Grateful Dead Monthly: Nassau Coliseum – Uniondale, NY 5/6/81

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[Apologies for the lateness. These posts should be on/near the date of the show, and I’m twelve days after.]

On Wednesday, May 6, 1981, the Grateful Dead played a show at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

We’ve covered the venue before. Home of the NHL’s Islanders. Phish has played there, most notably to begin the fabled Island Tour, and the Dead played there as early as 1973.

This show was the first of a three-night run. Originally scheduled for 5/7-9, the opener was moved up a day. The band appeared on NBC’s “The Tomorrow Show” with Tom Snyder (remember him?) the next day. Here’s the video – interviews and four acoustic songs:

The show is well-regarded, to say the least. The Taper’s Compendium calls it “one of the strongest and most exciting shows of the Dead’s career.” And the fluff continues:

“The big jam in the second set is widely regarded as legendary, and deservedly so. But the whole show packs a wallop; the band meets the always exuberant Nassau crowd head on – and simply blows them away! There was lots of wild playing by Garcia in the 80s. Sometimes, though, he’d become isolated in his pursuits and would overrun his bandmates, creating an intense but polarized sound; the result belonged in a sports bar. But at this show, the band was able to lock in and meet his ‘high’ energy level. And Garcia, for his part, contributes more of an ear for what else is going one.

No warm-ups in the first set. A hot Alabama > Greatest Story combo sets the pace to open the show. Garcia and Lesh sound refreshed but positively tense as they pounce upon each song. Cassidy roars. Rooster goes over the top with scorching solos from Myland, Weir, and Garcia, while Lesh pounds the blues beat deep into our chests. Let It Grow unleashes some of Garcia’s most nearly out-of-control-but highly inventive-playing ever. Deal rocks very hard as Garcia joins Weir in some fierce strumming to close out the set. Phew!

As He’s Gone begins, Weir dedicates it solemnly to hunger striker Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army, who’d just died in prison (only shortly before the British finally acceded to his demands). There’s thus an extra measure of sadness in this version, culminating in some harrowing howls of grief by Garcia at the end.

As the singing fades, Garcia plucks the picking pattern that often follows this song. Weir, though, breaks form by adding some deliciously spooky feedback that distinguishes the moments as something different. Garcia takes notice, hangs with Weir a bit to intensify this feeling, and then suddenly double-times a run, clearly now fired-up. This new ale has a similar taste to Cape Cod 10/27/79, and at the same exact spot in the show; only the doorway is quite different here. Garcia starts leaning in, faster and faster, nose-diving into his guitar.  The musical pile surges ahead with him, neck to neck, until out springs a genuine Caution Jam, blitzed to the max by Garcia and Weir’s telltale strumming. Nassau is ablaze! After several minutes of this, a variation occurs, courtesy of Weir and Lesh, who pick up the pace, hurtling into the Unknown [not a song, just a feel]. Lesh spontaneously drowns out the music in a fit of fun. The smoke clears to reveal a jazzy jam that squeaky clean and crisp – for the moment. But you can feel the explosive Caution energy still lingering, lurking, waiting to strike in some guise. Garcia tweaks first: faster and faster his notes spiral, gaining in confidence, unaware of the shadow hot on his trail: The Loch Lesh Monster!

Garcia looks casually over his shoulder, sensing something too late! Lesh goes GU-GOOO, blindsiding him and the others, forcing a meltdown, everyone playing sluggish but intense. Weir comes up with some extraordinarily creative chords: Weir-d sounding. Garcia lays down one of those vaguely familiar melodies from his repertoire of, oh, five hundred songs or so, the jam takes a clearer path now – more friendly, but still with that edge sniffin’ around.

Suddenly everyone stops except Garcia. He keeps plugging away, trying to pinpoint his aim, round and round on the guitar, just missing one note, and then round and round again almost – faster he goes, getting closer. The band sneaks in. Wait! Garcia hangs on a holding pattern of many notes, but with no resolution – he just holds it steadily. The others lock in and form a tight counterrhythm. Garcia hovers a bit longer and then nails the releasing note to [lo and] behold! Spanish Jam, albeit a slick variation of it. Now all linked up, Garcia pours it on, a little nervous as he jumbles all these notes together. His bandmates tear into it, feeling the heat, certainly now anchoring their expressions. They jam the heck out of this, before Garcia softens his notes and guides the band downward, carefully into Drums.”

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Whoa. The Dead for a Year blog also has a glowing writeup. And here’s LMA reviewer ice9freak, under the subject “Simply killer.” Speak, man:

“The first set has plenty of sparkle, with exemplary versions of Jack-A-Roe, Dire Wolf, and Let it Grow. This version of Let it Grow is particularly inspired and serves as a premonition of the huge jamming that’s unleashed in set two. After the boys take a breather, Minglewood opens the second set. I know what you’re thinking: not the most exciting choice. Don’t be fooled—the band is taking its time. High Time follows, and it’s a very strong version, perhaps the best since the fertile ’69-’70 period of this tune’s history. Garcia’s vocals find that plaintive, soulful zone that delivers chills. Sailor>Saint follows and I dare anyone to point me toward a hotter version. Bobby flat out kills the vocals and the build-up in Saint is pure joy. If this version doesn’t get your euphoria flowing, consult your local witchdoctor or gypsy woman immediately. Before He’s Gone, Weir dedicates the performance to IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands who died on May 5. This He’s Gone is superbly played, but the jamming that follows is what sets this show apart. A freewheeling Caution Jam bleeds into Spanish Jam. Jerry is in incredible form, and at points you can hear the band straining to keep up with him. Anything else I might say about these two jams would do them a disservice. I’ll just say that if you haven’t heard them yet, you need to. Right now.”

And hear them, you shall. 5/6/81 ultimately became Dick’s Picks #13. Dick Latavala was a huge fan of this show. According to LMA poster light into ashes, this was “one of Dick’s favorite shows from the ‘80s. The second-set jam always blew him away, and to him it was not only one of the best jams of the ‘80s, it was one of the best jams ever. He also really dug the first set.” Check it out.

And transport to the Barry Glassberg front-of-the-freaking-board audience recording on the LMA HERE.

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Quick programming note…

The blog is sorta on hiatus. I’m burned out, guys. ECM and I will keep on keeping on with GD posts – we have our process, and a slice of an audience, so it works. The rest? Tbd.

JF

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It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hi. Happy May.

This week’s playlist is a quieter response to last week’s. And it’s dedicated to a soon-to-be-graduate of a certain Midwest university, who likes her music schon und ruhig. Congrats, GB, and much love.

New stuff from Hundred Waters (Spotify single), The Sea and Cake, Maria Kelly, Francesca Blanchard, Haley Heynderickx, Mount Eerie, Fenne Lily, Delafaye, Rostam (Spotify single), Laura Viers, Amber Arcades, Camp Cope, St. Vincent (Spotify single), PJ Harvey & Harry Escott, Lake Street Dive, Japanese Breakfast (Spofity single), Holy Now, Lowly, JONES, Yo La Tengo, Amelia Caesar, Lucius, and Andrew Bird. Old stuff from Cat Power, Rilo Kiley, Wilco (Being There reissue outtake), Red Red Meat, The Lemonheads, Damien Jurado (a track featured in the Netflix doc Wild Wild Country), and Feist. Lots of fun covers, too.

The header image is by Dan Peterka (@frank_pantera on Ello). Thanks to him.

More soon.

JF

It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hey, guys.  This is the final week of Liner Notes’ April collaboration with Indianapolis artist Jade Leetz. You can see more of her amazing work on Ello and Instagram. She’s @j_______z there. A big thanks to her.

This week’s playlist is rockier than some. Lots of new stuff from The Kills, Hinds, Lucy Dacus, Courtney Barnett, The Decemberists, Say Sue Me, Camp Cope, Flasher, Tokyo Police Club, Teen Creeps, Black Foxxes, Dinosaur Jr., Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Daniel Avery, Pinkshinyultrablast, Mitsky & Xiu Xiu, Rival Consoles, She Major, Jorja Smith, Kali Uchis, Eleanor Friedberger, Lykke Li, and Black Taffy. Old stuff from Red Red Meat, Sonic Youth (Dirty reissue), Garbage (Version 2.0 reissue), Rilo Kiley, and Cat Power. Oh, and there’s Prince’s own version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” near the end. Enjoy!

More soon.

JF

It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hey, guys.  This is week three of Liner Notes’ April collaboration with Indianapolis artist Jade Leetz. You can see more of her amazing work on Ello and Instagram. She’s @j_______z there.

The playlist is great. (Greater than usual, I mean.) New stuff from Hinds (!!), The Orielles, Frankie Cosmos, Preoccupations, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Snail Mail, Father John,  Sidney Gish, Jenny Hval, Empress Of, Janelle Monae, Kali Uchis, Superorganism, Kamashi Washington, Rival Consoles, LUMP (feat. Laura Marling), CHVRCHES, and Neko. Old stuff from The Killers, Unrest, Joy Division, Interpol, Sonic Youth, Miles fn Davis & John fn Coltrane (from the new MD Bootleg Series box set), and Damien Jurado (from the new-ish Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country). Enjoy!

Have great weekends. Oh, and it’s 4/20, if you’re into that sorta thang. Find the bonus track, yo.

More soon.

JF

It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hey, guys.  This is week two of Liner Notes’ April collaboration with Indianapolis artist Jade Leetz. You can see more of her amazing work on Ello and Instagram. She’s @j_______z there.

On the playlist, new stuff from Band of Horses, Wye Oak (!!), Kali Uchis, Eleanor Friedberger, The Orielles, Black Foxxes, Sunflower Bean, Beach House, Chvrches, Janelle Monae & Grimes, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Azealia Banks, Cardi B, Lizzo, Tyler the Creator, Hop Along, Frankie Cosmos, and Amber Arcades. Old stuff from Stereolab and Boards of Canada. Enjoy, and have great weekends.

More soon.

JF

An Introduction to Frank Zappa: Part 1, The Helsinki Concert

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So I listened to “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on Easter Sunday, highlighted on this very blog, and it sucked me back into a mini-Frank Zappa kick. Zappa’s catalog is one of the most diverse, challenging, and downright bizarre in all of music. There are plenty of articles out there on “Where to start with Zappa” and “What are Zappa’s most essential albums,” and you will struggle to find a consensus across them.

Today I’m going to make my own suggestion for an entry point into this strange world of music.

Back in the late ’80s, Frank released a series of live albums called You Can’t Do That On Stage. It contained six volumes, most of which were compiled from different shows from every different eras and many different incarnations of Frank Zappa. The result is a bit odd. You’ll get a few live tracks recorded in 1968, then jump to a song from 1984, and then head back to the mid-’70s, all on one disc. FZ was a perfectionist, so apparently he was restlessly looking for the best versions, rather than worrying about maintaining an artifact of one particular show.
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That’s why Volume 2 stands out. It’s billed as “The Helsinki Concert,” a single concert in Finland from 1974. In reality, it’s comprised of recordings from two or three shows, although what’s important is that it features the same ensemble over a two-day period. You get a consistent record of what arguably his best band sounded like at a precise moment in time.

Brief aside: I’ve heard Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from Phish talk about how their more complex compositions would often give birth to their best moments of live improvisation. The idea being, a really complex song (think “You Enjoy Myself” or “Reba”) requires a high degree of band interconnectedness to nail in concert. But performing those compositions would lead to a mind-meld, so that when the band moved to an open section of improvisation, they were completely connected. Without the tightly knit compositions, you don’t get the highest level of improv.

The Helsinki Concert is one of the best examples of this concept I can think of. Zappa’s music is expertly arranged, loaded with unusual time signatures, and requires a mind-boggling level of synchronicity to pull off on stage. To perform these compositions live — and make them sound good — is a feat on its own. What Vol. 2 shows is how bursts of improv and spontaneity flared out of the compositions.

Now, I’m recommending the entire set, which features tons of great music and plenty of stage banter and the type of wacky antics for which Frank’s band was known. But for our purposes, let’s really focus in on the section that begins with “Inca Roads” and runs through “Pygmy Twylyte.” That’s six songs and roughly 40 minutes of music. Hopefully, it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

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A quick note on the band. Zappa plays lead guitar, of course. You’ve got Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals and keys, Tom Fowler on bass, and Chester Thompson manning the drums. George Duke sings and plays wind instruments, and Ruth Underwood is on percussion. That’s six people, though often it sounds like twice that many are on stage. The songs are often decorated with sounds that are uncommon to a rock concert, such as Duke on the flute and Underwood plinking on the marimba. This band is famous from the live compilation release Roxy & Elsewhere, and the Volume 2 set contains many of the same songs. The difference is that by the time of the Helsinki shows, this band had gotten even tighter and meaner, absolutely mastering these songs with speed and precision.
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The show kicks off with the playful “Tush Tush Tush” and “Stinkfoot,” before transitioning to the section we’re going to take a closer look at. “Inca Roads” is a song about alien spaceship runways in the Andes, with a tightly constructed opening section that quickly leads into a searing Zappa guitar solo. The band lays down a solid foundation over which Zappa straight-up shreds. The band returns to the song, before breaking out into a jazz-fusion jam, anchored by the rhythm section and some great keyboard work, before concluding the song. “Inca Roads” packs a whole lot of music into just under 11 minutes.

We transition into “RDNZL” with Ruth Underwood stepping out front during the opening section, leading into another white-hot guitar solo from FZ. The composition shifts multiple times, finally releasing with a nice vocal interlude (“we could share a love”). This leads the band back into another jazz-fusion jam that’s similar to what we heard in “Inca Roads.” Somehow “RDNZL” packs just us much music into 8:43 as “Inca Roads” fit into 10:54.

“Village of the Sun” keeps the energy going, and the band knocks out the song before letting Duke take the lead with a sax solo. When I say “solo,” by the way, I mean that the sax is the lead instrument, but the entire band is ripping through this rendition, filling in every available space. A smooth segue lands us in “Echnida’s Arf (Of You),” containing some of the most complex music of this entire section. It’s a high-wire circus act of a composition, which culminates in an outstanding tension-and-release in its back half. Simply outstanding stuff.

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“Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” follows. They tear through it, with Frank bringing back a little stage banter. Finally, we get to “Pygmy Twylyte.” Another tight rendition, which unfolds into another favorite segment shortly after the 4-minute mark. The band lays down a slower groove, and FZ’s solo is gorgeously melodic.

To wrap it all up, you have a band that’s mastered some incredibly dense music, and was capable of performing layered compositions at breakneck speed. As a result, the improv explodes in barely conceivable bursts. The contrast is thrilling.

Let me know what you think. Take in the rest of the set. Go from there.