Seal That Silver Mine #4: 9/3/67

In which the Primal Dead make a joyful noise.

It took me a long to clear the mental space to write this one. I’d blame the current state of the world but, truth is, it’s not the first writing deadline I’ve blown and won’t be the last. I don’t have much to say by way of introduction this week, so let’s just get to the show:

— KL

September 3, 1967: Rio Nido Dance Hall, Rio Nido, CA

Listen along:

So far we've talked about Dead shows from 1977, 1970, and 1982. This show, finding the Dead in the late summer of '67 out at a Russian River resort in what's either a dance hall or a barn, depending on which Google result you believe, may as well be a different band on a different planet: a loud, weird, looping, wild acid skronk, untamed, unhinged. A joyful noise unto The Lord, etc. The pieces are here, of course; you can hear things that will come up later. But when someone says "Primal Dead," this is what they mean. This is your blues rock garage band. (cracks egg into frying pan) This is your blues rock garage band... on drugs.

Unlike the last show I wrote about (6/24/70, which you can find here), this one is hard for me to talk about. There's something about this music, in this raw, early, cacophonous form, that eludes language. The "In The Midnight Hour" (more about which later) was officially released on the Fallout From The Phil Zone compilation, and Phil Lesh sets the scene for the whole show well there:

This was recorded at a Russian River resort ballroom on Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend - I don't think there were more than 25 people there, but we played our little hearts out for them anyway.

That sounds like exactly what's happening here, on down to the dodgy audio quality of some of this. It feels like a minor miracle that someone was actually running tape; 1967, like 1970, has more "lost" shows than "found" ones. Betty Boards and straight-to-Dolby-cassette soundboards are literal decades in the future from this September night at the Dance Hall.

The show (probably) starts with Dancin' in the Streets. This is a song they played a lot, for almost their entire career, and it took all kinds of forms depending on what era you're listening to. Ed already gave us The Disco Dead version in our first installment, but the fact of the matter is (fight me, Ed), this is the canonical Dead arrangement, and this is one of my top 5 performances of it. It meanders, but never loses the groove. Most importantly, when Garcia gets into the solo, you can't help but hear what was there along. Dark Star, musically, seems to have grown directly out of Dancin' in the Streets. The chords are the same! 

Sure, it still needed lyrics and that little bouncy beat, and the days of Dancin' as an extended jam vehicle weren't over yet, but this is the show where the nascent Dark Star starts to emerge from the (dark) shadows and pour its light into ashes, etc.

Robert Hunter was one of the 25 people at this show, having come out to San Francisco to start working with the group, and to hear him tell it, the first verse was written on this very weekend around this very show. Here's what Hunter said about it:

Then I moved to New Mexico and it occurred to me to send the lyrics to those songs to Jerry because the Dead had formed. And he wrote back and said, “Why don’t you come back to California and be our lyricist?” So I hitchhiked back to San Francisco and met up with them in Rio Nido. They were working on “Dark Star” and I wrote the lyrics to it right then. It just started working immediately. Everyone was glad to have a lyricist at work because they weren’t doing much writing themselves.

The next song pulls you back to 1967, though, because this isn't yet the band that will turn Dark Star into quiet meditations on space and silence and breath; this is a rock 'n roll outfit that can churn out some blues covers and keep the party going, and It Hurts Me Too does exactly that. I don't think this is a highlight of the set, and it's not one of my favorite versions, but it's a decent one. This is not, by a long shot, the last Pigpen feature of this set. Just you wait.

The band rips off a blazing Cold Rain and Snow next. I love the fast version of this song, and they're just absolutely tearing into it here. The slow version is good, too, and the fast version absolutely didn't make any sense for where the band was after '67, but for now, this could and probably should have been on one of those Nuggets compilations of garage rock. The unison guitar solo, the harmonies between what Garcia and Weir and Pigpen are playing... this is the peak of the fast version of this song, for me. But don't overthink it; this is one for turning up loud, and then louder again. It's for the impromptu dance party when you and your kids bebop around the kitchen.

Exhibit A: Effects of 9/3/67 "Cold Rain and Snow" on children and dogs.

Exhibit A

They follow it up with another Pigpen song, and one I usually skip, because it may not be some epic 30-minute Good Morning Little Schoolgirl but it's still Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and, well, I don't like it. A dozen years later, Alex Chilton did the canonical gross/creepy song in this genre and it sure didn't take him 10 minutes of tape.

Saving the day, Viola Lee Blues comes in already breaking the sound barrier, the first few minutes wiped out by a jump in the tape. This is the core of the show, for me, the thing that best exemplifies what I love about it. The group locks into the first set of triplets like they're never going to get out, winding it up, up, up, and then totally flubs the landing on the one but gets close enough — this is sloppy, but absolutely right — and Garcia, Weir, and Lesh all head off in different directions, each of them on his own path into the mystery while the beat just keeps loping along. When it speeds up, Viola Lee sounds suspiciously like Cumberland Blues, especially the 1970 versions, but the Dead were always sort of the world's loudest bluegrass band anyway so it makes sense, and it hangs together, past ludicrous speed and into plaid. The noise is incredible. Even Hendrix wasn't pushing this far into great torrents of electronic howling in '67, and Sonic Youth should have been more honest about just what they owed to this period of Dead. At least Lee Ranaldo will cop to it now.

There's a "Caution" jam in here, and then, where usually Viola Lee comes back down to a soft landing on the last verse and wraps up, this one pushes back out into a jam again, spreading out to fill the available space like a liquid. The tape drops out again before the Feedback that probably ended the song, so we'll never know how far out that one went, but judging by what we have, the tape probably just gave up trying to contain it. There's a ten minute officially-released edit of this performance as a bonus track on the Rhino reissue of the band's self-titled debut, but as far as I can tell the beginning and the end of the song are gone forever. It almost feels right, like the show itself is crazed enough that it couldn't have been captured correctly in the first place.

Next up the band saunters into a laid-back Big Boss Man, recovering some energy and keeping the groove going. Having made setlists, it's hard to pull this off. How do you sequence these things so the band and the crowd alike can take a breather, without blowing the momentum you've been building the whole time? The Dead were masters at this through about '72 or so, and then they got ahead of themselves, as the music got slower and quieter, jazzier. They were after different things by then, not trying to decapitate a room full of people with a stack of Fender amplifiers.

...which is what they do with this Alligator. This one is thick, tangly. The little hitch in the beat of "Alligator" gives them the sliver of space they need to twist it into ever tighter bundles until the whole thing unfurls like a flag, and finally sinks back into feedback again.

There seems to be some debate about whether In The Midnight Hour was the last song of this set or the first song. DeadLists says it came first, but other sources assume it was the closer. For our purposes, we'll treat it like the ultimate song of the set even though it's first on the tape. By this point in the set, you'll know whether a 31-minute Pigpen is the thing for you, but this one cooks. You can see the lineage of the Dead here, how they earned their spot in all those Acid Tests, playing every kegger in the Bay Area they could get their weird hands on. Pigpen is in epic form here, letting loose with the kind of rap that he stops doing over the next couple of years, unleashing a harmonica solo, and even telling the crowd to come up and "dance with Bobby". It's a great version, even if, like me, you're not always into the extended Pig jams. This is the one that makes the rest of them make sense: someone had to bring the party.

Presumably the amplifiers had to cool off for 24 hours before anyone could touch them. This is primal, sure, and fun in a way that later Dead would be hard-pressed to find, twenty years and twenty chemical compounds later. But that Labor Day in 1967, they were still wild, uncontained.

— Kevin Lipe

The Other One

What if I told you that in Athens, Georgia in 1990, Warren Zevon fronted REM for a drunken album of blues other odd covers that was all recorded in basically one take? 

Well the fucking thing exists. 

And here is Zevon — fronting REM — singing “Raspberry Beret.”

The Hindu Love Gods:

— Ed Arnold