by Michael Parrish, 1999
Depending on your musical inclination, the middle of the second set of any Dead show from spring 1978 on was either the high point of the show or time for that nap or beer run. As celebrated (or derided) as the Dead were for never playing a song the same way twice, these were the points in the show where the band were best able to flex their improvisational and experimental muscles. What became a ritualized occasion for a bathroom (or whatever) break for band members emerged slowly, became an institution, and changed subtly over the years.
What came to be known as 'drums' (or drumz, or Rhythm Devils) can probably trace its origins to the fabled (and uncirculating) Straight Theater show on 9/29/67 when Mickey and Billy first collaborated, on a version of "Alligator" that was purported to have gone on for two hours. Although I'm sure Kreutzmann took his share of drum solos before that (I can't think of any on tape), the presence of a second percussionist obviously set the stage for a fertile, interactive collaboration that, because of the dynamic, intuitive nature of drumming, both as the rhythmic heartbeat of a band and as a means for channelling emotion, tended to go different places at different times. Songs like "Alligator," the "Other One" suite, and "Good Lovin'" made internal spaces for percussion breaks, and these tended to go on at length, although their appearance was sporadic.
The influence of Classical Indian percussion to these percussion breaks can be traced to the band's early exposure to Ali Akbar Khan and his students up in Marin County. Another fabled (but again, generally unheard) "Alligator" is the one from Berkeley 9/20/68 in which Kreutzmann and Hart collaborated with Shankar Ghosh and Vince Delgado on a four man percussion raveup. The 'taketa, taketa' vocal percussion break frequently heard during 1968 and early 1969 (check out Alligator on 4/5/69 or Lovelight on Hartbeats 10/10/68) is directly drawn from the performance tradition of Indian tabla players like Zakir Hussain.
It was also during this era, particularly in 1969 and 1970, when Mickey started incorporating a number of other percussion instruments into his arsenal. Particularly memorable are the monster cymbals that were onstage for most shows during that era (used to great effect on the Live Dead Dark Star) and hand percussion instruments like the Guiro that also embellishes the same performance.
Some late 60s shows have fiery drum duels as well. Particularly recommended are 2/14/68 ("Alligator"), 2/28/69 ("Alligator"), 3/27/69 ("The Other One"), 5/29/69 (bridge between "Alligator" and "Lovelight"), 6/14/69 ("Lovelight"), 6/21/69 (bridge between Alligator and The Other One), 10/25/69 (Good Lovin'). For most of these, it is good old high powered drums against drums, with Kreutzmann usually providing the rhythmic backbone and Hart inserting creative fills or going fist-to-fist with his co-conspirator creating a maelstrom of sound and fury. The second electric sets of February 13 and 14, 1970 immortalized on Dick's Picks IV are good examples of this power drumming, as are the versions of "Good Lovin'" from M.I.T. 5/6/70 and Winterland 10/4/70.
Hart's departure at the beginning of 1971 certainly made things a bit tamer in the "Drums" department, but it did allow Kreutzmann to shine on his own, starting with his first 'solo' show at the Capital on 2/19/71. The solo drum passages from 1971-74 exhibit Kreutzmann's extraordinary fluidity, and his ability to switch tempos and styles in mid-stream. On pieces like "The Other One" on 7/2/71, the bridge between "Dark Star" and "The Other One" from the Harding Theater on 11/7/71, he tended to take off from the familiar confines of the melody into free form flights of rhythmic fancy. By 1972 (8/22/72; 3/31/73), these had evolved into full blown, Buddy Rich-style show stoppers. Short by post-77 standards, these nonetheless are some of the most exciting examples of Kreutzmann's work. More often, he would just settle in and create the fluid, often furious, underlayment for the memorable space jams of this era. On 10/20/74, Mickey Hart returned and the multiple drum duels in sets two and three showed that the chemistry between the two percussionists was still there. During the first two years after the 'retirement,' drum solos were relatively frequent, but generally concise, and in the middle of tunes like "Let It Grow" (Boston 6/10/76) or as a transitional bridge between tunes like "Slipknot!" and "Wharf Rat!" (Oakland 10/9/76).
The beginning of the 1978 spring tour was the point when 'drums' became a ritualized part of the Dead's performances. During that tour, the 'percussion jam' featured not only the two drummers, but also the other band members, roadies, and hangers on, all onstage banging on a variety of percussion instruments. These free-for-alls appeared to be fun for all concerned, but rarely made for memorable music. By the summer, the drum duels were stripped down to Billy and Mickey going at it furiously.
In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola called upon the drummers to come up with a primeval percussion score for his epic Apocalypse Now. Recruiting a cast of collaborators headed by Phil Lesh, Flora Purim, and Airto Moriera, the ensuing score is documented on the Rykodisc CD Apocalypse Now Music: Rhythm Devils Play River Music and a bit of it also appears on the movie's soundtrack. The drummers commissioned a number of instruments for these sessions, most of which ended up becoming part of the duo's touring arsenal. Most notable was "The Beast" an enormous metal ring with bass drums mounted around it, and "The Beam," which is just what it sounds like, an enormous, resonant steel girder. As these instruments were taken on tour, the drums portion of the show became longer and more varied, as the two drummers usually started on their traps, generally moving back to pound on the beast, etc. a bit later in the segment.
Around this time, percussion guests also became common, most notably fellow rhythm devils Flora and Airto (check out the monster drums at the Long Beach Civic, 12/13-14/80). Other percussion guests over the years included Hart's student Mike Hinton, Egyptian percussionist Hamza Al Din, African drum maestro Babatunde Olatunji, Neville Brothers band members Willie Green and Cyril Neville, Taro Hart, Sikiryu Adepoju, even Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (see especially set two of 12/31/78).
In the last six years of the band's touring history, Midi drums became an increasingly important part of the drum segment, allowing the two drummers to summon up a virtual percussion orchestra, rain forest sounds, or virtually anything else they and Bob Bralove could cook up. Although to the non-percussionist, this segment might sometimes sound like just pounding away, the drums segments became a formidable showcase for the band's two master percussionists, and one that never went the same place twice.
Despite oral history to the contrary, Space was not a characteristic of early Dead performances. In the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe described the Dead's music at the Acid Tests as "dragon music," but the bits of Dead music from the acid tests we have on tape are short, succinct and linear songs. The earliest long songs that circulate on tape are epitomized by the twelve minute "Cream Puff War" from the Matrix 12/1/66, which goes on and on, accelerando, but the band stays within the melody and tempo of the song. It was with "Caution" that the Dead first left the bounds of tempo and meter, delving into the feedback-drenched soundscapes that represented some of their most adventurous aural explorations. It was common for shows in 1969 and, more rarely, in 1970, to end with blasts of amorphous feedback that usually led into "We Bid You Goodnight."
In the heart of nearly every Dead show after 1967 was found transitional passages that bridged conventional songs, or appeared in the center of exploratory vehicles like "Dark Star" and "Playing In The Band (see the separate essays on these pieces). It was not until the late seventies, after the drum segment became a ritualized part of a Dead performance that 'Space' assumed its now-traditional position as the bread surrounding the drums sandwich, so to speak. The practical role that drums and space provided in giving potty breaks to the various band members in succession does not negate the exquisite beauty and awesome power of some of these passages. Because this was usually seat-of-the-pants stuff, the group improv misfired, or failed to inspire, nearly as often as it succeeded. Who participated was also unpredictable. Usually Jerry and Bob were out most of the time, with Phil and the keyboardist(s) of the moment participating more rarely. Some of the most lively space segments occurred during Hornsby's tenure in the band, when he would egg Garcia, in particular, on to unparalleled flights of fancy (check out, for example, Boston 9/20/91).
Of course, the 'space' segments did have some repetition, and such familiar, Deadhead-named passages as "Spanish Jam" and "Mind Left Body Jam" consist of repeated tempos and chord progressions upon which the band hung their improvisations. These often appeared in the midst of other tunes back in the early seventies, but eventually came to be occasional bridges between songs and ultimately became a frequent egress out of the deep space following the drums.
Some of the most intense space passages were accompanied by spoken soliloquies. Some of the earliest of these (excluding oddities like Neal Cassidy's raps from the mid sixties and the strange ravings at the 8/16/69 Woodstock show) were Phil's two memorable raps in the spring tour of 1982. In Hartford on April 18, he dramatically revisited the scene of the San Francisco earthquake, as he and the rest of the band dropped appropriate depth charges. The following night, in Baltimore, he instead quoted from Edgar Allan Poe's the Raven to a similarly dramatic effect. Then, as mysteriously as he had emerged, Phil the orator disappeared from the space segment.
One of the most gut wrenching space segments occurred on Halloween, 1991, six days after Bill Graham's sudden demise in a helicopter crash. As the band burned a path towards the drums from the first part of "Dark Star" with Gary Duncan's stinging guitar adding fuel to the fire, Ken Kesey stepped out on stage and delivered a riveting farewell to Graham ending with a devastating quote from Cummings, "and how do you like your blue eyed boy now, Mr. Death?" Few Dead experiences have touched a raw nerve as potently as they did at that moment.
Less profound, but more joyful, was Ken Nordine's brief appearance during the space at the Rosemont Horizon, March 11, 1993. Nordine, whose huge round voice is immediately recognizable from years of radio ads and the epic Word Jazz recordings, had help emcee the 1991 New Years broadcast, and subsequently recorded a memorable Grateful Dead records CD, Devout Catalyst, with the Garcia-Grisman band. With the Dead on their home turf, Nordine came out during the space and delivered a brief foray through some of his greatest hits, including the beat era classic "Flibberty Jib," with the band cruising along in full regalia behind him.
"Space" was also fertile ground for contributions from musical guests, a trend that started in the Sixties (e.g., Stephen Stills at the Thelma Theater 12/10/69) but didn't become commonplace until the late '70s, when folks like John Cipollina (check out Oakland Auditorium 12/31/79), Harmonica whiz Lee Oskar (Pauley Pavilion 12/30/78), and the Merry Pranksters and the Thunder Machine (Winterland 12/31/78, Eugene 8/16/81) adding their instrumental voices to the fray.
As the eighties wound to a close, the band started working with saxophone players, starting, less than satisfactorily, with E Street Band alumnus Clarence Clemons. Clemons' straightforward R & B work was an asset to rockers like "Iko Iko," but he seemed incapable of making the subtle turns required during the space segments. Next up was Branford Marsalis, whose always-welcome appearances (3/20/90, 9/10/91, 12/10/93, 12/16/94) goosed the band to new highs not only during 'space' but also during open ended pieces like "Bird Song" and "Dark Star." Many consider his first appearance, at Nassau Coliseum on 3/29/90, to be his most memorable.
Free jazz blower David Murray moded into the Dead's musical circle in the early ‘90s, playing some dates with the Garcia Band and working with Weir and Taj Mahal on the Satchel Paige musical. His performance with the band at Madison Square Garden 9/22/93 contained some of the most spine tingling free blowing the band was ever inspired to execute, even on straight songs like "Estimated Prophet."
After Garcia worked with harmolodic pioneer Ornette Coleman, the saxophonist returned the favor by guesting on one memorable show, at the Oakland Coliseum on 2/23/93 (and again in L.A. on 12/9/93). Although Coleman's talents were wasted on songs like "Corrina" and "Lazy River Road," he certainly challenged the boys in the mammoth "Space" that preceded "the Other One."
Another mind boggling space segment occurred at the Shoreline Amphitheater (6/2/95) when the Guyto Monks, with whom Hart had worked on numerous occasions, came out onstage and contributed their eerie, wordless vocals to a mammoth space segment. Another memorable vocal extravaganza occurred at the Garden on 9/20/93, when Edie Brickell contributed her own wordless vocals to another 'out there' space exploration.
More than any other segment of the concert, the Space segment reflected the electronic setups the musicians were using. Because the '60s equipment mostly consisted of stock amplifiers and off-the-rack instruments, the variety of sounds that were produced can mostly be attributed to experimentation and ingenuity. Moving into the seventies, the band, and Garcia in particular, started running their instruments through an increasingly complex circuit of effects boxes. 1973-74 saw a myriad of technological advances, including the advent of custom built Alembic guitars and basses and the stageful of MacIntosh amplifiers that ultimately led to the Wall of Sound. The particularly wild space passages from this era reflect the musicians stretching the boundaries of this technology, particularly Lesh's tooth-rattling bass bombs.
After the 74-76 hiatus, other experimentation ensued, with Garcia reveling in the seemingly endless sustain of his metal bodied Travis Bean guitar and all three guitarists messing around with the E-bows, a compact hand held pickup which allowed them to generate controlled feedback-like noises at lower volume (not that they took advantage of that aspect of the technology too often). [Did they ever actually use e-bows? – LIA] Garcia switched to his trademark Irwin guitars and Weir dabbled with some custom made Ibanez guitars.
As the band gradually became Midified throughout 1989, the three guitarists started switching over to guitar synthesizers during the 'space' segments. Garcia, in particular, was enamored of trying to find the most unexpected and interesting voices to play through his fingers, most often resorting to horn-like tonalities or chime like sounds. By 94, however, these extravagant explorations became less common as the band returned to less gimmicky aural explorations.
I polled other Compendium authors as to what they considered to be the most memorable 'drums and space' segments. The consensus was that some of the most dramatic and memorable performances occurred during the band's Fall 1994 east coast tour, and in particular their Boston 9/29/94 and 10/1/94, both rife with bass bombs and strange sounds perhaps unmatched since the Seastones era. Other favorites included 12/26/79 (immortalized on Dick's Pick's Vol. 5), 8/21/89, 10/5/94 Philadelphia (on which Garcia remained onstage for the entire drums segment), and Tampa 4/7/95.
As varied, and occasionally hit-and-miss, as the 'drums' and 'space' segments were, these were always the clearest channels for manifestation of the band's fabled ex-chemistry. Live or on tape, these adventurous passages embody some of the band's most subtle and advanced improvisational moments. At other times, they still serve as a wonderful excuse for a potty break.