Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Grateful Dead Channel


I was visiting family back in the heartland last weekend and had a rental car. I'm too ignorant to figure out how to play the music on my phone through the Bluetooth, so that left the radio for entertainment. In this neck of the woods the music options on the radio amount to Classic Rock, Christian Rock, and Contemporary Country. There is an NPR station that plays some classical but I wasn't in the mood. That left Sirius as the best option. As I scrolled through the 25 channels I was appalled at the banality of the music pretty much across the board. And the predictability. I mean, they can't think of anything other than "Hotel California" on the Classic Rock channel? The Alt Rock channel seemed to feature lots of Pearl Jam, whose music is kind of boring, except for live, where their energy compensates for their melodic shortcomings. The Jazz channel was playing routine contemporary big band music, so, no go. I did listen to the Hip Hop channel a bit. The music had more character and attitude than the other options.

Oddly enough, they also had a Grateful Dead channel. Talk about an outlier! All the other music, though technically varied by genre, occupied the same compressed sonic and textural range with nothing to disturb the uniformity. As for the Dead, they are nothing if not all over the place. There is little about their sound that is palatable in any conventional sense. Indeed, if an unsuspecting listener dropped in during one of their oft-feeble, nay, catastrophic, attempts at vocal "harmonies" they would likely flee, never to return. But to me their spirited incompetence had more appeal than any of the other Sirius options, so after a bit the dial stayed there for the rest of the trip.

When I first landed on the channel the group was in the middle of one of their "space" jams, their ritualistic mid-set foray into abstract, "out-there" music. This is one of the areas where the Dead resonated with free jazz. The idea is that the relationship between figures, forms, and tonalities is intuitive rather than formal. You can't say why exactly one statement supports or connects with another, except that if feels right or interesting in an unarticulated way. It's true in a way detectable just outside of normal consciousness.

The Dead are much better instrumentally than vocally. Jerry was a good and unique, if limited, vocalist. Bobby Weir has his moments, but his leads never sound completely at ease to me. But the relationship between Dead and audience was one of community. So the Dead Heads were pretty forgiving about the vocal blemishes. In a way it's kind of punk. You can imagine that on a night where the harmonies were in tune and tight, fans might react by saying, Hey, the boys actually nailed it tonight! Nevertheless, there are limits for the somewhat casual listener. The channel played a live "Box of Rain" with bassist Phil Lesh on lead vocals that were just bad, I mean, not even interesting-bad, which had me wavering on a channel change. My finger was poised, but I held back and stuck it out.

But it's all about the instrumental passages with the Dead, which is pretty much a jazz thing.* But since the Dead's music was grounded in traditional American musical forms, including country and bluegrass, their improvisations didn't actually sound "jazzy." The Dead Heads lived for the moments when the improvisations took on a morphing, mystical life of their own. They were willing to withstand some clunkers to get there. That's wise.

When the Dead brought it all together, which was frequently, it did in fact seem like the sound of wisdom, or maybe the sound of insight. At one point during the weekend, the channel was playing a complete set from the 1970s -- from Cincinnati I think it was. I didn't recognize the song, but after the vocals the group calmly worked through a series of rising arpeggios that could only be described as majestic. And chill-inducing, yes. Something not possible in the compressed safe-zone of the other 24 Sirius channels.

One of the Dead's most consistently listenable sets for the non-believer is the live album Reckoning. Above I have posted their classic "Ripple" from that LP. Hey, the harmonies sound pretty decent! Check out when Bobby's dog Otis wanders onto the stage at 1:39.

* I'll speculate here that the Dead's vocal limitations helped them achieve true greatness. The vocals being what they were, perfection was never an option. The temptation of being a chops-oriented prog band never stood a chance, even though many of their early tracks fit into the prog genre. I like prog as much as any other white guy who came of age in the 70s, but prog is rarely transcendent.

Ripple, by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

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