Sunday, July 28, 2019

New Year’s Eve with the Grateful Dead –Part 2. Year-end adventures at the Cow Palace

A year before they went on hiatus, the Dead took the opportunity to take a break from doing a New Year’s gig, and so did I. However, Jerry was out and about, and I ended up celebrating virtually with him, Kreutzmann, and Boz Scaggs as they joined the Allman Brothers for part of their marathon set at the Cow Palace, which was generously broadcast on KSAN.  

            1973 had been a good year for the Allmans after a couple of years recovering from the deaths of Duane in 1971 and Berry Oakley in 1972. These two key band members died a year and two weeks apart, both dying from motorcycle collisions a few blocks apart in Macon Georgia. However, by 1973 the band had regrouped, bringing on new bassist Lamar Williams and pianist Chuck Leavell and finishing the album they had begun with Oakley in the fall of 1972. That album, Brothers and Sisters, proved to be the band’s best selling album, featuring a more country-rock infused sound largely due to Betts’ compositions. 

Although Brothers and Sistersdidn’t come out until August, the band toured steadily throughout the year, playing 58 shows in 1973. They shared the stage with the Dead on three occasions – June 9 and 10 at RFK Stadium and then at the huge festival at Watkins Glen that also included the Band and brought a reported 600,000 people to a sports car track in upstate New York. At all of those shows, there was some degree of cross-pollination between the bands, so it was not too surprising that Garcia and Kreutzmann would show up to jam with the Allmans at the Cow Palace.  

After a fairly typical first set heavy on Duane-era Allman Brothers chestnuts, the band returned for a nearly three hour second set that began with much of the material from Brothers and Sistersbefore veering into a long jam session beginning with “Le Brers in A Minor, “the instrumental from the band’s second album that they often paired with “Whipping Post” to close their sets that year.  As “Les Brers” wound down, Garcia and Kreutzmann took the stage and contributed to a long instrumental version of Whipping Post,” with Garcia’s and Betts’ pentatonic licks bouncing off one another and intertwining in increasingly complex configurations.  “Whipping Post” was generally a showcase for Gregg Allman’s impassioned vocals, but he and drummer Butch Trucks sitting out the rest of the show. The tempo shifted dramatically with Boz Skaggs joining in and providing vocals for a set of old tunes including “Linda Lou” and a jammed out version“Hey Bo Diddley,” interspersed with instrumental takes on “Hideaway” and a Blues jam that ended the main set. Following what was apparently an onstage wedding of a couple of audience members, the same ensemble of players wrapped the show up with an instrumental version of “You Don’t Love Me” leading into an ebullient version of “Mountain Jam.” All in all, not a bad way to ring in 1974. Unfortunately, though, the last time Betts and Garcia would share a stage together. 

Possibly encouraged by Garcia and Kreutzmann’s experience with the Allmans, the Dead played the Cow Palace for the first time for the fabled “Sound Test” on March 23, 1974. I’ll discuss this elsewhere. 

At the end of 1974, no one expected a Dead NYE show as the band had gone on hiatus (or possibly retired from touring) in October. Nonetheless, celebrations featuring band members occurred in one (and possibly two) locations. I described the Kingfish NYE bash in Palo Alto here, and Lost Live Dead speculates on the possibility of a Garcia/Saunders New Year’s show at the Keystone Berkeley here

I did not spend NYE 1975 hearing Dead band members, but Garcia did play the Keystone Berkeley that year, the last performance of the initial Nicky Hopkins/Ron Tutt,/John Kahn version of the Jerry Garcia Band, with Weir, Hart, and Matthew Kelly sitting in. The entire performance, warts and all,. has been released as Garcia Live Vol. 5

When the band wrapped up 1976 with their 12/31/76 Cow Palace show, it was the first Dead New Year’s show in four years, and established a tradition of bay area year-end shows that continued unabated until 1991. The Dead played the Cow Palace once before, in March 1974 for the vaunted Sound Test, but this was the first and only time they celebrated New Years at the venerable Daly City landmark. The capacity crowd was typically enthusiastic, but more clearly a hard-core Deadhead assemblage than had been the case at the 1974 Sound Test. 

New Year’s 1976  was a long show, with the Dead’s two sets preceded by an opening performance by Soundhole, a relatively short-lived Marin County group that served as Van Morrison’s backing band for awhile and featured Mario Cipollina (John’s brother and future member of Huey Lewis and the News) on bass. It was the second and last time I saw Soundhole, who opened a show at Winterland for Quicksilver and Little Feat near on 12/28/75 earlier, but I confess that they didn’t make much of an impression on me either time. 

Santana’s set was another story entirely.  In the mid-1970s, Santana was a phenomenal live act, and the band’s hour-long set at the Cow Palace was as exciting and adventurous as any music coming out of the bay area at the time. Starting out as a muscular rock band that deftly balanced rock, Latin music, and blues. After flirting with harder rock in an expanded ensemble including guitar wunderkind Neil Schon, Carlos became a disciple of Guru Sri Chimnoy and moved into more of a jazz-rock focus both in his eponymous band and in collaborations with John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane. While their 1972-74 studio albums took on more of a smooth fusion sheen, the band’s live shows remained incendiary, as evidenced by 1974’s triple live LP Lotus, recorded on a 1973 tour of Japan. By the band’s 1976 album Amigos, Santana had returned to a more song-based approach, with some terrific new material. Usually a headliner, Santana’s second billing at the Cow Palace was one of their rare supporting slots during that era. Other than Carlos, the sole holdover from the classic Santana Band was Jose “Chepito” Areas, rounded out by some mainstays of early 1970s bands like keyboardist Tom Coster and percussionists Raul Rekow and Graham Lear. It also featured some short-lived additions to the group – vocalist Luther Rabb,  percussionist Joel Badie, and bassist Pablo Telez.Possibly knowing that Dead audiences could be a discerning crowd, the band pulled out all the stops for their brief, powerful set. Mixing newer songs like “Let The Children Play” and “Dance, Sister, Dance” with jazz instrumentals including “Europa” and “Every Step of the Way.” All in all, a perfect performance to set the stage for the headliners.

The Dead’s set was arguably one of their finest New Year’s performances, and was justifiably chosen for a commercial release as 2007’s Live at the Cow Palace. Although the Dead’s summer 1976 tour had been relatively low-key, with the band reacquainting themselves with playing as an ensemble, their sets were marked by a raft of new original and cover material, and featured some ingenious juxtapositions of songs. The Dead picked up momentum through the fall tour, where they primarily played either stadiums or arenas, moving towards the consistency and energy that made 1977 such a watermark year for the band. Poised at the precipice of that momentous year, the Dead did not disappoint. For the first time, the band’s first set did not commence at midnight, but closer to 10 PM. The two sets were long and really varied. They opened with the a pair of standard show openers: “Promised Land,” which Healy seemed to usually use to adjust everyone’s levels,  followed by “Bertha.” The heart of the first set was pretty standard stuff – “Mama Tried,” “They Love Each Other” and “Looks Like Rain.” As the last hour of the year ebbed away, the band finished strong with a typically energetic “Deal” followed by 22 minutes’ worth of instrumental explorations within “Playing in the Band” which demonstrated that the Dead weren’t saving all the musical weirdness for the second set. 

Bill Graham’s crew wheeled a huge float through the crowd with a big flower on top as 1977 approached. This was the first show that the band opened the year with “Sugar Magnolia,” - a tradition that Graham pretty much insisted they maintain for the majority of the rest of the Dead’s New Year’s shows. As usual, a balloon drop accompanied the appearance of Graham as Father Time, erupting out of the blooming flower this time. A long and very unusual second set followed, with two long medleys separated by short tunes.  The first emerged out of “Sunshine Daydream” with a lovely, brisk “Eyes of the World” that found Garcia soloing endlessly over Lesh’s low-register thrusts and parries. Next up was “Wharf Rat,” atypically positioned early rather than as the penultimate tune in a jam and featuring some sublime harmonies in the first bridge and a long instrumental coda with more ornate leads from Garcia. After a brief full-stop, the band charged into the first “Good Lovin” since 10/20/74, sung by Weir, but still in the basic arrangement from the Pigpen era. A unique instrumental passage slowly transitioned between the melody and tempo of “Good Lovin” and the next tune, a slow, sensuous “Samson and Delilah.” 

Next up was “Scarlet Begonias,” which had evolved from a fairly short, poppy tune into one that featured another long instrumental coda that clearly anticipated its merger with “Fire on the Mountain” that would appear at Winterland in March.  An energetic “Around and Around” could easily have been a show closer, but this was a night that Jerry wanted to keep playing, and not just treading water, as evidenced by his choice of a rare late-set “Help on the Way” leading into an extra-gnarly “Slipknot.” Rather than going into “Franklin’s Tower (MIA entirely this show), a moody improv passage paved the way for a bass-and-drums exploration, followed by Not Fade Away. This had to be the end of the set, right? Guess again, as Jerry led the band into a letter-perfect “Morning Dew. This possibly one of Garcia’s best performances of that majestic song, both vocally and instrumentally, and is only one of two times the Dead played it at a New Year’s show. 

Presumably because it was now Saturday morning, the first encore was “One More Saturday Night.” The band had been playing for a long time, and it was well into 1977 by the time the adamant crowd coaxed them back for a final pair of tunes, a gentle “Uncle John’s Band” leading directly into a sloppy but soulful “We Bid You Goodnight,” which brought the band’s first post-hiatus touring year to a close, and set the stage for a strong touring schedule for 1977, which many consider their strongest post-hiatus year.