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Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Sittin’ In
By Blair Jackson
I only got to see Duane Allman in person once—at the Fillmore East when he sat in with the Dead for three numbers on 4/26/71: “Sugar Magnolia,” “It Hurts Me Too” and “Beat It on Down the Line.” I had recently fallen in love the Allmans' Idlewild South album, which served as my introduction to the band, so I was thrilled to see Duane rockin' with my favorite group!
As a suburban New York teenager completely enamored with the mystique of '60s San Francisco, I figured the Dead probably had musicians joining them onstage at their concerts all the time, not to mention endless late night jam sessions with Jorma, Carlos, Cipollina and whoever else was around when they were back in the Bay Area. When Tom Constanten (T.C.), whom I'd never seen play with the Dead, turned up as a guest at the Fillmore two night later, it reinforced my (incorrect) notion that sit-ins with the Dead were a common occurrence. For a while, I half-expected someone cool to show up every time I saw the band. But aside from another Allmans sighting the following year at Dillon Stadium in Hartford (7/16/72; Jerry and Bob reciprocated by playing with the Allmans the next night at Gaelic Park in the Bronx; equally thrilling!), it would be many years before I saw another outside musician with the Dead—could it really have been the “From Egypt with Love” shows, with harmonica ace Lee Oskar from War, in October of '78? I think so.
As my tape collection grew in the late '70s and early '80s, I finally got to hear some of the more famous guest appearances, such as Janis joining Pigpen for an endless and not particularly great “Lovelight” at the Fillmore West on 6/7/69, and the Fillmore East late show from 2/11/70, featuring Duane Allman and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac (and a bunch of others banging on various percussion instruments) jamming on “Dark Star,” a ferocious “Spanish jam” and “Lovelight.” That one's got lots of inspired playing, but also sounds wandering and extremely cluttered in places. It's the classic “too many cooks” jammer's dilemma—the musicians want to both shred and be deferential to the others onstage. Also, not everyone is miked equally well, so some parts unfortunately get lost in the mix. Still, imagine the excitement of being there and actually witnessing this sonic tsunami gushing off the stage in giant waves!
As a serious Jefferson Airplane fan, I was also ecstatic when the somewhat muffled audience tapes of the 11/20/70 Rochester Dead show appeared, with Jorma adding his stinging leads to a few songs (such as a fantastic “All Over Now” and “Darling Corey”) and jams. I guess if a soundboard version of that existed it would have materialized by now; sniff, sniff. Oh, well—thank God Marty Wienberg taped it!
By the '80s, it seems that most of the guest shots were song-oriented rather than jam-oriented, for better or worse. Etta James' appearances with the Dead 12/30-31/82 at Oakland Auditorium were a blast—it was great to hear her and the Tower of Power horns tackle “Hard to Handle” and “Lovelight” and “Tell Mama,” and fortunately they'd rehearsed at least a little. I also dug the tapes of Stephen Stills' loose but intense appearances at Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey 4/16-17/83. But I was disappointed by the melding of the Dead and much of The Band for a short, sloppy uninspired third set at the SF Civic on New Year's Eve '83.
E Street sax man Clarence Clemons sat in at a number of shows in the late '80s (and played several entire concerts with the Garcia Band in '89; a better match) and added some nice touches to some songs, but was distracting and “off” on others. Branford Marsalis' first appearance with the Dead at Nassau Coliseum on 3/29/90 was perhaps the greatest single sit-in ever with the Dead, in my view. No other guest “got” the band and its many facets as well as he did. I wasn't at that one, but I did get to see him with the Dead on New Year's Eve '90-'91 and I can attest to their strong connection. I am not a huge fan of saxophonist David Murray and what he added to the group, but Ornette Coleman blew me away with powerful reeds work at the Oakland Coliseum on 2/23/93.
Jerry and Branford Marsalis at Nassau Coliseum, March 29, 1990. Photo: Michael A. Conway ©2012
Other cool guest spots I enjoyed (on tape or in person) include Carlos Santana at Calaveras 8/22-23/87 and Las Vegas 4/28/91 (“Bird Song”!); Suzanne Vega fronting the Dead for a version of Robin Hitchcock's "Chinese Bones" at the rainforest benefit at Madison Square Garden 9/24/88; all of Steve Miller's appearances with the band in the summer of '92 (he even elevated “Morning Dew” at Giants Stadium on 6/14/92); blues harmonica legend James Cotton at Soldier Field 6/25/92; the supremely soulful Bonnie Raitt on “Big Boss Man” NYE '89-'90; Neil Young leading the band through an emotional “Forever Young” at the Bill Graham memorial concert in Golden Gate Park on 11/3/91; Bruce Hornsby anytime he showed up to play; and, much to my surprise, Spencer Davis at the Forum in L.A. (along with Hornsby) on 12/10/89. I'm like a broken record singing the praises of Halloween '91 with Quicksilver's Gary Duncan and Ken Kesey, but it's worth mentioning again. One of the weirdest I personally saw was when Bob Dylan showed up for the encore at MSG on 10/17/94 and mumbled his way through “Rainy Day Women.” What an odd duck. Still, it was kinda fun screaming out “Everybody must get stoned!” along with Jerry.
I have to admit that sometimes, once the initial rush of excitement over the unexpected appearance of a guest had subsided, I sometimes found myself wishing I was just hearing the Good Ol' Grateful Dead instead. Having an extra person onstage invariably changed the way the group played and at times actually brought the energy level down as the band struggled to mesh with a foreign element. It was one thing to have someone out there playing on a blues or “Midnight Hour” or something simple, but when the band carried on with “Terrapin” or “Stella Blue” or something the guest clearly didn't know, it could sound awkward and forced. But at least it was almost always interesting, and weren't we all craving new and different things? I was!
I don't want to leave out Mickey and Bill's many percussionist friends. Airto, Flora Purim, Olatunji, Hamza El Din and others were always welcome visitors, and, truth be told, usually fit in with the flow of things even more than guest guitarists and singers.
It's interesting that in the post-Grateful Dead world, the surviving band members are all about playing with anybody and everybody, anywhere anytime! They are flexible in ways the Grateful Dead were not, for some reason—anyone care to speculate why?
Lastly, I am occasionally asked why there hasn't been a Grateful Dead & Friends box set, or more releases featuring guests. After all, there are more than enough outstanding tracks to make up a cool release. I don't have a good answer for you, except to note that obtaining rights from outside artists can be difficult—dealing with managers, record labels, the families of deceased players, etc.—and expensive. Of course the Dead wanted to put some Duane Allman or Beach Boys tracks from those '71 Fillmore East concerts on the Ladies and Gentlemen...The Grateful Dead package; couldn't work out a deal. Someday, perhaps.
What are some your favorite guest appearances with the Dead? Or, conversely, tell us about ones you think didn't work. What would you put on a Grateful Dead & Friends box?
1-13-80 The Cambodian refugee benefit at the Oakland Coliseum featured John Cipollina and Carlos Santana joining in with the band on a powerhouse Sugar Magnolia. It made having to stand out in the rain for hours waiting to get inside worth it.
I wish I had been there on 4/26/71 - I'm a huge Duane Allman fan. . . listen to his slide solo on BIODTL. . . it's short, but it couldn't be any hotter!
The Neville Brothers in Pittsburgh, and Jerry with Sting were my favorites. And of course, Tipper Gore with The Dead in '09
Even though this is off topic because it wasn't someone sitting in with the Dead, it stills seems tangentially relevant. I have always thought that Fogerty wasted a golden opportunity to jam out a 10 - 15 minute Keep On Chooglin' or Heard It Through The Grapevine when Jerry and Bob sat in with him at the AIDS Benefit in 1989. That would've been so cool. Instead they played a bunch of short songs and it really didn't even matter that Jerry was there, he really didn't take any distinctive or impressive solos. Doesn't seem like Fogerty is a risk-taker, musically.
As for Dead sit ins, I agree that Branford was a cut above every other sit in because of his jazz chops and his innate understanding of the music. Next for me would be the raging Spanish Jam from 2/11/70. Usually too many people on stage creates a muddled mess, but not on this one, to my ears. Blazing!
The sit in I most wished for that didn't happen was Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes with the Dead in the early 90s. They were on fire in those years and were playing Going Down The Road Feeling Bad and even doing a little Franklin's Tower instrumental jam. I think they could've blended in with the Dead in a seemless way just like Branford did. Modern sound mixing technology probably made sit ins in the 80s/90s potentially better sounding than in the early 70s.
The inability of most "guests" to raise the level of the music, or to even mesh well, is as good an indication as any of what was rather unique about the dead. Outside of songs well centered in traditional musical genres, guests often sounded lost, inappropriate, tonally and timbrally off, and so on. The proof is in the jams, where most guests sound, well, quite frankly, bad! The exception are advanced jazz musicians like Ornette and Branford (I am a David Murray fan, but don't think he tried very hard!). I came to not welcome guests, but fear them, knowing we will get a bland run-throuigh of NFA, or something like that. I wish they had brought on more jazz-centered guests over the years. Well, enough of this!
3.29.90 the first time with Branford is one of my top shows. Branford just seems to really click with the band. Being a huge jazz fan it a big surprise when he came out, many people around me were like Branford Who?. It was very cool that someone on the level of Branford musically would jam with the boys - multiple times. Certainly one of the best saxophonists out there. Actually my first show 4.16.83 Brendan Bryne Arena had Stephen Stills come during the second set. And lets not forget April Fools 93 Nassau Coliseum with Barney!
I remember Mathew Kelley (from Kingfish, etc.) sitting in on some east coast shows and blowing some harp. It was likely 1985, maybe it was Nassau or Worcester (or both?). From my spot just out in front of the stage on Phil's side, I had a clear view as Mickey would repeatedly chuck drumsticks at Matt, occasionally dinging him in the head. I had not seen that before...
I find this especially gratifying because when I did my interview with Jer back in the day, we got on this sidetrack about how great Suzanne Vega was. Up to that point I had no idea he was a fan too!
were Neville's at Giant Stadium 7-10-89 for huge NOLA drumz into Iko then Dew, great powerful stuff from great musicians.
And t'other was a weird one that some people hate (not Blair however); Suzanne Vega at MSG 9-24-88. I was already a fan of hers for a few years, but was shocked she was sitting in. Here was this mini-ish mousey little girl with a Taylor acoustic, standing center-stage NYC in front of Double Drum Risers and bookended by Weir and Garcia. Jerry was all smiles and you can hear Suzanne's voice go from nervous, recital kid to lead singer of the Grateful Dead. She even smiles towards the end as she takes in the spectacle. Sweet moment. I dug the song too, first time I ever heard it.
I've always thought that a "sitting in with the GD" release would be really popular. The number of guests that all of you have written about is evidence of how much we all treasure those collaborations, even when they were kind of clunky (Janis, 6/7/69). I saw one of the GD with horns shows (Buffalo, 9/26/73) and when the horns came on stage the show went right downhill. I loved Fierro with Jerry and Merl but with the Dead they just muddied the sound. Moreover, they took leads when we were used to hearing Jerry solo (Eyes of the World) and so I felt like I missed what I came for. I've listened to several other shows and agree with Dave - none of them are worth releasing.
On the other hand, I was thrilled to be at the U of R on 11/20/70 when Jorma jammed with the Dead. It was my first gymnasium show and the show was so much longer than I was used to. Three full sets, with Jorma coming on for the final one. Oh how I wish there were boards available because listening to the audience tapes doesn't do the show justice. It was a great night! And just a few nights before they jammed with Traffic at the Fillmore. Another one worth hearing.
The jam at Watkins Glen does soar. Despite how insanely stoned Rick Danko was, when the ensemble got to Mountain Jam I remember that it became the highest moment of a very full day. Well worth the listen.
I think there are lots of great collaborations worth issuing. Undoubtedly 6/10/73 is as good as any. I really like Carlos at Calaveras in 87 and I echo Blair's comments about 10/27/91. The Beach Boys in 4/71 is kind of silly but Duane's appearance that week is killer. Anytime Cippolina joined them on-stage is worth hearing. Stills did an amazing Black Queen at the Thelma in LA in December 1969. So many to choose from!
C'mon Dave, you could easily pull this off if you tried!