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Being Grateful: Defining the Jazz Years Part One - 1973

Jacob Hobson By

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While 1972 is one of the most celebrated years in the Dead's canon, it's about as "hit" heavy as the Dead ever got, hit heavy in that many of the songs from that year are shorter and more reserved. Of course there's nothing wrong with that as the music was as fruitful and original as ever. This is a common scenario amongst improvisers: an example being Miles Davis who went from Someday My Prince Will Come to Bitches Brew in the same decade. If a musician is willing to maintain a lasting career, originality and risk must be a driving force. It's like when John Lennon said he didn't want to be singing "She Loves You" when he's thirty: people grow up and the music should too.

Now, about 1973. On December 6 near the end of a evenly mixed hard rockin,' cowboy style set, the band broke into one of the most inspired and tumultuous "Darkstars" on tape. Other "Darkstars" rival in comparison: the Capitol Theater show on February 18, 1971 being a strong contender for the top ten. These two versions of the same song present a good example of the band's developing sound. The 1971 version is much shorter with more focus on maintaining a coherent riff throughout; it also comes relatively early in the set and they wedge a polite "Wharf Rat" in the center: a nasty jam I'll admit, but it's more rock n' roll than jazz. Jerry comes in with the vocals about three minutes into the jam, where as on the 1973 set he comes in with the vocals around twenty-five minutes in: a good indicator of the willingness of the band to dig that night.

Keith is in rare form on the 1973 set, as he was for most of the year, leading the jam on the Fender Rhodes that he introduced into his setup a few months prior. Apparently Keith—like Brent Mydland a few years later—was plagued with some sort of insecurity that often held him back musically and creatively, eventually leading to his annoying trademark of the late 70s in which he simply repeated Garcia's lines on the piano: although impressive, it makes for boring music. In 1973, however, Godchaux and Phil Lesh were a hard driving, madness inducing duo leading the band throughout the entire "Darkstar," circling around Garcia and Weir like the wicked witch of the west in the tornado scene. Weir is Dorothy resting on the bed with those massive, complementing chords, Garcia is Toto barking at the storm—knowing it's out there—adding to the madness. Kreutzmen's the house holding it all together: the centerpiece, the mantle, the mortar keeping the bricks together, the symbol his mightiest tool. Phil is dropping deep, witch-like-grumbling bombs throughout and Keith has found a somewhat clashing, beautifully mixed set of jazz chords and runs that are refreshingly outside of his normal ragtime, honky-tonk rhythms. Keith remains in that deep Rhodes, Herbie Hancock, style—sustaining rhythm throughout the jam—while Jerry hovers high above with bird like lines. I get the same feeling on Charlie Parker's string albums or Jimmy Smith's big band albums: all three musicians had the ability to be part of a well blended music but still manage to sound physically "above" the rest of the band.

The "Here Comes Sunshine" from the same night clocking in at around sixteen minutes is a real barn burner and a must-listen. Another highlight show for Keith in 1973 is the Roosevelt Stadium show from July 31. The twenty-three minute "Playing in the Band" has Keith getting funky on Rhodes again, Jerry on the distorted wah, with Kreutzman, without Mickey Hart to get heavy on the toms, picking up his former and soon to be band mates' trademark pounding the deeper toms, and in short stints, has the band sounding like a Billy Cobham lineup. The Dead that comes after 1973 got them through 1974 as well as short-lived hiatus and eventually into the celebrated 1977 tour. It's hard to pinpoint an official set or song or jam that allowed the Dead to become the powerhouse they were in 1977, but 1973 and the extended jams from that year like the December 6 "Darkstar" sure seem likely contenders. Like Oceanographers and their field of study, people who love the Dead are dealing with a band that is deep and mysterious with a thousand different dynamics, a million different critics, and a certain unexplainable mystique that continues to intrigue all who enter it. 1973 and the music created that year were a launching pad for the band's post-Pigpen sound and eventually led them into another jazz heavy year and the next installment of "Being Grateful": 1982.

Photo Credit: Snooky Flowers

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