Thursday, July 28, 2016

Song of the day

"Terrapin Station (Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO, 7/8/78)", by The Grateful Dead.

So, then. If into the hallowed halls of the Grateful Dead we must wander, then wander into them we must, trying to keep our eyes open and our wits about us. The Grateful Dead: owners of one of the most intimidating back catalogues known to man. Bearers of a fan base the level of whose obsessiveness can only be dreamed of by pretty much any artist you might care to mention (perhaps only Dylanologists take obsessive fandom further).

Me? I have spent the first 52-and-some years of my life steering well clear. Two reasons. One: I was brought up under the heavy influence of the scriptures of the Church of Post-Punk, wherein everything you would find in The Grateful Dead was anathema: long songs; facial hair; musicianship; erm, "chops" of any kind. (It seems funny to think about it now. What with all the bad buggery bollocks going on in the world in 2016, at least one thing seems to have gotten better since 1978: openness to musical genres other than "our own" has never been greater; the rule book seems to have been thrown out (which is a somewhat ironic thing to say in this context, seeing as how "punk" held itself out as doing exactly that, whereas what it actually did was impose an even stricter set of rules that the one it thought it was setting fire to).)

Two: I know what I am like with rabbit burrows. I chase every rabbit I can find down every rabbit burrow it may run into, until I have caught them all. (I think it's what makes me good at my job.) And The Grateful Dead is one huge, complex, multifaceted, possibly bottomless motherfucker of a rabbit burrow. So I have steered well clear.

Until now. (Curse you, Apple Music.)

I suppose ultimately something was going to lure me in. What did it was the five-disc "covers" record that the dudes from The National put out earlier in the year. I like a lot of the musicians involved, I liked what I heard, and, let's face it, the ten-year-old in me has always had a weakness for long, drawn-out jams, as to which The Grateful Dead are ground zero. Where to start: the studio albums? (I suspect not.) Dick's Picks? Dave's Picks? Band-released live collections covering years, tours, venues, you name it? So the easiest thing appeared to be: what has come out recently?

Which turns out to have been "Red Rocks 7/8/78", a three-cd-length live release from earlier this year (but, as with all things Dead, a recording that has circulated amongst the faithful since, in this case, probably 7/9/78). The first thing to say is that it confirmed my suspicions: the Grateful Dead veer wildly from the appallingly naff to the insanely great. (As to the former: what could have possessed them to try their arm at "Werewolves of London"?)

"Terrapin Station", the first song of the encore, is an outstanding piece of music. It's as simple as that. You would travel a long way to hear a bunch of dudes so in tune with what each other is doing. (I suppose that is what turned one into a Deadhead.) But, for me, the remarkable thing about it is: during all the years I have been a fan of Wilco, I had never once suspected a connection with The Grateful Dead. But here it is, front and centre. The minute whomever is doing the vocals on this song (see how little I know?) starts up, it may as well be Jeff Tweedy. That's maybe a superficial observation (hey, you've come to the right place), but how about this: set this version of this song side-by-side with "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" and join the dots. (Also: Wilco have been releasing something called the "Roadcase" series of recordings of live shows, possibly not complete but certainly in large numbers; how Dead is that?) It's a curious thing. Both Wilco and The Grateful Dead have (deservedly) solid reputations as bands that sound like nothing other than themselves, and yet here they are sending vibes in each other's direction across the decades. Maybe they should have been called The Grateful Undead.