Monday, June 27, 2011

Miles Davis and the Dead 4/10/70

The next round of shows the Grateful Dead played at the Fillmore West represented one of Bill Graham’s most legendary bookings, the inspired pairing of the band with Miles Davis’ electric band. At the time, Davis was at somewhat of an artistic and commercial crossroads. After a few years of touring with an acoustic quintet that had comprised pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter,  bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. During 1968-70, this group gradually unraveled as Carter, Williams, Hancock, and Shorter left one by one to pursue their own careers.  Davis was also gradually moving into an electric band configuration in performance, amplifying his trumpet and utilizing electric keyboards and bass. On his two 1969 albums,  Filles de Killiminjaro and In a Silent Way, Davis had started incorporating musicians like bassist Dave Holland, keyboardist Chick Corea, and guitarists George Benson and John McLaughlin and had moved from fairly conventional compositions into pieces that were more open ended, evoking a mood or a groove rather than the more traditional construct of stating a theme, following it with a series of solos, and resolving back to the theme at the end.

Miles Davis and Band Fillmore West 4/10/70
L-R (Airto, Dave Holland, Miles, Chick Corea)
Photo: M. Parrish
Davis’ Fillmore West dates came close on the heels of the release of his groundbreaking double LP Bitches Brew, which represented another big artistic leap for the trumpeter. Aggressive and dominated by rock rhythms and electric instruments, the album became Davis’ best seller and brought him before young, white audiences in a way his earlier work had not.  The band that Davis brought into the Fillmore West, comprising Corea, Holland, soprano sax player Steve Grossman, drummer Jack Dejohnette , and percussionist Airto Moreira, was fully versed in this new music, and stood the Fillmore West audiences on their ears. Davis described this in his 1989 autobiography (p. 302):

“After Bitches Brew,  Clive Davis put me in touch with Bill Graham, who owned the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in downtown  New York. Bill wanted me to play San Francisco first, with the Grateful Dead, and so we did. That was an eye-opening concert for me, because there were about five thousand people there that night, mostly young, white hippies, and they hadn’t hardly heard of me if they had heard of me at all. We opened for the Grateful Dead, but another group came on before us. The place was packed with these real spacy, high white people, and when we first started playing, people were walking around and talking. But after a while, they all got quiet and really got into the music. I played a little of something like Sketches in Spain and then we went into the Bitches Brew shit and that really blew them out. After that concert, every time I would play out there in San Francisco, a lot of young white people showed up at the gigs.”

Davis had actually played for Graham a few weeks before at the Fillmore East,  on a bill with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and headliner Steve Miller. Davis discusses his lack of enchantment with Miller and his music in his autobiography (p. 301), and he risked Bill Graham’s ire by showing up late every night so he got to close out each show. 

Davis had a much better rapport with the Dead, and particularly Jerry Garcia (P. 302):

Jerry Garcia 4/10/70
Photo: M. Parrish
“ was through Bill that I met the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia, their guitar player, and I hit it off great, talking about music – what they liked and what I liked- and I think we all learned something. Jerry Garcia loved jazz, and I found out that he loved my music and had been listening to it for a long time. He loved other jazz musicians, like Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans. “

In Dennis McNally’s Dead history A Long Strange Trip (p; 366), he discussed the impact Davis had on Garcia:  “Years later, Garcia would say he learned from Davis’ music the concept of ‘open playing. I got part of that from Miles, especially the silences. Nobody plays better holes than Miles, from a musician’s point of view,  anyway. In Indian music they have what you call  the ‘unstruck,’ which is the note you don’t play. This has as much value as the stuff you do play.’”

Playing with Davis had a profound impact on all the members of the Dead. Phil Lesh discussed his own reaction in his autobiography, Searching for the Sound (pp. 177-78):

Phil Lesh and Bob Weir 4/10/70
Photo: M. Parrish
“..we played a four night stand at the Fillmore West, where we re faced with the unenviable task of following the great Miles Davis and his most recent band, a hot young aggregation that had just recorded the seminal classic Bitches Brew. As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape,  trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking What’s the use. How can we possibly play after this? We should just go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.  This was our first encounter with Miles’ new direction. Bitches Brew had only just been released,  but I know I hadn’t yet heard any of it. With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. In some ways it was similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas – and seemingly controlled with an iron fist, even at its most alarmingly intense moments. Of all of us, only Jerry had the nerve to go back and meet Miles, with whom he struck up a warm  conversation. Miles was surprised and delighted to know that we knew and loved his music, apparently other rockers he had shared it with didn’t know or care.”

McNally (p.365) also described the reaction of the Dead’s two percussionists: ‘Totally embarrassed’ to be asked to follow,  Kreutzmann recalled that ‘we played really free, loose’ afterward ‘but I couldn’t get Miles out of my ears.” Mickey Hart’s strongest reaction was understandably to percussionist Moriera, who he characterized accurately as “crawling around on the floor foraging for instruments.”

Prior to the announcement of these historic shows, I had picked up Bitches Brew on the day of its release. My dad had bought In A Silent Way the previous year, and I was entranced by its modal tranquility and the layering of acoustic and electric instruments.  As anyone who has heard it knows, Brew is a different beast entirely- aggressive, more open-ended, and stretched generously over two LPs. The cover was equally striking, with its brightly colored and mysterious painted collage with African themes.  After repeated playings, I was still trying to digest what Miles had wrought on these discs when the word came out of the Miles/Dead pairing. I knew that I had to get to one of the shows.

As had became somewhat habitual,  I ended up going on Friday night, this time with my brother and my dad. As Davis described in his autobiography, the Fillmore West was pretty full, and populated by the customary urban/suburban, primarily Caucasian audience. The poster listed a four act roster, but I have no memory of Scottish progressive rockers Clouds playing. I do remember well the set by the other Scottish group listed on the poster, Glasgowegians Stone the Crows. Their stock in trade was the heavy blues so popular in the UK at the time, and featured the remarkable vocals of Maggie Bell, who elicited apt and favorable comparisons to Janis Joplin at the time. 

Steve Grossman, Dave Holland, Miles
Photo: M. Parrish
As was billed on the poster, Miles’ group came on next, with the Dead closing out each of the four nights. Davis had run afoul of Bill Graham during his Fillmore East run in March, where he showed up late enough each night that  billed headliner Steve Miller had to play first, with Miles’ group closing out the night. Either some agreement with Graham or Miles’ rapport with the Dead resulted in him showing on time for the Fillmore shows. I do not remember a particularly long break between Stone the Crows and Davis, but the mood in the hall shifted dramatically from a mundane Friday at the Fillmore to deepest Africa when Davis and his band took the stage and started playing.  On the darkened stage, Davis stood front and center. He played more at these shows than he did later in his career, and faced the audience although, in typical Davis fashion, barely acknowledging their presence.  Davis’ attack was muscular and direct, but he had not as of yet adopted many of the electronic effects that would characterize his sound during the 1970s. Sharing the front stage with Davis was relatively new recruit Steve Grossman, whose piercing explorations on alto saxophone were an essential component of Davis’ “Fillmore” bands.

Much of the textural color of the music came from the electric Fender Rhodes piano of Corea, who had been with Davis since Herbie Hancock left in the summer of 1968.  Holland, at Davis’ bequest, had temporarily abandoned his trademark standup bass for a Fender electric, and kept the pulse of the music flowing organically in tandem with the sturdy drumming of DeJohnette.  Relatively new to mainstream jazz at the time, Holland has developed into one of the idiom’s best respected and most creative bandleaders and composers.

Airto, Dave Holland, Miles, Chick Corea
4/10/70. Photo: M. Parrish
Like Mickey Hart, I was drawn to Moreira during the band’s set. The percussionist indeed was seated on the floor, and had at hand an arsenal of exotic hand percussion instruments that he rattled, squeaked, and shook to produce a mélange of exotic sounds. For the time, the hirsute and methodical Moreira’s percussion was several notches in strangeness above the weirdest stuff that Hart was able to generate in the Dead at the time, and it was no surprise that the two have ended up collaborating on percussion adventures throughout their subsequent careers.

Miles’ sets drew heavily from the just released Bitches Brew (“Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” “Bitches Brew,” “Spanish Key,” and “Sanctuary”) along with bits of In A Silent Way (“It’s About That Time”), some as yet unreleased tunes (“Directions,” “Willie Nelson”), a snippet of the ballad “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and Davis’ regular closing coda (“The Theme”)  all stitched together into one uninterrupted set.

Davis’ remarkable Friday evening set has been known to tape collectors since shortly after the show.  A soundboard recording of the show was broadcast on Berkeley radio station KPFA shortly after the shows. Much later,  an edited version of the show was released by Sony in Japan, and later in the states, as the album Black Beauty.  In addition to this release, soundboard recordings of the other three nights circulate among Miles aficionados, giving a full perspective on Davis’ repertoire at the time (Ironically, the notoriously well archived Dead’s own performances from the run are much more incomplete, with only the Sunday night set known as a complete soundboard recording).

Garcia, Lesh, Weir, and Pigpen 4/10/70
Photo: M. Parrish
When the Dead finally came on, it was close to midnight, and the audience had been somewhat pummeled into submission by Davis’ powerful juju. As has been their wont since, the Dead built the intensity of their set slowly, staring out with short tunes: “Cold Rain and Snow,” “New Speedway Boogie” and “Mama Tried.” After the reliable “China Cat Sunflower> I Know You Rider medley,  Pigpen stepped out front for a dynamic version of “Hard To Handle,” followed by “Casey Jones.”

At that point in the set, the Dead’s equipment crew were called on to rearrange the stage, setting up microphones adjacent to two folding chairs that Garcia and Weir used for a brief acoustic set. The Dead were no strangers to acoustic music, having bluegrass, folk, and jug band backgrounds, and the group had launched many of their late sets the previous year starting with acoustic guitars, shifting over to electric after a pair of subdued tunes, usually Dupree’s Diamond Blues and “Mountains of the Moon.” The first acoustic mini-sets took place at the end of 1969, once at the old Fillmore and once in Dallas, when one or more band members were late to the shows.  In January, the band did the bulk of a show acoustically in New Orleans when they experienced equipment failure, and they started introducing pre-meditated acoustic sets at the band’s legendary mid-February run at the Fillmore East.

Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia 4/10/70
Photo: M. Parrish
For the acoustic set I saw, the two guitarists were accompanied by Lesh on very subdued electric bass and Mickey Hart on drums. They played half a dozen songs – new pieces like “Candyman” and “Friend of the Devil” bound for American Beauty,  the Workingman’s Dead songs “Black Peter” and Uncle John’s Band,” and old standby “Deep Elum Blues.” The biggest surprise was an upbeat but ragged cover of the Everly Brothers tune “Wake Up Little Suzie.” The acoustic sets would be expanded and refined throughout the year, but there was nothing like seeing one for the first time.

Pigpen 4/10/70
Photo: M. Parrish
After more equipment rearrangement, the second electric segment began with Pigpen’s soulful rendition of the James Brown chestnut “It’s a Man’s World,” which proved to be a perfect vehicle for the group to stretch out. Newly added to the repertoire for this run, the band apparently played it each of the four nights. Sadly, the song’s tenure in the band was brief, with its last appearance at the group’s September stand at the Fillmore East.  They continued with another song that allowed for open-ended playing, a long, upbeat rendition of “Dancin’ in the Streets.” At the end of another Workingman’s Dead tune, “High Time,” the official curfew time of 2 AM was approaching. Without skipping a beat, the Dead entered into the longest, most intense version of the “Alligator>Caution” medley I ever heard. As Garcia,  Lesh, and Weir explored the tricky improvisational waters, they appeared to be finally digesting the lessons that Davis’s band had posed to them earlier. Playing on and on, the band thumbed their collective noses at the Fillmore curfew. Unfortunately, I encountered a curfew of my own, as I was literally dragged from the floor of the Fillmore out onto Market just as the band was exploring the “We Big You Goodnight” theme instrumentally, much as they did later in the “Not Fade Away”/”Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” sandwich. I learned later from another attendee that the band reached the vocal portion of “We Bid You Goodnight” after another quarter hour or so.

Miles and the Dead. A pairing for the ages. Sadly, the Fillmore West run was the only time the two shared a stage. God Bless Bill Graham…

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Buffalo Springfield at the Fox Theatre, 6/1/11

Until this year, I had never spent over $100 for a regular, non-benefit concert ticket. However,  I decided to bite the bullet for the chance to see the first full show in 43 years by the reunited Buffalo Springfield in the intimate confines of Oakland’s Fox Theatre.

The beauty and coolness of this venue can’t be overstated.  Located  at the junction of Telegraph Avenue and Broadway in downtown  Oakland, the art-deco movie palace has been fully restored and is now booked for concerts by Another Planet Entertainment,  a group of former Bill Graham Presents employees that have set the gold standard for concert promotion in the Bay Area today.  All of the employees I have dealt with there are friendly, relaxed, and helpful, and it comes across as a welcoming venue rather than a place that crowds in as many people as it can without much regard to the comfort of the patrons.

The interior of the theatre is simply stunning, with a vaguely Arabic theme featuring two enormous gold idols with red eyes flanking the stage, which is flanked with intricate gold scrolling. With a capacity of 2800, the theatre is unusually intimate,  and it features such welcome amenities as truly comfortable seats,  a bar and restaurant downstairs, and an immaculate cleanliness and tidiness often missing from such vintage venues.

The show was opened, as will be the case throughout the brief Springfield tour, by the acoustic duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Their brief set alternated between Welch originals like “Time the Revelator” and traditional country blues tunes like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” The duo’s harmonies and Rawling’s athletic lead guitar went down very well with the crowd,  the bulk of whom (at least from my vantage point in the front of the mezzanine) appeared to be eligible for membership in the AARP.

The stage set for the show also deserves comment. Behind the amps was a huge edifice consisting of six columns that supported a large “Buffalo Springfield” sign flanked by two life size and vividly three-dimensional images of the steam roller that spawned the group’s name,. When the lights went down, the fields between the columns became a field of lights vividly mimicking a starry night.  Onstage, the group’s relatively modest amplifiers were joined by the cigar store Indian that has been a familiar fixture at Neil Young concerts over the years and a large Tiffany lamp that lit a vintage upright piano on stage left.

As noted earlier in this blog, I had a chance to see the reunited Springfield at last fall’s Bridge concerts. For that reason,  the edge might have been taken off of the anticipation I felt when Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and Young bounced onstage together to kick off the show with “On The Way Home.” As thrilling as the Bridge sets were,  though, this show was an entirely different animal – the reunited group playing their first full show with electric instruments in  over four decades. As on the album version of the tune,  Furay, at center stage, took the lead vocal,  with Stills and Young providing sublime harmonies.
Stills took the lead on the next tune,  “Rock and Roll Woman,” with Furay and Young sharing a single microphone for the harmonies.  Stills’ performances have been hit or miss over the years, but he has not looked this good or played this well consistently since the 1970s. The formerly chubby guitarist is down to fighting weight and was sharply dressed in a black shirt and blazer.  Stills and Young always seem to bring out the best in one another instrumentally, and the pair played off one another brilliantly all night, most notably on a supercharged version of “Mr. Soul” late in the show. 

After a brisk run through another chestnut, “Burned,” Young welcomed the crowd, saying “We’re the Buffalo Springfield – we’re from the past.” Young served as the wisecracking emcee most of the night, later recalling Nixon secretary Rosemary Woods and wondering about the ’44 year gap” in the Springfield’s touring history. When he introduced “I Am a Child” he remarked on the cover of the last, posthumous Springfield album, which had him looking in the opposite direction of the other band members.  In response to that cover, which symbolized his defection from the group, he said, with evident regret,  “that was bad – we shouldn’t have done that – an error.”

The rhythm section,  comprising Young’s first call bassist Rick Rosas and long-time CSN drummer Joe Vitale, did a fine, unobtrusive job of keeping the tunes together.  Versions of some tunes, like “Hot Dusty Roads” were faithful to the recorded versions while others, notably a slow, grungy take of “Hot Dusty Roads” for which Young brought out his mainstay guitar,  the hot-rodded Les Paul known as Old Black.  For the letter-perfect version of Furay’s soft ballad “Kind Woman,” Young  churned out some honky tonk licks on the upright piano.

At one point, Young cracked, “We only know 10 songs,” but actually they played eighteen over the span of an hour and a half. Late in the show, the group dipped into its back catalogue for a few obscurities, including Furay’s “My Kind of Love,” which remained unreleased until the 2001 box set, and a slow, simmering version of Stills’ Everybody’s Wrong” from the first Springfield album.  The set wrapped up with the inevitable “Bluebird,”given a sparkling new arrangement and providing fodder for some more guitar pyrotechnics.  After a group stage bow, the group left the stage, Young’s arm slung companionably around Stills’ shoulder. 

The three song encore offered more surprises, starting with what is probably the first live version of Young’s cinematic “Broken Arrow,” with Stills playing piano and Young softly playing the clarinet coda from the album on guitar. “For What Its Worth” has not always been delivered well live, but Stills nailed it this time. The night ended with the only song not from the Springfield canon per se, an over –the-top version of “Rocking in the Free World” with soaring three part harmonies and Young and Stills alternating lead vocals.

At the end of the day, the show offered pretty much everything a Springfield fan might want out of a show. Clearly Stills, Young, and Furay seem to be enjoying one another’s company, and the acid test will be whether they choose to extend the franchise into the twenty first century by producing new material. Whether they do or not, these reunion shows should make a powerful case for the Springfield being one of the best bands to have emerged in the 1960s.