Posts Tagged ‘Phil Lesh’

“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.

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“Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane (1969)

What seems relatively tame today was pushing the envelope 40-some years ago.

Such was the case with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” which raised a small series of controversies with its release at the tail end of the ’60s.

The Airplane had put San Francisco on the musical map with its 1967 hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and the landmark “White Rabbit.” The latter, with its lyrics alluding to the fanciful imagery of Lewis Carroll and its connection to modern-day drug use, eventually drawing specific condemnation from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for its supposedly detrimental influence on the youth of America. (Agnew, of course, later pleaded no contest to tax evasion and resigned, paving the way for Gerald Ford to become president without actually being elected to anything having to do with the Executive Branch.)

With “Volunteers,” the Airplane seemed to aim for being a detrimental influence, at least with regard to people of Agnew’s ilk.

First, there’s the album cover, which features the band dressed in outlandish costumes against the backdrop of a U.S. flag. Remember, that was long before the Stars and Stripes became wardrobe fare, and the image of a decidedly strange-looking rock ‘n’ roll band coupled with the Stars and Stripes tended to rub the average American the wrong way.

The back cover is highly irreverent, as well, and it’s fun to study: a sendup of a newspaper page from the fictional Paz, S.D., complete with a Question of the Day, “What Is Your Favorite Stripe on the Flag?” Again, that’s hallowed ground, but responses include Grace Slick’s “Point that thing somewhere else,” Marty Balin’s “What flag?” and Paul Kanter’s “Michoucan.”

There there are the songs, themselves. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is nothing short of a call to arms: “We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we, are we are/And we are very proud of ourselves,” which leads into the epic line “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” the first time that particular word appeared on record. Slick’s “Eskimo Blue Day” violates another taboo with “Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”

The Airplane’s record company, not surprisingly, wasn’t overjoyed.

“RCA felt that some retail chains might boycott the album for any of the above reasons, to which the Airplane responded that record stores like that sucked anyway, so who cares?” Jeff Tamarkin wrote in “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.”

Whatever the case, the album sold briskly after its November 1969 release, staying on the Billboard chart for 44 weeks. Record buyers seemed to agree with reviewer Ed Leimbacher, who wrote for Ramparts: “In terms of sheer music, ‘Volunteers’ is the greatest Airplane album yet; they may have taken off four years ago, but they didn’t reach the stratosphere till now.”

The theme set by the album cover and the opening track, “We Can Be Together,” seems to peg “Volunteers” as some kind of countercultural rant. But the songs display a remarkable amount of diversity, touching on the band’s folk roots (“Good Shepherd,” “Turn My Life Down” and “Wooden Ships”), country-rock (“The Farm” and “A Song for All Seasons”) and even proto-metal (“Eskimo Blue Day” and Hey Fredrick”).

Kantner built “We Can Be Together” and the song “Volunteers” on the same banjo-derived riff, which works particularly well with the latter. Balin had his only co-composer credits of the album on “Volunteers,” and RCA released it as a single. It peaked at only No. 65 but remained a favorite focal point for late-’60s nostalgia, even making it to the soundtrack for the Academy Award-winning “Forrest Gump.”

“Good Shepherd” has its roots in a 19th-century hymn and later was transformed into a Southern spiritual, as recorded by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s. Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen learned the basic tune as “Blood-Stained Banders,” and his arrangement for “Volunteers” combines his finger-style acoustic guitar with the fuzztone of his electric Epiphone for “a psychedelic folk-rock song,” as Jorma has described it. The tune has remained a staple of his work with Hot Tuna ever since, as well as a highlight of the 1999 album “Love Will See You Through” by Phil Lesh and Friends, featuring Kaukonen dueling with virtuoso guitarist Steve Kimock on a lengthy rendition.

“The Farm” might be Kantner’s answer to Canned Heat’s cover of Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” that the band rewrote as “Goin’ Up the Country.” At any rate, it reflects the sentiment of plenty of San Francisco musicians who moved to rural Marin County after city life became more than a bit tense. Jerry Garcia’s lively pedal-steel guitar contributes greatly to the motif.

Slick had been writing purposefully obtuse lyrics since “White Rabbit,” and “Hey Fredrick” fits right into that category: “There you sit, mouth wide open, animals living by your side/On wire wheels, the four-stroke man opens wide.” As she explains in her autobiography (with Andrea Cagan), “Somebody to Love?”:

“My inability to successfully mainstream anything hasn’t bothered me much, but had I achieved mega-mainstream success it would have been an interesting test of the distorted pride I seem to take in my idiosyncratic behavior.”

What sets “Fredrick” – named for the band’s code word for intercourse – apart from other Slick compositions is the heavy jam into which it develops. Kaukonen, bass player Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and guest pianist Nicky Hopkins take over following Slick’s last words around the 3:20 mark and deliver nearly six minutes of what was as close to heavy metal as anyone was getting in 1969.

The tone lightens up quite a bit for Kaukonen’s “Turn My Life Down,” which Balin sings. The arrangement guest stars Steven Stills on Hammond organ and the vocal group Ace of Cups – Mary Gannon, Marilyn Hunt, Diane Hursh and Denise Jewkes – providing pleasant background.

Having called his generation to revolution, Kantner ponders the aftermath in “Wooden Ships,” which he wrote with Stills and David Crosby. Those who know the song best from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut album, and its inclusion by that band in a prominent place in Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock,” might notice that Kantner isn’t part of that version’s credits; apparently, it wasn’t cool to have an RCA artist’s name appear on an Atlantic Records album.

At any rate, “Wooden Ships” describes a world possibly following World War III, in which the few survivors poignantly ask, “Can you tell me, please, who won?” It doesn’t much matter, as the scenario starts to echo Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach”: “Horror grips us as we watch you die/All we can do is echo your anguished cries.”

Studio rehearsals for “Wooden Ships” had the Airplane segueing into “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues,” a song that the late Alexander “Skip” Spence wrote when he was the band’s drummer, before moving on to help found Moby Grape. Jefferson Airplane had recorded a version of the song in 1966, but it went unreleased until the 1974 odds-and-ends compilation “Early Flight.”

Slick addresses the plight of humanity on a more roundabout way on “Eskimo Blue Day,” with her ultimate assessment expressed with the previously mentioned scatological flourish. The instrumentation again features Kaukonen, Casady, Hopkins and Dryden turning it up near 11, with Grace adding touches of recorder in strategic places.

Prior to “A Song for All Seasons,” Dryden’s Airplane compositions had been Zappaesque sound collages, including the unreleased-for-decades “Saga of Sydney Spacehog.” His “A Song for All Seasons” sounds kind of like what the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers were playing at the time, a jaunty, country-flavored romp about the travails of a rock band: “I heard your manager skipped town with all your pay/And your lead singer’s bulge turns the sensors gray.”

A brief, somewhat bizarre rendition of the Soviet Army theme “Meadowlands” leads into “Volunteers,” which closes the ’60s with the key line: “One generation got old/One generation got soul/This generation’s got no destination to hold.” While those lyrics seem to be inextricably tied to the sentiments expressed on “We Can Be Together,” they certainly are applicable to the teens and twentysomethings of 2012.

“Volunteers” not only closes the ’60s, it closes Jefferson Airplane’s so-called “classic” era. “A Song for All Seasons” kind of hinted at the state of the band at the time, as subsequent events revealed.

Dryden and Slick had been a couple through early 1969, when she switched her affections to Kantner. Meanwhile, Kaukonen and Casady, who had played music together off and on for more than a decade, had started concentrating more fully on their side project, Hot Tuna.

As for Balin, who co-founded the band in 1965 with Kantner, his compositions hadn’t been central to an Airplane album since its second effort, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which was recorded all the way back in ’66.

Inner struggles combined with external forces just weeks after the release of “Volunteers.” On Dec. 6, 1969, “more than 300,000 souls found their way to one of the most desolate, depressing locations in the state of California to witness one of rock’s darkest moments,” Tamarkin wrote.

The occasion came to be known to the world as Altamont, during which a black concert attendee, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death in front of the stage by Hell’s Angels as the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb.”

Jefferson Airplane was one of the bands that opened for the Stones at their notoriously ill-planned free concert in the California desert. As Dryden recalled:

“It was just a horrible, pink-sky Hieronymus Bosch dustbin, not a tree in sight, just a hellhole. It was the beginning of the end. No, not the beginning. It was the end.”

Dryden had a great seat for “the end.” He was drumming during the Airplane’s obligatory cover of Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life” when:

“The band stopped playing momentarily,” Tamarkin wrote, “shaken by the brutality. Spencer, Jorma and Jack returned to riffing absentmindedly, one eye on the chaos offstage and another on their fellow musicians. Paul stood at the lip of the stage, his guitar dangling as he surveyed the weirdness.

“Then a scream came from below. Marty, standing a second ago at center stage peering at the melee intently, leaped from his perch, disappearing into the thick of the crowd. More movement followed, but there was still no sign of Marty. He had been knocked out cold.”

The scene was captured for posterity in the film “Gimme Shelter” by David and Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, culminating with Slick imploring the crowd in a shaky voice, “Let’s not keep fucking up!”

Dryden didn’t play too many more shows with Jefferson Airplane, departing in January 1970. Balin hung around until October, when he decided not to perform at a concert following the death of his friend Janis Joplin.

The band struggled through two more studio albums and a decent live set documenting its final days. Then came Jefferson Starship, then Starship, a story as convoluted as it is depressing.

Those later aggregations may have tarnished the reputation of the “classic” Airplane. A listen to “Volunteers,” though, shows it to be not a relic of its era, but an examination of topics that continue to hold relevance more than four decades later.

“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.

“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.