Seal That Silver Mine #7: 3/23/75

In which Jerry Garcia & Friends play exactly zero of the hits.

First things first: yes, it’s been awhile. Sorry.

I picked this show because it exemplifies something I really admire about the Dead: not many artists take these kinds of risks in their work, and especially not once they’ve reached a certain level of success.

By 1975, plenty of other big rock acts were playing the same set list in the same order for forty different mostly-identical arena crowds around the country, collecting the checks and moving on. It would have been very easy for the Dead to do the same thing, given the struggles of their record label and the Wall of Sound and everything else going on at this point in their careers. But they didn’t. They kept pushing the envelope.

I’m not sure I have that courage, artistically or otherwise. One’s tendency is to just keep doing the thing people seem to like. And that they managed to create music this dense and compelling in these circumstances is another level of achievement altogether.

Kevin Lipe

March 23, 1975: Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, CA

Listen along on Relisten

When 1974 ended, the Dead were done: they were losing money and they had too many people on the payroll; they were doing so much cocaine in Europe that fall that they got fed up, put it all in a trash can, set it on fire, but still kept doing more cocaine; their record company was bankrupt and probably not promoting or distributing their albums enough in the first place; and it was all too much. They filmed their "farewell" shows at Winterland, brought back Mickey Hart for the send-off after years of One Drummer Dead, and vanished into the sunset. They didn't officially break up, but they didn't not do that either. After October 1974, they scattered.

They coalesced again at Bob Weir's home studio in February, determined to take no material in.  Instead they’d jam into some new directions. Maybe they'd take it on the road, maybe they wouldn't. "The Hiatus" would later become known as when Garcia got started on his Persian habit (though that's a matter of some debate), when Phil Lesh began his slide towards what became a very serious drinking problem, and the time "everything started to go downhill" for the Dead. But, as is the case with every other conventional wisdom, the truth is more complicated. For a band supposedly beginning their decline as a creative force (depending on whether you think 5/8/77 is their peak, I guess), they were up to some weird stuff in the dead of the night at Weir's house, and Blues for Allah gave birth to some songs they’d play for the next twenty years.

They recorded everything, of course. And if you're really interested in how the Blues for Allah album took shape, here is a guide to the hours of bootlegged material. I really recommend checking that mix out, because I find Blues to be one of the most satisfying studio albums in the Dead discography.

But in March of 1975, nobody knew that album was coming. Nobody knew what the Dead were up to, or even if they were still a going concern. Today, we find The Hiatus at an early spring intersection with Bill Graham, the Legion of Mary, Seastones, and something called SNACK.

You can read a Rolling Stone coverage of the SNACK benefit itself here, complete with a photo of Bob Dylan and Neil Young on stage together. From Lost Live Dead:

In early 1975, the San Francisco school district announced that due to an unexpected budget shortfall, programs for the 1975/76 school year would have to be drastically cut throughout the city. The School Board released a plan that pretty much cut all arts and sports in every school. In today's environment, where Public School Teachers’ unions are demonized in order to lower taxes for billionaires, it may seem strange that there was public outrage at this turn of events, but such a world existed then. Amidst all the outrage, Bill Graham decided to organize a benefit concert to provide funds to help the San Francisco Public Schools to provide extracurricular activities for its students. Hence the name: SF SNACK, or San Francisco Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks.

Kezar Stadium was falling apart, but it was the only place inside San Francisco that worked as a venue for the kind of rock festival lineup of the benefit:

  • Tower of Power

  • Graham Central Station

  • The Doobie Brothers

  • Jefferson Starship

  • Eddie Palmieri & his Orchestra

  • Santana

  • Joan Baez

  • Jerry Garcia and Friends

  • Neil Young

As you can see, the Grateful Dead are not actually on the bill. They didn't have a record company, they were supposedly broken up but supposedly still working on some vague something, and Garcia had been playing with Merle Saunders since '73 or so —  at the time in Legion of Mary — so the San Francisco crowd likely thought it was another Garcia/Saunders thing in a tip of the cap to a hometown cause.

The Dead brought Ned Lagin on the '74 tours to collaborate with Phil Lesh on the "Seastones" electronic music segments. If you like noise music, they're worth checking out; very early ambient/noise stuff, unleashed on unsuspecting stoners during the set breaks of the Dead's Wall of Sound tour. 

Lagin sat in on a killer "Eyes of the World" in London in September of that year. Merl Saunders had been playing with Garcia for a while, but never made it to "official Dead member" status. On this night, the Dead, alias "JG&F," has three keyboard players: Keith, Ned, and Merl. Nine people on the stage, broadcasting live on FM.

Exhibit A: The Grateful Dead with three keyboard players

This is where I have to admit something about myself: I am not as brave as these guys. They came out, knowing people were waiting to hear what they were doing to do next, and got weird.

Here's the setlist.

  • Blues For Allah >

  • Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin' The Turkey >

  • Drums >

  • Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin' The Turkey >

  • Blues For Allah

  • Johnny B. Goode (encore)

None of the material had been released yet. None of it had lyrics yet. Or if they did, no one sang them. In an interview before the show, Garcia said they’d worked the piece out to be exactly the length of time they had allotted. In that same interview, Garcia also says David Crosby would be on stage with them. As it happened, he had to take off because of the birth of his child. This music still sounds weird. Knowing that they were playing to an enthusiastic hometown, but also knowing the pressure was off because, hey, they're not even the Grateful Dead, they're just "Jerry's friends," they took what they'd been working on in the studio and threw it at a run-down stadium full of people who had never heard any of it before. 

"Blues For Allah" is an odd piece with little in the way of a time signature in its finished form. Here it's droning, free-form, hung around a theme but only just barely, and with all those keys quickly falls into Space. On the album, there are live crickets providing the background sounds, to give you an idea of what this is... there's really no other composition in the entire Dead catalog like it, and even in recorded form it sounds like it's almost falling apart the whole time before it winds with some Donna/Bob harmonies that ground the listener.

There are no vocals at all here, and so there is no ground. Once the repeating drone riff falls apart, there's really nothing anchoring it. In this way, it's not really such a break with the past; there are lots of these quiet, spindly Space jams in '74 and they'd continue on through '76. But what comes next is one of my favorite little musical sections in the whole Dead archive that I've heard so far.

Phil launches into the "Stronger Than Dirt" bass riff, a 7/8 thing, and the drummers start to fall in behind him as Garcia finds the key, and then the off-kilter groove cranks up. This is some of my favorite playing from Garcia in the whole Dead catalogue that I've heard so far. The scattering, twisty runs he's throwing out, all of them sixteenth notes, never stopping for a second. The keyboards are all doing variations of the same stuff (low in the mix) and Weir is bouncing back and forth between two different concepts of a rhythm track.

After almost 7 minutes, the instruments die down and the Drums start up... there's not much here but it doesn't detract from the show. It's one of the few "Drums" sections I don't skip, because it's short and never gets so far from the main rhythm that it loses any of the momentum of the first section. It's good. And this would have been the first time Mickey Hart was appearing with the group since his appearance at Winterland the previous fall, which was his first time out with the Dead since '71. The days of One Drummer Dead were over and gone, and here you can hear the Rhythm Devils starting to rise from the ashes.

Eventually the other instruments all come crashing back in. The second "Stronger Than Dirt" section starts to drag a little, taking breaks for the keyboards (I assume that's Saunders on the organ and Lagin on the weird electric piano, but it sounds like Ned and Keith are both playing electric pianos, so... I know someone one the internet knows, but I prefer to remain in the mystery). There's still so much Garcia here, though, and I like to just let it wash over me until things shift again.

"Stronger Than Dirt" lands, rather smoothly given the newness of all of this music, into the "Under eternity" section of "Blues For Allah." Here, the harmonies are Garcia and Weir singing "do do do do, do, do" instead, but it still works. Jerry's on fire through this section, singing like it’s 1970, and every single note he plays on his guitar is the correct one. Thirty minutes of experimental instrumental music later, Jerry Garcia and Friends (whom Bill Graham actually introduced as "The Grateful Dead and their Friends", for whatever that’s worth) had given the world a taste of what they were up to; they hadn't gone away, they’d just gone... even further out.

They wrap things up with Johnny B. Goode, a shambolic run-through that nonetheless sounds fun, and probably got the crowd going even more than just the fact that the Dead were still alive (I know, I know).

The Doobie Brothers had to go on after this.

To quote Lost Live Dead, again:

After the SNACK show and broadcast, strange as it was, Deadheads knew that the Grateful Dead were still in the game, even if the rules of that game were not yet known. When Jerry Garcia And Friends headlined a Winterland concert on June 17, 1975, everybody knew what it meant: it was just a matter of time.

I've always loved the music of '75, and the shows. Each one of the four they played (6/17, the night of 8/13 at Great American Music Hall on One From The Vault, and a Golden Gate Park show from 9/28) captures a band at the peak of a certain subset of its powers, pushing forward into the unknown. The Dead don't get enough credit for their willingness to crash and burn in front of a paying audience; Lord knows the archive is full of examples. This particular afternoon, they stuck the landing.


The Other One

In the late 1980s there was a lot of general animosity toward the Dead in my social circle in Athens, which had commanded itself the capital of southern cool throughout the decade. That was embodied in this song, which was a minor college radio hit - especially on WUGA, my lifeline - 1990 or so. I kept most of my Dead tape collection hidden until years later. I kinda still like this song though. 

Ed Arnold