Put the Boot In: Grateful Dead – January 8, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium ‘Electric Dixieland’

by | May 22, 2022 | 0 comments

Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ is the earliest circulating live recording of the Grateful Dead. While the group played their first live show in May of 1965, here we find the first recorded documentation of a ‘Primal Dead’ show. Taking place at the ‘Fillmore Auditorium’ in San Francisco on January 8, 1966 we find the ‘Dead’ as the house band for an early acid test. The tapes of the groups earliest show’s sometimes feel like turning the key in a car that been put up in the barn for the winter. There is some grinding, some strange noises and maybe even a strange fluid leaking out from a crack somewhere. But once that engine warms up and everything starts to mesh at an optimal level you can start to discern an unique rock and blues band.

The
quintessential quintet, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir and
Ron ‘Pig Pen’ McKernan made up phase one of this Grateful Dead. In spite of the
virtuosic talents of Garcia, Lesh and Kreutzmann, these guys were really
amateurs on electric instruments. The band’s eventual second sight and learned
ability to play off one another was born of learning how to play their
instruments with each other. Hard months of practice during the winter of 1966
paid dividends in the available circulating recording we are playing today.

These
guys worked hard at developing their craft. This is an under appreciated aspect
of the ‘Warlocks/Grateful Dead journey. These moments of captured on stage
musical clairvoyance were the result of hours of musical discussion and off
stage practice. The available practice tapes recorded in January and February
1966 show a band willing to talk a out and a stern  Camaraderie in
turn bred a stern accountability as can be heard on the recordings. Lesh has
already asserted himself into a leadership role and aligned himself Garcia’s
co-visionary at this early juncture. 

Youth,
drugs, enthusiasm and an internal drive to develop a unique musical
expression united the group in a common vision. Garcia came from a bluegrass
background, Lesh classical (and had never touched a bass), Pigpen the blues and
Bill and Bob, ‘rockers’ for lack of a better term. Vibrato was king and
folks can liken the band’s aesthetic during 1966  to a charged alien surf
band.

As
previously stated this first audio documentation that we have of the ‘Grateful
Dead’ hails from January 8th, 1966 at the Fillmore Acid Test. Show lists and
various documentation show that the band played sonically undocumented shows at
the Matrix in the week leading up to this performance. This soundboard line
recording throws us into the deep end right into a heady brew of Prankster
chaos. This is the first available documentation of the live concert experience
that would define the band’s next 30 plus careers together. Prior to the ‘Dead’
taping all of their shows, the Pranksters took it upon themselves to do so.
Thanks Kesey!

Additional
handfuls of concert and rehearsal tapes of tapes circulate of the Grateful Dead
in 1966. That being said, many more live recordings than most any other bands
of the era.  Many are dated poorly or not at all, many have cuts
missing songs and missing reels. The sonics emanating from the January
8th Fillmore tape sound like florescent ectoplasm, an electronic wasteland
peppered with calls for stage power and an annoyed ‘Pig’. “Stop babbling and
fix the microphone” he shouts to Ken Babbs. The recording is littered with LSD
inspired chaos. The alchemy of the ‘Grateful Dead’ and the acid tests is the
organic looseness and lack of any sort of order. This freedom allowed the
‘Dead’ Looking through the multicolored mists of an acid dream we are dropped straight
into a loping ‘King Bee’ on the recording. As we will find, a highlight of
these early shows, Bill the drummer is extraordinary at galloping along with
the white boy blues, but this band is about Garcia and Pig.

                                      

It’s
obvious by looking at the setlists of the available recordings ‘King Bee’ was a
focus of the early Grateful Dead performances. Probably one of the first songs
learned collaboratively the Slim Harpo number played to the band’s strengths at
this point in time.. These guys were the ‘Pigpen Blues Band’ at this early
juncture. The song was a straight blues in which they could stretch their legs
as well as developing a sympatico with one another. In the song’s framework
there was ample opportunity for exploring the song’s changes, eliciting call
and response moments as well as sharpening their blues chops. ‘King Bee’ skips
on Bill the drummers nimble snare work. Already a stellar rock drummer, the
tapes bear out that he was already on par with the much more practiced Garcia.

Lesh
plays a loopy legato slide, playing much nearer to the root that usual. Pig
lays down gritty harp, but once Garcia comes in for his first solo, flashing
images of the future Grateful Dead flitter in the atmosphere. Pig screams
soulfully in the background as Lesh and Garcia probe the 12 bar for clandestine
doorways to new avenues of expression. Here the ‘Dead’ dig into a basic blues,
but played with a unique renegade attitude. 

Amidst
the charged atmospherics of the recording, the tape then cuts in with the band
playing ‘Hog For you Baby’, a Leiber and Stoller hailing classic from Pig’s
fathers record collection I’m sure. This reading contains all of the groovy
hallmarks of later Dead covers such as ‘Walkin’ the Dog’ and ‘Big Boy Pete’
This one sways like a go go girl’s behind, with a delectable groove and
‘Pigpen’ with both hands on the wheel and in full control of the band. Garcia’s
soloing is scattershot, excitable and glittery. In the solo break Garcia lays
down a strip of candied dots across the percolating strobing grooves. Grateful
Dead dance band at your service. Even at this early juncture the group is
definitely practiced, abundantly eager, yet garage basic.

A
highlight of the tape and a discernable distant gleam can be witnessed though
what is one of the band’s first collaborative original songs and their first
improvisational pieces, ‘Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)’. Obviously influenced
by the song, ‘Gypsy Eyes’ off of ‘Them’s’ 1965 debut The Angry Young
Them, the jam is a clanging of rail joints and squats as the train rounds
the bend. Based around an amphetamine ‘Bo Diddley’ groove, the ‘Dead’ peeled
their arrangement from Van Morrison’s blueprints.  

A
studio recording of the song is available as it was attempted during the ‘Warlocks’
debut visit to the recording studio in 1965. Even in the confines of the
sterile studio the song contained a certain amount of ‘it’. This introductory
live concert version cuts in during an already bubbling jam heavy with attitude
and wining Pig harp. The band is frothing with energy. Garcia enters with brash
prickly scrubs as the band passes the ball around the room before meeting the
middle and hitting on an agreed up lick.

Weir’s
guitar is somewhat inaudible, but Lesh and Bill continue propelling the jam
forward. The group is pulsing while some off mic yelling can be discerned, I’m
sure we can’t even begin to imagine what is taking place around the stage among
the hipsters, tripsters, and real cool chicks. The band disseminates some
‘Yardbird’ like adolescent ‘rave ups’ with plentiful Mississippi saxophone by
‘Pig’. There is no doubt that at this juncture, that ‘Pigpen’ was in full
control of the band, but something outside of jug band and rock and blues realm
is observing from the peripheral. 

The
genealogy of  these early ‘Caution’ jams  is an important focus when
listening to the initial concert excursions of ‘Grateful Dead’. As Pig drives
the intensity higher Garcia responds encouraging the band into a whirling
dervish of sound. Around three minutes Weir gets into it with some slashing
excitable rhythms. Garcia soon let’s loose with the recognizable ‘Caution’
siren that signals the music to drop and Pig  to let the assembled crowd
know ‘what they need’. Following Pig’s lyrics an eager jam follows with
Pig and Jerry trading twisted blues quotes while the audience cheers them
on initiating an additional Pig diatribe.

Closing
the available recording from January 8, is our first available rendition of
Reverend Gary Davis’s ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, a idol of many if not all of
the folkies , soon come rockers around the San Francisco scene. This is not definitely
not party music, but this is an early example of the ‘Grateful Dead’ taking
delicate concert attendees to the precipices of Yin and Yang. On the available
recording as Garcia hits the ascending opening lick into the song you can here
Babbs close by the mic let out a laugh, obviously tickled deep by Garcia’s
sonic jab. The song jumps the tracks out of ‘Caution’ and surpasses nine
minutes. 

Highlighted
by Pig’s horror show organ and Garcia’s youthful and invested vocals, ‘Death
Don’t’ is just the dose of musical reality the band would become famous for
administering. Screams of delight come from the crowd as the group rises and
falls with Garcia’s almost unbelievable screaming of the verses. Wobbly
chorused notes pour from Garcia’s vessel as Lesh and Kreutzmann bring the
groove down low. The mood shifts to introspective for Garcia’s second trip
around the cemetery lot. Lesh shadows him, supports his patient riffing before
landing at the appropriate place at the perfect time together.

The
available tape ends with additional Prankster madness while they clear the
house. Kesey, Weir and others make the exit of the ‘test’ a most interesting
way of leaving. Weir asks Jerry if they should play ‘On the Road Again’ to get
everyone on the road. The rest of the reel is quite discombobulating with
mindless chaos, liquid verbalizations, hallucinations and concluding with a
demonic reading of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. 

This recording reveals the early aural tentacles of the Grateful Dead reaching out and
making critical connections. It acts as proof of the band’s first developmental
steps in helping to understand their connections as artists and disseminators
of some greater musical cosmic truth. Always reaching for an unknowable golden
ring that when caught can lift both artist and receptor to storying heights.
The band was beginning to understand what powers their talents and
collaborative strengths provided them and how they could use them for the
greater good.

By
July, the formative foundations hailing from all
of the five members shared performing experiences would begin to pay dividends in ways
beyond their wildest dreams. Based on my analysis, within just weeks the band
would take their stiff blues aesthetic and elasticize it to far reaching corners of
multifarious genres and cosmic sonics not yet curated by a normal rock and roll
band. This was only the beginning. 

Grateful Dead January 8, 1966


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