Tyneside Cinema, Palo Alto's favorite sons, Grateful Dead, 50 year old concert film, worth a watch? I was 14 when the gig happened, just starting to broaden musical tastes. The Dead? Just sooo uncool even when we barely knew what cool was. I do recall my literature teacher telling me how her boyfriend had taken her to a Dead concert and she had fallen asleep. Not my scene either.
An archetypal rockdoc seemed to be in store from the get go. VH-1 on the big screen. The film’s intro featured féted talking heads, memories, talking dead heads, myths, (hiding dope at customs - dude!), how those happy stoner days set the scene. The Grateful Dead were the first rock band to play live on Danish TV, and this footage is that archived set.
Unfamiliar with the Dead’s music, I was surprised at the guitarists’ playing, sounding like a mix of Little Feat (thumbs up), The Allman Brothers (Double thumbs up) and late-period Byrds (good with all that).
For their marathon live shows, the Grateful Dead remain culturally iconic, whatever people sniffily think. Theirs is a basic presentation, no massive light show, lasers, big screens, obviously no drone cameras, not even dry ice, or flying pigs. Straight music, blues, country, jazz crossovers, even when performing in huge venues. Yes there were face masks, and touches of lunacy, and 60’s post hippy frivolity, harmless and innocent, in a pre-cynical world, when musical integrity seemed to matter. It was lovely to see musicians enjoying themselves, and each other’s playing. Live, the Dead look like a great blues band, their songs well played, with a particularly wonderful blues harmonica and in Jerry Garcia’s slide guitar, a revelation.
Memories brought some folks to the Tyneside Cinema, a couple danced to a few songs at the front, that was a delight. The standout songs for me included the Dead’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby Mcgee’, from their 1970 American Beauty record. More desperate than Janis Joplin’s worldwide hit; ‘Big Bill Railroad Blues’, ‘One More Saturday Night’, ‘Trucking’, ‘Ramble on Rose’... All great. The film focused almost exclusively on the band and the music, there was more of a sense of being there somewhere in the front rows, seeing the band close up. Sure there were on-stage shots, and close ups of fingers on frets. Predominantly the camera shot was from the front row.
I enjoyed this as a concert film, more than say Zeppelin’s - ‘The Song Remains the Same’, or Floyd’s - ‘Live in Pompeii’, or recent Stones’ contemporary concert footage, no inserts of ‘interpretations’ of songs, just a turn up, see, savour and enjoy a live show.
Now the real questions. Did I miss something, by not seeing the Dead in the 70’s? I’m not too sure. Would I snaffle a 2nd hand pre-loved CD? possibly. Impressed, with no frills presentation? Yes. No deadheads chattering on film mid songs gets an A+ too. A sense of their variety and dexterity? Yes. A band on top of their game? Absolutely.
If you’re curious to get a sense of these rock legends live, performing in the 70’s, this is as good a starting point as any. As good an experience as a night out with a live Dead tribute band, I don’t know? This is as close as I could get. I came away more open minded after 50 close-minded years about a band with worldwide devotees that I sneered at, but now appreciate a little more.
Be amazed, finally, Phil Lesh’s bass guitar, with MORE knobs to twiddle, than strings to play. What's that all about?
Main image: Herb Greene - Billboard, page 9, 5 December 1970
L-R: Bill Kreutzmann, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh
Trade ad for Grateful Dead's album American Beauty (album). Cropped. Found on Wikipedia.