Seal That Silver Mine #8: 8/23/69
In which the Workingman's Dead are just another working band.
As the Dead’s most recent resurgence seems to finally be placing them in the pantheon where they’ve always belonged, and their songs become part of the Great American Songbook, are we losing the context of what they did and why? We have so much tape, it’s easy to cherry-pick the best performances and analyze them to death–which, let’s be honest, is kinda the point of this whole newsletter on some level–and then forget that, well, the Dead were a band, working all the time, trying things out, growing and changing.
This is one of those shows, where the Dead were stretching what they were doing, starting to veer in a new direction, but not really there yet. They can’t all be gems, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth exploring. I was glad Ed wrote this. I think there’s a lot more to say on this topic.
– Kevin Lipe
August 23, 1969: Pelletier Farm, St. Helens, OR
This week’s show is about the work. The life of a working artist is remarkable — Kevin would know this better than I do. To be able to survive and thrive through personal expression, regardless of medium, is a miracle in its own way. One of the things that makes the Grateful Dead the greatest American rock ‘n roll band is their embrace of that path: they embraced the work. They grew and changed — and aged — into different eras. They’ve always been able to bend the art into new shapes.
There is a resurgence of appreciation for the Dead’s place in American culture and a lot of it is brought on by the unique ability to listen to nearly 40 years worth of its recorded music. In podcasts, YouTube streams and newsletters — howdy! — fans often try to point fellow miners to the golden nuggets.
Often they’re trying to convince their audience of the Dead’s greatness. But I don’t really need convincing anymore. You probably don’t need it either. So, I’m writing today about the work.
I wanted to listen to the band in transition. I wanted a fairly unremarkable show, but one that wasn’t on their usual home turf(s) in the Bay Area or in New York City. There’s been a lot of talk in the Dead’s broader media world about the making and release of Workingman’s Dead as its 50th anniversary arrived. I went hunting in 1969. The “primal” Dead era is winding down. The audiences are still expecting the California psychedelia, but on the other hand, Bobby is bringing the cowboy covers and the album they were preparing was less neon and more wood grain and campfires.
I stumbled into 8/23/1969 — a Bear recording — at Pelletier Farm in St. Helens, Oregon. It is another festival, though a lot smaller than Woodstock, which the boys played about a week previously. The festival, Bullfrog 2, looked like a damn fine time.
I wish I could've heard Sabatic Goat.
This set is simple. It’s a single set with an encore. It features hallmarks of the primal Dead era — 20+ minute Dark Star, a spiraling Lovelight that goes nowhere and delights everyone — but also some of the earliest live versions of “High Time,” “Casey Jones” and “Mama Tried.”
Bear probably forgot to get the tape rolling in time and the recording drops right into the beginning of a sloppy, dosed-up Hard to Handle. A classic Pigpen show opener that ain’t very well executed at the beginning. But by the end, it connects, and the crowd gets on board.
Next up is Mama Tried, which was a new release at that point. It was a No. 1 hit on the country charts for Merle Haggard in 1968, lasting four weeks in that top spot and serving as an entry to the soundtrack to the movie “The Killers Three.”
How this was not disorienting to the unwashed Oregon hippies seems amazing in retrospect. Maybe it was.
We see these eras of the Dead, and they feel natural and obvious. Like Dylan going electric, what seemed like an insurmountable change at the time now feels obvious with the benefit of hindsight.
I think that context is being lost during this resurgence in Dead fandom. We’re forgetting the process. Which is a shame. Because High Time is the next song, which is the opposite of a crowd-hopping dance tune. It’s not the version we’ll get on Workingman’s Dead just a few months later. It’s sloppy and the tone is all wrong, but you can hear the bones in there.
Similarly an early Casey Jones shows its classic outline, but in an embryonic, uncertain shell.
You can feel how new it is and how unsure the group is — particularly the drummers, who seem to have no idea what is going on for part of the show.
The Dead’s official podcast has been breaking down the Workingman’s Dead album in context and for those that want the history, and to reclaim some of the context that is being shed from the band right now.
At this point the band begins to turn back into its more reliable late Sixties self, rolling through a languid “Easy Wind” before trying to get the renaissance festival crowd hopping again through “Sitting on Top of the World.”
Then, Dark Star.
If I were one of the many 30-something podcast hosts that have emerged over the last 3 years analyzing the Dead’s music, this would likely be the only song here worth exploring deeply. It’s a whopper at 27 minutes. It wanders, it screams, it soothes. It does the work.
This is what the crowd came to hear, mostly. And there is some great interesting instrumentation here. You should listen to it. But for me, it is simply a very good one, not great. It lacks inspiration or context. In some ways, you can tell the band is bored - which is a strange thing to say about a song like Dark Star.
The reason why I don’t really find much to recommend in the rest of the set is not that it isn’t well played. It’s because you can tell that the band has other work on its mind.
This gig helps keep the trains moving while they rebuild their sound, a sound you can hear them retooling in front of a paying audience for about a half hour at the beginning of the set.
The set ends with: Dark Star > St. Stephen > The Eleven (REN FAIR!) > Lovelight.
Lovelight is another highlight. It rolls on for an orgasmic 27 minutes and Pig’s full charm is on display. I would love to have imagined hippies costumed as court jesters vibrating to the blues in an open Oregon field. There’s some context for you.
Finally, the boys return quickly for “And We Bid You Goodnight” before returning to the ren fair.
The Dead’s trove of music, and current streaming technology allows for the deep curation of the work. For playlists of “Choice Nugs” and perfectly composed setlists of the band’s most ingenious work. The depth of their recordings can seem intimidating and awe-inspiring as it floats across 30 years of American history. And as we’re finding now, it holds up!
It also allows us to sanitize the work. To whittle them down to periods and tour years as if those were somehow disconnected from the time they occurred in. To stage the Dead as a staggered narrative with chapter-ized eras feels wrong somehow to me.
But it also seems inevitable.
– Ed Arnold
The Other One
One of my personal beliefs that seems like a contrarian hot take is that Washing Machine is the best Sonic Youth album. Here’s a full 1996 performance of “The Diamond Sea” from Germany.
I will never not think this is a masterpiece.
– Kevin Lipe