There’s been a lot happening in the world of the Rolling Stones and 50 Licks, what with a secret show, the official start of the tour, and, best of all, Tom Waits showing up in Oakland to play Little Red Rooster. But you can click those links for those stories. Today, I am handing over the blog to Matt Blankman, who will be sharing a story about the day of his birth, the Grateful Dead, and nothing short of the healing power of music in our lives. Take it away, Matt!
My birthday, today, May 7, is an auspicious date in the history of the Grateful Dead, so I suppose in some way, it’s not surprising I grew up to be such a fan of their music. May 7 is the birthday of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who manned the traps for the entirety of their existence (paired with Mickey Hart for the bulk of it). It’s also the date of a couple key performances for the band – most notably, the actual day of my birth, May 7, 1972, when the Dead played the Bickershaw Festival in Wigan, England as part of their famed European tour of that spring. They put on an epic performance that day to a rain-soaked, mud-stained crowd which included a young, bespectacled fan named Declan MacManus. Whether it was Bill the Drummer’s birthday that spurred them on, I can’t say, but it’s one of the great performances by the band in a year that was full of them.
However, the Dead show on my mind this morning, as I turn 41, took place five years later, just a couple of months before MacManus, now known as Elvis Costello, released his first album, “My Aim Is True.” On May 7, 1977, while I was blowing out the candles on my 5th birthday cake, the Dead were playing the Boston Garden, part of another tour that became legendary in the eyes and ears of its fans. The tour began in late April and after a few shows hit New York City. They went into the Palladium on April 29th one band and left it after the May 4th show another; somehow changed – more focused, energetic, cohesive. For the next month, they played one astonishing show after another and by the time they got to Boston on the 7th, they were already in high gear.
The whole show is worth your time, but the one song from that night that stands out for me is “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” a song that had been in their live repertoire since the summer of 1972. Robert Hunter’s lyric is a wry, witty tale of a ne’er do well leaving his home behind and lighting out for parts unknown and presumably greener pastures and better days. Garcia’s music matches the folksy, humorous tone of the words. I can’t claim to have listened to every version of the song, but as far as I’m concerned, this one is the definitive take. About four minutes in, the verses of the song end and Jerry Garcia embarks on a remarkable guitar solo. It begins as a fairly standard circa-1977, lyrical Garcia solo, Phil Lesh and the rest of the band laying back, letting Jerry have his say, but a couple of minutes in, he hits a crescendo that is answered by Kreutzmann and Hart and they’re off to the races. Lesh and Bob Weir click in to the same zone and pretty soon the solo becomes a beautiful example of the type of musical conversation that marks all the best Grateful Dead live music. A conversation between the members – between Garcia and Lesh, with Weir commenting on the sidelines, or (and often concurrently) a conversation between the band and the audience, in this case we can assume a typically raucous East Coast crowd. Whatever was at work, it propels Garcia’s playing to new space. Garcia was a musician who could evince many moods and emotions wordlessly through his playing; here as they build steam and pressure, he seems to be expressing nothing but pure joy — the joy of making music, perhaps, or maybe simply the joy of being there. The tension grows to a tremendous peak, explodes and then drops out so that Garcia, Weir and Donna Godchaux can beautifully sing the coda and take us “Across the Rio Grandee-o” (complete with a lyric flub – hey, this is the Grateful Dead, I wouldn’t have them any other way) before it builds up again for Jerry takes one more run at it. There’s that pure expression of joy again.
Jerry Garcia is no more, of course, and the same is true for the Grateful Dead, though an unreasonably devoted and adoring fan base keeps the music alive. This recording of this song is one I turn to often, not just on this date. I find it impossible to be cowed by my worries, fears and anxieties while listening to it. “We are alive – here at this time, in this place,” I hear Garcia saying through his playing that night, “Rejoice.”