Deadheads celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday, plan to ‘Meet Up at the Movies’
Jerry Garcia would have turned 77 years old today.
That number holds a special importance to legions of Grateful Dead fans, many of whom hold the band’s 1977 tour in extremely high regard.
Garcia’s birthday is also the day for the annual Grateful Dead “Meet-Up at the Movies” event, where theaters across the country, including five in the Pittsburgh area, will screen a live concert recording. This year’s show is from June 17, 1991, at Giants Stadium in Rutherford, N.J.
Garcia died of heart failure in 1995 after years of poor health and drug abuse. But he left behind a massive catalog of music in the thousands of concert bootlegs and recordings made during the Dead’s 30 years of near-constant touring.
Whether you enjoy or detest the genre-bending, jam-heavy music of the Grateful Dead, even the most ardent hater would have to grudgingly admit that Garcia was no slouch with a guitar. Known for his constant practicing, Garcia was the literal embodiment of the band’s song, “The Music Never Stopped.” When the Dead took brief touring breaks, he’d go out with the Jerry Garcia Band covering old R&B tunes and standards.
The spirit of improvisation that marked some of the band’s best performances was perhaps exemplified most clearly in Garcia’s loping, freewheeling guitar runs.
To mark Garcia’s birthday, we take a look back at a handful of his best guitar solos. This list is, obviously, completely subjective, and with thousands of hours of Grateful Dead music available, it is by no means comprehensive.
“New Minglewood Blues,” 4/12/78, Duke University, Durham, N.C.
As a North Carolina Tar Heel fan through and through, it pains me that one of my favorite Garcia solos was played at Duke, but there’s no denying the power and confidence Garcia exudes as his first solo develops. “Minglewood,” which starts around the 49-minute mark in this video, was always a propulsive song, but as he’s about to go back through for a second round over the melody chords, Garcia begins repeating a bluesy little run and then smashes down on a quick power chord that combines with heavy string bends to launch the rest of the solo into space. People who think Garcia just noodled around all the time need to listen to this one. It’s a full-on rock-guitar solo.
“Looks Like Rain,” 6/19/76, Capitol Theatre, Passaic, N.J.
This is a great example of how Garcia could quietly affect the feel and texture of a song. “Looks Like Rain” is a tune by the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, a story of love going wrong but persevering (“I’ll brave the stormy clouds/For it surely looks like rain”). Listen as Garcia’s guitar joins with the drummers’ hi-hats in mimicking the beginnings of a rainstorm on a windowpane. It won’t knock you off your feet, but it gives the tune a perfectly suited sound.
“Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain,” 5/8/77, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
In the annals of Grateful Dead lore, the spring 1977 run is widely considered one of the band’s best. And among that group of shows, the May 8, 1977, show at Cornell’s Barton Hall is many a Deadhead’s choice for the band’s best show, period. A big part of the reason is this 26-minute version of “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain,” which the band nearly always played as part of one big song suite. During the breakdown that ends “Scarlet Begonias,” listen as Garcia lets the rest of the band start the jam, then slowly weaves his way in, making his licks more and more muscular as his guitar tone gets more and more spacey, culminating in the reggae-on-steroids groove that kicks off “Fire on the Mountain.”
“King Solomon’s Marbles/Milkin’ the Turkey,” from the “Blues for Allah” album
No one will ever accuse the Grateful Dead of being a great studio band. Essentially the anti-Steely Dan, the Dead thrived in their live performances, and their studio albums often pale in comparison. “Blues for Allah” has several tunes that made it into the band’s regular live rotation, but on the record, they all sound a little flat and sterilized. Except for “King Solomon’s Marbles/Milkin’ the Turkey,” a whacked-out psychedelic tornado set to a seven-count time signature. Garcia’s licks, which were always prone to spinning out in several directions, really whiz all over the map here because of the crazy time signature. But at the same time, he helps hold the entire piece together when it threatens to spin out of control. Outside of the simple, straight-ahead sounds of the Dead’s “American Beauty” album, this might be my favorite studio cut.
“Dark Star,” 9/21/72, The Spectrum, Philadelphia
This song is everything fans love and haters hate about the Grateful Dead: a 37-minute song where the first verse doesn’t even start until the 12-minute mark. But with a tune like “Dark Star” — which outside of the verses is improvisation over roughly two chords — the verses are almost an afterthought, despite lyricist Robert Hunter’s ethereal phrasing. The main thing here is the interplay between five excellent musicians, who take those two chords and mutate them into endless different forms as the song winds its way from lilting, spacey jazz to nervous, twitchy jamming to full-on sonic horror. Bassist Phil Lesh drops massive bass bombs while the band twists itself into atonal knots before getting a little funky once again and settling into a song that is also the final entry on this list…
“(Walk Me Out in the) Morning Dew,” 10/18/74, Winterland, San Francisco
The Dead’s October 1974 run at San Fran’s Winterland ballroom was initially billed as the band’s “retirement” shows. After several years of relentless touring, the Dead took a break from live performance in 1975, but not before a run of shows in their hometown. Performing with the insanely massive “Wall of Sound” PA system behind them (which in and of itself merits an entire article), audience members were able to hear each and every sound the band made in crystal-clear audio. It’s not often you see an entire venue full of rock concertgoers completely motionless and utterly absorbed in what they’re seeing and hearing from the stage, but Garcia’s tender, emotional soloing creates just such a moment, building to quite a climax.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .