Album of the Week: Grateful Dead’s Download Series Volume 4: 6/18/76 & 6/21/76 (2005)

After nearly a decade of touring that only became bigger and bigger, the Grateful Dead took a then-indefinite hiatus in late 1974 that lasted approximately a year and a half. Their 1976 June tour was something of a low-key comeback. Instead of playing massive arenas, they sold mail-order tickets for shows at smaller theaters in only 7 cities. Thanks to the Download Series, which is easily streamed, you can hear great recordings of a couple of these shows. Volume 4 presents the 6/18/76 show at Passaic, New Jersey’s Capitol Theatre (which is now a Pizza Hut), as well as the show three days later at the Tower Theatre west of Philadelphia (which is still standing, about 25 blocks from my current apartment).

The 6/18 show is not their tightest night, but it has its highlights. The sound described in one word? Sloooowwww. The band seemed to be in reggae mode, which may be the reason AllMusic described it as a “low-energy… lazy stroll through a fairly familiar set list.” It sounds like they’re zonked off the honey slides that Neil Young cooked up a couple years earlier for On the Beach (and guessing they’re very, very stoned is not a bad bet). “Crazy Fingers” moves at a turtle’s pace, but it’s like, beautiful, man. I love this song, it’s a gem lyrically and musically. “Row Jimmy” is another total vibe.

The big highlight for the Capitol Theatre show is the super-rare Jerry tune “Mission in the Rain,” which was played by the Dead only 5 times! I find this version fantastic. This trifecta of slow-burners has made the show something of a go-to “mellow” Dead set for me. Later, a nice, jazzy “Eyes” with a long intro jam, and an almost nonexistent “Drums” (yay!) lead into “The Wheel”. Apparently “Tennessee Jed” was left off this reissue due to technical problems, although one Archive.org reviewer surmised it was just not a very good performance and thus cut.

I get the criticisms. They would improve on many of these performances (notably “St. Stephen” > “NFA” which sounds a little lackluster here) in 77. Mickey had joined the band on percussion for his first tour in 5 years, and the rhythm section sounds sluggish. I think the Dead were finding their sea legs again.

The Tower Theatre set, played 45 years ago on this very date, is tighter. The “Candyman” sparkles, and the “Playin'” jam is an exploratory treat. To round out the excerpt of this show we get a great version of “High Time”, one of my favorite Jerry ballads.

With 1000+ shows, millions of fans and an uncountable number of memories forged and formed over the past 56 years, there is sure to be an endless variation of interpretations on what the Dead did best, where they faltered, and everything in-between. I just like to, y’know, chill and jam out, man. This snapshot of June 1976 is nice for the Heads in no hurry.

Check out Download Series 4 on Spotify.

Album of the Week: B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail (1971)

I was a pretentious music nerd as a young age, collecting records and correcting those who got their facts wrong by the start of high school. This got me in the most trouble when my French teacher made an aside about “Stand By Me” being a great song by B.B. King. I quickly corrected her – “Stand By Me” is, of course, by Ben E. King – so rudely that she kicked me out into the hallway in front of the entire class.

Hopefully my behavior is less contemptible now, but for years this was my only real knowledge of B.B. King – he was the guy who didn’t make “Stand By Me”. Well, what did he do? Blues, presumably. But the only CD of his I frequently saw in stores and my stepdad’s collection was 2000’s Riding with the King, an album whose cover art practically screams “We, the makers of this album, are over 50 years old, and to enjoy it you should be too.” Riding with the King is probably his most successful album, but if this were that Drake meme format I would wave it away with one hand and then point happily to Live in Cook County Jail. This shit is smokin’ hot.

Yes, Johnny Cash did it first, with At Folsom Prison for Columbia almost three years earlier. That album was a hit, and presumably encouraged ABC to get excited about the opportunity to record King doing the very same. As the story goes, one (or more) of the wardens at Cook County Jail in Chicago reached out to King in 1970 and the performance was arranged in September. Cook County was not the place you wanted to be and I’m sure it still isn’t. Today it has one of the largest inmate populations in America at about 10,000 (In 1970 the inmate population was closer to 2000) and it has a nasty history of racism, violence and injustice. You couldn’t get me do a week’s time there if I knew Frank Ocean and the ghost of Jerry Garcia were playing a double-header for the inmates. Before his performance King walked around the site before the show and, according to The Independent, “his experience at the jail affected him profoundly.” I’m sure his empathy for the inmates inspired him to give them a damn good show, and today it remains a treat for us listeners.

After a staff member’s introduction in which the wardens are hilariously booed by the inmates, King starts off with the uptempo “Everyday I Have the Blues”. He was reportedly nervous, which may explain why this track is so fast. Thankfully, things slow down after that and we get into the best run of the album. “How Blue Can You Get?” and “Worry, Worry, Worry” are both absolute show-stoppers. King somehow manages to play the role of tortured blues singer, electric guitar god and standup comedian all at once. Listen to the pain in his voice when he cries “I gave you seven children / And now you wanna give ’em back!” That’s the blues, baby! On both tracks, he shreds his Gibson “Lucille” for a few minutes and then switches into master storyteller mode. The encouragement of the crowd’s hollers, laughter and applause really fuels both King and the backing band. It’s pure magic.

On the second side King slides into a more relaxed groove where he plays some older hits because, in his words, “I think a lot of the things we let go sometimes are the things we cherish most later on.” You might not want to cover “Sweet Sixteen” today, but it’s a crowd favorite here and a late highlight of the set. He gets cookin’ towards the end of his big hit “The Thrill Is Gone” as well. The last track, “Please Accept My Love”, cuts quickly to an end-of-set fanfare, and I have to imagine that some of the set was edited for album release. It would be fun if we could get an unabridged version like At Folsom Prison got in 2008. As it stands though, Live at Cook County Jail is a concise and remarkable recording.

Listen to Live at Cook County Jail here.

Album of the Week: Nina Simone’s Emergency Ward! (1972)

The great Nina Simone has several lauded live albums, but Emergency Ward! stands out for two key reasons. First, there are are only three songs on this full-length LP. Second, only the first half was recorded in front of a live audience.

The live A-side, “My Sweet Lord / Today Is a Killer” was performed on November 18, 1971 at the Town Theatre in Wrightstown, NJ (just outside of Fort Dix). Noted political activist Jane Fonda (remember when she starred in an experimental political comedy by Jean-Luc Godard?) organized the event as a continuation of the vaudeville/variety anti-Vietnam War FTA tour. A transgressive performance, it allowed the soldiers stationed at Fort Dix the “chance to rail against the army”. Good thing Fonda was a Nina Simone fan.

The Fort Dix performance is electric. The band gets right to it: drums, tambourines, handclaps, bass and a choir quickly develop a rollicking groove to back up Simone on piano and vocals. Audience cheers and the timbre of the recording perfectly capture the live atmosphere of the theater. David Nelson, a founding member of The Last Poets, contributed the poem “Today is a Killer”, which Simone brilliant splices into George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. The album refers to the piece as a medley, but it’s really more of a new song, a lighting-in-a-bottle creation that was thankfully recorded by RCA technicians at the performance. Which, at 18 minutes on the album, is one of those tracks that sounds way shorter than it is. In fact, the only complaint I have about this release is how quickly this opening track fades out. Surely the live show was longer, but as listeners we can’t be sure what happened.

The last two tracks were recorded in-studio. “Poppies” is a lush song that RCA billed as a “poignant tribute to a drug victim” (see the ad below), though it probably has as much, if not more, to do with war. Then another George Harrison cover (again from his debut) in “Isn’t It a Pity”. If you’re a Galaxie 500 fan like me, you probably think that their version (which closes On Fire) is the best one. Unless you’d like it more sombre and less Beatles-y (Beatlesian?), Simone’s 11-minute rendition won’t change that. But it is lovely and intimate. The reissue/streaming version also adds “Let It Be Me”, culled from the Fort Dix performance.

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Somewhat strange RCA promo for Emergency Ward! Source: trunkworthy.com

The George Harrison connection isn’t all that strange if you know that her preceding album was Here Comes the Sun, which began with the titular track (written by Harrison). In addition, the concert she performed before the Fort Dix show (October 10 at Lincoln Center) featured a cover of another track from Abbey Road, “Come Together”. Thank god we don’t have to hear an 18-minute version of that. Apparently, Harrison was inspired by Nina’s take on “Isn’t It a Pity”, but I’m not sure the two artists ever met, let alone recorded together.

This period of Simone’s career was marked by frustration. Between the late 60s and early 70s, she had a strained relationship with RCA and America as a whole. Amidst label disputes, sociopolitical unrest and Simone’s increasing mental health issues, the fact of Emergency Ward‘s existence at all is kind of a miracle. This is an anti-war album, largely recorded (by RCA) at an anti-war event, and released (by RCA) with a collage of Vietnam-related news clippings (like Bombing of North Termed Highly Effective by U.S. – Accurate Laser Guided Bombs Believed Freely Used) on the album cover. But you probably won’t find it in your parents’ record collection. “While Nina remained proud of Emergency Ward, essentially a concept album, the commercial payoff was minimal,” writes Nadine Cohodas in her Simone biography Princess Noire (2012).

The next decade of Nina Simone’s career would be markedly less prolific than the previous one. In 1973 she moved to Liberia, then three years later to Switzerland. ”Switzerland is the only place in the world where I am at peace,” she told the Times in 1983. ”The people live in peace, and they don’t steal, and no one’s crazy. When the Swiss see fat tourists from America, they laugh as though it’s a circus and say it’s not possible for people to look like that. The Swiss have protected me. They know that after every visit to America I would always have to go to the hospital to recover.”

Not exactly high praise for the USA, but I can’t blame her. I’m just glad that today, as a time-capsule of a uniquely tumultuous period in American history, we have this magnificent album.

Listen to Emergency Ward! on Spotify.