Grateful Dead Live 12/01/79 – A Review

This is something that I was going to start doing a long time ago, but haven’t gotten around to it until now.  I’m going to start doing some reviews of some of my favorite live shows – primarily Dead shows – and will ask that if you have a particularly good show, let me know; I’d be happy to listen to it and give you my opinion. 

To quote Bill Graham, the famous concert promoter, he said of the Dead, “They’re not the best at what they do; they’re the only ones who do what they do”, and in that spirit, these shows that I review may not be THE best shows, but they are shows that have stuck with me and have stood the test of time.

With that said, I’d like to start this series by reviewing one of my favorite shows:  December 1st, 1979 at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, PA (The link for the show is at the bottom of this review, but please read on).  For me, this is the best of that run of year-end shows, but pick anything from the beginning of November up to the New Year’s show, and it’s worth a listen.  There is plenty of energy, the band is on, the sound quality is good, and there is a certain raw edge about the music that just makes it different, and I think the crowd feels it too.  This is one of those shows that looks like many shows from that time period on paper, but turn it on and start listening and you’ll hear the difference.

The first set, though not outstanding or even out of the ordinary features a beautiful and stretched-out ‘Sugaree’ that really takes the song to some new places for me.  The ‘Me and My Uncle>>>Big River’ that follows COOK, and ‘The Music Never Stopped’ really rocks and provides a nice setup for the real jewel of this show:  The second set.

The second set starts off with my all-time favorite ‘China>>>Rider’ combination.  The ‘China Cat Sunflower’ is really upbeat and bounces along with alot of energy, and holds that energy between songs before transitioning into that familiar lick that tips off the ‘I Know You Rider’ to come. 

What makes this ‘China>>>Rider’ transition so wonderful is not just the musicianship – although it IS great – but it is the chemistry working between these guys.  Jerry is right on the money because he’s listening to Phil who’s dropping his bass notes right around Mickey and Billy’s rhythm lines, Bobby’s angular guitar works in thrusts and massages the music into the direction it needs to go, and Brent, who’s only been around a few months now, sounds like a seasoned veteran as his keyboards glisten over the music.

The ‘I Know You Rider’ simply soars.  It is hard driving and unbridled in parts, but has some contemplative and downright quiet passages, especially leading into the “Wish I was a headlight on a north-bound train” verse (by the way, I think the arrangement of the solo before that verse also helps make it superior to its peers).  Jerry really belts out that verse and brings it home, but everyone is really spot-on here.

We get a break now and relax to Phil and Mickey make the sound of thunder for the perfect lead-in to ‘Looks Like Rain’.  Sometimes this is one of those tunes that I could personally do without, but this one is so well-done…  Bobby sounds good and doesn’t over-reach on the vocals which he can have a tendency to do on this one, but for me the thing that seals the deal on this one is the end segment where Brent and Jerry are noodling around and building up the momentum with Bobby matching the intensity with his vocals.  Again, I would have to say that this is one of the best versions of this song I know of. 

Now we get one more break before we start off on our musical journey.  This ‘He’s Gone’ is an extremely relaxed version and tends to drift comfortably along, again with quiet as well as loud passages throughout the song which is a very nice performance but the quiet and soulful “nothing’s gonna’ bring him back” followed by the very spacey section at the end not only foreshadows the musical trip you about to embark  on, but it is a real treat for the ears.  You could hear throughout the month of November that they had been working on this ending but it had not yet clicked the way it does here.

Jerry noodles for a while and allows the music to meander like an old river until Mickey and Billy start speeding things up a bit with Bobby zinging-in with that metallic sounding effect.  The experiment builds a bit and then Jerry flips the switch on his guitar and that warm fuzz starts working, and the boys play around a bit until they build things into a frenetic rhythm punctuated by phil’sbass who moves the rhythm into a hard driving ‘Gloria Jam’.  As far as I know, this is the first of its kind.  What follows is a very strange and trippy segment where Brent works the keys in a most psychedelic way, but somehow it works and the boys are point so they just feel when and where to pull out of the darkness and back into a cohesive jam.

This jam works its way into a nicely paced blues style jam with Jerry warbling notes all over the place and Bobby on the slide.  All of this happens seamlessly as they transition into a new key and into the first ‘CC Rider’.  Bobby sings this better than he would ever sing it again, and what can I say about Jerry and Brent on this one?  Jerry starts out nice and easy but absolutely ends-up shredding, and Brent’s organ break makes me feel like I’m in a church.  They end this one emphatically, and drift right back into the ebb and flow of that background jam that got them here.

Jerry begins his trilling again and the boys build-up a heavy rhythm that works right into the drum sequence of this show, and let me tell you:  It is inspired.  It is roughly 10 minutes of Mickey and Billy playing off of each other and taking this show to new places.  We know where we are going when we begin to hear that all too familiar cadence.

‘Not Fade Away’ materializes out of nowhere and as laid back as it comes on, don’t let it fool you – this one is serious and they mean business.  Brent zaps along with his synthesizer and Bobby slides as Jerry tries to pull it together while Phil is pounding out the bass line and really driving this one with the rhythm section.  One point I always notice in this one is how Brent snatches the first instrumental break from Jerry and really cooks it up, but Jerry will not be outdone and just smashes through the next one, fanning at a blistering pace.  As he wraps-up, we get the fuzz again and work our way back into the jam, and this is a fantastic little sequence that deserves your attention.

This amazing jam rockets into the stratosphere and they slow things down once they  have us all in geo-syncronousorbit and work us down into the most touching ‘Black Peter’ I know.  Jerry sounds so close to the mic and the music sounds so quiet that the crowd must hush to hear it, and I personally think Jerry sounds ‘good’ on vocals – well, you know what I mean by ‘good’:  as in just right for the mood of the song.  Bobby is great on the slide effects that he works throughout the song and the rhythm is right on.  Jerry’s solo is nice too, but the end part has Jerry singing “come and see” and mimicking the refrain on his guitar and it sounds as authentic as ever could:  Soulful and heart-felt.

We then roll out of ‘Black Peter’ into a raucous and hard-driving ‘Sugar Magnolia’ which can be another one of those novelty tunes, but this one is beautiful and Bobby keeps himself in-check.  They stretch this one out a bit and I don’t think anyone minds because it is just like the rest of the 2nd set in terms of the musicianship and creativity, and what a way to end this 2nd set.

‘One More Saturday Night’ is the encore that caps this fantastic and highly recommended show.  Yes, it’s a good performance of the song, but it’s more of a message of thanks to crowd than anything that says, “we had just as good a time as you guys.”

The long and the short of this show is that the 2nd set is what makes it different than most shows (hell, I didn’t even know the 1st set existed on tape until years later), and though it might look the same on paper as other 2nd sets, this one has an energy which is hard to put your finger on it, and it kind of reminds me – I was reading an article the other day and the author cited someone who said that he couldn’t define romantic love, but he could point it out when he saw it – that’s what I mean.  Although I know people will totally disagree with me, for me the sound quality of the performance is great.  I think I said it before, but the vocals sound so close and the instruments are mixed very well and the percussion is well defined.  The thing that really does it though is their use of soft and loud to emphasize mood and gravity, and I think they exhibited this masterfully, and I think this is a nuance that can often be lost on even good audience recordings. 

It really is my favorite show, and I hope you take the opportunity to listen to the show HERE (there are other versions toward the bottom of the page HERE) and then visit the music resources section of our website where we talk about much more than Phoenix real estate.  I hope you enjoyed this review and I can tell you that there will be more, but if you have a show that you would like reviewed, let us know – it’s something we love doing.

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