Certain people act truly horrified when they find out I didn't hate THE GRATEFUL DEAD. They seem to expect that because I'm a lover of blues, rockabilly, jazz and country, the Dead's weak-assed, wheezing interpretations of the music and the unfortunate cult of stupid fucking hippies associated with the band would leave me colder than Bob Dole's pre-Viagra tallywhacker. But they would be mistaken, and now, the awful truth must avail itself: I Was a Teenage Deadhead—even though the Dead indeed became appallingly weak and wheezing after several years of true glory.
The Dead—along with such groups as the Allman Brothers, Creedence, the Band and Commander Cody—helped revitalize rock & roll in the early '70s by bringing it back to its roots on the tail of the psychedelic excesses of the late '60s (excesses that, of course, the Dead were quite guilty of indulging themselves). Albums such as Workingman's Dead and American Beauty were period masterpieces, all a-twitter with hot pickin'; sweet, bluegrass-infused vocal harmonies; expertly crafted melodies; and eminently intelligent songwriting (has there ever been a more slyly enigmatic lyricist than Robert Hunter?). In concert, their lengthy jams were often self-indulgent and boring—notoriously so—but just as often resulted in what I like to call "Symbiotic Weavage." This is when a group plays as if all their hands are controlled by a single brain, and the music assumes a harmony as spiritual as it is musical. No one this side of the classic John Coltrane quartet ever achieved this state as effectively.
When the live double album The Grateful Dead (popularly known as "Skull & Roses") was released in '71, there was a legend in the liner notes that read, "Dead Freaks Unite! Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address, and we'll keep you informed." I did just that, and what followed was several years of freebie bombardment. Records, posters, stickers, post cards and newsletters in huge amounts filled my mailbox. How could you not love a band that took such care of its fans?
But by the late '70s—the advent of punk, not coincidentally—the Grateful Dead began to smell funny. They had become caricatures of themselves (especially after "Shakedown Street," an abortive, embarrassing attempt at jumping on the disco bandwagon). Rather than wisely packing it in to rest on their laurels, the Dead continued for another two decades, sucking more and more as time passed until, by their Jerry Garcia-croakage swan song, they perhaps sucked as no other band has sucked before. Drug-addled Garcia in particular had become an albatross: his always-pallid vocals ground down to a pitchless mewl, his guitar playing reduced to an underwater whimper, his image now like Santa Claus gone to seed after too many speedballs. The once sage-like figurehead of the Dead had become an icon of its deterioration. Garcia's death was sad but surprised no one—he'd led the Dead to a living death years before.
So the Dead—without Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh (who's embroiled in a dispute with his old band mates over management of the group's live tape archive) and the many keyboardists who've dropped like nonagenarians in a heat wave over the years, la drummers for Spinal Tap—play the Further Festival on the night of Thursday, Aug. 24, at the Pond. I'd like to attend and see what they have to offer without the burden of an addled Captain Trips, but the many thousands of stupid fucking hippies pretending it's still 1970 will keep me at home. The long, strange trip came to its end decades ago, Donovan, whether you want to admit it or not.
Toots Hibbert, front man for TOOTS & THE MAYTALS, was always the most Americanized of the first wave of reggae singers (Hibbert's hibbstory actually dates back to the days of first-wave ska, for that matter). His aggressive, percussive vocal phrasing and thick timbre drew ready comparisons to Otis Redding, as did his relatively dynamic stage demeanor—Toots don't skank; he rocks! Some of his tunes, such as "Pressure Drop" and "Monkey Man," have become standards not only in reggae but in punk as well. His name deserves to be recognized along with such forefathers as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff in the reggae pantheon, although few casual fans are familiar with him or his music. Edjamacate yerself when Toots & the Maytals perform at Reggae Summerfest next Thursday at the Sun Theatre—also on board are Maxi Priest and royal progeny Andrew Tosh and Ky-Mani Marley. Note, however, that the original Maytals broke up years ago, and the current lineup ain't the same fellas who sang such glorious backup on Toots' classics. Go anyway—just beware of white people sportin' dreads.
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If you wish to avoid both stupid fucking hippies and Caucasian Rastafarians —and who could blame you, really?—the best bet this week is BIG JAY MCNEELY at the Abilene Rose. McNeely was the meanest, most ferocious tenor honker in all of R&B back in the '50s, so vulgar he made Illinois Jacquet seem like Lawrence Welk by comparison. So it's a bit of a surprise that his new CD, Central Avenue Confidential (a reference to his status as a fixture on LA's legendary African-American music scene back in the day), is an eclectic and—dare it be said?—tasteful collection of tunes that show the original Big Man mellowing in his later years yet playing with a beauty and refinement unthinkable several decades ago. Driven by a Hammond B-3 and fueled with gospel, funk, swing and straight-ahead bop, Central Avenue recalls such modern jazz players as James Carter and Nicholas Payton in its refusal to be pigeonholed into one genre. But never let it be forgotten that McNeely was once the most vicious and intensest player/showman the world ever marveled at, and hopefully, he can still be counted on to drag out such nuggets of raw fury as "3-D," "Nervous Man Nervous" and "Real Crazy Cool."
When ELVIN BISHOP first came to Chicago from Oklahoma in the early '60s, he was mentored, personally and musically, by an obscure bluesman named LITTLE SMOKEY SMOTHERS. That Bishop subsequently went on to rock & roll fame and fortune with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and as a solo artist while Smothers went on to a day job in lieu of a music career had more to do with their respective pigmentation than any disparity in talent. But Bishop never forgot his old friend, and every time I've interviewed him in the past 20 years, Bishop has always given gushing credit to Smothers for teaching him how to play guitar, as well as teaching him how to cook soul food.
Forty years later, Bishop has finally gotten the opportunity to pay Smothers back by recording a live album with him. That's My Partner (Alligator) is as full of joyous sentiment as it is hot licks. The duo trade off burn-down-the-barn guitar solos, enthusiastic vocals and some engaging, original songs (the Bishop-penned title track is a gleeful reminiscence of a decades-old friendship). Advancing age is another thoroughly explored subject on songs like "Middle Aged Man" and "Slow Down," in which Bishop laments that he has to seek out old friends in the obituaries and advises trading alcohol for Geritol and cocaine for Rogaine. In all fairness, it should be noted that while the infamously homely Bishop is the younger of the two, he's gotten progressively more hideous over the years, while Smothers looks young, fit and ready for love. No matter: as Charlie Daniels once observed of Bishop, "He ain't good-lookin', but he sure can play."
THE FURTHER FESTIVAL AT UNIVERSAL AMPHITHEATRE, 100 UNIVERSAL CENTER DR., UNIVERSAL CITY, (818) 622-4440. THURSDAY, AUG. 24, 6:30 P.M. $33 (NOTE VENUE CHANGE!: This event has been moved from the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.); REGGAE SUMMERFEST AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700. THURSDAY, AUG. 24, 8 P.M. $38.50; BIG JAY MCNEELY AT THE ABILENE ROSE, 10830 WARNER AVE., FOUNTAIN VALLEY, (714) 963-1700. SAT., 9 P.M. $8.