Tales of Bessman: The first times I saw The Dead (and Siegel-Schwall)

Admittedly, it would have been more fitting to listen to Workingman’s Dead on Labor Day Weekend, but since I just acquired a copy of the recently released three-CD Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol. 18–Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI 2/3/78 Uni-Dome, University of N. Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 2/5/78, and it’s a long weekend, I figured I’d give the whole thing a spin and see if it was as good as I remembered.

Yes, I was at the Madcity show. We at The Madcity Music Sheet—my first music writing gig—were big Deadheads.

Not sure how many times I’d seen them before—or after, for that matter, though I did see them many more times, most memorably with Dylan at Giants Stadium and at least once with Bruce Hornsby.

The first time was April 26, 1970, some 25 miles north of Madison at York Farm in Poynette, Wis., the last day of the three-day, post-Woodstock/Altamont Sound Storm rock festival. I remember the show being great, but that’s about it. What I can tell you about it now comes from various attendees’ online recollections and an excellent Lost Live Dead blog account I just discovered (along with great photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society website): They topped a bill of regional acts including Tongue, Crow, Illinois Speed Press, Rotary Connection and Baby Huey & the Babysitters, and played three sets (nearly six hours), including a 20-30 minute “Dancing in the Street,” with Jerry having shaved his beard, perhaps, an attendee surmised, because of the drug bust earlier that year in New Orleans later immortalized in “Truckin’.”

After the second Dead song (it’s one of those relatively few Dead shows where the set list doesn’t exist) the band sought an I Ching, “the grey book,” Bob Weir said after a different one was passed forward (according to one Jerry Klein in The SetList Program website). The band then knelt down together in the center of the stage, tossed coins, read results, and then arose “laughing and hollering” and launched into “Other One,” with Wavy Gravy sitting ecstatically on top of a bank of speakers on the far left.

I digress. The second Wisconsin rock festival came exactly two months later, in Iola Township, some 140 miles North of Madison and 80 miles West of Green Bay, on June 26-28. I was there for the whole thing—whatever that means—and now must rely on an excellent two-part blog account The People’s Fair—which the festival was called–and The Battle of Iola, which is what it became.

According to a Saturday report in Madison’s Capital Times referenced in the blog, the festival, at the beginning, resembled “one of those medieval fairs that preceded the urbanization of Europe and its subsequent Renaissance [with] bubbles [that] were very much in style and they floated through the frisbee-laced air.” Despite the lack of toilets and telephones and “an abundance of mosquitoes,” thousands had gathered together “to reaffirm their own culture far from the boarded-up windows of State Street”—this an allusion to the era’s antiwar protests-turned-riots that frequently left many shops on Madison’s main campus street with shattered glass.

But the “carnival atmosphere,” one correspondent noted, substituted LSD for cotton candy. I distinctly remember gobbling down acid, psilocybin, mescaline and speed and wandering around complaining that I couldn’t get off.

Friday’s schedule, it says, included Melanie, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and Buddy Rich. Of these I vividly remember seeing Butterfield, though I can’t remember if they were right before or after Siegel-Schwall. I think it was before, and I’m pretty sure both acts were on sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning. Butterfield was great, but Siegel-Schwall was lifechanging: To this day, I’ve never seen a better band. Corky Siegel remains one of my biggest influences and closest friends. I was with Jim Schwall two months ago back in Madison. Everything else about Iola may be a purple haze, but I remember Siegel-Schwall, whom I would see countless times after, like it was last night.

Looking at the blog, I see the Amboy Dukes—Ted Nugent’s early band—played Saturday along with Brownsville Sation, Crow and Buffy Sainte-Marie, and no, I wasn’t one of the group of guys near the stage who affectionately yelled in unison, “Buffy. We want to fuck you!”—nor did I remind her of it years later at a press dinner in New York. Local bands who played included The Tayles, Oz, Tongue, Fuse (featuring future Cheap Tricksters Rick Nielsen and Tom Peterson), Soup (Appleton rock trio led by late guitar legend Doug Yankus) and Short Stuff—the wonderful Milwauke blues-rock band starring the great harp player Jim Liban and keyboardist Junior Brantley that I also became close to.

I’d forgotten about Iggy and the Stooges, who played just before sunrise Sunday morning. I remember them now, but I can’t remember if I heard the gunfire.

The blog recounts rumors of “shakedowns, beatings and rapes by bikers in attendance.” Just before 7 a.m., people began throwing bottles at the bikers at their campsite at the bottom of a hill to the left of the stage. A few bikers mounted up and charged, guns blazing. Three people were wounded, none seriously. People in the crowd estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 started leaveing, though I stayed to see Chuck Berry and Ravi Shankar. But after Iola, “the brief era of mass, multi-day festivals in Wisconsin was over.”

But back to Dick’s Picks Vol. 18, specifically February 3, 1978. Pigpen had died in 1973, and now the band had Keith Godchaux on keyboards and wife Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals. Before I even took out CD1, I studied the box to see if they did any of my faves, and sure enough, from the first Dead album came “Cold Rain and Snow,” though it was slowed down from the LP version, with a pretty guitar solo, but not as intense. Also from The Grateful Dead was a good job on “New Minglewood Blues,” from the Cedar Falls show.

The Madison gig also yielded a great “Good Lovin’,” and “Looks Like Rain,” which flowed from the first disc’s opening “Bertha.” This disc also had a couple tracks from the band’s in-between show Feb. 4 at the Milwaukee Auditorium, including an excellent take of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”

The second disc was all Madison, with a fabulous “Estimated Prophet” blending into “Eyes of the World” (the extended groove clearly showing the band’s avowed Coltrane influence), then merging into “Playing In the Band,” “The Wheel,” and back to “Playing In the Band.”

From the Iowa show came another favorite, “Deal,” also a terrific “Scarlet Begonias,” which fused into “Fire On the Mountain.”

So was it as good as I remembered? I can’t remember. But it’s really good. And when I finally looked at the booklet, I saw it had pictures from Keith Wessel, whom I worked with at The Madcity Music Sheet, and a review by the late Michael St. John, whom I also worked with at The Sheet as well as The Emerald City Chronicle.

So Dick’s Picks Vol. 18 essentially took me back to my beginnings as a writer. Onwards, now, to Siegel-Schwall ’70, which, by the way, is available thanks to my talking pal Tom Vickers into reissuing it and the entire Siegel-Schwall Vanguard catalog in a 2001 box set.

Here’s a fave track from Siegel-Schwall ’70:

Concert Highlights–Robert Earl Keen at City Winery, 6/10/14

Ran into Tom Silverman, one of the most brilliant people I know in the record business, outside Joe’s Pub as I was leaving Tammy Faye Starlite’s Marianne Faithful/Broken English show and rushing to Colin Blunstone’s at City Winery. Quickly thanked him for inviting me and a few hundred of his other closest friends to his birthday party the next night, to start at 10 or 11 or so, but said I had to bow out.

“It’s too late for you,” Tom said, kindly sparing me the embarrassment of having to say so myself.

So Tuesday afternoon (June 10) I showed up again at City Winery, this time for Robert Earl Keen’s sound check. I realize that yes, I’m too old for an 8 p.m. show, so from now on I’m going to review the soundchecks. REK loved the idea, and said the soundchecks are better than the shows anyway.

I got there and steel player Marty Muse was tuning up. Marty had helped me a week ago on an appreciation piece for my favorite steel player Weldon Myrick, whom Marty had interviewed for his steel player documentary project.

Marty said he had started incorporating his favorite Weldon lick into the show, and went into—of course—the steel intro to Gary Stewart’s “Shes Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”

“That’s what he was good at,” Marty said, referring to those great, late Myrick licks. He explained how Weldon played the opening lick of “She’s Actin’ Single,” then modulated it, “then they kind of crossed over each other.”

I kind of thought I knew what he was talking about, that is, if that’s what he said. I’m not sure because, if I may digress, after the sound check, I went out in back to catch a few minutes of Commander Cody’s free “Hudson Square” show in the lot behind the club—and fatefully ran into “Concert Joe.” Two hash oil hits later, I not only walked out of the #1 Uptown train twice before my 42nd Street stop (really, I was pulled out by the invisible energy vortex when the train doors opened), but I somehow managed to lose my notebook (my third lost notebook in 10 days), even as I had scribbled down notes on the train!

So I’m not sure if Marty actually said, “then they kind of crossed over each other,” and if he did, what he meant. I do know I’m sorry I missed him incorporating the lick into whateve REK song he played it in that night.

But the REK band, sans Robert Earl, groove from tuning directly into Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” bassist Bill Whitbeck doing vocal honors–and very well. In fact, I’ve always hated the song, even Rick Nelson’s hit cover. I mean, it’s boring melodically, and lyrics like “She’s a hypnotist collector/You are a walking antique”? What the fuck shit is this?

But Robert Earl’s band’s sound check version was exquisite, with Marty Muse starting out on dobro, then switching to pedal steel and then to organ, and Rich Brotherton shifting from mandolin to guitar. Then REK strolled out like he’d just rolled out of bed, even if he was wearing a spiffy seersucker jacket and white hat. But he sounded great on two great songs, during which I killed a beer and forgot to take down the titles. Then I asked him what they were—twice—then lost the notebook.

But I do remember that he’s finishing up an album of bluegrass covers with guests including Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines. And that Marty Muse has a steel guitar that once was custom-made for Weldon Myrick.

Concert Highlights–Del McCoury Band with David Grisman at City Winery, 4/17/14

Del McCoury said early on that he didn’t want to repeat any of the songs from the previous night’s first of two shows at City Winery. According to Del McCoury Band bassist Alan Bartram, he didn’t.

Alan, incidentally, also mentioned during the show how thrilled he was to see it spotlighted in New York magazine. Turns out he’s a longtime subscriber.

Speaking of magazines, the band had been to Relix earlier in the day, and had already done “a lot of picking,” said Ronnie McCoury. Del noted, too, that he’d spent a lot of time at the Winery “downstairs with the barrels.” He seemed happier about that visit than the one at Relix.

The first half of the show was all McCoury Band. They did their version of Dylan’s “Walk Out In the Rain,” actually from the 1995 album Ronnie & Rob McCoury. It’s as good a Dylan cover as there is, and Ronnie sounds a lot like Del singing it.

Del prefaced the performance of his 2008 album titletrack Moneyland by noting that John Herald’s manager had sent it to him shortly after Herald died (an apparent suicide in 2005).

Herald was one of the major players in New York City’s bluegrass scene, having formed the Greenbriar Boys in 1959. I was lucky to meet him when he was a key part of  Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry in the late ‘90s in the East Village.

 

Another highlight came with another McCoury album titletrack—last year’s “The Streets of Baltimore” cover of Bobby Bare’s classic 1966 country hit. As Del explained, he had lived in Maryland for a time, when he was playing with late bluegrass upright bass great Jack Cooke.

Determining after that no one in the audience was from Baltimore, Del opened it up to requests: “You paid to get in here, I didn’t,” he said. “We should do something you want to hear.” It was “High on a Mountain,” his 1972 album titletrack, and then he brought out David Grisman.

Grisman related how he met Del at Del’s first show with Bill Monroe (he played five-string banjo) in the spring of 1963 at NYU, where Grisman was a student. He and Del then sang the Monroe Brothers’ “Nine Pound Hammer,” Grisman on mandolin and Del on guitar. From their Del & Dawg album of ‘90s jams, they performed “Country Boy Rock & Roll.” Marty Stuart also does a great job of the Reno and Smiley country classic:

Also from Del & Dawg came “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Walkin’ the Dawg” and the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.”

Grisman scored by pointing out how late-night TV never mentions the Carter Family, and that “any financial advisor will tell you to put some of your money in CDs.” He was also the most visual guy on stage, a big, gentle bear of a man in gray shirt and slacks to match his long hair and beard, positioned in between Ronnie in a black suit and Del in a light one.

He would turn to his left to share vocals with Del, then turn to his right to trade mandolin licks with Ronnie, rocking physically while Ronnie stood and smiled—a striking balance in appearance and performing style.

Del and Dawg will now tour together, while Rob completes his first solo CD.