I’ve only ever had two Grateful Dead albums, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, and while far from a “deadhead” I do hold the view that Jerry Garcia is one of the great American vocalists. Especially on those two records, he has the weary wisdom and grace of Merle Haggard and something mysterious that always makes me think of ’50s/Verve-era Billie Holiday. (There is a Dead channel on the satellite radio, and it makes me wince unless it’s a track from those two records or one of Garcia’s clear-voiced solo records with folk or country-esque accompaniment.)
Here, via Dangerous Minds, is an hour-long set played by the band in 1971 at the Château d’Hérouville. The performance happened here because the festival they were booked to play got rained out. The audience consists of villagers and the socialist TV crew from Paris. I only listened to the numbers that Jerry Garcia sings, because personal preference is what it is. And in those, there is sadness and romance and that weird cowboy balance of rustic beauty and roiling apocalypse I get from my favorite Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia songs.
The Grateful Dead were the saloon band for a Western Apocalypse we just barely avoided, by accident. I paid them no attention at all until a long debauched trip up Cottonwood Canyon in Death Valley when Reagan was still president and the news warned of a massive radiation cloud hitting the West Coast from the disaster at Chernobyl. My friends and I set up camp in a wide cave-like hole in the canyon’s western wall, the walls rising up to a perfect point, like an ancient church. Wild burros wandered by now and then, and the night sky’s eastern edge had yet to be yellowed by Las Vegas sprawl.
"Retreat" has come to mean a corporate or academic conference at a resort, because the most beautiful words are most prone to being poisoned, but songs like "Uncle John’s Band" and "Friend of the Devil" are songs of actual retreat, pulling back, licking wounds, adjusting to circumstance, making families out of whoever happened to be available and reasonably trustworthy. The West is romanticized not because of the industrialists who made fortunes "taming" the wild and arid lands for real-estate scams and importation of upstanding middle-class families and merchants from Iowa, but because of the characters forced to find refuge after the Gold Rush.
And that’s the report from a rainy San Francisco Sunday on this day of our lord, etc.