In Grateful Deadlandia, few songs provided the springboard necessary to launch both the band and the audience into the stratosphere as “Playing in the Band.” To be sure, there were others, like “Dark Star” and “The Other One,” and in the early-mid 1970s, there were many others like “Eyes of the World” and Let it Grow.” But by the mid-1980s and 90s, when I actively saw the band live, the band rarely entered the deeper reaches of space by way of song. In fact, by 1978, the second set of nearly every Grateful Dead concert featured a Drums/Space segment as its centerpiece.
The Space segments usually featured Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia playing random musical improvisations with odd sounds effects and dissonant chord structures. Spacey? Of course, but it was also contrived and obligatory space music targeted toward the acidheads who expected it at each show. I am not complaining; I loved it most of the time, and these segments often had some very interesting musical moments. However, in the old days, long before I saw my first show in 1985, the band would reach these spaces organically and seamlessly out from actual songs.
The purpose of the space jam was two-fold: to freak out the stoned hippies in the audience, and for the band to push musical boundaries by experimenting and collaborating. From the band’s point of view, space jams were akin to much of the jazz of the 1950s and 1960s, like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman, all of whom were huge inspirations to the Grateful Dead. From the audience’s point of view, the sonic weirdness that screamed out from the speakers was a unique brand of music that they could only get from the Grateful Dead. From both points of view, it was an opportunity to take huge risks without any possible knowledge of the music’s outcome.
In the early 1970s, the band would often rotate each night with either “Dark Star” or “The Other One” as their big space jam. By 1972, Playing in the Band began opening up from its original 4 ½ minute song format to include a jam that eventually opened up into a 20-30 minute monster. By 1973 and 1974, it was common for other “normal songs” to develop open endings and become the space jam monster of the evening. Then they went on hiatus, and when they returned in 1976, the monsters were gone. Their shows changed format, “Dark Star” disappeared, and only “The Other One” and “Playing in the Band” remained as regular, albeit shortened, space jam vehicles.
By the time I started seeing The Dead, most of the spacey-ness was gone from their sets outside of the second set Space segments. They played “The Other One” and “Playing in the Band” in regular rotation, but “The Other One” had devolved into a five-minute “normal” song, often played after “Space” as a high-energy return to the normally scheduled music. “Playing in the Band”, however, remained a spacey musical journey, often played as a set-up for the Drums/Space segment, or as a set-up for one of Jerry’s tour-de-forces like “Terrapin Station”, “Uncle John’s Band”, or “China Doll.” By 1983, it rarely exceeded 8 or 9 minutes in length, and almost never broke out of the D minor/F major/B-flat major-seventh melody structure. In other words, most “Playing in the Bands” were rather pedestrian.
Not to say that there were no outstanding versions in that period, but only that those monsters were rare, and almost never compared to the versions from the 1970s. Ask any tape collector or otherwise well-informed Deadhead and they will probably have their own list of unusual and unique versions of “Playing in the Band” that they saw either live, or have on tape somewhere. Still, I think they would agree that in my time frame, most versions were fashioned in a similar mold and not particularly noteworthy.
I would also like to say that I do not think I have ever heard a clunker, either. Even the most pedestrian and least interesting versions that I have heard were still lovely and explored musical boundaries to some extent.
I saw the Grateful Dead 70 times between 1985 and 1994, and in those 70 concerts, the song I heard more than any other was “Playing in the Band.” In 23 of 70 shows, I was blessed with one of the great exploratory jam vehicles in history, and with the exception of only a few, they were all pretty standard without breaking any musical barriers. What I present here is my own list of four and-a-half times that I witnessed greatness from a band that had evolved into playing watered-down jams instead of delving into them beyond their furthest reaches. Without attempting to rank them from favorite to least favorite, or best to worst, I present them in chronological order. The first four are as follows:
1986/05/04, 1988/07/29, 1989/12/27, 1993/05/26
The last entry (the ½) is out of sequence, and is only mentioned as an after thought to the first four. Okay, here goes…
1986/05/04 – Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA
This was Day 2 of a weekend of afternoon shows at the end of my Senior year in high school. I was 17-years old, and this weekend gave me my third and fourth Dead shows. This was also about two and-a-half months before Jerry Garcia fell into his diabetic coma, and in retrospect, one might see the beginnings of his decline during this weekend. Overall, the playing was erratic, but had many highlights. This “Playing in the Band” is the most obvious highlight of the entire weekend.
Clocking in at a total of 15 minutes and 14 seconds, this version of “Playin’” has many moments where it sounds like it is bound to peter out, except that the band continues to build the steam back up again and again. This “Playin’” charges straight out of “Gimme Some Lovin’” without a moment’s pause or even a countdown. It is clear from the first few notes that it is full of energy and destined for greatness.
The song section itself is relatively normal, except for a few well-placed Phil Lesh bass licks at 1:27, 2:11, and 2:18. Another good sign is that they transition back into the third verse after the instrumental break without error, which cannot be said for many other versions of this song from this era.
At 2:48, the jam begins with a Phil Lesh bass lead with Jerry playing his own leads in the background. The band leaves little holes in the tapestry of the song and fills them with a drum roll here, a piano trill there, and with Bobby putting in his own unique guitar lines everywhere in between. At 3:43, Jerry turns on his signature Mutron effect while Bobby adds rhythmic slashing from his Modulus Blackknife guitar, easily the most unique sounding guitar he has ever played.
The band seems to pause for a half-second before they all kick in with a perfectly synchronized and serendipitous lead by Jerry at 4:21. Phil and the Drummers keep a steady and solid rhythm while Jerry continues to lead. At 5:00, the band again begins to build steam as Brent randomly alternates from rhythm to lead on his piano while Bobby persists with odd, snaky sounds from his guitar.
At 6:06, the band again seems to lose the momentum, but they quickly recoup with a well-placed piano attack at 6:20 and a burst of feedback from Bobby at 6:34. At 6:41, the jam becomes dissonant with all members seemingly attacking at once, particularly Brent who plays a run of piano chords that pair nicely with Jerry’s fast leads. At 7:12, this momentum dissipates briefly before building up steam yet again.
At 8:15, the band sounds ready to concede the jam to a new song, which would have made this version of “Playing in the Band” interesting, but not terribly special at all. However, as they continue to noodle, it is clear that nobody has a particular song in mind, and so they build the jam back up with a driving drumbeat at 9:03. At 9:13, Bobby scratches at his guitar strings as if to signal that he is not yet done with this jam, and so the band goes back into the jam at full force at 9:24.
At this point, Phil and the Drummers continue to lead the charge while Jerry builds more energy with his fast guitar licks, and Bobby makes more odd noises with his Blackknife. At 10:47, Jerry hits on a repeating lick and uses it to build even more steam, and the band charges onward with this repeating lick a sort of theme for this section of the jam. At 12:03, Bobby plays at bizarre lick that I have never heard before from him, yet it fits perfectly with what the rest of the jam is doing.
At 12:50, the band winds down again, except this time it sounds like they may actually start another song. Hints of “China Doll” and “Uncle John’s Band” can be heard, but this ultimately leads to more noodling before Bobby once again scratches a driving rhythm on his guitar at 13:06, and the band builds up again. At this point, the band is playing circles around each other; chasing, and taunting each other. You hear a quick drum roll here, Bobby scratches there, and Jerry and Phil throwing leads and riffs into the mix everywhere. This circular jamming builds up to a frenzy starting at 13:20, with Jerry and the drummers playing off of each other at 13:51, and peaking with a literal whip crack from Bobby (somehow) at 14:08. The wind down from that peak at about 14:18, signaling the denouement of the jam, with a wash of feedback, some random noodling, a piano trill, and Bobby getting the last word with a half-second chord as if to say, “Okay, NOW we’re done.”
I have listened to this version of “Playin’” hundreds of times, not only because of the nostalgic factor of having been at this show, but also because I believe it is so unique. I could never tell if they ever really tried to go into another song before giving the stage to the drummers, but only two songs before the Drums segment is rare in any era of The Grateful Dead. I think they just followed the jam where the jam wanted to go and never wanted to force anything else out of it.
1988/07/29 – Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, CA
In my own personal microcosm of the Grateful Dead world, this next version of “Playing in the Band” is unique for two reasons. First, it is the first time that I got to witness The Grateful Dead’s earliest MIDI experimentation. Second, it is the only time that I saw a fully intact “Playin’” complete with its reprise. Usually, “Playin’” would wander off to new worlds before fizzling out into another song or the Drums/Space segment of the show without completing it. If they chose to reprise the official ending of the song, it usually came later in the set after a string of songs, making a “Playin’” sandwich. You can see a good example of this in the previous entry (5/4/86). I believe this show is the only time since 1977 that they played a complete and intact “Playin’.”
The use of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) began with Mickey Hart in 1986, and then Bob and Brent in 1988, and it allowed them to change the sounds of their instruments to replicate other instruments (violins, flutes, or trumpets, for example), or simply to change the tone and timbre of the current instrument. By 1988, The Grateful Dead was slowly entering the digital age.
Considering the inclusion of the reprise, this “Playin’” is not lengthy, clocking in at only 12:17, but it contains a glut of energy and complete universes of space. They broke so far out of the conventional box that most “Playin’s” lay at this time that I think they even surprised themselves. This version is immortalized in the box set, “So Many Roads.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/So_Many_Roads_%281965%E2%80%931995%29
This “Playin’” starts on a standard note, but with lots of energy and early signs of high potential. The song itself is good, with nothing remarkable happening until the instrumental break at 1:38 when Mickey plays some aggressive and fitting drum fills. The jam begins at 2:51 with a nice dominant lead by Phil, in which Jerry comes in later at 3:04 with his Mutron. Phil continues to take the lead, but Jerry begins to creep up to the forefront. Bobby, Brent, and the Drummers hold a steady rhythm as Phil and Jerry duke it out until the 4:19 mark, when Bobby changes from his standard guitar tone to the MIDI tones. Bobby stays in the background, but his new tone marks a change in the jam. It is now clear that this will not be a standard jam. Bobby emphasizes this point with a blast of feedback at 4:52.
At the 5:01 mark, Jerry kicks into overdrive with some heavy distortion and faster playing. As a result, the jam picks up. All six members are kicking into hyperspace and pushing this jam into one direction: up and away! Phil is consistently playing driving bass lines and hits a nice run of notes at 5:22. At about the 5:45 mark, Jerry becomes more dissonant and continues playing full-throttle while Bobby becomes more prominent in the jam with his MIDI tones at 6:01, and then even more at 6:25. At 6:37, Bobby plays a wonderful run of notes that stand out above all the dissonance and driving rhythms.
Jerry’s discordant leads, Bobby’s MIDI licks, and the pounding rhythm continues as the jam builds and builds to higher peaks. At 7:16, Brent builds on this already high level with some aggressive piano, and then things become chaotic at the 7:25 mark. They have reached such a zenith already, it is as if they can no longer make melodic music, and can only climb higher by making their instruments scream and curse. At this point, Jerry and Phil are in the background as the Drummers, Bobby, and Brent completely take control of the jam. By 7:50, the jam is at an almost violent peak, with everyone going wild to the extent that it is almost pure noise.
This continues for another minute as Jerry is just wailing away with his leads, and Brent is smashing his keyboard. Bobby makes his guitar scream, and this cacophonous music is almost indiscernible as they reach a frenzied peak at 8:50. Finally, the jam just collapses in on itself at 9:18. Jerry immediately begins the notes for the reprise as if the last five minutes of bedlam never happened. The rest of the band follows as if this were just another part of the jam, with Phil playing a delightful run of bass notes at the 10:00 mark.
The reprise begins at 10:10, and they complete the song as originally intended some 18 years prior. The transition from the instrumental break at 11:02 is again flawless. “Playin’” ends properly at 12:17, and the Drums segment begins.
Unlike the 1986 Cal Expo version above, this “Playin’” has only one peak reached by a steady climb to the top. They never backed off until they were certain that they got as high as they could with the jam. It was frenetic, high-paced, and noisy, and it was like no other “Playing in the Band” I had ever heard before, or since!
To be continued…