklahoma City, Ok.
June 26, 1974 - Providence Civic Center, Providence, R.I.
September 14, 1974 – Olympiahalle, Munich, W. Germany

And then there is the most rare, a first set opening “Eyes” on June 17, 1991, Giant’s Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Following the death of Garcia, the song has remained in the regular repertoire of each of the surviving members’ projects, including Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends, Mickey Hart Band, Seven Walkers, Rhythm Devils, Furthur, the Other Ones, and The Dead.

IV. Structure

Intro [25]

First Verse/Chorus

First jam

Second Verse/Chorus

Second jam

Third Verse/Chorus

Third Jam

Coda (‘73-‘74)

V. The Coda

In versions played in ’73 through ’74, the third instrumental section would usually conclude with a coda with a different melody, rhythm and tempo. (This coda first appeared in the song’s second performance on February 15, 1973.) Dead scholar David Malvinni describes the coda as featuring “dramatically framed chord changes (accentuated by the bass), and a disorientating pentatonic-based riff in E-flat minor in a 7/8 time signature, phrased as 7+7, yet that ends in 7+6 as the tonality descends by half step to D minor.” [26]
Some have compared this coda to the similar “Stronger Than Dirt” section of "King Solomon’s Mines" from Blues for Allah, but it is a different riff. (On August 13, 1975, an actual “Stronger Than Dirt” follows “Eyes.”) Others have compared the coda to "Slipknot!" Interestingly, on June 20, 1974, the coda segued into an early version of “Slipknot!” and then into "China Doll."
"Eyes" also transitioned into "Slipknot!" on October 20, 1974, at the last of the pre-hiatus shows. (“Slipknot!” would make its next appearance almost a year later, on June 17, 1975, sandwiched in its familiar spot between “Help on the Way” [27] and “Franklin’s Tower.”) The “Eyes” coda was dropped after the October 20, 1974 performance.

David Malvinni provides a detailed analysis of the “Eyes” performance on August 1, 1973, at Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ. Malvinni argues that the best “Eyes” were performed during ’73 and ’74, in part because of the coda. (See Malvinni, Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation.) [26] In the August 1, 1973 version, the coda begins at 16:24.
This version, well played from beginning to end, follows a great Dark Star > El Paso, and certainly demonstrates and includes what can be excellent in a ’73 “Eyes.” In the comments at, it is labeled “one for the ages.”

In addition to dropping the coda, after the hiatus the Dead also dropped the lengthy final instrumental jam sequence with its minor-key chord changes. In the June ’76 versions, most of the jamming takes place before the first verse, with the intro jam generally being about 6 minutes; while in contrast, the outro jam is quite brief or turns immediately into space. Over the next few months, the intro jam shortened again, typically to 2-3 minutes; but the final jam was not expanded again, and never regained its former splendor; instead the Dead generally moved quickly to a transition.

Occasionally “Eyes” would end without a transition to another song, but this was very rare in the '70s. Sometimes in ’76-77 there would still be a separate transitional jam – for instance, on July 17, 1976; September 28, 1976; or December 30, 1977. Sometimes “Eyes” would lead into a lengthy “Space” section, which could be either gentle, or a chaotic freakout – for instance, December 4, 1973; June 30, 1974; September 11, 1974 with Ned Lagin; March 19, 1977; October 29, 1977; January 14, 1978; August 12, 1979; October 25, 1979; November 29, 1979; or September 12, 1981. (Fall ’79 features a few of the noisy meltdowns, which were uncommon after ‘74.) [28]

VI. Tempo Changes

After the hiatus, in addition to losing the coda, the song’s tempo started increasing in June of 1976, [29] until returning to a more languid pace in the spring of 1990 and beyond. (The Dead switched back to the slower tempo in the March 25, 1990 performance.) For a comparison of the different tempos of the song, see the following examples:

November 23, 1973, County Coliseum, El Paso, TX (original pace)

April 8, 1978, Veterans Memorial Coliseum (post-hiatus speed up)

May 10, 1986, Frost Amphitheater, Palo Alto, CA (very fast pace)

September 17, 1991, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY (return to slower pace)

VII. Track Length

The album version is a very compact 5:20 in length. Versions in ’73 and ’74 could exceed 20 minutes.

March 15, 1973, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY (20:47)

June 10, 1973, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC (21:17) [30]

June 30, 1974, Springfield Civic Center Arena, Springfield, MA (23:43)

Versions in the ‘80s could be well under 10 minutes. In ’86-88 in particular, the average “Eyes” was less than 9 minutes, with some less than 7 minutes long. (October 4, 1987, is perhaps the shortest-ever live version, with Garcia finishing in under 6 minutes, though others come close.)

October 10, 1981, StadtHalle, Bremen, GE (7:43)

February 21, 1982, Pauley Pavilion, Las Angeles, CA (6:41)

September 3, 1988, Capitol Centre, Landover, MD (6:38)

In the ‘90s, "Eyes" could again exceed 15 minutes. There was a particular resurgence of lengthy versions in ’94.

June 17, 1990, Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA (16:00)

September 18, 1990, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY (17:33)

October 17, 1994, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY (25:11)

VIII. Notable Performances

First performance – 2/9/73, Roscoe Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto, CA

Second performance, first with Coda – 2/15/73, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI

With Joe Ellis and Martin Fierro – 9/12, 15, 17, 20, 24, 26/73.
Ellis and Fierro had both played on Wake of the Flood and toured with the Grateful Dead during the month of September 1973. Fierro had played with Garcia and Howard Wales on the Hooteroll? album released in November of 1971. Fierro played later with Garcia on solo projects, including Legion of Mary.
William & Mary College, Williamsburg, VA
Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI
Onondaga War Memorial Auditorium, Syracuse, NY
The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
Pittsburgh Civic Arena, Pittsburg, PA
War Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, NY

With Ned Lagin – 9/11/74, Alexandra Palace, London, England

“Eyes” was played and recorded during rehearsals on May 28-30, 1976, while the Grateful Dead were preparing for the return from hiatus tour which began on June 3, 1976. (Track 9 here is a basic instrumental “Eyes” jam; track 14 is a full vocal take; and track 15 is a mostly instrumental intro jam that cuts off after the first verse.)

First post-hiatus, sped-up version - 6/9/76, Boston Music Hall, Boston, MA

Last with Donna and Keith Godchaux – 2/10/79, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Hall, Kansas City, KS

First with Brent Mydland – 5/4/79, Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

Longest Brent Mydland performance (over 22 minutes) – 11/5/79, Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA

Last with Brent Mydland – 7/22/90, World Music Theater, Tinley Park, IL

With Branford Marsalis
3/29/90, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
12/31/90, Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA
12/16/94, Los Angeles Sports Arena, Los Angeles, CA

With percussionist Airto Moreira -- 2/11/89, Great Western Forum, Inglewood, CA

With Clarence Clemons -- 6/21/89, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA

First with Vince Welnick – 9/8/90, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

Three good versions with Bruce Hornsby, who brought a return to the jazzier feel of the Godchaux era versions.
3/20/91, Capital Centre, Landover, MD
3/31/91, Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
9/8/91, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

Final performance – 7/6/95, Riverport Amphitheatre, Maryland Heights, MO

For a listing of recommended versions in order of popularity, see: [31]

[More below the break.] 

December 3, 2013

Hard to Handle 1969-1971

In the beginning was Otis:

The Dead had long been fans of Otis Redding – in 1966-67, Pigpen was performing his ‘63 song ‘Pain in My Heart.’ (Though the impetus to cover it may have come from the Rolling Stones’ version.)
Redding came to the Fillmore in December ’66 – musicians were clamoring to Bill Graham that he needed to book Otis. When he came, according to Graham, “Every artist in the city asked to open for Otis. The first night, it was the Grateful Dead. Janis Joplin came at three in the afternoon the day of the first show to make sure that she’d be in front… Every musician then into music came.” *
The Dead opened for Redding on 12/20/66; the next two nights, other bands opened. (The Dead went to play in Santa Clara.) Bill Graham was permanently impressed: “By far, Otis Redding was the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen. There was no comparison, then or now... That was the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” * Janis also mentioned that Otis was a particular inspiration to her. (I believe Ralph Gleason also wrote a review of one of the shows for the Chronicle, which I’d like to see.)
When Garcia & Lesh appeared on Tom Donahue’s FM show in April ’67, they played Otis’ cover of ‘Day Tripper’ and reminisced about the show. Otis had an 18-piece band with him, and Garcia recalled that Otis did his standard show, “where the band would get up and play some numbers, and a girl singer would come up” and warm up the audience before Otis appeared.
Lesh: “It was kind of scary to work with Otis… He tore it up!”
Garcia: “Otis is really heavy… He tore the place apart… When he came on stage, it was like the whole place got about six times as big, and the band just got real snappy – it was so fine, and the music was really good.”

Of course, Redding wasn’t just playing to an audience of worshipful white musicians – Bill Graham mentioned that it was a “mixed audience.” It’s been said elsewhere that the Fillmore was in a largely black district, and most of the audience would probably have been blacks from the neighborhood, not hippie kids.
Tom Donahue remembered the weekday shows not drawing very well: “I thought he would do better here than he did… I don’t think he had the number of people that he could’ve had.” Garcia thought, “Maybe not too many people knew about it.” (There were a couple different color posters printed, one in ‘psychedelic style’ for the hippie crowd, and a plainer one apparently for the black audience which just lists “The Otis Redding Show” with no mention of the opening bands!)
As for Otis himself, he found San Francisco a jolt. According to Redding’s manager Phil Walden, “When Otis played at the Fillmore, Otis had a funny reaction to it. He said, ‘Oh, these fucking hippies, man. They’re smoking dope and shit like it’s legal out here. See, everybody’s high!’ This was a cultural revolution for these black guys from the south.” *

The Dead then saw him close one night at the Monterey Pop Festival, 6/17/67 with Booker T & the MG’s and the Mar-keys horns, following the Jefferson Airplane. The Dead had played a show in Hollywood the night before, and would play at Monterey the next day, so had the evening free to watch the various bands. This would turn out to be Redding’s most famous set – a Billboard reviewer wrote, “When Redding came on, it took him exactly four beats in two seconds to get 7,500 voices screaming and chanting with him.” The Mojo Navigator R&R News wrote, “Otis, bouncing out on stage, in about five seconds had the whole audience completely with him – he’s got some kind of incredible, dynamic magnetism that just reaches out and grabs you: dipping down, screaming, bouncing and trotting all over the stage, he socks it right to ya! …It’s really a gas to watch him.”

For his part, Redding was aiming for a new, larger white audience. Redding’s manager was happy to come to the Fillmore: “We thought it was something that would be to our advantage, because in those days, our exposure to the white market…was very limited.” * (Redding had also played the Whisky a Go Go in LA back in April ’66, but I don’t know to what kind of crowd.) Apparently, when performing for white audiences, Redding would do a more up-tempo set; when he played for his usual black audiences, the set would be filled with more slow, pleading-type songs.
At any rate, we don’t know what he thought of the San Francisco rock bands; but musicians from the rest of the country tended not to react very favorably to the music there. For instance, Columbia producer David Rubinson said: “I came out to San Francisco in December 1966… The best band out here then was Moby Grape, bar none; Moby Grape and then Steve Miller. Big Brother was terrible. The Airplane was terrible… The Grateful Dead were terrible. All these people, they were horrible. They couldn’t play. They couldn’t tune their guitars. And they were doing what to me was the ultimate injustice. They were doing Elmore James badly… These incredibly untalented, unmusical people were getting up and doing stuff they had learned off some old Kent or Chess record which I had loved since I was 15 years old… It was laughable to me. I watched these San Francisco bands play blues that they couldn’t play.” *
Redding was asked by Hit Parader in ’67 whether he liked the Rolling Stones’ blues: “No. I like their uptempo songs…I like their original things better. They can’t do anybody else’s songs.” When Steve Cropper & Booker T suggested ‘Satisfaction’ to him, “I hadn’t heard it. They played the record for me and everybody liked it but me.”

Redding recorded Hard to Handle in late 1967, shortly before his death. It was released as a single in June 1968. By 1969, it was being covered by a number of people, and surprisingly, the Dead seem to have been one of the first. If anyone were to think of the least likely groups in ‘69 to cover some funky new R&B, the Dead would probably be on that list. They hadn’t shown any interest in picking up new R&B covers since mid-1967, when they started doing Lovelight – since then, they had focused on their original ‘acid-rock’ material. Many old covers dropped out of their setlists, and from summer ’68 through winter ’69, their shows were almost exclusively devoted to Anthem & Live/Dead suite material, with a few new Aoxomoxoa songs dropped in.
But by March 1969, they seem to have felt the need for something new – the Live/Dead album was in the can, and their repertoire had not varied much in months. Aside from a couple sluggish, misbegotten renditions of Hey Jude that winter, Hard to Handle was their first new cover song in over a year. Over the course of the spring, they would gradually bring in more cover tunes, bringing back many songs they had stopped playing in previous years, and the shows would start to reflect a wider set of influences.
Pigpen probably emulated Otis, and of course this song would have matched his strutting stage persona; it may have been his idea to cover it. The Dead must have known they could not recapture the tight, snappy Stax horn sound of Redding’s original, and they didn’t even try. Instead they adapted it to their loud, heavy, lumbering two-drum, two-guitar style – of course adding a big guitar solo. Pigpen had a set way of singing the song from the start, closely following Redding’s phrasing, which would vary little over the next couple years; but the band would go through some dramatic changes in the way they played the song. (The next year, a bit lighter on their feet, they would also attempt James Brown’s ‘Man’s World’ – not one of his funkiest efforts – but would only play it for about five months.)


The Dead debuted Hard to Handle at the Black & White Ball, 3/15/69 – the very first song of the show! In their eagerness to tackle it, they perhaps neglected to rehearse it a few more times… They have trouble keeping together in the precise arrangement, and sometimes stumble around erratically before syncing up again. Garcia plays swooping slide throughout, but seems to have little idea what to do with it, so there’s not much of a solo and they just sort of stagger forward aimlessly for a while. Pigpen is also a little confused about the verses. At the end the band thinks Pigpen’s finished, but he continues with another verse, so they bring it to an abrupt end. [5:02]

I’m not sure what Garcia’s intent with the slide was, but he stuck with it despite being very amateurish. It doesn’t help that he stays behind the beat with it, making the band sound off-kilter. The next performance, on 4/5/69, is if anything even messier as the band is barely able to stay in time; Pigpen loses his place in the middle with a misplaced verse. Garcia musters up more of a solo this time, but he’s erratic throughout and his slide playing basically sounds like random squealing! [5:50]

4/11 follows the same pattern…Pigpen remains uncertain about where the verses & where the breaks are (perhaps he forgot the words), and the last verse is just omitted. Garcia again wanders aimlessly through some kind of solo. The rest of the band seems to be getting more confident, though; Weir & Lesh generally stay pretty solid. [5:20]

4/15 sounds tighter – Pigpen finally has his verses set – though Garcia has not improved and the band has yet to work out a synchronized ending. 4/18 is the most solid version yet, without any notable flubs, and they finally have the ending down. [4:58]

Hard to Handle was frequently used to open the show in mid-‘69 – the Dead must have thought it made an effective opener.
In this first month of performance, Pigpen and the band adjusted the arrangement in a couple ways. Vocally, there were two lyric verses to work with: “baby here I am” and “actions speak louder than words.” Redding had done three verses (repeating the first), but the Dead extended the length of the song, so Pigpen had a lot more repeating to do. Initially he would do three verses at the start of the song, as Redding had done; then would go on a little rap (“give it to me, I got to have it,” etc, derived from Redding’s ending), and after the solo would repeat a verse again. (Sometimes he’d do the “actions” verse to end the song, sometimes “baby” – in those cases the first verse would be repeated three times!) He was skilled at ad-libbing, so sometimes he’d change a few lines on the fly, and only the close listener would notice. (For example, check out the third verse in the 3/15 performance; he also replaces forgotten lines more confidently in later versions.)
At first, the band would play through the whole song as a series of verses & breaks; they didn’t have a clear idea of how long Pigpen’s rap should run, or how the solo space should be structured. So for instance, in the first three performances he repetitively raps for quite a while, over the equivalent of two verses. (On 4/5 the effect is worse since he mistakenly starts the rap in verse three, then sings the first verse again, then restarts the rap in verse five!) Also in the first three performances, the solo would end with a return to the refrain (“boys and things will come by the dozen”); on 4/5 and 4/11 the rap would also be treated as a verse ending with a refrain – sometimes instrumental if Pigpen forgot to come back in.
By mid-April they’ve ironed that out and gotten rid of the extra refrains. Pigpen raps briefly at the start of the solo, then makes way for Garcia (sometimes calling out “play a while!”), and the band vamps for an indeterminate time while Garcia solos. At this point there wasn’t a clear structure or climax to the solo, so Pigpen & the band often start the last verse at some random point while Garcia’s still twanging away. Only sometimes, as on 4/21, will Garcia come to a definite stop and the music return to Weir’s lead riff, signalling an end to the solo.

By now, after some road practice, the band has settled into consistency and can stay in the groove, more or less sloppily. The drummers are more locked-in and can add little fills, and Pigpen doesn’t make any more screwups. Garcia remains the weak link – on 4/21 and 4/23, for example, the band almost finds itself in a jam during the solo, but his limited slide playing keeps him from really interacting well with the other guitars. Though more confident, his soloing is still just random caterwauling.
4/25 is amusing, since Pigpen gives way to the solo with his usual “Go on, play a while!” but after a minute, cuts back into Garcia’s solo with the last verse, as if to say ‘that’s enough.’ [5:26] [6:06] [4:25]

5/10 is notable since Garcia finally drops the slide! (TC provides the high-pitched sustain in its place.) The band plays an extra instrumental refrain again, and it’s nice to hear a natural-sounding guitar line in the break. The solo doesn’t get more focused since Garcia doesn’t really have any part worked out, but the sound is improved considerably – no more screeching! However, the power cuts out in the middle of the solo as they’re heating up, and Pigpen sings the last verse over drumbeats. [5:30]

5/16 is pretty funny since Garcia starts out with no idea where he is in the song, so his fills are badly timed, confusing Pigpen. Pigpen gives up after two botched verses, and we get a very short solo, mostly Pigpen’s usual rap, before Pigpen rushes into the last verse. At four minutes, one of the Dead’s shortest versions. [3:55]

On 5/31, Garcia sounds very awkward, but he is still figuring out his parts. The solo is also quite brief, in fact Garcia hardly plays one, apparently lost for ideas, so Pigpen just starts the last verse early again. Also four minutes, and one of the shortest versions. [3:57]

5/23 was a bit ramshackle, but has a nice, more focused solo – Garcia has a better idea of how to handle it, and Hard to Handle at last has his standard ‘rock’-style soloing. [Road Trips 4/1, 4:31]
6/5 is a huge improvement – the band is starting to catch a groove in this song and it’s almost danceable; they’ve ironed out the drags. Garcia finally has a nice tone and his slinky playing fits in better. The solo doesn’t hit any climaxes – actually it just peters out abruptly and the band seems to get lost for a moment – but it’s still engaging. (Also, due to the mix, Constanten can be heard better than in previous versions.) The best version yet, pointing to future performances. [5:00]

6/13 is a bit sloppy and confused in comparison as it starts out; but Constanten uses a really nice Rhodes-like keyboard tone which is quite unlike him; and Garcia steps up nicely in the solo, which feels more relaxed than usual. [5:23]

6/22 sounds like it would be a good version if we had an SBD; even in a poor AUD it stands out as being pretty tight. However it’s very short, less than four minutes with a very concise solo – not a moment wasted. [3:39]

7/3, in contrast, is a sloppy mess in which Garcia sounds particularly off, though he still manages a passable solo. [4:56]

By now Hard to Handle has reached its ‘classic’ format, the way it would remain through 1970 – some versions are still clunkers, but when the band’s on, the playing is strong and Garcia’s fills sharp. So far they’re not yet stretching out the solo into a real jam, but it’s become noticeably more structured with a clear ‘ending’ and return to the main riff. (5/23 is a good early example.)
Also, in mid-May the band streamlined the song a bit by dropping the third verse, so now Pigpen would just sing two verses before the solo (one reason the song became shorter in May). By July he’d consistently end the song with the the “baby here I am” verse.

7/4 has a nice, relatively extended solo, with Garcia playing off Constanten’s trills, which comes to a natural endpoint. (Also notice how Garcia keeps playing fills in the three-chord riffs after the verses, which is very rare – as a rule he just plays the chords.) [4:29]

7/11 is a bizarre oddity – Garcia switches to pedal steel for Hard to Handle. This leaves kind of a hole in the sound – maybe Garcia was trying to return to the slide arrangement, since it’s similar. The pedal steel doesn’t mesh too well with the band in this tune, though, sounding rather weak and tinkly. [4:02]

There is a gap of almost a month before our next Hard to Handle; and by the August versions, the solos are much longer than they had been in early July – the band is now exploring the jam potential of the song.
Constanten is very loud in the mix on 8/2, and Garcia is faltering at the start – Garcia cuts out as he starts the solo and we get a TC solo before he returns, then the longest Garcia solo yet, meandering but not that great. (The song is over 7 minutes long.) [7:14]

8/3 is in very unbalanced sound and hard to enjoy, but it has a striking guest fiddler who joins in the solo. He doesn’t do a whole lot, mostly sawing out one repeated line before giving way to the others. Garcia’s following solo falls completely flat. Though this performance is a failure, just the possibility of the Dead playing with a more talented (or prepared) fiddler is enticing. Unfortunately, it would never happen again. [5:48]

8/23 cuts in before the solo, so it’s a partial Hard to Handle, but a standout. Garcia sounds eager to stretch out, as this is an extremely long solo for the time, full of ideas that would be played out in later Hard to Handle jams. Not until 8 minutes into the solo (longer than any entire Hard to Handle so far) do they reach the final climax and return to the last verse. A little repetitive, but remarkable. [/9:07]

Here we have a two-month gap until our next Hard to Handle; but there weren’t any more changes in format. By now, most versions are very similar to each other, and the solos have gone down in length again. Constanten’s part has grown a bit by the fall; he used to contribute rather stiff rhythmic stabs, but is now more at ease and fits in nicely, swirling around all the instruments and adding a nice counterline in the verses. (Also, after 10/26 Hard to Handle is bumped from its typical first-song slot.)
10/26 has a long, smoldering solo, Garcia patiently feeling his way around; it never catches fire, but is enjoyable. At the end, Pigpen seems to come back in at random. [6:38]

11/1 is a bit tighter; Garcia’s solo is really sweet, and Constanten is clear with a nice tootling tone. [6:15]

11/7 is quite nice – I like the extra ‘room sound’ in the mix, which enhances Garcia’s guitar tone and helps the band blend together. That said, the solo is extremely short for this period, just a couple minutes long, but it’s fiery. [5:13]

At this point there’s no need to cover every version, as they are extremely similar, the only difference being in how hot the band is. It’s notable that the song shrank in December, most versions less than five minutes long, as Garcia reduced his solo time.
The best versions from early December are from 12/11 and 12/13. 12/11 is really good and snappy (aided by the audience sound), and shows how the Dead had put a lot more rhythmic kick in this song than earlier in the year. 12/13 is very quick and spirited, featuring a nice wiry solo. [5:37] [4:43]

12/28 is the most famous Hard to Handle of the month, a forceful, clattering rendition. Pigpen’s usually brief rap is longer than usual (similar to his later Good Lovin’ raps), ending with an especially good transition from the rap to Garcia’s solo. Garcia stretches out as the band jams up a frenzy – this solo could almost be mapped, as it calms down then heats up again, Garcia switching to a more trebly tone as he builds to a tremendous climax. (The song is 7:30 in length, a considerable jump from the previous versions. Compare to the short 12/26 version, which is nice but seems to stop in the solo just when it gets going.) [7:29]

12/29 has another long rap, a bit less effective. This version starts out more laid-back and the solo takes a while to get going, but Garcia hits a crest and stays there, peaking til he has to put on the brakes to return to the song. (As a result this version stretches over 8 minutes.) [8:14]

12/31 does not build on the momentum. From the start the band sounds a little off, or lazy, and Pigpen sounds tired. Garcia abruptly drops out during his solo (broken string?), and the band quietly vamps til he returns; but the rest of the solo is pretty disjointed and goes nowhere. [6:16]

Having reached the end of the year, we can take a brief look back. From an unpromising beginning, the Dead slowly reworked Hard to Handle into a rock tour de force, dropping one element after another that didn’t quite work, and with practice growing tighter in their delivery. The performances from spring & summer are much sloppier than the fall versions. (One small thing to notice, for instance, is the repeated three-chord riff between verses – the second time it’s repeated, there’s a slight delay so the chords are played just behind the beat. They don’t always hit this in unison, but it took a lot of practice to get it so that part actually swings – it would have been a lot easier to just play it on the beat. Another thing to notice is all the little fills that Garcia or the drummers might play during the “mama I’m sure hard to handle” break – though improvised each time, there is a lot of attention to detail there.)
In general, Garcia’s solos get hotter through the year (though of course with nightly variations), as he finds the right tone and style to use. By December the band’s hard, driving 1970 sound is quite apparent as the three guitars mesh in the solo, turning it into a bristling mini-jam. Weir takes some compliments here since at times, he’s effectively co-soloing with Garcia, just with angular chords and counterpoint lines. Lesh of course is always ready to respond to anything. One thing Dead fans might take for granted is that Garcia will play a different solo every time, and it’s certainly true here. Though he does repeat some specific riffs and techniques, and the picking style remains the same, each night he takes a different path to the climax (sometimes wandering around without direction, sometimes stumbling off in failure).


Hard to Handle entered 1970 in a tight, concise form – for instance the first version of the year, on Jan 2, is quite barebones, wrapping up in under five minutes. (No long rap or extended jam.) Though they could have stretched it out, at this point they generally preferred to keep it at ‘pop’ length. Constanten’s swirling organ in the jam here is actually very similar to Pigpen’s style. [4:43]

The rest of the versions that month mostly follow the same brief guideline. They’re all good. By now the Dead played this song consistently enough that there are no weak versions from this month; you could pick strong ones at random. The tempo is generally the same in each version, but the Dead now play it with enough easy authority that it often feels like they’re sprinting briskly through the song. They’re more limber, but also play more tightly than in the often-sloppy ’69 versions. (Also in this period, Hard to Handle is usually the third or fourth song of the show.)
I’ll link the Jan 3 version – at little over 4 minutes, it’s about as short as they could get, but it’s very energetic, and Weir is high in the mix so it’s a good example of his rhythm playing: [4:10]

1/16 is notable for a longer solo than usual (the song is 7 minutes) – it gets quieter in the middle, and you can clearly hear the guitarists working together. This is also an instance of Garcia getting stuck in a repeating phrase, when he doesn’t want to let go. (He generally cycles through a few repeated licks in the Hard to Handle solos in this period; it was a favored pattern of his. For instance, on 1/10 he really leans on what I think of as the “bop-shoo-wop” line from ‘Boys.’ Perhaps it was part of a transition to a more direct Chuck Berry/rock & roll-influenced soloing style.) [7:07]

Though January ’70 SBDs have a lot of clarity, Constanten usually doesn’t have a strong presence on them – it’s like the band is already transitioning to a guitar-only sound. These were his last two versions – on 1/23 he can barely be heard; on 1/30 he is inaudible. (1/23 is also notable for an excited Garcia solo.) So, in a way, you can hardly tell when he’s actually gone – a bit of sustain and warm chirpiness missing, but the guitars fill plenty of space on their own. [5:27] [5:26]

The first post-TC Hard to Handle from 1/31 is notable for having a rather brutish solo, which builds from a quiet beginning to a slam-bang climax – the first one, I think, in which Lesh stomps on a repeated chord for emphasis. (Phil apparently busted his amp during this song, though you can’t really tell.) [6:31]

On 2/2, recently released, there’s a nice moment when Phil prods the band into a climax with a repeated high note in the middle of the solo. (Also note that Pigpen sings the second verse a beat ahead of the band, but they catch up smoothly so it doesn’t sound too jarring. In early ’70 he’d sometimes jump into the second verse too early, usually stopping himself – also see 5/1 and 6/5.) [Dave’s Picks 6, 5:22]

The next month doesn’t really offer any notable variations; the solos get a bit longer and wander a little more, and the song is typically over 6 minutes. Interestingly, the versions from February are somewhat less exciting, since the solos become less forceful. (For instance, on 2/27 Garcia just sort of ambles along at length without reaching any peaks. Or the 2/4 rendition, well-known from the TV broadcast, which also wanders without being really memorable.)

2/13 could be considered an average version – while the solo’s not remarkable, the stereo sound is pristine and you can easily follow the interaction of the guitars. (Also notice Garcia’s repeated figures again, familiar from other solos.) Constanten’s absence is striking here; the band’s sound is very clean and direct. [6:12]
The next night’s version is better. (It was chosen for the Bear’s Choice album in 1973.) [6:06]

2/6 is interesting for its sparse sound – Weir simply drops out after the verses, so we get a barebones solo that’s just Garcia, Lesh & drums – a Hartbeats-style Hard to Handle, almost. (Weir comes back near the end of the solo, for a dramatic before-and-after effect; clearly it suffers from his absence, and doesn’t really rise to any heights.) [6:40]

In the reverse situation, on 3/20 Garcia breaks a string & drops out near the start of the solo, leaving Weir & Lesh to carry on by themselves. They do some hot rhythm comping, foreshadowing Weir’s later chordal solos in this song. Pigpen resumes his rap; but when Garcia returns they decide to forgo his solo and head for the last verse. [6:08]

Hard to Handle gets shorter again in our tapes from March & April, and these months don’t have standout versions. 3/1 is better than 2/27, but still very laid-back; 3/8 has a nice solo but sounds rushed and is very short; on 4/3 Garcia’s spirited solo seems to be interrupted by Pigpen coming back in early; and 4/15 sounds promising, but the tape cuts mid-solo! (A pity – it sounds like it would have been a smoking version.)

5/1 stands out as the best version in three months, as Garcia plays an excited, roving solo with Lesh pushing him along. The playing sounds very fresh, like they are finding new ideas. Garcia isn’t relying so much on the same repeated licks as in early ’70, but is stepping out with different variations. [6:37]

5/16 is another very charged version – Garcia blazes through the solo, and there’s some good, stomping Garcia/Lesh unison work at the climax. The AUD sound is interesting, since Pigpen’s vocals are buried and Garcia’s guitar is way out in front of the rest of the band (it also gives him a different, more Hendrixian tone). [5:18]

5/15 is not that good, but notable since Garcia steps back for a bit and Weir plays a brief dual solo with him. (Pigpen also plays a bit of organ during the solo, which is rare.) 5/24 has a similar climax to 5/16, but the solo overall isn’t as good (and the sound quality is harsh).

Garcia’s style changed noticeably by May – his solos feel different than a few months earlier. This could be related to his switching guitars (he’d played a Stratocaster from September ’69 to April ’70, and in late April switched back to a Gibson SG). But in early ’70 his solos in Hard to Handle had been steadily rhythmic and closely tied to the song’s meter, in a percussive way. (This is somewhat similar to, say, the way he played Other Ones in ’68.) In May his lines start to sound more fluid and free; he leaves a bit more space in his soloing and doesn’t use the same repeating patterns so much, but is finding more varied motifs.

6/4 and 6/5 are a study in contrast: 6/4 is taken extremely fast, and the solo is nice but kept quite short, less than two minutes – the effect is a very compressed Hard to Handle. 6/5, at almost the same tempo, sounds sluggish; the band’s timing is off from the start (and Pigpen keeps coming in at the wrong place). The solo is very laid-back and lacking fire – it improves toward the end and almost takes off, but they’re struggling to get there. So despite almost two extra minutes of jamming, it falls flat compared to the previous night – a good example of how the Dead’s delivery could vary from show to show. [4:40] [6:32]

Our next Hard to Handle comes a month later, on 7/4. It’s a great fast-tempo version we’re lucky to see on film. Garcia is really into it, and digs into some sweet melodic lines in the solo, a new development for this song. (Note how he reprises the opening solo melody near the end of the solo – we’ll be hearing it again a few times in the fall, since Garcia will use it frequently.) [5:47]

There’s a gap of three months til our next Hard to Handle, on 10/5. This is a very subdued version, with Garcia using a rather pinched tone, and it never takes off. (On a second listen, the solo sounded more spirited & buoyant to me, but still understated & restrained.) However, there’s a new change in the song’s format – after Pigpen’s little rap, Weir now starts off the jam section with a solo of his own, as in Easy Wind. Tonight it’s pretty short, only 30 seconds before Garcia takes over; but Weir’s initial solo would remain in the song for the next year. (Also notice that Garcia uses the melody line from 7/4 at a couple points.) [6:30]
[Selections from 10/4-5 have circulated under the false dates of 12/17 and 12/23/70.]

10/10 is much more jammed-out – 9 minutes long, it’s considerably longer than any previous version that year. (The longest versions since December had been 6:30.) Weir solos for over two minutes, with Garcia backing him nicely – Weir’s lead style is more odd and abstract and less melodic than Garcia’s.
Garcia opens his solo with the melodic line from 7/4 again, but goes in a totally new direction this night. The difference starts to become apparent around 6:00 – until now, all Hard to Handle solos had basically been played on one chord. In the spring, sometimes there were hints of opening it up (briefly on 6/5, for instance). But here they’re suddenly playing a four-chord pattern, which sounds very much like a Darkness jam, or perhaps Dear Mr Fantasy. It’s a thrilling moment, with Garcia’s guitar singing a recognizable melody. At 7:30 Garcia signals a return to the regular solo mode. There’s no further climax, it just trickles out; but the whole jam feels more like an extended journey than any previous Hard to Handle. (fair AUD quality) [9:06]

On 10/17, the audience tape cuts in midway through Weir’s solo. Lesh is strongly emphasizing a four-chord pattern again, but drops it once Garcia starts. (It’s not the same as on 10/10, which was a unique jam – this pattern is almost identical to the St Stephen chords, and will remain in the song.) Garcia’s solo is really fine, propelled to a climax by a bass drone. (Nice smoky AUD sound, too.) After that the solo seems to end abruptly. [/4:29]

10/23 is an excellent version in very nice, warm AUD quality. Weir shines in his quirky two-minute solo. After 5:30 Lesh starts stomping on the four-chord cycle again, and Garcia switches to a sharper tone and hits an ecstatic climax, then eases off. [7:20]

They played Hard to Handle twice on 10/31. The first show has a very tepid version. Weir seems reluctant to start soloing (Pigpen encourages him: “Go on!”), so the jam section starts with an interesting interval of both Garcia & Weir playing rhythm for a bit. Weir keeps his solo short, just a minute; and they move into the four-chord pattern but without much result. Garcia is really restrained, stays in a lower register and they never lift off. (However the end of the solo after 6:45 is unusual as Garcia briefly slips into an unexpected country-style passage, almost sounding like Clarence White.)
In the late show, the band is a bit sloppy; Weir skips his solo altogether, and Garcia’s solo lacks urgency, but he manages a passable climax with Lesh. One reason it sounds thin is that Weir drops out for most of the solo – guitar trouble? – so it’s another Garcia/Lesh duet. Garcia ends his solo by hammering away at two repeated notes. Oddly, when Weir comes back in he then plays a short solo after Garcia’s! (It’s interesting to hear Garcia transition into backup-R&B mode with choppy chording.) [7:53, 7:17]

11/5 is much more energized. Hard to Handle starts the show, as in ’69, and they start it with a unique drum intro, clearly raving to go. They ease into Weir’s solo (he’s back in good form). Garcia’s solo is standard without being especially striking; he stops abruptly when Weir breaks a string at 7:40, so they head back to the song. (good AUD except for persistent bass distortion) [8:16]

11/11 is in too poor quality to really enjoy, but in the murk you can hear Garcia hit three separate wild climaxes in the extended fiery jam, the last one perfectly timed at the end. Another long 9-minute performance, this would be one of the major ’70 versions if we could hear it properly, and easily one of their best ever. (Also note that in the second verse, Pigpen doesn’t sing “mama I’m sure hard to handle” but lets the audience sing it.) (poor AUD) [9:12]

11/16 is a unique version since Steve Winwood plays organ throughout. Since he’s there, the Dead play it more loosely; this is a less focused ‘party’ performance. (Someone occasionally plays a ‘knocking’ percussion too.) Winwood seems to pick up on the Dead’s arrangement right away; he’s very prominent at the start of the jam, then lays back. There’s some shuffling around as they figure out who’s going to solo – Weir skips his turn, then Garcia just takes a brief solo, then Winwood steps up for a bit, then back to Garcia for a sharp final climax. (The melodic line from 7/4 shows up again near the end.) [7:55]

12/12 is nothing special, partly suffering from a poor mix. Pigpen raps for a little longer than usual, over a minute – generally his standard rap would be about 30-50 seconds, no longer, and he hadn’t stretched it out since a couple December ’69 versions. (He’d just started the extended rapping in Good Lovin’, but Hard to Handle would never get that treatment.) Weir skips his solo, and Garcia’s is average. There’s no climax; the solo comes to a very quiet finish, with Garcia slowly fading out and lowering the volume til Pigpen jumps back in. (After 6:00 Garcia plays the familiar melodic line again, and repeats it at a few later points.) [6:54]

12/27 starts off pretty sluggish and subdued. Garcia persists, turning up the heat in the middle of the solo, and switches to a more stinging Roy Buchanan-like tone; the rest of the band responds by swinging harder, til the end of the jam becomes very raw and jagged, with Lesh shoveling chords out and the drummers bashing away. Very interesting to hear how they tackle by brute force what isn’t coming easily. (The song ends up over 8 minutes long.) [8:34]

Hard to Handle ended 1970 much more jammed-out than when it started. The Dead dramatically rearranged the jam section in fall ’70, adding Weir’s solo and the four-chord passage. (A later parallel is when they added the Feelin’ Groovy four-chord sequence to the China>Rider jam.) One result is that the performances start getting much more different from each other than before, as there’s no predicting where the jam might go. But the overall structure is the same in most jams – Pigpen raps for a minute or so before laying out; Weir will play a wiry, nonlinear solo; then Garcia comes in with a more smoothly-flowing solo; Lesh pushes things along with a repeated four-chord stomp, and the band heats up; hopefully they come together in a climax at the end of the jam, but often not. On good nights they’re able to follow each other in unison through the different jam movements, even when throwing each other spontaneous curveballs. (Which they often do.) They’re also good at covering up for flubs – when one member drops the ball, the others quickly recover, and the audience may never have noticed.
Though the format of the song was fixed, as we’ll see Hard to Handle still had some twists and turns in 1971. The Dead were still experimenting with the jam, Garcia’s solos could be unpredictable, and the song still had its lowpoints in performances. Compared to the tapes of late 1970, early ’71 also offers many superior SBD tapes, though the guitars can sound thin in some of them.


1/22 starts off the year with a very different version. Weir’s solo has developed since the fall, and he’s playing more melodic lines, closer to Garcia’s style. The transition from Weir to Garcia’s solo here is imaginative, seamless and well-done! Garcia’s solo moves through distinct phases – he switches to a slower, sweeter interlude at 5:45, then after 6:50 turns it down to an even softer style. The jam is quite experimental; similar to 12/12/70, here Garcia seems to deliberately bypass the expected climax and get steadily quieter, so the jam ends on a hauntingly calm, reflective note, very unusual in this song. (It’s a long version, at 9 minutes.) (9:06)

1/24 is average. Weir’s solo is short, just a minute; Garcia’s solo goes through the standard slow build, with the band moving naturally into the four-chord section. It never gets explosive; but after 6:20 Garcia apparently retries the tactics of 1/22 and switches to soft, quiet picking. The band then quickly builds this up into a rough chordal climax. (Small note: as on 11/11/70, Pigpen leaves out the second-verse “mama I’m sure hard to handle” again, but this time we can’t hear the audience so it sounds like an awkward dropout.) (8:23)

2/18 is Mickey Hart’s last version before leaving the band. It’s also distinguished since Ned Lagin plays clavichord accompaniment (!), which can be faintly heard as a background tinkling for the first three minutes, before he apparently stops. His presence doesn’t seem to affect the band much; but Weir’s solo turns into an interesting passage of Garcia & Weir playing excited dual rhythms. Garcia’s solo is standard, and follows the same pattern as on 1/24, getting quieter at 5:30. (You can hear that familiar melody line still being used as a centerpoint of the solo.) No climax here; the jam ending is again quiet and minimal. (7:50)

The drumming is noticeably less busy on 2/20, now that Kreutzmann’s on his own. This version sounds distinctly unenthusiastic, and the jam is downright plodding. Garcia’s playing has some interesting spots, and the band tries to rev things up near the end, but it rapidly runs out of steam. (7:38)

2/24 has an even more lifeless performance; everyone sounds tired. (There’s a telling moment after 3:50 when the band almost stops playing mid-song.) With Mickey gone, they seem to have lost their groove in this song, and the playing is perfunctory. The jam is saved from total disaster by a mild climax in which Garcia clings onto that repeated melody line while Lesh stomps out some chords. (6:38)

The band has recovered some spirit on 3/3, and turns out a decent version with a nice, even-tempered Garcia solo. It’s still pretty average & straightforward (though on a second listen it sounded a bit more cracklin’). Perhaps the highlight comes after 8:00 when Lesh moves into a drone and briefly adds some tension to the jam, but they can’t achieve a real climax, and soon collapse awkwardly back into the main riff. (7:07)

The band is back in form on 3/14. Pigpen’s in a vocal mood and raps for a bit longer than usual, concluding, “Bobby’s gonna play guitar!” Bobby slashes out a nice two-minute chordal solo. Lesh is loud and frisky. Garcia is slow to get going; he seems distracted and doesn’t have much of a flow at first. There’s a tapecut at 6:35, and the rest of the solo improves immensely as Garcia pours out a fluid torrent of hot notes, barely keeping up with himself. Check out the crowd exploding after the immense sustained chordal climax at 8:15 – Garcia doesn’t stop there but plunges ahead to a second climax, which is perfectly timed to conclude the jam. [9:47]

3/20 is not nearly as hot. Weir’s solo drags a bit; and Garcia’s solo is nice but never soars. (Note his more intimate guitar tone.) Rather than building to a climax, he again gets quieter in the last minute, so the jam ends inconclusively. [7:46]

3/21 is a good version, but doesn’t seem exceptional. The AUD quality makes it harder to appreciate, but Garcia’s solo sounds standard without any distinct variations. (But note how the band moves easily in and out of the four-chord riff.) It builds nicely to a well-done climax. (decent AUD) [7:58]

3/24 is an impressive version. Kreutzmann’s drumming has recovered its flair since February, and Weir has a long standout solo. Lesh slams out the four-chord riff, and Garcia builds quickly to a great, hot protracted climax that, like a rocket, burns through several stages, finishing about 7:30. Really great so far; however, they then spend the next minute stumbling their way back to the song. Weir resumes the main riff, but Garcia wants to keep the jam going and keeps soloing on; then Weir drops out for a bit and the rest of the band seems confused; but soon after they return to the jam, Garcia abruptly halts and rather weakly signals a return to the main riff. (It’s kind of a letdown after such a strong jam; but sometimes Garcia had trouble intuitively finding the right point to transition back to the song in the heat of the jam, as his fingers ran away with him.)
This version is a favorite among many Archive reviewers. One reader comments, “3/24/71 remains a personal favorite for me…the sound of the whole thing is irresistible to me; Bob's guitar sounds the best and his solo is the hottest; like 8/6, the groove is almighty and unrelenting; I personally don't think Jerry's solo peters out as much as it climaxes and takes its time finding its way out.” [9:10]

We now enter April ’71, a legendary month for Hard to Handles. The Dead played it at most shows on tour this month, and a number of their best versions come from this tour.
By now Garcia has generally returned to playing fast, nonstop solos, going for the fireworks – the quiet sections of early ’71 are no more. They still vary in how they play the jam, but in general the structure remains the same each night (with the odd exception).
They were still making little tweaks in the song – we’ll see how the jam becomes more locked-down by the end of the month. But there could also be tiny changes that only the players would notice: for example, you’ll notice that in April, Garcia usually plays a quirky bent chord under Pigpen’s “mama I’m sure hard to handle.” This had been introduced in February – previously Garcia had played a dramatic little high lick. He must have liked the new effect; for in February & March the two different parts would alternate within the song, and by April Garcia usually just plays the chord backing.

4/4 – A strange version. The jam starts out more like a Good Lovin’ jam as Pigpen raps for a while and Garcia gets on wah-wah, a unique touch for this song. Weir’s solo rambles on; Garcia’s solo is disjointed and not very energetic, though it’s certainly unusual to hear him play it on the wah pedal. In the last minute of the jam, Garcia sort of sputters out and stops soloing, and the music slowly disintegrates. As they start wandering adrift, Pigpen comes back with the verse at a totally random moment. [7:46]

4/7 – Lesh is rather low in the mix. Weir drops out during Pigpen’s long two-minute rap, so Garcia starts the solo without him. Interesting to hear the Dead as a trio! Garcia manages quite a nice solo in that condition; but Weir comes back after a couple minutes, and Garcia immediately steps aside so Weir can take a short solo. Garcia’s final solo starts out sweetly, but lacks fire – the others try to rouse him with the four-chord riff, but Garcia quickly peters out and there’s no attempt at a climax, they just quit. [7:33]

4/10 – They sound tired at the start, and the jam starts off hesitantly. Weir’s solo goes nowhere; but Garcia adds some pep when he enters with a fine solo. The band builds up some heat moving into the four-chord climax; but then they abruptly stop dead and return to the main riff. [7:57]

4/12 starts out as a very hot version, with Lesh especially perky. Unfortunately the tape cuts out 30 seconds into Garcia’s solo (shortly after he pauses to tune up mid-jam); so we don’t know how the jam turned out.
4/13 – There’s a strong groove here, in the best version of the month so far. Pigpen gets into his rap; Weir has an adventurous solo (but a little repetitive, going over two minutes). He and Garcia slash out rhythm for a few bars, then Garcia takes over dramatically. There's a fine Garcia solo, and they go wild in the middle of the jam – Kreutzmann stands out on drums, and Lesh has a thick, thundering bass sound. There’s a quick, beautifully intense final climax that tumbles back into the main riff. [8:25]

4/14 – The momentum continues with another excellent performance! This has a longer, emotional Pigpen rap; Weir’s solo is better than usual, and in the transition to Garcia’s solo, they slash out chords together in a fascinating passage, Garcia launching marvelously into his solo. The jam is long, charged and exploratory, and has some different touches – aside from the four-chord riff, which is extended over a few cycles as they move in and out of it, Lesh finds a couple new bass lines to play (momentarily throwing Weir off). Garcia’s solo is exemplary, and it comes to a relaxed, satisfying climax. [9:23]

4/17 – Slightly less energy here. Pigpen rambles a bit in his rap; Weir’s solo is rather weak; and there’s an awkward pause before Garcia takes over. Garcia starts off quietly; the jam builds up steam during the four-chord riff; but there's no climax afterwards, the jam just trickles out. Overall this one's just average. [8:20]

4/18 – Weir plays a stinging solo. Garcia’s solo starts out laid-back but soon gets more intense with a lot of repeated figures, and he switches to a sharper tone; the four-chord riff is played very heavily. The final climax is abrupt and undramatic, though, and Weir totally misses the return to the main riff. [7:45]

4/21 – Although the intro is messed up (rare in ’71), the jam is very engaging. Weir’s solo follows the same course as usual, while Garcia strums a bouncy muted rhythm that Lesh picks up on. The four-chord section is excellent – one thing they start doing in this performance is to put little tension-building drone intervals between the chord cycles (similar to the later Mind Left Body jams), which work very well here. The climax is amazing with Lesh & Garcia egging each other on, Garcia flashing high notes as Lesh pounds away. One of the best final climaxes so far. [9:00]

4/22 – Pigpen raps longer than usual, for a couple minutes Good Lovin’-style. The jam is long and blazing, going through the standard sections. Unfortunately, the climax is seriously muffled as Weir drops out right at the peak for some reason, forcing the others to stop. [9:46]

4/24 – This one’s quicker and more concise. (Weir’s solos have generally been less than 90 seconds in recent versions.) Garcia starts out crisp and energized, but seems to lose his focus somewhat since he plays with less force as the jam goes on, despite Lesh’s prodding. The climax is unusually drawn-out, with Lesh pushing hard but Garcia less fluent than usual. (Still worth a listen.) [8:07]

We now reach the five Fillmore East versions. All are a cut above the earlier April versions. They are very similar to each other, the jams structured identically, differing only in nuances. (For instance, the final climax comes in the exact same section each night: they repeat the four-chord cycle twice, then hit the raveup.)
We can hear how they’ve worked on the jam over the last couple months, gradually improving it and adding little tweaks, til by the end of April it runs like clockwork. For instance, the drone intervals they added on 4/21 are significantly used in these performances. And, new to these Fillmore shows, starting on 4/26 Garcia adds a pause and tonal shift in the middle of his solo, as a new transition into the four-chord passage. (Up til now, they’d always moved right into it without pause.)

4/25 – The Fillmore East works its magic, as this one is better than any of the previous versions. “Go on Bobby, play your guitar!” Pigpen shouts. Weir’s solo is sharp and well-played, more flowing than usual; Garcia’s solo is very exciting, really spine-tingling stuff, with the four-chord passage done to perfection. (Notice Garcia’s old familiar melodic line reappears around 5:50, reconfigured.) Lesh is aggressively punchy, stirring Garcia to greater heights; and they hammer out an amazing, jaw-dropping climax – Garcia wailing away on two repeated notes that veer perfectly back into the main riff. [8:25]

4/26 – “Go on mama, play on!” Very perky Weir solo, one of his better ones, this one two minutes long with Lesh supporting nicely. The band stays in a powerful groove through Garcia’s solo. He tries a couple different approaches (note the Berry-like descending passage after 5:20), pausing midstream and shifting to softer dynamics after 5:40 – and for once, he actually plays the St Stephen melody briefly over the four-chord riff. There’s a very similar finish to the night before, but not quite as good. [8:00]

4/27 – Pigpen extends his rap a bit. Weir’s solo seems more tepid this night; once again he and Garcia play rhythm chords together for a while after his solo. Garcia doesn’t let us down – his solo is fast, crisp, exciting and hard-rocking. There's a cool dynamic shift at 6:16 (Weir dropping out for a bit), and they storm into another great climax. Garcia spins out the end differently this night, ending his solo line while the others return to the main riff, and joining them with perfect timing. [8:33]

4/28 – The jam is extremely similar to the previous nights. Garcia’s solo starts with a low-key, countryish passage. As in the last two nights, there’s a dynamic shift to the four-chord sequence after 6:00, a little hastier tonight. Garcia is wilder in his notes in the final climax; and the rhythm stomps harder – actually Weir & Lesh are sloppier, not as well-synchronized, and they lose track of each other in the last chord cycle. Garcia ‘steps over’ the end of the jam (as on 4/27), and continues to solo for a little longer – as the others return to the main riff, Garcia keeps squealing away at the peak of his solo, and takes a few moments to rejoin the others. [8:54]

4/29 – This has long been the most famous, ‘canonical’ version from this run. It’s very smoothly done, building tension nicely with each part flowing neatly into the next, until the perfectly-executed climax. On the other hand, Garcia’s solo sounds much more subdued (or gentler) than previous nights, and they’re more careful tonight – this performance is more bouncy than aggressive. (The AUD tape of this performance is too poor to hear any different nuances.)
Parts to notice: the small shift to a quiet, familiar little melody at 5:00; the great drone passage after 5:50; the way Lesh starts bubbling before the 4-chord sequence; the part after 7:00 when Garcia is hanging onto a couple notes while Lesh drones, which transitions nicely into the next 4-chord cycle; and the whole climax after 7:40, the way everyone times the ending perfectly.
One reader comments: “Garcia basically coasts through the jam and plays it safe…I don’t hear any new ideas here…I like the riskier-sounding versions myself.” [8:50]

5/29 – A fine version, but the poor audience quality makes it hard to appreciate this one. (The band is pretty murky: Lesh is very quiet, but you can make out Garcia & Weir, and Kreutzmann’s thumpings.) Weir’s solo is exceptionally long, three and a half minutes, but undistinctive – almost nothing happens in it, mostly just a groove. Garcia finally starts his solo 6 minutes in, full of energy (note how he uses a feedback note in his playing after 6:15). The final jam sequence is structured just like at the Fillmore shows; Garcia seems to extend the end of his solo over the main riff again. It sounds like it would be pretty good, if we could hear it properly. (Hopefully the SBD of the first set will appear someday.)
One reader comments: “You can hear it if you EQ it a little. I actually think this is a pretty great version. The peak of the jam really cooks and Garcia stretches it out in a really fun way.” (poor AUD) [10:06]

6/21 – A little out of practice, the band pulls together a nice version on a French lawn. Weir doesn’t have much to say in his solo and wraps it up more quickly tonight. (Lesh is lower in the mix than usual for early ’71.) Garcia has a fine, hot solo with the band cooking away. They pull off a dramatic little climax at 6:13 just when you think they’re heating up; then after an odd stop-&-start break, the jam resumes with the four-chord sequence. (Garcia seems to remind the others of it by playing a little St Stephen lick.) This heads to a protracted double climax, rusty but neat. [9:05]

The internal structure of the jam devolved a bit after the spring shows - after three months with hardly any shows, the summer versions are shorter, more straightforward & streamlined. Though the structure of the jam is the same, Garcia’s solo is much shorter and the band seems to rush into the four-chord jam finale. The Hard to Handles of July & August are extremely similar to each other, all following the same pattern without much exploration.

7/2 – A standard version. “Go on, it’s all yours Bobby!” Weir takes an engaging, choppy solo; but Garcia sounds less inspired tonight and the jam has shortened considerably. The four-chord passage seems a little forced, but they push it to a driving climax, where Garcia almost screeches off the rails. (Then Pigpen re-enters in the wrong place, but the band does an instant recovery.) [7:17]

7/31 – The band sounds more energized here. Weir introduces the song: “The dog-suckingest man in show business, Pigpen!” The jam chugs along nicely; standard climax, extremely similar to 7/2. The four-chord sequence sounds even more St Stephen-like than usual. The band draws out the last song chord for the cheering crowd. [Road Trips 1/3, 7:20]

8/4 – The bass is very loud in the mix (as with much of the rest of the month), making this a particularly throbbing version. Weir’s solo ends quickly, and Garcia also hastens to the finish, making this the shortest rendition in a long time. Garcia’s solo has many similarities to the 8/6 version (for instance, the notes after 5:00, and the final jam chords), though it’s much less intense – the band is not as strong this night. [6:38]

8/6 – My own favorite version since it was imprinted on me by Fallout From The Phil Zone. It's so tight & driving, and Garcia’s supersonic solo is one of the Dead’s most revered moments. Garcia is stoked; he seamlessly takes the baton from Weir and blazes a relentless path to the immaculate chordal climax; and the band meets his energy in the churning jam.
The audience tape helps, of course, the way Garcia and the crowd play off each other. Garcia is emphasized in the AUD, but the SBD brings out the rhythm more – hearing the SBD, where Lesh is way up in the mix, makes it clear what a driving force he is in the jam, pushing Garcia along. But as often happens, the AUD may capture the band’s actual sound better than the SBD does, making the performance a lot crunchier and more dramatic. (The audience reaction is of course barely noticeable on the SBD.)
A couple small notes: Ironically, Pigpen himself shows a little vocal fatigue, sounding strained in the verses (particularly the second). Also, it was rare for Garcia to end the jam in a series of chords, as he does on 8/4 and 8/6 – somewhat similar earlier examples of chordal climaxes were 1/24 and 3/14/71. [7:33]
[SBD on Road Trips 1/3 bonus disc]

8/6/71 Sidenote:
It has been rumored for years that Garcia dropped to his knees at the jam climax. Phil Lesh wrote of the audience, “I don’t remember why they were so excited – maybe Pig was doing some strange dance.”
The only place I've read a possible eyewitness report is in the intro to the Golden Road box set booklet, by James Austin, who says he'd been attending shows since '69:
"One night (8/6/71) during their performance of Hard to Handle, Jerry dropped to his knees. Walking to my car, I was dumbfounded as to how they could play with such fervent exhilaration." (However, given that the writer is a Rhino PR person, he might not be utterly truthful here!)
There are a number of reviews on the web by people who were at the show, and none of them mention Jerry dropping to his knees. One witness on even says, "I watched Garcia intently that night...I don't recall him dropping to his knees." Another reader reports, “I talked to one person who is confirmed to have been at the show and he claims that he does not recall Jerry dropping to his knees during the solo.”
So, alas, it seems this story is an unconfirmed Dead legend, and must be consigned to the myth bin...

8/7 – It's interesting to hear the 8/7 Hard to Handle next to 8/6 - I think it falls flat in comparison. Though so close in style & note choices to 8/6, the jam just chugs along for most its length without much oomph, though Lesh (loud in the mix) tries to nudge it up by slamming down some power chords. They finally start wailing a bit in the climax, and Jerry tries repeating the same ending as the night before, but it comes off a little mangled.
If you hear it on its own without 8/6 in mind, though, it's still pretty good! Listening to this in the context of the other summer versions, it sounds much stronger in comparison, even outstanding. While not nearly as explosive as 8/6, Garcia’s playing is sharp and exciting, and Lesh is very active.
One reader comments: “I actually think that 8/7 has some amazing passages. Those extra licks Garcia throws in at the very end are especially titillating! Phil is so far up in the mix that it's hard to hear the rest of the band sometimes. And there is a pretty fat sloppy part in the middle. They stitch it up nicely for the climax, but it probably does pale in comparison to the night before.”

8/14 – A great, propulsive version and another Phil-dominated mix. (He’s louder than Garcia.) Lesh’s busy prodding and Garcia’s very melodic playing make for an entrancing (if short) jam, particularly after 5:00 in the section before they plunge into those satisfying chords (where Garcia clearly quotes St Stephen). The band drives hard through the end of the jam - though messy, it’s a standout. [7:21]

8/26 – The last one. (Til 1982, anyway.) The SBD has some bad sound glitches during the jam and a shifting mix, and Lesh drowns everyone out; but the AUD sounds good and pretty clear, so it may be preferable. It’s striking that after all this time, Weir still can’t string together a consecutive solo, but still seems to jab at random for a couple minutes. This jam is cut from the same cloth as the other summer versions – Garcia’s in good form, but doesn’t pull any surprises. (The average final climax sounds seriously garbled on the SBD! A little easier to hear on the AUD.) A standard version, but a good way to go out. [7:24]

Pigpen fell sick the next month; when he returned later in the fall tour and ‘72, the band didn’t revive Hard to Handle. Perhaps he didn’t feel like singing it again, or they didn’t want to rehearse it, or it got lost under the shuffle of new songs.
In any case, the Dead didn’t play it again until the end of December, 1982, when they brought it back for two versions with Etta James and the Tower of Power horns. The horns bring it closer to Otis Redding’s original, but the best that can be said of these final performances is that they’re wretched and painful to hear. 12/31 is the more rehearsed version; but Etta goes on an extended (and dull) rap, and Garcia is asleep. He is more present on the 12/30/82 version, with a little solo and some Mutron backing. But these versions are best forgotten.


Since then, Dead fans have had a delightful time debating which are the “best” versions of Hard to Handle. 4/29 and 8/6/71 usually get singled out as the top two, and close comparisons are made; though there have been some voices in favor of 4/28/71 and others as well. Hopefully this list will help people find other favorites – there are many excellent versions that are never mentioned. (For instance, 4/25/71 with its truly awesome climax is certainly one of the best, but it's a relatively unsung version because it was never in wide circulation, so it was little-known until recently.)

But I’ll close this post with a compilation of reviews comparing people’s top versions, taken from these discussions (which are actually where this post originated) -

One 4/28/71 champion wrote:
“I like the way that Jerry bends, squeezes and vibratos all the juice out of the sour-sounding note he hits way up at the top of the neck just as the song peaks… One thing that I like about 4/28 is the way they transition in and out of different phases of the song -- especially the part where Garcia's jam changes from the single chord (B minor blues) to the four-chord riff (B - A - D - F#) that begins the wind-up of the song. He just feels it so perfectly and the entire band just flows right into it. I agree that the final peak is a little messy, but I love how Jerry never gives in and drives and bends that B note right into your skull… He may actually be trying to bend an out of tune string back into tune for the finish. Reminds me of some of those really frenzied versions of Viola Lee Blues from ‘67. That whole part gives me goosebumps, and neither of the other versions we're talking about here really peaks like that. I also really like the groove Phil gets into that night. I also think Pig sounds much better on 4/28 than on either 4/29 or 8/6. Pig tends to get lost in discussions of H2H, but it matters to me how the actual song is executed.”

A response from a 4/29 enthusiast:
“I think 4/28 & 4/29 are very close. Have to wonder whether I prefer 4/29 just because I've heard it more times (that can happen) - but I think the last couple minutes of the climax on 4/29 are better… I really don't think the 4/28 H2H holds up to 4/ just sounds more meandering, less purposeful to me, and doesn't get really intense til the last minute or so of the jam. Also, the climax, though wild, sounds somewhat botched to me - Weir goes back to the main riff while Jerry's still in climax mode, which is fun to hear but a little bumpy. While the 4/29 climax is perfectly done…
You may be right that the playing on the 4/28 H2H is more exciting than on 4/29 – Garcia does sound more charged-up. It may be that I just prefer the smoother execution on 4/29…
One version that's very similar to 4/28 is (no surprise) 4/27 - Garcia's solo is very exciting…he also ‘oversteps’ the climax a little bit, but times it better… 4/28 is a great version, no question, but I think I may like the 4/27 H2H even more, at least the second half of the jam…
8/6 leaves a smoking crater of the other versions. It seems tighter to me, and Garcia goes supersonic - though I will say, 4/29 is more of a whole-band climax, whereas on 8/6 Garcia dominates.”

Others weighed in on the 8/6/71 debate:

“I'm going with 8/6/71. 4/28-29 are jammier versions with more of an ebb & flow to the music, whereas 8/6 just bulldozes forward. Jerry's solo feels like a solo, not a jam, and his climax on 8/6 is easily the most satisfying to me. From start to finish, they cut such a deep groove and keep such an iron grip on it... and Phil is a total monster on that one, which ultimately may make it as much for me as anything else. So funky!
Personally, I prefer groove to group improv in a tune like H2H: I want a throwdown rather than a roundabout trip, and 4/28-29 both take in the scenery a bit on their way to the top. I'm having a hard time picking between 4/28 and 4/29 as the "better" version: 4/29 is much more smoothly executed and was definitely the right choice for an official release, whereas 4/28 has a couple more bumps and raw notes, but has moments that are a bit more exciting, imho; Jerry's playing is more fiery, but the band doesn't quite get there with him, so it's a toss up.”

“I go with 8/6. The peak is just tremendous and I like the way they all land on it at the same time. They start the song strong and they stay that way through the whole tune. It's a rocker from the first note on. The audience reaction gives it bonus points. I don't even want to hear the sbd. It's cool to hear everyone getting turned on. It's almost like an instrument.
The groove on 4/29 is definitely there and Phil drops some tasty bombs. And you can hear the crowd react in the background when they hit the peak, but the flow is just a little off if you take the whole song into consideration. By that I mean, you can hear Pig trying to get into Pig mode but he doesn't quite get full blown. Bobby starts off good but then kind of melts back. It's almost like he didn't want to solo or the others were giving him a little space. Jerry's solo is great too, but it takes him a few to warm up before hitting turbo.
4/28 just doesn't make the landing so to speak. During Jerry's final solo they kinda miss "it". He's still got the solo going up high when the others come back in. They don't all come in like they do on 8/6 or 4/29.”

“Compared to 8/6, 4/29 is more locked in and driving and bluesy, with powerful depth and darkness to it. 8/6 has a looser feel; they're both "wild," but 4/29 is more "born to be wild," while 8/6 is more on the the edge of spinning out of control and just going off crazily into the stratosphere. It goes "way up" while 4/29 goes "deep down," if that makes sense… On the whole, I think the 4/29 H2H is more consistently intense all the way through. I'm not a musician, but I'm guessing a musician would say that 4/29 "gels" more. But basically they're just going to different places.”

“I honestly can’t believe so many people are picking 4/29 over 8/6. The way Jerry jams 8/6 is absolutely perfect, building up to a high crescendo and maintaining it before leading everybody back into the riff. His licks on it are absolutely furious. It might be my favorite Jerry "solo" ever.
The 4/29 jam is longer, sure, but I feel the arc of the jam on 8/6 is much more powerful and he seems to be playing with so much more ease throughout. His flow of ideas is so much more seamless imo. He was definitely channeling something in that performance, whereas there’s moments in 4/29 where it feels like they're trying to find the groove.”

“I do think the quality of the tape and the crowd reaction pushes 8-6-71 over the top. I was disappointed when I first heard the soundboards as part of the bonus on the RT1-3 release, I thought it sounded kind of flat. Sbd to Sbd I like 4-29 better, but that Aud...”
“I was disappointed by the 8/6/71 SBD at first, as well. I've come to like it more, though; and it's fairer to compare SBD to SBD... I think the band's intensity still comes through, just without the crowd.”

“The 4/29 rendition is superior to that of 8/6. While Jer's soloing on 8/6 is phenomenal and definitely among his finest efforts, in spite of the off the hook energy, the performance is rather one dimensional in comparison to the Hard to Handles of late April of the year.”

(See also for another listing of favorites. The most popular picks will be no surprise!)

* * *

This post just scratches the surface of Hard to Handle, but at least it’s a start. Musicologists could write about these jams in more technical ways, using a much different language than I have. (For instance, see the ‘Hard to Handle and Deadness’ section of David Malvinni’s book “Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation.”) Different analyses examining other aspects of the Dead’s performances, or coming to new conclusions, are certainly still possible!
My evaluations may seem a little harsh sometimes. The early versions from mid-’69 do require a forgiving ear. There are actually very few weak versions from 1970-71 – when listened to on its own, usually any one version will sound really good; but when listening to them all, not every one stands out and the average ones sound, well, more average. Also, as is obvious, I tend to judge a Hard to Handle by how well they do the jam climax (the song part itself does not vary as much). But a performance can sound quite different the next time you hear it, as the music transforms itself over time and becomes new again…

* - Quotes at the start are from the book Bill Graham Presents, p.172-176