In my previous post, I laid out my set list for my dream Grateful Dead show. Now here’s the follow-up: the set list for my all-time nightmare Grateful Dead show.
Of course, in the world of the Dead, even a beloved song could turn into a nightmare on a sloppy, tired or uninspired night.
I’m thinking, for instance, of some late-’70s shows where the (presumably coked-up) Dead played “Eyes Of The World” way too fast, robbing the song of its danceability and rendering Jerry Garcia unable to keep the pace.
What I’m imagining here are songs I don’t like, played poorly. Instead of a summer night’s baseball stadium, I figure the setting for this show is an anonymous provincial hockey rink, with muddy sound and drunks getting into fistfights in the mezzanine.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably up for the ride. So let’s descend, shall we?
Walkin’ Blues – Yeah, I know. I just filled my dream show with blues covers. Not all blues covers are created the same, though. This song is musically undistinguished, usually plodding and unfunky, and performed way more often than it was worth. This is the kind of song that telegraphs: “We’re not warmed up, or otherwise not up for anything complicated, so we’re gonna take stumbling refuge in a mid-tempo blues.” To add insult to injury in my hell-version, Garcia plays a long, sloppy slide solo. I’m thinking late ’80s here, with the two drummers stepping all over each other during the fills.
Row Jimmy – Endless narcotized semi-reggae from Garcia, whose demeanor suggests he has eaten an entire Thanksgiving turkey before coming onstage. I’ve never been fond of the lyrics, and the glacial pace does nothing to redeem them. At the lyric “That’s the way it’s been in this town / Ever since they tore the jukebox down,” a subwoofer blows with a loud ripping noise, and the drunks in the crowd hoot with delight. (The version in my hell-show could come from any period of Dead history; with very, very rare exceptions, I don’t like any version I’ve ever heard.)
Me and Bobby McGee – Weir comes back with the polite, well-groomed Kris Kristofferson cover that was a numbing constant of Dead set lists in 1971 and early ’72. I believe this was performed as a tribute to Janis Joplin, which is honorable enough. The Dead never brought any spark of their own to it, though, and it had already been claimed forever by Janis’ career-defining version. (This is not the last song on my hell-set list that was best left in the hands of others.)
Loser – Yeah, a couple of those Jerry weepers that didn’t make it into the dream-show will show up here. All that Robert Hunter nonsense about gambling and “I could arm a town the size of Abilene” just never washed with me. This song’s meant to be don’t-mess-with-me gunslinger edgy, but the Marin County hippies it was written for don’t bring it off. Again, a version from any calendar era will do here, though I lean toward something from the late ’80s or ’90s, after Garcia had torched his voice.
Looks Like Rain – “You want ballads?” Weir says. “I got your ballad right here.” Melodically pretty, and better than the songs that surround it, but still overlong and lyrically minor. Donna Jean’s monitor isn’t working, either, which doesn’t help the harmonies. The line about cats making love makes the drunks hoot inappropriately again. (Late ’70s for this version.)
It Must Have Been The Roses – Refusing to be outdone in the Battle of the Ballads, Garcia whips out another one of Hunter’s less inspired slow tunes — this one involving the sea instead of the frontier. He forgets at least two of the verses and has to sing them over again, and for a time, it seems like the show has slowed to a complete halt, trapping all its occupants in a flood of dried sap.
Playing In The Band – We go very specifically to ’71 for this version. In its original incarnation, Playing was a stand-alone song, over in four minutes, just as it was performed on Weir’s solo album Ace. It wasn’t until ’72 that the band inserted space into it and turned it into a marvelous journey. Knowing the all-time space breakout the song turned into, it’s impossible to hear a short ’71 version and feel at all satisfied. So, that’s exactly what we get … four minutes and out.
Might As Well – Garcia burps a few times, perks up, and decides it’s time to boogie. So the Dead, who by now are looking forward to cold beers and/or a good ripping backstage argument, lock into one of those exhausted shuffles they perfected in the ’80s and ’90s, where both drummers out-stiff each other. Set One ends with what seems like 10 straight minutes of Garcia mumbling “might as well, might as well/ Might as well, might as well/ Might as well, might as well / Might as well.” No, really, that’s how it goes.
Mighty Quinn – Deadheads seemed to think this Dylan/Manfred Mann cover was “fun.” A better word, I submit, would be “moronic,” or perhaps “wooden.” (Maybe the Germans have a word that combines “moronic” and “wooden.”) Included, among other reasons, to prove that I don’t love everything the Dead did in the late ’80s.
The Race Is On – You really thought we were gonna get through the hell-show with no Bob Weir cowboy tunes? You were thinking, “If I wanted George Jones, I would have gone to see George Jones”? Nope. Even a few spots of aroused Garcia country pickin’ can’t save this particularly purple Nashville relic. Enjoy your cornpone, folks. (We’ll make this a circa-’72 or ’73 version, but we’ll make it one of those tunes Keith Godchaux decided to play with only three fingers.)
Don’t Need Love – Brent Mydland and John Barlow co-wrote several rawly emotional romantic plaints in the ’80s, all of which I can live without. I thought about including Never Trust A Woman based solely on its cringeworthy title, but decided to go with this one instead ’cause I knew it was played in Set Two … and, even at my most bored and contemptuous, I’m trying to be somewhat historically accurate.
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road – Bass player Phil Lesh has gone unmentioned here. Unfortunately, once he steps to the mic, he makes himself a target. This Beatles curio has nothing to recommend cover versions — it was a doodle tossed off by Paul McCartney as part of a double album that could have done with some trimming — and why the Dead ever took it up is beyond me. Set Two being the jam set, the Dead abuse this for much longer than it deserves, then move into …
Dancin’ In The Streets – One of the discofied/cokified versions from the late ’70s. Fifteen solid minutes of incessant high-hat, topped by sputtering licks from Garcia as he struggles to keep up. Groan. After a while comes the inevitable …
Drums – One of those endless second-set drum jams from the ’80s and ’90s. Sometimes I don’t mind these, but on nights when there was no magic … well, there was no magic. Another fifteen minutes of migraine-inducing pounding later, the cops are dragging first-time drug bingers out by their heels, and the Dead stagger into …
The Wheel – One of Garcia’s preferred second-set vehicles. I enjoy the studio version of this song (on Garcia’s first solo album), but often find it slow and clunky and devoid of energy onstage. Imagine a square wheel thunking around and around, and you’ve got the idea. A fit of noodly free-form jamming carries us into …
Dear Mr. Fantasy/Hey Jude Finale – In Steve Winwood’s hands, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was an OK song. In Brent Mydland’s, it feels mawkish and forced. To make matters worse, he transitions — as he used to do — into the na-na-na-na part of Hey Jude at the end, for no other reason than the two songs happen to share the same chord progression. Always felt like pandering to tired ’60s nostalgia to me … and each successive repetition only makes it worse. Weir doesn’t feel like ending on a ballad, so …
Around and Around – … he steps up and leads the band into one of those Chuck Berry covers it plays way too slowly and without any snap or funk at all. The remaining crowd is left wishing it could have gone to the concert described in Berry’s lyrics, rather than the concert described on their ticket stubs.
Baba O’Riley/Tomorrow Never Knows – I think Vince Welnick got a raw deal, and I’ve consciously avoided criticizing him. It’s not really his fault he accepted a gig he was not that well-suited for. Who among us would have turned down the Grateful Dead?
I can, however, blame him for bringing some truly inexplicable songs into the Dead repertoire — none more than this two-fer, which featured together as an encore in the early ’90s, and again seemed to be strung together for no better reason than they could be made to do so. The Who, with their raw power and arena-rock flair, owned Baba O’Riley; the spavined Grateful Dead of the 1990s very much did not.
So there’s my hell-show. For the perfect topper, imagine yourself getting busted for jaywalking on the way out.