On August 24, listeners in the San Francisco Bay Area tuned to KPFA for David Gans's syndicated radio show The Grateful Dead Hour heard an announcement too good to believe: there would be a benefit concert a week after the Shoreline Dead shows that would feature a set by the band minus the drummers, billed as "Phil Lesh and Friends." As the first acoustic Dead in the area since 1981, this was a significant event for fans. When tickets went on sale twelve days later, at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, they sold out in twenty minutes.
As the longest-running consistently touring major rock group, the Dead are known as a consummate electric band, but this mastery of their medium belies their fundamental fascination with the acoustic roots of American popular music. Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia had extensive experience in folk music before turning to rock, and Garcia made his own field recordings of Appalachian bluegrass to spur his banjo studies in the early Sixties. These influences are manifest in the band's repertoire today, and fans speculating on a dream set in the weeks before the show had to choose from a list of more than two dozen songs performed acoustically over the years.
The purpose of the evening's show was a benefit for Berkeley High School's music program, which had graduated numerous jazz luminaries over the years, as well as two rock stars: Country Joe McDonald and Phil Lesh. In keeping with the band's long-standing tradition of benefit concerts -- they have played more than eighty over their twenty-nine year history -- tonight's performance was engineered by Lesh, who had been approached by a member of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation the previous May at a reception held for him following his performance as guest conductor with the Berkeley Symphony, in their guest conductors' program. Because of budget cuts, Berkeley had cut its school music program entirely a few months before. Since Lesh's parents had moved to Berkeley solely for the sake of their teen-ager's musical education -- they couldn't afford private lessons, and the program at Berkeley was renowned -- Lesh's response was "This is an outrage," and he promised to see what he could do. Shortly after, the Grateful Dead's charity arm, the Rex Foundation, gave a $10,000 dollar grant to help save the program. And Lesh called the Berkeley Public Education Foundation later that summer to say that he could also organize a benefit concert on their behalf, and provide the services of a majority of the Grateful Dead. With the guidance of Bill Graham Presents' Bob Barsotti -- as well as the work of many other members of the Dead and BGP -- the benefit was born.
Berkeley Community Theater is on the campus of Berkeley High, and is clearly the showpiece for the school. A 3691 seat auditorium begun in 1941 and finished nine years later, BCT is a large Works Project Administration building designed by the team of Henry Gutterson and Will Corlett in the streamlined Deco style, with a beautiful interior, simply but tastefully decorated, excellent acoustics, and an ample balcony with an outdoor deck upstairs. Sight lines are good from almost anywhere inside, making it an ideal venue for acoustic music; it seems intimate, especially in contrast to the three concerts I saw the weekend before at the 20,000 seat Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.
On the evening of the 24th, it was impossible to be in Berkeley and not know the Dead were in town. Walking to the theater that night was a flashback for neighborhood residents to April 22, 1986, when the Dead had last played there. This show had achieved intense publicity in the Dead world despite the fact that ads and publicity avoided any mention of the band. Beginning at the freeway off-ramp into Berkeley, almost a mile away from the theater, hopeful fans were staked out along the side of the road holding up their fingers in the air, or with elaborate signs, begging for a ticket and offering everything from drugs to money to eternal gratitude in exchange. Two blocks away the crowd was already thick, the air was dense with pot smoke and incense, and Deadheads were sprawled all over the Berkeley streets, pleas for extra tickets growing more desperate and plaintive as you approached. One guy held up two one-hundred dollar bills as I walked past. It was such a chunk of money that I actually considered selling my ticket for a moment, but Deadhead ethics immediately took over, righteously squelching the idea on the grounds of immorality of scalping. And there was the even more compelling Deadhead logic of, were I to miss the show, I would never have a chance to see anything like it again. Once inside, after the typically slow snaking line made its way through various Bill Graham Presents security personnel -- efficient and polite, as always -- it was nice to see the typically relaxed atmosphere of BGP shows extended to this place as well. Deadheads were milling, mixing, openly smoking pot, and generally behaving themselves.
The show began with Phil reading a few introductory remarks, giving a brief history of the Music Program at Berkeley, listing its distinguished alums -- and remarking that the reason many prominent alumni couldn't be here is because the program had done its job too well: they all had gigs that night. It was interesting to hear Phil speak as Phil, not as a spokesman for the band or making wry remarks designed for 15,000. In the intimate confines of BCT, he came across as surprisingly nervous and accessible. It was interesting to see the crowd dynamics as well, Deadhead boisterousness giving way to a respectful attentiveness after a few initial shouts of "Phil! Phil!"
First on the bill was the Berkeley High Jazz Combo, which played well, if inconsistently; all things in perspective, though -- for a high school band, they are already accomplished, and they played ambitious pieces. The Michael Wolff Trio surprised the cynics in the audience who were expecting something akin to his histrionics as band-leader on the Arsenio Hall Show, but his conservative trio turned in a perfectly respectable set of jazz tunes with some excellent moments, including a Cannonball Adderly tribute and a Weather Report song, "Pinocchio," to close their set. The Berkeley Alumni All-Stars, however, were the high-point of the evening until the Dead took the stage. An eleven-piece band led by Peter Apfelbaum, they swung with authority and grace; Apfelbaum is a superb musician and arranger. Eleven parts actually sounded uncluttered at times, as well as delightfully symphonic -- in a non-classical sense. After a brief intermission, Country Joe came on with a seven-piece band that included Keta Bill, San Francisco Chronicle staff music critic Joel Selvin's wife, on backing vocals, and bassist Stephen Barsotti, the brother of the executives at Bill Graham Presents. Unfortunately, while Joe sounded good, his heavy-handed activism struck a discordant note in the evening; somber and verging on belligerence, McDonald pummeled the crowd with a half-dozen well-wrought and competently executed songs, a set perhaps best characterized by an unfortunately uninspired dirge denouncing domestic violence, called "Break the Silence (Stop the Violence)." On a more upbeat but somewhat odd note, he finished the set with his signature standard, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," preceded by the F-U-C-K cheer, his spur-of-the-moment Woodstock innovation on the Fish Cheer.
At a little past 10 p.m., the house-lights dimmed, precipitating a premature roar which abruptly crescendoed as Garcia's familiar form walked quickly on stage, followed by keyboardist Vince Welnick, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and Phil, who attracted immediate attention since he was carrying an acoustic bass. Since Jerry and Bob had gone on record in a 1993 interview decrying the sound of acoustic basses, this promised to be an interesting sound. Vince was seated at a glistening black concert grand, and the guitarists had their trademark acoustics, Bobby using the one he has been seen with on recent tours. As the musicians went through their traditional Dead tune-up dance, Bobby bantered with the audience in a manner reminiscent of his Seventies stage humor, saying that before the show "we were trying to figure out if we were going to stand up or sit down when we were playing. And, uh, I think the industry standard is you sit down, 'cause you know, that's the right way to do it 'cause that's they way they do on MTV. [laughter] ... But then we were thinking ... they call that 'MTV Unplugged,' but if you look, everybody's plugged in. [laughter] And we're making no bones about it, see -- this is a plug. (He pulls the plug out from his guitar, causing a loud screech from the PA; everyone laughs.) And so, ever the iconoclasts, we're going to stand up." To loud cheers, he turned to monitor mixer Harry Popick and said "You can turn the guitar back on now. I was plugged in, but I was plugged in backwards," to which Jerry replied, "Just like you always are, man."
After more laughter, Bobby said "I'll do this one," and the band slipped into "Walking Blues," the old traditional Delta blues song sometimes credited to Robert Johnson, who first recorded it, but performed here more like the version written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters in the early Fifties. Then Garcia chose one of his recent collaborations with lyricist Robert Hunter, "Lazy River Road," a logical choice for acoustic treatment, with its inventory of folk images and Americana and its sparse, nimble melody; it reminds some Deadheads of the songs from the band's first two acoustic albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. A nice transition from the historical note sounded by Walkin' Blues, as if to indicate how the modern could still innovate while paying literary and musicological homage to the past, but Garcia lost his train of thought while singing and scrambled the words badly, which effectively derailed the song for me. Some nice instrumental work, but basically it was the evening's obeisance to an oft-repeated axiom of the Dead's performing career: when the heat's on, they don't perform, as fans who encounter copies of their Woodstock performance discover anew -- and as several members of the band have remarked. The next number, "K.C. Moan," is another traditional song, apparently first recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in 1929 and a staple in Garcia and Weir's first band, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Weir has been performing it lately with Rob Wasserman, and it came off well.
When Garcia hit the opening chords of "Dupree's Diamond Blues," not played acoustically since 1969, fans yelped a short, sharp cheer and then quieted quickly in what was, for me, the symbol of the evening: the Dionysian ecstasy of a rock crowd with the refined sensibility of a classical audience, usually manifested in the same individual. Deadheads there were delirious at the opportunity to see their idols play on acoustic instruments, something not done in the area since the famed shows in 1980 at the Warfield, which produced the album Reckoning, considered by most aficionados to be the pinnacle of the band's recorded acoustic work and a persuasive document of their performing prowess. Expectation was high, in other words, and the palpable sense of history heightened the tension to extremes; thus the unique cheer that night, a burst of energy roared and then throttled by the need to hear every note.
"Dupree's" had some moments, but fell victim to the same gremlin as "Lazy River Road," Garcia singing the wrong verse and losing the thread of the song badly. With a sense of disappointment creeping through some segments of the hall, Phil stepped to the mike and the evening transmogrified. His new song, "Childhood's End," is a typical Lesh tune, long and melodically dense with few openings for jams, but it was lyrical and lovely, and completely free of the vitriol of another of his recent tunes, "If the Shoe Fits." This is one that needs to be worked out on stage, but it was fine acoustic debut from a band for whom debuts are always occasions to be celebrated. Weir's signal for Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" marked the take-off point, musically, for the set. The quartet hit their stride and turned in a first-rate version, with an energy that carried through the rest of the set. When Garcia called for the vocal chestnut from their early-Seventies acoustic period, "Attics of My Life," another one of the audience's swallowed cheers went up and the abrupt silence that followed seemed pregnant with the anticipation of thirty-five hundred Deadheads holding their breaths to hear how the song's demanding harmonies would come off. They came off beautifully, and at that point the band could do no wrong.
"Cassidy," perhaps Weir's most beautiful melody, written partly in honor of Neal Cassady, Kerouac's road partner and Kesey's bus driver, continued the vocal qualities and introduced the trademark improvisational brilliance of the band with its centerpiece jam, which spun into its predictably discordant, angular and unpredictable nooks and crannies of the melody before resolving into a stunning final crescendo, from which "Bird Song" emerged, Garcia's and Hunter's moving tribute to Janis Joplin. In the middle of the wild audience response that followed its close, Weir strummed the opening chords of perhaps the band's most directly political song, the powerful anthem penned by Weir's prep-school buddy John Barlow, "Throwing Stones," ending all too soon, and without the cathartic song the Dead frequently append as a coda, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." In a theater that small, the sound of rapture can be deafening, which is the only word to describe the applause that followed, feet pounding in unison with claps and shouts and whistles and screams, rising to an impossibly loud crescendo as the lights finally came on, precipitating the characteristic Deadhead moan of disappointment, "aaaawwww." Irrepressibly optimistic, Deadheads are well aware of the lack of encores at shows like this, but the tantalizing magic of applause always holds promise: if I clap just a little bit louder, they'll have to come back. Held for more than five minutes, the roar was at least a marvelous catharsis for a well-satisfied audience.
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