1989/12/27 – Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, CA
This version of “Playin’” is a dark and searching version that reaches a frightening place at the end. In fact, I refer to the last minute of this jam as “Brent’s Death March.” It is also one of the earliest forays into the MIDI world of music from Jerry. Jerry started using MIDI in the late Spring of 1989, but only through a special guitar that he used during the Space segments. By Fall of 1989, he had his old “Wolf” guitar rigged with MIDI, and he used that as his main guitar while his trusty “Tiger” guitar was being properly fitted for the digital age. The “Wolf” essentially had a MIDI pickup strapped on to the guitar and held with electrical tape, but it opened new doors for Jerry to explore his music. I remember a quote from an old interview that I cannot attribute in which the interviewer commented on Jerry’s trumpet sound during his solo on “Ramble on Rose”. The interviewer said that Jerry sounded just like a real trumpet player, to which Jerry replied, “What do you mean? I AM a real trumpet player!” He clearly took these new tones seriously.
This “Playing in the Band” begins sublimely enough with lovely organ fills from Brent before falling into the standard song. The song itself is typical, with high energy and no musical flaws. The instrumental break features fierce drumming from Mickey at 1:35, and the transition back into the song at 1:54 is again flawless.
The jam begins on a spacey note, with no real lead from Jerry or Phil. All six members are quietly jamming as if each member is waiting for someone to set a direction. This actually serves the jam well, as it builds slowly and organically with nobody rushing. These first minutes of the jam are always exciting since no one is quite sure where the jam will go. At 3:07, Jerry clicks on the Mutron while Phil provides tasty lines on the bass and Brent lays down a colorful tapestry on the organ.
At 3:28, Bob starts playing MIDI tones on his guitar, and then Jerry swaps the Mutron for some heavy distortion. At 4:19, Bobby takes on a larger role in the jam while Jerry continues to play faster leads, and Phil and the Drummers continue to play a steady rhythm. The jam begins to build steam as Brent switches to the piano.
At 5:01, Jerry suddenly switches off the distortion and plays clean. Then, just as quickly, he clicks the Mutron back on at 5:20. It is as if Jerry is uncertain of what tones he wants to use at this point. The Drummers and Phil keep a driving beat as the jam lays in a holding pattern, not yet climbing to any visible peak.
As if frustrated at being unable to find the right tone, Jerry uses distortion again, and the first signs of dissonance appear at 5:58. Brent adds to this with an aggressive attack on the piano, and then he gets even more aggressive at 6:15. Before this point, the jam could have remained subtle and musical, but Brent appears to have a vision for this jam, and it sounds as though he wants to bring chaos into the mix. Yet, he holds back at times, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Jerry finally begins his MIDI attack, first with trumpet, quickly followed by flute. Still playing fast runs of notes, Jerry changes the tone of the jam itself just as he has changed the tone of his guitar. At 6:50, Bobby throws in some tasty feedback, and then adds to the momentum of the jam with more indescribable MIDI tones. At 7:05, Brent pounds fills that are more chaotic from his piano as if physically forcing them into the mix.
At 7:24, a brief lull takes us from this chaos back into the jam, as Jerry turns off the MIDI and goes quickly from the Mutron back to the distortion. Brent is subdued temporarily, before the drummers start bringing their boisterousness back into the mix at 7:56. Brent teases and taunts the jam with occasional fills and raucous smashes on the keyboard while Bobby takes his turn at creating chaos in the jam. Phil and Jerry keep cooler heads at this point, keeping some form to this jam.
At 8:20, Bobby begins a psychotic chord sequence that sounds like a different song from a demented parallel universe. At 8:40, things quiet down again. By 8:52, it sounds as though they might begin a new song, but the Drummers, and then Bobby have different plans and wind the jam back up to a chaotic frenzy again. This is the perfect opportunity for Brent to bring the madness he has only hinted at so far in this jam. At 9:09, Bobby begins that psychotic chord structure again while musical anarchy surrounds him from all other members of the band. The jam rises to another manic peak.
At 9:37, the madness starts to subside, but does not let go entirely. Once again, it sounds like the jam might be winding down for good. However, at 10:01, Bobby starts a repeated run of notes that must inspire Jerry to continue, because at 10:16, Jerry comes back first with percussive MIDI sounds, and then with chimes. Brent adds more brief piano attacks at 10:33 before slinking into the shadows yet again.
Phil is oddly missing in the mix at this point, and I cannot tell if he is lost in his own MIDI world, or if he is patiently waiting for the jam either to acquiesce to another song, or to take shape into something less anarchic. Since Phil rarely shows patience when a jam gets into full-on free-form mode, I can only assume that he is MIDI-ing out and that we just cannot hear it in the mess of other sounds.
At 11:10, Brent begins his dark piano riffs, but slowly and patiently builds them into what I refer to as “Brent’s Death March.” During Brent’s pauses, Jerry and Bob continue to noodle away, unwilling to let the jam end. Bill Kreutzman plays some nice drum fills, but by 12:46, Brent takes over with this dark song of his own creation. Jerry plays a lovely arpeggio underneath this before finally starting “Crazy Fingers.”
I have theories as to why this “Playin’” is so dark and at times, violent. But since I really don’t know what goes on in the minds of these wonderful musicians, I do not think it is my place to speculate. I will say that this special “Playin’” just happened to be a part of one of my all-time favorite Grateful Dead concerts ever. Top-10, for sure! The boys were feeling it on this night!
1993/05/26 – Cal Expo Amphitheatre, Sacramento, CA
Okay, this one is a true monster! On the 20th-anniversary of one of the greatest and spaciest Dead shows in history, this jam seemed to pay homage to a different era. The Grateful Dead have never been the type of band to make a big deal about anniversaries, and I have a hard time believing that they even remembered the show at Kezar Stadium twenty years prior. Nevertheless, the fans certainly remembered, and could not help make the connection.
This version gets crazy very early on in the jam, and never lets up. Jerry, in particular, is fierce and determined. I have never heard him play like this before, or since. I do not know (or even want to know) what was going through his mind on this night, but I am glad that whatever it was, it resulted in this magnificent “Playin’.” It was a full band effort, to be sure, but Jerry sets the tone for this jam, and everyone else simply tries to keep up.
I am deconstructing this version of “Playin’” based on the soundboard recording that I have had for years. Since it’s release as “Road Trips Vol.2 No.4”, the soundboard was taken down from the Archive.org site. The link above is from an audience recording, and is tracked and timed differently. I recommend that you just purchase the “Road Trips” recording here…http://www.dead.net/store/1990s/road-trips-vol-2-no-4-call-expo-1993-cd. It’s worth it.
At 18:58, this is easily the beefiest “Playin’” I have ever seen live. Coming out of a lilting “Crazy Fingers” jam, this “Playin’” starts off aggressively with a little extra distortion from Bobby’s guitar, and with Jerry seemingly ripping the introductory notes from his. At 2:43, the jam starts fast and loud with a Phil lead, and Bobby’s rhythm directing the band. Rather than clicking on the usual Mutron, Jerry goes old school at 3:23, and uses his Wah Pedal to manually drive the Wah effect to his liking. He quickly adds distortion and begins playing faster and louder, accentuated by the Wah Pedal. Phil never really stops his lead, even as Jerry takes over the direction of the jam.
At 4:24, there is a brief lull while Jerry tries to find the right tone, and 4:31 Jerry finds a darker, deeper distorted tone, and begins pumping the Wah Pedal to the rhythm of the jam. Bobby plays his usual, mysterious sounding licks behind Jerry’s lead, while the drummers hammer out a steady beat. Vince plays some tasteful licks on his keyboard, but never asserts himself in this jam.
At about 6:00, Jerry is really pumping his Wah Pedal, building the jam higher and higher. 6:50 brings the first signs of dissonance, but the jam continues on the theme created earlier, until at 7:15 the jam builds faster and louder with rapid leads from Jerry.
At 7:50, there is a brief dropout in the jam as is quiets and gathers itself. Jerry switches off the distortion and plays some tasteful leads while Bobby throws in a few odd, snaky licks. The Drummers and Phil are still keeping a steady rhythm, but Bobby, Jerry, and Vince take a breather before building back up again. At 8:46, Jerry returns to his distorted tone and the jam builds back up to a higher level.
At 9:11, the jam becomes chaotic and dissonant. Vince is laying a nice tapestry of keyboard chords and trills, but Jerry and Bobby are creating nervous tension in the jam with their almost angry sounding guitars. Phil now steps out of the steady bass lines and adds some discordant notes in the mix. At 9:50, Jerry switches to his MIDI flute tone, and the jam quiets down again. The rhythm is still driving and pounding, but the tone of the jam has softened, if only for a moment.
At the 10:53 mark, Bobby starts playing wild leads with his MIDI tones, and Vince switches to his own MIDI sax tones. Jerry gets aggressive again at 11:25 and the jam turns frenzied, with Bobby putting in some nice interplay with Jerry’s discordant notes. The jam gets wild again with everyone playing fast and fierce. Even the Drummers’ steady beat gets unruly for a moment, but things quiet down again for a moment at about 12:39.
As they build the jam back up from the last respite, the jam becomes wild and jazzy at the 12:56 mark. At 13:15, the playing is again chaotic and unbridled. Phil is playing a steady run of 16th-notes on his bass, keeping the momentum pulsating forward. Bobby’s guitar screams over Jerry’s rapid notes, and the Drummers keep driving the rhythm along.
At 13:55, the jam quiets again. It is still moving forward and steady, but much quieter. Jerry and Phil seem to be channeling their inner Ornette Coleman at this time. This continues for about a minute until Jerry finds a run of notes that he wants to repeat as a theme. At 15:15, Phil begins playing what sounds like “Fire on the Mountain”, of all things, but the jam continues. They have turned another corner, and the jam sounds like a different song may be coming soon. There is definitely a different feel to the jam at this point.
But, at 16:31, the jam returns to dissonance and bedlam, with no signs of letting up again. The jam builds again off of this and reaches a new peak at 17:50. Vince and Bobby are laying down some heavy synth tones while Jerry wails away, and Phil and the Drummers keep the rhythm moving forward.
Suddenly, the jam dies at 18:26. Jerry leaves the stage as Phil tries to resuscitate the jam with his driving bass lines. Or maybe Phil just doesn’t know how to stop at this point after playing so steadily the whole time. Vince noodles for a second or two as Phil winds down, but Bobby gets the last word with a run of notes as he leaves the stage to the Drummers.
Similar to the aforementioned 5/4/86 “Playin’”, this version seems to pause a lot as though the band does not trust themselves enough to fully unleash their potential. This is probably for good reason; since they have shown early on that they could easily lose control of the whole jam. They constantly pulled back only to rev the engine back up again, and each time they did that, they seemed to get a little more squirrelly. I can only wonder where this jam might have ended if they had taken a similar approach to the 7/29/88 version where they did not hold back at all. If they did that on this night, this version probably would not have made it to nineteen minutes.
At the time, I felt as though all six members were working out some aggressions on this jam. I was in a state of bliss throughout the entire show and I wanted to bite through the metal railing at the bleachers as they were blowing everyone’s minds with this creative and spectacular version. I felt tense, yet exhilarated during this jam. It’s no surprise to me that the jam was so bipolar. They started set 2 with a gorgeous “Box of Rain”, followed by an angry and discordant “Victim or the Crime”, followed by a beautiful “Crazy Fingers”, and then another dose of aggression with this jam. This particular version of “Playin’” will probably forever be my own personal #1.
1992/05/29 – Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, Nevada
This is my “half” version of the 4½ top “Playin’s.” The song itself is pretty average for the era. Bobby flubs the first lyrics, and the transition from the instrumental break is a bit sloppy. The jam itself is not particularly unique or even interesting. But it is what comes after the jam that has always stayed with me. The jam is good, but it never really takes off into those uncharted places. I would call this an average “Playin’” jam. It reaches a nice peak at about the 11:50 mark, before dissolving away to what we assumed would be the Drums segment. Jerry teases China Doll for a brief second, and Bobby suggests the “Playin’” reprise. However, while Jerry walks away as the Drummers start their segment, Phil, Vince, and Bobby never leave the stage, and the jam that follows the jam is quite interesting.
I should note here that the above link for this show ends the “Playin’” jam at 12:17, and beginning the Drums segment on the next track. This is where the second jam begins.
Mickey starts a sampled bass groove that sounds like the bass line for “I’m a Man”, and Phil and Bobby tool around with it. It sounds like Phil is playing that bass line, but the careful listener with notice that Phil is playing very different bass runs. Bobby plays some nice, yet discordant, MIDI guitar runs, and Vince adds some piano riffs to the mix. Bobby and Vince leave the stage after a couple of minutes, but Phil stays for at least four minutes into the Drums segment.
This particular Drums segment, which was typical for its time, was more of a musical journey than a percussion feature. Mickey would often have pre-recorded, or sampled, drum parts, or musical riffs playing as a backing track that Billy would add his usual drumming patterns. Mickey would then continue to add more MIDI music to this making a sort of New Age song rather than a drum solo. On this day, Mickey had a sample of Phil playing the main riff for “I’m a Man”, to which Phil stayed on stage and jammed along to.
This second jam only last about four minutes before the proper Drums segment takes over, but it adds an exciting and interesting element to this “Playing in the Band” that would otherwise be ordinary.
By the way, a video of this complete concert is up on YouTube. The “Playin’” begins at 1:36:06. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_s8hFix_dc. In my opinion, the show itself is below average, but does have a few fine moments in the second set. The China Doll that starts at 2:21:22 is particularly lovely. I think this was when the dust storm hit Las Vegas, adding an exciting element to this outdoor show.
“Playing in the Band” can go in any direction at any time. Part of the thrill of seeing The Grateful Dead in concert was not knowing what to expect or how a certain song might be played. I have seen beautiful and haunting versions of “Playin’” (2/8/86, 5/6/89, 8/12/91), and I have seen a few loose cannon versions like this one, and 7/29/88. With the exception of 5/10/87, which had no jam at all, I cannot think of a single “Playin’” that did not thrill me in some way.
Again, the above listed versions are just the ones that I saw live. There are plenty of other unique and exciting versions within this period that I could have mentioned, like 11/21/85, 4/19/86, 9/19/87, or 10/16/89, but I was not there to witness them in person. I only know of them from my years of extensive tape collecting.
But for a true musical journey, use the Grateful Dead collection at Archive.org, http://archive.org/search.php?query=collection%3AGratefulDead, and discover some of the great “Playin’s” for yourself. There are literally 581 from which to choose, and multiple recordings of each to suit your sonic tastes. Perhaps you will make your own Top-5 list.