Posts Tagged ‘Grateful Dead’

“At Fillmore East” by the Allman Brothers Band (1971)

The first two albums by the Allman Brothers Band drew plenty of critical acclaim, and the latter, “Idlewild South,” rose to No. 38 on Billboard. But the main knock on those efforts was that, as good as they were, they hardly captured the concert experience.

Perhaps taking a cue from other bands in similar situations – the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service come to mind – the Allmans opted to record live for their third album. On March 12 and 13, 1971, the tape rolled at New York’s Fillmore East, capturing a couple of performances. The reels went to producer Tom Dowd, who did some tweaking to come up with two LPs’ worth of material.

The results were better than anyone could have anticipated, given the Allmans’ propensity to stretch out songs and the relatively primitive recording technology available. “At Fillmore East” captures what may have been the most dynamic rock band of the time, and that certainly was when giants roamed the earth.

The Allmans and Dowd divided the LPs thematically: The first consisted of blues covers, the second of originals. In this band’s case, the term “cover” is used loosely; each of the first four tracks is given a treatment that defines it as an Allman Brothers standard.

The album kicks off with its most radio-friendly song to this day, Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” Willie never would have envisioned the power of Duane Allman’s opening slide guitar licks, punctuated by the rest of the band playing the main riff, launching into an eminently memorable blues-rock groove. Gregg Allman, though just 23 at the time, nails the half-boasting, half-pleading attitude of the tune’s narrator.

“Done Somebody Wrong” – credited to Elmore James, Clarence Lewis and Bobby Robinson – follows in a similar vein, with the Allmans giving the song a much grittier reading than the version did as “I Ain’t Done Wrong” several years earlier. Guest Thom Doucette complements the performance on some well-played harmonica.

Duane introduces “Stormy Monday” as a Bobby “Blue” Bland song before correcting himself to credit composer T-Bone walker, who called it “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad).” Some notable rock versions included those by early hard-rockers Cream and Mountain, but the Allmans ended up with the definitive version, a slow blues that allows Duane and fellow guitarist Dickey Betts to show off their chops. Dowd cut about three minutes off the song for the LP; the full version later was released on the compilation called “The Fillmore Concerts.”

“You Don’t Love Me” is another popular blues-rock numbers of the ’60s, recorded by the likes of Kaleidoscope, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Al Kooper-Stephen Stills “Super Session” project. Those versions of the Willie Cobbs song are minor efforts compared with the Allmans’ behemoth: 19 minutes of guitar virtuosity, the likes of which hadn’t been heard on vinyl to that point, especially Duane’s lengthy unaccompanied turn. No wonder he was one of the most-demanded session guitarists of the era, in addition to his regular gig.

A relatively compact instrumental, “Hot ‘Lanta,” follows, a group composition that shows the Allmans’ collective knack for adapting melodic hooks to more complex arrangements, this time by way of bass player Berry Oakley. The outro seems to go on just a bit long, but it does give percussionist Butch Trucks an opportunity to display his skills on timpani.

Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which appears on “Idlewild South” as the band’s first original instrumental, doubles its length for the live version. The song demonstrates the band’s ability to seamlessly incorporate jazz elements into its repertoire, to a point that the musicians have drawn favorable comparisons to the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, which in as of itself is quite a feat. Trucks and fellow drummer Jai Johanny Johanson team up for an extended percussion duet, one that would grow in length in concerts over the decades.

The LP’s four side starts with one of rock’s classic artist-audience discourses.

Duane: “Berry starts her off.”

Fan: “‘Whipping Post’!”

Duane: “You guessed it.”

Oakley’s thundering bass in 11/4 time opens the epic, with the other instruments reaching a crescendo before Gregg begins wailing his tale of woe: “I’ve been run down, I’ve been lied to, and I don’t know why I let that girl make me out a fool/Took all my money, wrecked my new car, now she’s with one of my good-time buddies, they’re drinking in some cross-town bar.”

After the chorus, Duane takes an extended solo prior to the second verse: “My friends tell me I’ve been such a fool, and I had to stand back and take it, baby, all for loving you/I drown myself in sorrow as I look at what you’ve done/Nothing seems to change, the bad times stay the same, and I can’t run.”

Betts then solos before he and Duane take the song up the scale to its climax, where listeners to the debut album, “The Allman Brothers Band,” would expect the song’s finale. Instead, the band immerses itself into improvisational mode, seemingly drawing from the New Thing school of jazz before Betts comes up with a tidy guitar lead against well-assembled backing. Finally, Gregg’s vocal closes the proceedings …

… but not so fast. The group experiments again, with Duane throwing in a bit of the familiar “Frere Jacque,” for several more minutes before Gregg groans the actual finale, “Lord don’t you know, that I feel, like I’m dying.” The band wraps it up before Trucks starts rolling on the tympani to signal the start to another song.

Those present at the concert, itself, knew what followed. But it wasn’t until the release of “Eat a Peach” the following year that album listeners learned that the 22-plus minutes of “Whipping Post” segued into 33-plus minutes of “Mountain Jam.” The two later were linked in that manner on “The Fillmore Concerts,” after CD technology made such a pairing possible.

“At Fillmore East” spreads nearly 80 minutes of music over only seven tracks, but even critics who usually complain about extended compositions seem to agree that the Allmans provide one of the few examples in which more actually is more.

The record-buying public agreed, sending the album to No. 13 and establishing the Allman Brothers Band as one of the hottest acts going.

On Oct. 29, 1971, Duane Allman was riding his motorcycle in his hometown of Macon, Ga., when he struck the back of a flatbed truck that had stopped suddenly in the middle of an intersection. He died a few hours later, just 24 years old.

The Allman Brothers Band not only managed to soldier on but still is a top concert draw more than 40 years later, with Gregg, Butch and Jaimoe around from the Fillmore East days. The group has continued to produce quality music, but its third album always will stand as its high-water mark.

“Anthem of the Sun” by the Grateful Dead (1968)

Say you’re a recording engineer who helped get the riff to sound the way it did on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” From there, you go into production for Warner Bros. Records, where you’re assigned to work with a relatively new band from San Francisco.

Your first album with the group goes relatively smoothly, the result of a three-day session that was typical in early 1967. That fall, you start work on the followup.

Welcome to Dave Hassinger’s world. Dealing with the Grateful Dead at the time – or at any point in the subsequent 28 years, for that matter – wasn’t going to be easy for anyone who was used to dealing with anything near normal, and Hassinger wasn’t up to the task.

The breaking point famously came when Bob Weir requested a sound like “thick air.” After that, the band was on its own. Warner’s could have scuttled the project, but company president Joe Smith believed in what the Dead was doing. So the members were granted the then-unheard-of privilege of producing their own record.

The finished product, “Anthem of the Sun,” finally made its way to the shelves in the summer of 1968. Even amid the spate of different-sounding music – history tends to lump it together as psychedelic – emerging at the time, the album stood out for its blatant disregard of conventional song structures. To this day, it remains one of the most intriguing listens not only in the vast Dead catalogue, but in the whole of what now is considered rock’s classic era.

The album’s credits attest to the complexity of “Anthem of the Sun.” The musicians are credited with playing unexpected and somewhat exotic instruments: Jerry Garcia on vibraslap; Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on celeste and claves; Phil Lesh on trumpet, harpsichord and guiro; Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart on orchestra bells, gong, chimes, crotales, prepared piano and finger cymbals; and Tom Constanten on prepared piano and electronic tape. Oh, yeah: Garcia, Lesh and Weir also play kazoo.


A vibraslap

(I had to look this up, because I didn’t know if it really exists: “A vibraslap is a percussion instrument consisting of a piece of stiff wire [bent in a U shape] connecting a wood ball to a hollow box of wood with metal ‘teeth’ inside. The percussionist holds the metal wire in one hand and strikes the ball [usually against the palm of their other hand.] The box acts as a resonating body for a metal mechanism placed inside with a number of loosely fastened pins or rivets that vibrate and rattle against the box.”)

By the way, “Anthem” marked the Dead debut of Hart and Constanten, who helped steer the band toward new visionary heights as the experimentation of the late ’60 reached its pinnacle.

The staggering array of recording venues also demonstrates that the album is out of the ordinary: four studios in California and New York, plus half a dozen live performances, including such quaint-sounding locales as the Eureka Municipal Auditorium, Eagles Auditorium in Seattle and the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore.

That was the band’s grand concept, to merge concert and studio tracks to produce something akin to an actual Grateful Dead show of the period. Fortunately, the live recordings survived to be released decades later; the Feb. 14, 1968, performance at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom, available as “Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 2,” actually contains the whole of what would become “Anthem of the Sun” and serves as the basis for much of the album.

As far as the music goes, everything starts deceptively simply, with an organ note and Garcia singing “The other day they waited, the sky was dark and faded/Solemnly they stated, ‘He has to die, you know he has to die.'” Despite the lyrical subject matter and a minor-key, phase-shifted middle eight, the next minute and a half proceeds relatively lighthearted compared with what follows.

Garcia’s short narrative, called “Cryptical Envelopment,” actually is the opening part of a suite called “That’s It for the Other One,” which evolves into a cacophony of instrumental bursts derived from numerous concert tapes layered on top of one another. What eventually emerges became one of the Dead’s most-played riffs, the E-D combination of “Quadlibet for Tenderfeet,” better known as “The Other One.” Weir’s lyrics seem to tell of some type of mystical journey, culminating with “Cowboy Neal at the wheel of a bus to Never-Never Land,” his tribute to the legendary Neal Cassady of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” fame, who died just before the Carousel Ballroom show.

“That’s It” features a brief reprise of “Cryptical Envelopment” before heading into John Cage-type territory with the sound collage called “The Faster We Go, the Rounder We Get” and “We Leave the Castle.” For listeners who adhered to the Dead’s lifestyle beyond music, the combination of all the percussion instruments listed above must have been a real treat, particularly for those wearing headphones.

Eventually the noise dies down and a cheery guitar riff takes its place, leading into “New Potato Caboose,” Lesh’s composition with lyricist Bobby Petersen. Elements of the song sound relatively normal following “That’s It,” particularly the extended out jam, which became a high point of live sets featuring Phil’s bass guitar explorations.

Following is Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed,” which manages to compress several bizarre approaches to songwriting and execution into just over two minutes of music. Nevertheless, Warners released the song as a single, perhaps solely because of its brevity. (The B-side is a short studio version of “Dark Star” that bears little resemblance to what it would become during Dead concerts over the decades.”)

“Alligator” is notable as Robert Hunter’s first lyrical contribution to a Grateful Dead recording; he’s co-credited with Lesh and McKernan, as opposed to the monster songwriting team he’d later form with Garcia. The song is treated to numerous overdubs, including those kazoos, that frame it in a thoroughly different context from its in-concert origins.

The overdubs eventually give way to a rawer sound, as the band relies primarily on the Carousel show to take the song to its conclusion, which is a segue into “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks”).

“Caution” dates all the way back to 1965, when the band was in the process of transforming from the Warlocks to the Emergency Crew to the Grateful Dead. The song began life as a knockoff of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” but became a showcase for Pigpen’s bluesman persona: “I went down to see that gypsy woman, and I told her my story …”

The album concludes with a long segment of guitar feedback, which is exactly how the band wrapped up its concerts, much to the delight of the more chemically aided members of the audiences.

The listening public in general didn’t know what to make of “Anthem of the Sun” on its release, as the album peaked at No. 87 on Billboard. And it received plenty of retroactive criticism during the ’80s backlash against ’60s psychedelia.

But of course, the Dead’s reputation has soared since those dark days, and the album eventually was ranked number 287 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

That’s not bad for a project that had the producer quitting right smack in the middle.

“American Beauty” by the Grateful Dead (1970)

The line of demarcation separating the 1960s from the ’70s couldn’t have been more pronounced with regard to Grateful Dead albums.

The four LPs the band released on Warner Bros. Records from 1967-69 – “The Grateful Dead,” “Anthem of the Sun,” “Aomoxoa” and “Live/Dead,” presented the Dead in all its psychedelic glory. That’s fine for fans who are in a certain frame of mind, but some of the recordings aren’t all that accessible for the average listener.

With “Workingman’s Dead,” released in June 1970, the Dead showed it was capable of producing relatively succinct tunes with discernible melodies. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” became staples on FM radio, opening up the band to a wider audience.

“American Beauty,” which came out in November of the same year, sees the band continue to explore the rootsy-country themes that characterize “Workingman’s Dead,” in generally a more polished manner. Lyricist Robert Hunter helped the musicians realize some of their best-crafted compositions, such as in the opening track, “Box of Rain.”

As Blair Jackson wrote in “Garcia: An American Life,” bass player Phil Lesh “wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words.”

“If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did—as fast as the pen would pull,” Jackson quoted hunter as saying. Lesh delivers the rather obscure words in a heartfelt manner for his first lead vocal on a Grateful Dead record.

Following is one of the band’s most popular songs, “Friend of the Devil,” sung by lead guitarist and rock icon Jerry Garcia. Mandolin player David Grisman, Garcia’s musical partner during the last several years of his life, guests on the tale of a man apparently beset by myriad problems with women.

Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir had been conspicuous in his songwriting absence since the bizarre “Born Cross-Eyed” on “Anthem of the Sun” (1968), but he returns on “American Beauty with perhaps his best-known composition. “Sugar Magnolia,” which represents one of Weir’s few collaborations with Hunter, actually is a compendium of two songs, with the coda “Sunshine Daydream” sometimes performed on its own in concert.

The role of the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the Grateful Dead had diminished since the days when the rotund teenager performed with Garcia and Weir in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. By 1969, he had been supplanted as keyboard player by Tom Constanten, and his appearances in concert were limited, although they invariably were highlights of the show.

In the studio, McKernan was absent on “Aoxmoxoa,” with the credits simply listing his role as “Pigpen.” On “Workingman’s Dead,” he sang Hunter’s “Easy Wind,” easily one of the gems of the entire Dead catalog.

The band finally gave Pigpen an opportunity to perform one of his own compositions with “Operator” on “American Beauty.” The brief, effective modified blues tune tells the story of him trying to reach on old girlfriend whose whereabouts are unknown.

The Garcia-Hunter song “Candyman” is one of several bearing that title; it has nothing to do with “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” or Sammy Davis Jr. The Dead’s “Candyman” continues in the vein of “Friend of the Devil,” with a colorful character chasing tail.

The LP’s second side opens with the one-two punch of “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace,” which remain among the Dead’s most-beloved songs. (I’ll put in the caveat that I heard the band play “Brokedown Palace” as an encore enough for me to get kind of tired of the guys doing so.)

“Till the Morning Comes” is an upbeat rocker that the Dead performed precious few times in concert before abandoning. The languid “Attics of My Life” kind of stalls the album’s proceedings, at least temporarily.

The comes the closing number, “Truckin’,” which chronicles the arrest of certain band members in New Orleans in early 1970, among other travails of being out on the road. Anone who’s taken even a remote interest in the Grateful Dead knows this is the song that contains the line for which the band is best known: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

That line, though, sort of seems out of place on “American Beauty,” which might be as close to a conventional pop album as the Dead ever recorded.

“Garcia” by Jerry Garcia (1972)

The Grateful Dead’s official discography has the band’s studio work with Warner Bros. concluding with the classic “American Beauty.”

Yet two more Warner studio albums figure prominently in the Dead’s history, recordings that provided ample concert material for decades while also being somewhat hard to find for years.

Bob Weir’s “Ace” (1972) is a Grateful Dead album in all but name, with all members of the band’s lineup at the time taking part in the sessions. As such, it’s the first studio effort to feature the Godchauxs, Keith and Donna.

By contrast, “Garcia,” released the same year, basically is a solo effort: Jerry played everything on the albums except drums, which were handled by the Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann.

“Garcia” and “Ace” both went out of print a few years after release and were much coveted by Deadheads until their release on compact disc in the late ’80s. I remember buying “Ace” on 8-track because that’s the only way I could find it!

A copy of “Garcia” actually sat for a long while in a bin at a record store we frequented in Indiana, PA, our college town. But we had no idea until later; the album’s cover gives little indication as to what it contains.

Our loss.

Of the two albums, I prefer “Garcia.” Nothing against Bob’s effort, which contains many of his best compositions (although I’ve never been fond of “Looks Like Rain”). But, hey, Jerry was Jerry.

Plus the songs on his first solo album are among his most memorable, kicking off with “Deal.” Not only is it one of my favorites to play and sing since I learned it 20-some years ago, but it always was a personal concert favorite. I particularly remember it as a first-set closer during a show on City Island in my hometown of Harrisburg, an epic performance that had me clearing out a large swath of the audience to accommodate my boogieing to the music. (No, you don’t want to picture that.)

Back to “Garcia”: It continues with two more songs that became concert favorites, “Bird Song,” Jerry and Robert Hunter’s ode to Janis Joplin, and “Sugaree,” their invective against a woman who must’ve done somebody wrong.

The first side of the LP wraps up with “Loser,” a minor-key tale of a gambler that particularly was effective in concert with its dynamic shifts an Jerry’s dramatic guitar soloing.

The LP’s flip side opens with pure experimentation leading into the melodic instrumental “Eep Hour”; the suite of songs figures prominently in the surreal animated sequence that opens “The Grateful Dead Movie.”

“To Lay Me Down” is a heartfelt effort that reappears on the Dead’s acoustic live album, “Reckoning,” and the “So Many Roads” anthology of unreleased material. Next is the aptly titled “An Odd Little Place,” which is an odd little jam.

“Garcia” wraps up with some of Jerry’s finest pedal-steel guitar playing (he abandoned the instrument during the Europe ’72 tour) leading into “The Wheel,” which began life as an improvisation and wound up as yet another concert favorite when the Dead revived the song following its 1974-75 hiatus.

The duo album by Bill the drummer and Jerry on everything else stands as one of the Grateful Dead’s finest studio accomplishments, even if it featured only two of the boys.

“Blues for Allah” by the Grateful Dead (1975)

When the late promoter Bill Graham organized a concert he called SNACK – that stood for Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks – to benefit after-school programs in the San Francisco area, he corralled a bunch of his heavyweight buddies to participate.

How about some of these names: Bob Dylan, Neil Young (backed by The Band), Santana, Jefferson Starship, Joan Baez, Tower of Power and the Doobie Brothers.

Also part of the March 25, 1975, extravaganza, coming out of “retirement,” was a group of Graham’s oldest friends, the Grateful Dead.

The Dead ostensibly had played a series of farewell concerts at Graham’s Winterland in October 1974, part of which later appeared in “The Grateful Dead Movie” and the poorly mixed “Steal Your Face” album, and still later as a much-better-sounding five-CD soundtrack to the movie.

At any rate, when members of the Dead reunited for SNACK, they performed perhaps the most esoteric set of their 30-year career: a half-hour-plus instrumental jam of music that was new to the band’s repertoire, neither the psychedelia of the ’60s nor the roots-rock of the ’70s. This was a jazzier version of the Dead, augmented by keyboard player Merl Saunders and anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. And of course, the late Jerry Garcia’s fluid guitar playing helped weave everything together.

Even for a San Francisco audience, those in attendance at Kezar Stadium must have been mystified by the proceedings until Bob Weir sang the familiar “Johnny B. Goode” for the encore.

The bulk of the performance laid the groundwork for what became the Grateful Dead’s “comeback” album, “Blues for Allah.” Unlike its approach to previous studio albums, the band woodshedded for three months at Hart’s house, formulating new music throughout.

The finished product kicks off with a three-song medley that served as a highlight of many a Dead show for the next 20 years: “Help On the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower.” The relatively complex rhythmic patterns of the first two sections give way to a three-chord progression that benefits significantly from Garcia’s tasteful picking.

An instrumental medley, “King Solomon’s Marbles/Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey,” incorporates themes that were prevalent at the SNACK show, with the rhythm section at full power.

Side One of the LP concludes with “The Music Never Stopped,” with lyricist John Perry Barlow capturing the Dead’s essence of “a band without description, like Jehovah’s favorite choir.” The original version clocks in at 4 1/2 minutes, but later concert versions often stretched beyond the 10-minute mark.

Side Two consists of an esoteric but rewarding sequence of songs, starting with the deceptively relaxed “Crazy Fingers,” which on closer examination contains a series of unconventional key changes, built around an arcane Robert Hunter poem.

Weir contributes an acoustic guitar instrumental, “Sage & Spirit.” According to longtime band associate Rock Scully in his book, “Living With the Dead”:

“Bobby wrote ‘Sage & Spirit’ while my daughters, named Sage and Spirit, were jumping on his bed and generally trashing his hotel room. He was trying to play his guitar and came up with the rhythm for this from their jumping. The flute (played by Steven Schuster) mimics their laughter.”

The album closes with another medley, “Blues for Allah/Sand Castles and Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” which fully exhibits the band’s experimental orientation. Supposedly the compositions were supposed to be the next in line among epic Dead concert jams, from “Viola Lee Blues” to “The Other One” to “Dark Star” to “Playing in the Band.” But the group played it live only a handful of times before abandoning it.

“Blues for Allah” is one of the Grateful Dead’s most fully realized studio projects, and one that stands up under scrutiny better than the band’s subsequent albums in the ’70s and ’80s. The title medley might be a bit of a challenge for the listener, but the other songs are among the Dead’s more memorable in the course of the long, strange trip.

“New Riders of the Purple Sage” by New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)

When I was at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I didn’t particularly like the music the guys usually had blaring through the fraternity-house speakers during parties. “The chicks dig it,” they’d explain, or something to that effect.

One of the brothers who lived at the house, Steve, had a decent stereo and record collection in his room. So every once in a while, to escape “Another One Bites the Dust,” I’d head upstairs and put something on that I wanted to hear.

Usually it turned out being the debut by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. I’d been familiar with the song “Henry” for awhile; it’s kind of a novelty number about a fellow who smuggles a bunch of “vegetative matter” from Tijuana. But listening to Steve’s record revealed gems I hadn’t known: “I Don’t Know You,” “Louisiana Lady,” “Garden of Eden” and the epic “Dirty Business.”

I’ll admit that one of my big attractions to the album is the presence of one Jerry Garcia, playing pedal steel guitar. Jerry had picked up one of those in Denver while touring with the Grateful Dead and immediately taught himself how to play it. And while he was at it, he figured he’d use the instrument in a side project. And so the New Riders of the Purple Sage was born.

By the time the band recorded its debut for Columbia Records, Jerry still was on board, but all the songs were written by the late John “Marmaduke” Dawson, one of the NRPS guitarists. Look at the credits of the Dead’s immortal “Friend of the Devil,” and you’ll see his name there, too.

“New Riders of the Purple Sage” digs deeper into the country-folk-bluegrass territory the Dead was mining at the time, as a radical departure from its marathon psychedelic concerts. The new formula worked like a charm on “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” both released in 1970 and both recognized as being among the band’s greatest accomplishments.

While not quite living up to the standards of those albums, “New Riders of the Purple Sage” holds its own with stellar compositions, harmony vocals and, of course, the steel guitar. The epic “Dirty Business,” sort of about the plight of coal miners, has Jerry opening up the sound into a fuzztone-feedback effect reminiscent of what audiences were likely to hear during various points of Dead concerts.

I eventually bought my own copy of “New Riders of the Purple Sage” and still have the LP downstairs somewhere. And that’s not just because Steve left school and took his records with him.

Postscript: This is kind of depressing, but most of the principals involved in “New Riders of the Purple Sage” are with us no more:

  • John Collins Dawson IV (1945-2009), guitar and vocals
  • Spencer Dryden (1938-2005), drums
  • Jerome John Garcia (1942-95), pedal steel guitar
  • Dave Torbert (1948-82), bass

Here’s to the health of survivors David Nelson and Mickey Hart.

“Back Into the Future” by Man (1973)

Around 1976, when most of my “peers” were listening to disco and/or other current music trends, I steeped myself in the sounds of the previous decade.

One of my first great interests in that regard was Jefferson Airplane, because I’d seen a vintage “American Bandstand” performance of “White Rabbit” and was intrigued not only the the minor-key structure of the song and the psychedelic trappings surrounding the TV presentation, but, of course, the gorgeous brunette who was singing.

My Grace Slick crush led me to learn more about the band, such as that it hailed from San Francisco and hung out a lot with other groups like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And so I became interested in those acts, as well.

The least-known one I’ve mentioned is Quicksilver, but the musicians involved were among the most talented in the Bay Area in the late ’60s, especially guitarist John Cipollina (1943-89).

Decades later, well after Cipollina’s death, I learned he’d collaborated with a band called Man, which was described as the “Welsh Quicksilver Messenger Service.” I couldn’t resist, so I started seeking out Man albums.

“Back Into the Future” is a half-studio, half-live collection, originally a double LP, that straddles its psychedelic, jam-oriented ’60s roots with a progressive edge, with enhanced incorporation of keyboards and advanced melodic structures.

The studio material makes for a good listen, but the live stuff really catches my attention, probably because two of the three concert tracks near or exceed 20 minutes.

The exception is “Sospan Fach,” an odd little ditty performed by a Welsh men’s choir. Those gentlemen’s voices are put to good use during the ensuing track, “C’mon,” a rousing composition that transitions from riff-driven rock ‘n’ roll to a somber interlude reminiscent of part of Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother.”

Side Four of the original album was devoted entirely to 21 minutes’ worth of something titled “Jam Up Jelly Tight/Oh No Not Again (Spunk Rock ’73).” The latter part refers to the band’s signature song at the time, which gained a lot of attention when 20 minutes of it appeared on a compilation called “The Greasy Truckers’ Party.” (Reportedly, no one turned on a recorder until 10 minutes into the song.) At any rate, if you’re inclined toward lengthy guitar workouts, sit back and enjoy.

And by the way, Cipollina’s collaboration resulted in an album called “Maximum Darkness,” released in 1976. It’s decent and all, but I’d recommend “Back Into the Future” if you’re curious about Man. (Man the band, that is; no wisecracks!!!)

“Mass in F Minor” by the Electric Prunes (1968)

Back in the ’70s, my favorite places to visit were record stores. That’s where I started my road to musical knowledge: Pulling LPs off the racks and reading the covers.

A lot of my early record collection came from a place called the Juke Box, which specialized in used LPs, a lot of which cost all of 50 cents. (That was a lot of money back then.) Sure, they might have been scratched up a bit, but you still could enjoy the music and read the liner notes.

The Juke Box also had used records that didn’t cost 50 cents. Those were out-of-print collector’s items that ran into two figures, far beyond our price range at the time.

For example, I remember seeing an album called “Mass in F Minor” by the Electric Prunes selling for $12. I was familiar with the group and album because of the inclusion of the song “Kyrie Eleison” in Dennis Hopper’s film “Easy Rider” and its soundtrack. The song basically is a Gregorian chant surrounded by fuzz-tone guitar, which sounded great to an impressionable youth. (Still does.)

So I scraped up the $12 for the collector’s item and discovered the whole album was built on the same idea. And that it contained only about 25 minutes’ worth of music.

Live and learn.

Somehow the “collector’s item” eventually found its way out of my collection. But when Collectors Choice Music issued it on CD in the late ’90s, I immediately snagged it up again.

“Mass in F Minor” has long been kind of an industry joke for the excesses of ’60s psychedelia, but the album is highly representative of that particular art form, if not the band that ostensibly recorded it.

The Electric Prunes had a couple of minor hit singles in 1966 and ’67, “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” and “Get Me to the World On Time.” The former is best known and revered as the leadoff track to Lenny Kaye’s seminal “Nuggets” compilation. But that’s a whole other story.

By 1968, Prunes management wanted to explore something outside the box to try to cash in on the current “anything goes” music market. So the band was committed to a project by composer David Axelrod to, as I mentioned, combined Gregorian chants with psychedelic rock.

By the time the album was completed, another band called the Collectors had ended up doing much of the instrumental work, with the result that the core of the original band didn’t record together for another three decades.

Also of interest: Prunes producer Dave Hassinger was concurrently working on the Grateful Dead’s second album, “Anthem of the Sun,” but left the proceedings because of that band’s inherent eccentricities.

And RIP: I recently discovered that Mark Tulin, the Electric Prunes’ bass player, with whom I had a brief email correspondence in 2009, died last summer.

Oh, yeah, back to the original premise: If you like genuine ’60s psychedelic music, you’ll enjoy all 25 minutes of “Mass in F Minor.”

“A Picture of Nectar” by Phish (1992)

About 20 years ago, my friend and colleague Chuck started talking about a band he and his brother had seen recently, and how it kind of reminded them of the Grateful Dead.

I was skeptical. It was 1992, for crying out loud. What kind of new music would be any good?

But when Chuck borrowed a CD from his brother, I listened. And was impressed. Although they didn’t particularly remind me of the Dead, the musician shad chops. They played interesting material, kind of a jazzy version of rock with a lot of decent hooks, with some bluegrass-type stuff and just plain weirdness thrown in for good measure. Speaking of weird, that describes the lyrics, such as: “This is the work of the guelah papyrus/Stranded for a moment on the ocean of Osyrus/Absorbing all she can for every member of her clan/Expanding exponentially like some recursive virus.”

Whoa!

“A Picture of Nectar” is Phish’s third album and represents a summation of the band’s work to that point, at which not too many people were aware of Phish’s presence. It wasn’t until about three or four years later until the guys became a major arena attraction, probably because Jerry Garcia had died and Grateful Dead followers needed something else to do.

An excerpt from “Guelah Papyrus” is quoted above, and that song is one of “Nectar’s” many highlights: “Cavern,” “Stash,” “Chalk Dust Torture” and a brief stab at Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.”

The monster cuts, though, are the frenetically riff-driven “Tweezer” and its instrumental, album-closing reprise. The lyrics again are nonsensical but add to the song’s overall appeal: “Won’t you step into the freezer/Tease me with a tweezer.” Picturing that occurrence is good for a chuckle.

I’ve sort of kept track of Phish for the past couple of decades, but my preferred listen still is the album I heard first.

When Don McLean’s “American Pie” was dominating the airwaves 40 years ago, we youngsters got a kick out of rhyming “Chevy” with “levee” more than trying to decipher deeper meanings.

At the time, I might have heard of Buddy Holly, but my first encounter with the Big Bopper wasn’t until “Chantilly Lace” appeared on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack the following year. And I’m not so sure about Richie Valens.

At any rate, “American Pie” kind of chronicles the state of rock ‘n’ roll from the airplane crash of Feb. 3, 1959, through the end of the ’60s. Despite urban legend, the song title is not the name of the plane.

My main question about the tragedy: Why were they flying around the Midwest in the dead of winter? Aviation wasn’t all that advanced 53 years ago, and when that plane – it was a Beechcraft Bonanza, with no specific appellation – took off from Clear Lake, Iowa, it didn’t travel too far before killing everyone on board.

In remembrance of the three musicians who were among the toll, here are a few nuggets pertaining to their careers and “the day the music died”:

  • Waylon Jennings, who was a member of Holly’s backing band the Crickets at the time, gave up his seat on behalf of the Bopper. (Waylon did die in February, but 43 years later.)
  • Tommy Allsup, another Cricket, flipped a coin with Valens to determine who would fly. Allsup lost. And won. He still is with us, at age 80.
  • Charles Hardin Holley (sic) was only 22 years old at the time but already had established himself as a premiere performer-songwriter in the nascent world of rock ‘n’ roll. His death was part of a series of events – the drafting of Elvis, the “retirement” of Little Richard, the cousin-marrying scandal of Jerry Lee Lewis and the jailing of Chuck Berry – that threatened to derail the new type of music.
  • A group of guys from Liverpool, UK, decided it would be cool to name their band after an insect, in the fashion of the Crickets. They didn’t decide on “Beetles,” though.
  • Holly’s “Not Fade Away” was the first American hit by a band named after a Muddy Waters song, the Rolling Stones. It later was played more than 550 times by a band that got its name from the dictionary, the Grateful Dead.
  • Richie Valens’ last name actually was Valenzuela. No word on whether he was related to baseball pitcher Fernando, but Richard Steven had yet to reach his 18th birthday when he died.
  • The Big Bopper’s name was was Jiles Perry Richardson, and he was a ripe old 28 at the time. He wrote the novelty song “Running Bear,” which to the best of my knowledge still is recorded to this day.
  • Dion DiMucci, who also was part of the Winter Dance Party package tour with his band the Belmonts, recalled in a 2009 interview: “I remember just sitting there alone on the bus, and Buddy’s guitar was on the back seat, Ritchie’s outfit was hanging from the luggage rack … There was the Big Bopper’s hat, just sitting there.”
  • Buddy’s pregnant wife, Maria, miscarried soon after the wreck, ending that part of the Holly family tree.
  • Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., attended a Winter Dance Party show on Jan. 31, 1959. Forty years later, as Bob Dylan accepting a Grammy, he recalled about Holly: I was three feet away from him…and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was — I don’t know how or why — but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”
  • Buddy Holly had a single on the charts at the time of his death. It reached No. 13 in the United States and No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Its title: “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”