This week‘s theme was inspired, of course, by last week‘s historic Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. I rejoice in that decision, and I hope no one thinks I am making light of it with this post. But in the music world, there was another event last week that I would like to celebrate. The Fare Thee Well tour celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Grateful Dead. The grand finale was three nights of shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field. This was also the site of the last Grateful Dead shows twenty years ago. At that time, it was reasonable to assume that the Grateful Dead were done, since leader Jerry Garcia had died. Garcia was a wonderful guitar player and songwriter. But more important to the band was his personality. Garcia‘s voice was not always on pitch, but there was always a great warmth to the man that came through whenever he sang. Garcia welcomed you in to his musical world, and once you were there, the whole band dazzled you with their musical acrobatics.
How then was it possible for there to be Grateful Dead shows last week? The surviving members of the band brought in Trey Anastasio of Phish to sing some of Garcia‘s parts, and to play lead guitar. Because this is jam band music, Anastasio interprets the music in his own way, but also sounds like he has been with the band his whole life. In a way, he has. Phish is the leading jam band of these times, and all jam bands owe a debt to the Grateful Dead for setting the standards of the form, and showing what is possible. Further, I found a cover of Scarlet Begonias/ Fire on the Mountain by Phish while gathering material for this post. So my second video shows Anastasio with a stupid grin on his face for most of the video‘s eighteen minutes; the man is clearly living a fantasy for as long as this strange trip lasts.
I will leave to the hard-core Dead Heads among our readers the question of when the Dead began playing this medley of Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain. But I would argue that 1977 was the year for some of the band’s best performances of it. After that year, Scarlet/ Fire became a staple of their shows. The purchase link is to a version from May of that year, and some Dead Heads commenting on Amazon regard this as the Dead‘s definitive performance of the song. Sadly, I could not find a decent quality video of this performance that presented the whole thing one video, instead of splitting it into two. So I went with a performance from a month earlier. By the same token, I could not find a readily available CD of the performance I chose. This April performance has some of the painful vocals of Donna Godchaux. With the Dead, she often had pitch problems, and sometimes belted out her parts when a softer approach would have served the material better, and both of those problems show up here as well. Despite that, this is still a fine example of the Grateful Dead at an artistic peak. By contrast, the new Scarlet/ Fire lacks Garcia‘s warmth, but Donna‘s miscues are gone as well. The excitement of the band‘s playing is still as present as ever.
A final note: especially if you are not a jam band fan, this post contains a lot of music! The first video is 21 minutes long, with an additional 18 minutes for the second one. So let me offer a small break. The first video has a point at about the 16 minute mark where the music almost but not completely stops. Despite that, this marks, not a continuation of a medley, but the start of a new song, Good Lovin‘. So you can stop at that 16 minute mark if you want to.