Monday, November 7, 2011

The Grateful Dead visit the Old West - Harding Theatre 11/7/71

I thought I would take the opportunity of the 40th anniversary of this show to reflect on the first time I saw the ‘new’ Grateful Dead. After the summer shows, press reports indicated that Pigpen had taken ill and would have to stay off the road for awhile. Rumors were that the band had brought in a new guy as a replacement, who of course proved to be Keith Godchaux. For the first local shows with Keith, the band chose a relatively unique setting – the 500 seat Harding Theater, located in San Francisco’s Divisadero District. A somewhat decaying movie palace that still maintained some of the elegance of yore, the Harding had apparently become somewhat of a hangout for Garcia, as he played there for sure on September 23 (with the New Riders) and possibly on September 10 with Merl Saunders and perhaps even on September 3,4 with the Dead (no confirmation of these latter shows exists other than a calendar listing in the Berkeley Barb, but I tend to concur with JGMF that they may well have occurred, as an audition of sorts for keyboard player Howard Wales).

By this time, the Dead’s local shows were mostly either at Winterland or, occasionally, at the Berkeley Community Theater, so the Harding was indeed a tiny venue for the band. I learned of the 11/7 show the afternoon of the gig, via an announcement on KSAN that indicated that tickets would go on sale at, if I remember correctly, 2 PM (they had also played at the Harding the night before). My long suffering father and I drove up to the city and joined maybe a dozen or so people in line by probably 1:30. Just after two, someone from the band showed up to open up the box office for the theatre, and started selling tickets, collecting the money in one of those little metal cashboxes which was notable for me as the first time I saw the skull and lightning bolt insignia that became so ubiquitous shortly thereafter. With a 500 seat capacity and a two buck cover, the show wasn’t likely to be a big cash night for the band at the door, but it was presumably underwritten to some extent by Warner Brothers, who were sponsoring radio broadcasts in most of the cities on the band’s fall tour, including the 11/7 broadcast on KSFX. At any rate, we collected our tickets, drove back to Palo Alto for awhile, and returned to the show with Mike K., a family friend who had just started at Stanford that fall.

When we got back to the theatre, probably 630 PM, tickets were still available, and we easily got some nice seats stage left about halfway back. The setup in the theatre was pretty loose – there was no real division between the backstage area and the stage proper, and band members and crew were wandering about. What was apparent right off the bat was that the sound was going to be pretty different, as evidenced by Godchaux’s imposing grand piano on the left side of the stage.

Contrary to popular wisdom and convention of the day, the New Riders did not open the show. Instead, the Dead played two long sets – certainly the longest show just by the electric Dead that I had heard up to then. As they were tuning up, Garcia and Lesh waxed academic, with Jerry positing “If you are sitting at home listening to this at home, you’re hearing the sound faster than if you’re in the hall” and Lesh saying “I’d say that was about 432 cycles” to Weir’s howling into the mics.”

After a solid opening tune, “Truckin’” , Weir announced “You’ll all be appalled to learn that our monitors just went out and we just don’t know what to do. That means we don’t have the foggiest idea of what we are doing up here.” Lesh said “This probably isn’t even going out on the radio, so why worry” (it was...).  After some more bantering (including a failed attempt by Bill Kreutzmann to get Weir to do a trick with his dog Otis), the monitors were restored and the group played the first of many songs that night that were new to my ears – the gritty Americana ballad “Brown Eyed Women,” followed by a raucous “Beat it On Down the Line.”

At this point, the monitors went out again, and the band finally chose to whip out a nice, letter perfect version of the surf guitar instrumental “Hideaway, ” written and originally recorded by one of Garcia’s principal electric guitar influences, Freddy King, with new guy Keith Godchaux following the changes flawlessly.

With the monitors restored, the band went right into “Sugaree.” Although the band had been playing it since late July, this Garcia/Hunter lament to a lost lover was still pretty fresh. Next up was another pair of brand new tunes, Weir and Hunter’s masterful cowboy opera “Jack Straw” and an uptempo reading of Garcia and Hunter’s infectiously sing-songy “Tennessee Jed,” built on one of those inimitable Garcia guitar arpeggios. On the radio broadcast, Godchaux’s piano was prominent in the mix the whole night, and it was truly impressive how well he had integrated into the subtleties of the group dynamic – making strong melodic and rhythmic contributions without overplaying his hand. Hearing his mastery of the complex and vast repertoire, it was hard to believe that he had auditioned for the band a scant six weeks earlier. 

Back on more familiar ground, the group extended their old west motif with “Cumberland Blues,” “El Paso,” and “Big Railroad Blues” before pulling out another new one – the beautifully existential Garcia/Hunter lament “Comes A Time.” The set wrapped up with two new Weir tunes – yet another cowboy ballad with “Mexicali Blues” and “One More Saturday Night” which he prefaced with “Boy are you guys gonna love this!”

After a generous break, Garcia started set two with yet another of the font of new songs, “Ramble On Rose,” followed by Weir’s tribute to Janis Joplin with Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Next it was back to the barroom for “Loser,” followed by a curious placement for “Sugar Magnolia,” yet to achieve its customary set closing position. A generous jam started with the first live version I had heard of “Dark Star” which led into an “Other One” sandwich with yet another cowboy ballad, “Me and My Uncle,” making up the filling. A broken string brought the jam to a premature end.

Next up was the second Garcia/Hunter card tune, “Deal” which features one of Garcia’s neatest chord progressions. Although the hour was drawing late, the band played on, with another set of shortish tunes: “Brokedown Palace,” a relatively concise “Playing in the Band,” and “Casey Jones” before heading into the home stretch with the era’s traditional set closing “Not Fade Away>Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad >Not Fade Away” raveup.  It was well past midnight, so we hit the road after the first encore of Johnny B. Goode. However, the rest of the crowd was more persistent, and was rewarded (after a very long bout of clapping) with a lilting “Uncle John’s Band” to close out a remarkable evening of music.

My mother managed to tape the show for us back at the ranch, and I must of listened to the tape of this show dozens of times in the era when few such live shows were available. Replete with strong versions of some of Garcia and Hunter’s very best tunes, this remains one of my favorite Dead shows, and it was a pleasure to slip it on to relive that evening that, incredibly, was four decades ago.  

For another take on this show from the Dead Listening Guide (and a link to a streaming audio file) go here.

1 comment:

Corry342 said...

This is a fascinating description. I had no idea that the Harding Theater was so small. If it seated 500 and tickets were $2, the house must have just barely covered expenses.

More and more I think the band was considering using Harding Theater as some sort of clubhouse/rehearsal hall/public space. I have a feeling that what got in the way was actually parking, which is difficult there today and probably was back then as well.