Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Dead in the 1980s - An Appreciation

The days between .  . .

We’ve demonstrated one thing in our previous post: there are too few 1980s official releases and the 1970s are over-represented. We are not saying no more 70s shows, we just want more 1980s. As a reminder, here’s a graphic that shows the distribution of releases by decade.

The data speaks for itself. The 1980s were nearly a third of the shows that the dead played, yet they comprise only 11% of the total releases. So, here’s a more subjective take on this: why 80s Grateful Dead deserves more attention and more officially curated and remastered releases.

The Dead’s 1980s Sound: the Year of the Tiger and the Dragon

We’d heard of them, heard a few of their radio songs, but didn’t really start paying attention until the 80s. Here’s why the Dead captured our attention for good in that decade.

  • Brent: we made the point, but it bears repeating. By 1979, Keith Godchaux was a spent force, creatively. Brent’s arrival opened up new sonic possibilities and made the band jazzier, funkier than it had been in a long time.

  • Acoustic shows! Warfield, Radio City, New Orleans, and a few rogue sets here and there. It generated a lot of excitement in the Deadhead world, and the resulting live album (Reckoning), while a little uneven, blew our minds when it came out.

  • Uniqueness - they literally sounded unlike any other national level act around. This was the era when FM radio was king, when tape trading was a lot of work -- waiting, and wanting to get into the “right” circles where tapes were traded. But in the era of MTV and shock jocks, you just didn’t hear anything that sounded like the Dead. They weren’t remotely like Pat Benatar, Duran Duran, or Journey, and that was enough to make them special.

  • New, good songs that made their way into the rotation like Throwing Stones, Touch of Grey, Hell in a Bucket, and West LA Fadeaway. These tunes were road tested for the better part of four years before they made it onto vinyl.

  • New covers or songs that were revived:
    • Bird Song: The best Birds were between Fall of 80 and 1989 (pre-Midi). Bird Song was to the 80s as Dark Star was to the 60s - an all out exploration built on a delicate melody. Their new arrangement (in the key of E), which debuted at the Warfield in 1980, gave the song a depth that fit Hunter’s mournful and tender lyrics perfectly.
    • High steppin tempo: Was it the blow? Who cares at this point? The classic 80s show has a bounce in its step, which re-energized certain songs like Deal, Stagger Lee, Let it Grow,  and Not Fade Away. By 1980 they figured out how to reintegrate Mickey Hart into their sound without every song being dominated by percussion or sounding like a dirge.
    • Shakedown Street and Feel Like a Stranger: These songs are funky and deep, thanks to Brent’s synth chops and Jerry’s Mutron.  
    • Help on the Way/Slipknot/Franklin’s Tower returned in 1983, and again in 1989.
    • This is the great era of Jerry ballads: Stella Blue, Black Peter, Morning Dew, To Lay Me Down, Comes a Time, It Must Have Been the Roses are all sung and played with a soulful maturity that a man in his twenties couldn’t possibly muster.
    • Great covers: Satisfaction, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, She Belongs to Me, Gloria. The presence of any of these songs in a show means people were having a good time.
    • Revival of a few Pigpen tunes: Smokestack Lighting, Lovelight (which paled compared to the 1960s versions, but we appreciated the effort anyway).

Take the good with the bad: problems with the 1980s
DL: Look at that . . 2017. Guess 1982 doesn't suck so bad after all.
BW: More fun than a frog in a glass of milk.
JG: Shit. . you guys are on your own. 

With a more jazz-fusion/funk sound, the Dead lost a bit of their rustic charm  (which they could still whip out at an acoustic gig). They stopped doing country weepers like Sing Me Back Home, and songs like Big River and Me and My Uncle lost some of their bite. And there are certain 80s songs that we almost always skip: CC Rider, for example

But, but, Betty Boards!
Yes, anything less than a Betty Board is less than a Betty Board. Betty’s departure (or rather, ouster) from the band left the soundboard in less capable hands. Too often 80s boards have Bob buried, weak bass, and an overall sterility. Plus, this was the first use of cassettes, which meant compressed sound quality, tape flips and gaps. Clearly, someone wasn’t paying consistent attention (note the gaps filled with audience sources on the recent release of 12/5/81).

But the 1980s was the great era of audience taping. The Dead tacitly allowed, and then openly welcomed audience taping, and tapers like Jim Wise, the Oade brothers, Rango Kevashan and others did great work capturing the full throated roar and soulful whisper of the band, best heard in smaller, intimate venues like the Warfield, Henry J. Kaiser, the Starlight Theater (Kansas City), the Fox (Atlanta), and others. Dave Lemieux acknowledged as much with his bold choice of the the Jim Wise audience source for his inaugural Dave’s Picks release: 11/30/80 at the Fox in Atlanta.

The years 1987-89 have some excellent soundboards. Even when they played football stadiums, they were still the Grateful Dead.

The online community of Dead fans has addressed the sometimes inferior sound quality of 80s sources, with some impressive results. Charlie Miller is an alchemist who can take DAT-sourced audience and soundboards and make them sing for all they are worth. Hunter Seamons and Dave Usborne create magnificently deep combined matrixes using a decent audience and a decent soundboard source of the same show to make something greater than the sum of the parts: a recording that conveys both the instrumental precision of the board and the ambient energy of the audience. The point --  no one is paying these guys. We don’t know exactly how they do it. But Dave Lemieux and Jeffrey Norman can certainly equal these efforts with the resources at their disposal.

Askin' you nice, now: Some suggested 1980s shows.
These suggestions are based on several factors, mostly subjective: setlist, overall performance, a good audience or board (or both) already in circulation, and x-factor (meaning an unusual sequence, song choice, something that makes it better than average). This is by no means a complete list and we don’t have any special insight beyond the average Deadhead. This is not a manifesto, but rather a conversation starter.  In the comments section below, post your 80s choices (links to sources are appreciated). Or hit us on twitter: @80sGratefulDead

  • New Orleans 10/18/1980 & 10/19/1980 – we know the Warfield and Radio City acoustic/electric runs could easily be a full box set release but a gem sandwiched in between was a show at Saenger Performing Arts Center in New Orleans.
  • Uptown Theater, Chicago 02/26/81
  • Spring tour 1981: Standouts: 4/6, 5/1, 5/13, 5/15, 5/16
  • Melk Weg, Amsterdam 10/15-16/1981. The September-October ’81 Europe tour doesn’t get the props it should. The odd acoustic shows at the Melk Weg are great.
  • Lehigh, Stabler Arena, Bethlehem, PA 9/25/1981 – Hidden in a great run and overshadowed a fantastic Buffalo show the next night.
  • Frost Amphitheater, Stanford: 10/9 & 10/10/1982. If you haven’t heard this pair of great shows from ‘82, then we really need to talk.
  • Providence, RI 4/15/1982  
  • Civic Arena, Augusta, ME 10/12/1984 - We’ve yet to hear a bad show from the state of Maine.
  • Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA 7/13-15/1984
  • Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA 6/14-16/1985
  • Henry J. Kaiser, 2/11/1986
  • Alpine Valley, 6/27-28/1987
  • Eugene, OR 7/19/1987
  • Madison Square Garden, 9/15-20/1987
  • Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford, ME 7/2/1988
  • Summer Midwest Run: 7/15/1989 Deer Creek, IN + 7/17, 18 & 19/89 Alpine Valley, WI

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