Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Grateful Dead - "Blues for Allah"

Blues for Allah

Revising one's own views is one of the great pleasures of maturity, and I've been happy to have to reevaluate the Grateful Dead in the past year.  I had and liked a Dead greatest hits tape when I was 14 or so, and I'd always thought knee-jerk Dead hatred was immature (and in many cases epitomizes punk's aesthetic conservatism), but I'd also never thought there was any reason to delve into the Dead's catalogue, or even to go out of my way to listen to any of those greatest hits.  I remember how "Uncle John's Band" goes.   It's nice.  Whatever.

But thanks to my friends Jake and Eliot I ended up being in a Dead cover band last April 20th.  I thought I was agreeing to do it as a joke, but after some deep listening and a practice or two I was ready to argue -- and I currently maintain -- that at their best the Dead were a late-'60s / early-'70s genre-bending psychedelic band on par with early-Floyd/Barret or the Byrds or the Band or the Soft Machine or any of the other bands more readily revered in independent record stores across the land.  I'm still not sure why people think it's worth listening to a million different versions of their live shows, and I still think Jerry Garcia lived twenty years too long, but I'll maintain that they have some fantastic songs and go to some genuinely far out musical realms.

"Blues for Allah" represents both the Dead's serious songcraft and their far-out-ness.  I learned about the track when I was asked to be in a choral performance of it by my friend Nick.  Yes, 2010 will forever be known as the year of the Grateful Dead Cover Bands. 

The song opens with a country guitar lick (reprised to conclude the free-out section) and moves seamlessly into a proggy druid melody (about some weird vaguely Muslim stuff -- I'm not asking anyone to buy that Robert Hunter is a good poet) over a some subtly free percussion.  Any fan of the band USA is a Monster cannot deny this section.  The preceding long midsection is the sort of whoa-now-I'm-on-drugs-. . .-weird part that some listeners may find to represent exactly why they think of the Dead as idiotic, but at this point in my musical development I can see the spirit of what they're going for and the impressive extent to which they're achieving it.  The percussion, bass, and rhythm guitar play around with cohering into regular parts nicely while Jerry Garcia's guitar sings over the mess, taking long rests to avoid falling into anything like a traditional lead guitar free-out role.  There are cricket sounds, which are a little corny, but I also kind of love.  Then at about the seven minute mark a poignantly jazzy slide-guitar / trombone melody starts to bring us back to not-(necessarily)-on-drugs song land.  And what a pleasant land that is, as the last section is a gorgeous sing along chorus with Garcia doing exactly the sort of guitar playing he's either loved or hated for.  I guess I love it now.  At least in this instance.

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