On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, April 21-23, 1969, the Grateful Dead played their only shows at the Ark in Boston – at least, the only shows before it was rechristened the Boston Tea Party.
Boston.com offers a sketch of the venue’s history. At the turn of the 20th Century, Eban Jordan, founder of the Boston Globe, built 15 Lansdowne Street to house delivery horses and carriages. By 1969, the building, which is across the street from Fenway Park, had become a rock club called the Ark. Later that year, the owners of a nearby venue that had burned down bought the club and rechristened it the Boston Tea Party. (The Dead played a New Years run there in December.) As the disco period dawned, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager became the new owners of the club, before selling it and moving to New York City to open Studio 54. The club went through a few more name changes over the years (the Avalon, Boston-Boston, Metro, Citi) before becoming the current House of Blues.
The Dead’s three-night stand there, just a month after the band finished recording its third studio album Aoxoamoxoa, is beloved by fans of the “primal era.” Joe Kolbenschlag, writing for Glide Magazine‘s “Steel Cut Oats” series, sets the scene:
“Unlike with New York’s Fillmore East, the Grateful Dead had yet to establish a solid home base in Boston – up until these three incredible nights, they had only played one other set of shows in the area occurring in late ’67. The lack of a core community in Beantown was made clear before the band kicks off the first night’s set. The crowd was treated to a 5 second ho-hum intro of the group simply as ‘some guys from the West Coast’. Two mind-bending shows later, and before the final night began, the same announcer sheepishly addressed the crowd with one of the most appreciative, stoned, and over-excited intros I’ve ever heard [“the best fucking rock and roll band in the whole world”] – the band had clearly transformed mere ticket holders into legit fans in just a few nights.
Keep in mind, at this point of their career; they were still playing 75% of their gigs in their home state of California. These shows illustrate how they began to slowly build their East Coast fan base – moving from town to town and always leaving them wanting more. The Grateful Dead would never play The Ark again, but would eventually find two long-term Boston homes, first with the Boston Music Hall lasting through the early ’70s and into their post-hiatus years, until eventually growing into the famed Boston Garden which would stand along such other larger indoor venues as Nassau Coliseum, Landover’s Capital Centre, and of course, Madison Square Garden as the most popular – but not always the most accommodating for fans – touring spots on the East Coast.”
At the time, the Dead were still a septet with Tom Constanten on keyboards. That, apparently, gave more leash to Pigpen, as Globe correspondent Steve Morse recently remembered:
“My memory is hazy about which night I was there, but it was an extraordinary introduction. I vividly recall that Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, the Dead’s hard-living organist, fell off the stage during ‘Turn on Your Love Light.’ His bandmates didn’t seem surprised, and kept playing while a roadie dusted ’Pen off before he crawled up to finish the song. I fell in love with the group’s fortitude right there. The Globe’s Bud Collins, later an award-winning sportswriter, wrote in his review that the band ‘was loud enough to melt the ears.’ Of course, as a head-banging college student, that’s what I loved about them.”
The music speaks for itself, but I asked LN’s very own ECM to point us toward the higher highlights. (Full disclosure, he compiled most of the information for this post.)
On 4/21/69, he recommends Hard to Handle (with Garcia on slide guitar), The Eleven, and Viola Lee Blues. Additionally, he notes that the first Deadhead Tapers Compendium has this blurb about that show:
“WOW! From the moment it walks out on stage, this band breathes fire like a two-tailed dragon. The pinnacle of the show is witnessed during the great exploratory jams throughout Dark Star and The Eleven, which just keep on building. Note the long Lovelight during which Jerry plays bluesy slide guitar – very hip. An obstinate East Coast crowd refuses to let the Dead leave the stage without an encore. The band members, obviously tired, drag their dragon tails back out on stage to deliver a Viola Lee that, despite a slow start, builds to a ferocious climax.”
On 4/22/69, ECM recommends Mountains of the Moon and its gorgeous transition jam into an all-time great Dark Star that features a Caution Jam, as well as a legendary Death Don’t Have No Mercy.
The Tapers Compendium description:
“Early in this recording Garcia says, ‘we’re going to do some short old stuff, or some old stuff anyway, something you know, since we’re the only one’s here, we can do anything we want, anything, absolutely anything, so if you think of anything weird enough for us to do, we’d be more than delighted to do it, perhaps, perhaps.’ OK. Howzabout a fearsome Other One? Perhaps a haunting rendition of Mountains of the Moon played first on acoustic guitar complete with jam, which segues directly into a fully electric Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Lovelight just like Live Dead? Well, that’s indeed what Garcia felt like playing. This is a pretty good example of the Dead on the verge of adolescence about to ascend to a greater maturity. It’s refreshing to go back and check this out once in a while. The energy is high and you can tell that the band is on to something and knows it.”
On 4/23/69, ECM recommends the Intro > He Was a Friend of Mine, the St. Stephen > It’s A Sin > St. Stephen segment, and the The Eleven > Alligator > Caution segment – fantastic jams throughout including a And We Bid You Goodnight/Going Down the Road Feeling Bad “Coda” Jam. The Tapers Compendium’s description of that show is both lengthy and enthusiastic:
“He was a Friend of Mine opens the show with a down-home flavor. Yet it’s a tad deranged and – wanting more of this – the boys sense they need to spread out: thus, Dark Star. This one is hard to describe: the darn thing moves sideways and is unpredictable. The band is so linked up that even a slight hint by someone immediately gets a response and leads to a new direction. Right after the first verses are sung, the earth feels like it’s cracking open, torn fiercely apart by a huge gust of energy from the band. It’s a mighty blow that comes out of nowhere and epitomizes the Steal Your Face logo. I felt stunned before I started laughing out loud by myself.
Things calm down suddenly and a new space emerges. Lesh takes the helm and wraps himself around the music like a boa constrictor working its prey: squeeze and release, squeeze harder and release…over and over with precise increments in pressure. Assorted crevices are dutifully explored with great zeal. Finally, after twenty-five minutes, the band goes into St. Stephen. But a reel flip cuts it after after only two minutes and the music returns for the end of It’s A Sin. This zooms straight into a rockin St. Stephen Reprise.
The Other One is elevated by some superb tandem drumming that pounds relentlessly throughout this scorching version. During the Cryptical reprise, following the last wail of ‘he had to die-uh-uh’ the drummer nail their skins 1..2 with all their strength – and on the third beat the rest of the band explodes. Then they repeat this three more times: one, two, ka-boom. Ity’s savage. The Dead have fiddled with this sequence before but never to such a tremendous and exhilarating effect.
Lovelight, though briefer than the previous two nights (only fifteen minutes here!) is flawed and full of juicy, well-roasted Pig. the band backs him up snugly and even manages more off and creative jamming behind him. It’s hard to believe the show’s only half over.
The heat continues as the Dead deliver outstanding version so Dew, Hard to Handle and Rag to start the second set. Alligator brings wild applause. Following the drums, the boys do their ‘na na na na na’ Burn-down-the-Fillmore thing to delight of the crowd further. Then it’s off to jam heaven. First, a Caution jam spiced with an Other One flavor shoots out of the gate. Then T.C. squeezes out a familiar signal during a pause. The drummers catch it right away and begin the offbest pattern of The Eleven. Everyone joins in, although it starts out hesitantly. Soon, though, it builds into a swift, solid version. After singing the first verses, Garcia starts playing strange, out-there notes. The band follows suit and they all abandon The Eleven for a free jam. Garcia slips in a Goin Down The Road Feelin Bad coda, denying Phil’s Caution teases. But then Garcia seems to say, ‘Well, all right,’ and almost storms into Caution, reaches a peak…and then plays the coda again. Then he simply wails, building to another pre-Caution flurry, but drops back down again, leading the band into more free jamming. Some noodling follows this. Then – utter chaos. Monster belches. While everyone’s distracted, Garcia slips into a genuine Caution right under their noses. Phil rolls into it big time.
Pig struts to the mike with his obligatory ‘gypsy woman’ rap. Weir joins in for some yelping on the ‘All you need’ rap. Then Garcia and Lesh chime in for some wild yelling of ooohs and ahhhs. Fun, fun, fun. As Pig yells, ‘Just a touch,’ the band melts the stage with a feedback-driven electrical storm. Caution climbs back up yet again. This time it goes faster, faster, faster-doo doo doo doo dooo BOOM!”
If that’s too much hippie blather to swallow, ECM’s 2012 31 Days of the Dead project featured the He Was a Friend of Mine opener. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote about it:
“On the heels of two sensational shows, the Dead wrap up their three-night stint at the Ark with an epic blowout performance. Cries of ‘Speech!’ and ‘Hear, hear!’ from the stage begin. This leads to what is arguably the band’s best introduction ever. After [such a] passionate introduction it would only seem logical that the band would charge right into a well-known rocker like St. Stephen, Not Fade Away, or Hard To Handle. Wrong! The band was too young and smart-assed to engage in such predictable behavior. Instead, they did the opposite by easing into ‘He Was A Friend of Mine’ – an obscure, mellow traditional folk song that had been performed only a handful of times. The choice makes perfect sense if you think about the Grateful Dead’s history with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Seizing the opportunity to pull a prank, the Dead were not going to let this poor guy off the hook that easy for his blunder. Pranks aside, this long, folky opener is pure gold with beautiful three-part harmonies and stellar guitar work by both Jerry and Bobby. I always thought that this song was the inspiration for ‘Attics of My Life’ which was recorded for American Beauty in 1970. This run of shows from the Ark is the crème de la crème for 1969. Where is the official box set?”
Hear, hear. And thanks as always, Ed.
For 4/21/69, transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the soundboard recording HERE.
For 4/22/69, transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the soundboard recording HERE.
For 4/23/69, transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the soundboard recording HERE.