Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nick vs Fricke, and the art of the Dead show list

Recently there's been two high-profile rankings of top Grateful Dead shows: Nick Paumgarten's top 13 Dead show list on the New Yorker website, and David Fricke's top 20 Dead show list on the Rolling Stone website. They only have one show in common – 2/22/69 – but they share several best-Dead-show-list conventions with each other (and thousands of other best Dead show lists):
Dead show list convention Nick (New Yorker) Fricke (Rolling Stone)
A caveat about the impossibility of actually making a best Dead show list “This isn’t to say that I think these are the best ones. Most of them are warty, in one way or another… Aficionados may prefer a gig a week or two earlier or later, and on some days, I might, too. But I love these. Or parts of them, anyway. So here, in chronological order…is a baker’s dozen: my thirteen essential, commercially ignored—some desert-island Dead.” “Choosing and justifying a list of essential Grateful Dead shows – 20, 200 or even 2,000 – is treacherous work. Passionate challenge from fans, especially hardcore Deadheads and veteran tape traders, is guaranteed. Endless debate over set-list minutiae is inevitable. In fact, there is only one definitive list of the Dead's greatest concerts – and it includes every show they played, in every lineup, from their pizza-parlor-gig days as the Warlocks in 1965 until guitarist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995.”
Use of the word “primal” when talking about a 60’s show Dream Bowl, Vallejo, Calif. 2/22/69 “The Warlocks became the Grateful Dead in 1965, but it took a few years for the band to find a voice. If 1968 was primal psychedelic Dead, 1969 was the apotheosis. There’s too much to choose from, though the set lists don’t vary much. The hall names have a mythical ring…” The Matrix, San Francisco
 12/1/66 “In late 1966, more than a year into their evolution, the Grateful Dead were still in the early stages of their psychedelia: an acid-dance band with bar-band aggression, tripping in its jams but just starting to write and largely reliant on folk and blues covers. These three sets at the Matrix – a club founded by Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin – catch the original quintet in primal, exuberant form…”
Justification of decision not to include Cornell ’77 Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, N.Y. 5/9/77 “On the desert island next to mine, there’s a guy who brought along every show from May, 1977—including his Betty Board of the highly overrated May 8th Cornell gig (which, I’ll concede, features the definitive version of the disco rearrangement of “Dancin in the Streets”). I have room for only one: Buffalo.” Winterland, San Francisco 6/9/77 “For sublime singing, instrumental union and sequencing bravado, there may be no greater sustained run of shows, certainly in the Keith-and-Donna years, than the Dead's spring '77 tour. Highlights are plentiful: Five concerts from one week in late May have come out on archival releases, and the May 8th show at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is often cited in greatest-ever terms. But I keep coming back to this valedictory blast on home ground – the end of a three-night stand and the final gig of the tour – because of the second set.”
Including a show primarily on the merits of it’s Dark Star Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wisc. 2/15/73 “It’s the “Dark Star”-“Eyes of the World” that put Dane County on my life raft… The segue between the two songs, which includes (sin of sins) a bass solo, and then a Garcia-Lesh instrumental duet, and then a dreamy intro to “Eyes,” is like a psalm.” Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia
 10/9/89 “The second Hampton show, issued with October 8th in the 2010 box Formerly the Warlocks, is most notable for the return of "Dark Star" after five years…”
Singling out a show for it’s Phil-and-Bill-ness Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Mich. 12/14/71 “The bass had a chunky tone that you could sit on, the one-drummer setup made the tempo brisk…” Winterland, San Francisco
 3/18/67 “Note the thrilling, slippery surge underneath – bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann pushing and tugging at the beat.”
Acknowledgement of general mediocrity of the 80’s in 80’s show included Greek Theatre, Berkeley, Calif. 7/13/84 “Garcia, often AWOL in 1984, comes to play. The synthy keyboards may frighten off “Alligator” fans, but let’s not forget this was the era of Wham!... You’re not in 1969 anymore, but still, a taste of the old magic.” Civic Center, Augusta, Maine
, 10/12/84 “The Eighties were an uneven decade for the Dead. There was new blood: keyboard player Brent Mydland. But Garcia was in perilous health, and studio recording lapsed after 1980's Go to Heaven… Through it all, the Dead toured as if their survival depended on it – which it always did – and played fondly remembered gigs, often off the beaten track.
Show with a personal connection that might not otherwise be included: Fox Theater, Atlanta 11/30/80 Although Nick doesn’t explicitly mention it, he was a member of a private school club that listened to the second set of this show every day. He just describes it as, “an old cult favorite” – but I have to ask, is this show better than Cornell ’77? Madison Square Garden, NYC 9/14/91 At least Fricke fesses up: “This was my next-to-last night with the Dead … This was not a historic gig. It's a treasured piece of my connection to a band” – but again I have to ask, is this show better than Cornell ’77?

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