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John A

Playin' Essay

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Not Surprisingly, there's no shortage of ink that can be spilled on this tune......

 

The Dead Play Playin’: The Last of the Big-3 Jam Vehicles

 

While the Grateful Dead didn’t debut Playing in the Band until 1971, the song gestated sometime in 1968 as The Main Ten, named after its 10-beat time signature (The Eleven is the most famous Dead song to be so named).  Mickey Hart is largely credited for bringing such unusual time signatures to the Dead’s early compositions, and he and Bob Weir are co-credited with writing the music for Playin’.  The song, along with its oft-paired cousin Uncle John’s Band, is autobiographical. It includes numerous biblical references, which isn’t uncommon within the Dead’s catalogue.  As was almost exclusively the case with original material in this era, Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics.  The only lyrical evolution the song would undergo from its initial writing was the line “some folks up in treetops, just look to see the sights” which Weir almost immediately changed to “some folks up in treetops, just looking for their kites.” Playin’ is perhaps unique in that it appeared on albums not only by The Grateful Dead (the live double LP release known as Skull and Roses) but also in solo albums by two separate band members (Weir’s Ace and Hart’s Rolling Thunder, where it was still called The Main Ten).  It’s undocumented how exactly Weir took the little instrumental from The Main Ten and made it into a full song, but this happened between late 1970 and early 1971, so clearly something about the little Main Ten riff spoke to him.  To picture this riff, think of the soft section just as Playin’ is getting ready to drop into what would become known as the Playin’ Reprise.  This riff is easily counted out as ten beats.  So in quintessential Dead fashion, what started as a little quiet jam either within a song or as a bridge between songs evolved into one of the big 3 jamming centerpieces of the band’s oeuvre, along with Dark Star and The Other One.  But it didn’t get there overnight.  My interest isn’t in trying to document the technical nuances of the various Playin’ renditions, and nor do I have the musical training for that anyway. And imagine the Herculean task of listening to all the iterations to determine definitive favorites, although I certainly have some and will comment on them.  Rather, my goal is to give a detailed overview on the evolution of the song within the constructs of the Dead’s career, documenting various trends, minutiae, and one offs along the way.  Woe is the pedantic Deadhead!

 

           There are about a half dozen known occurrences of The Main Ten from late 1968 through November 1970.  These were little 3-5 minute instrumental breaks when the mood struck.  The final, longest, and seemingly “jammiest”, where Garcia gets into some subtle yet interesting tonal inflections, is 11-8-70 Port Chester.  In a nod to the band’s affection for this nascent piece, at Port Chester it bridges a cool sequence from Dark Star to Dancin’ in the Streets.  Another noteworthy Main Ten is 12-5-69 Fillmore West, the night after the first full Uncle John’s Band.  In an awesome little slice of foreshadowing, a quick 30 second musing of the Uncle John’s jam morphs into a few minutes of The Main Ten.  These two songs would enjoy a close kinship in the years to come.

 

         The first version of Playing in the Band was at the seminal 2-18-71 Port Chester show, on the same stage where the final Main Ten had been played 3 months earlier.  This night not only featured a staggering array of debuted songs (Playin’, Bertha, Greatest Story, Loser, and Wharf Rat), but it was Mickey’s last show until 10-20-74.  Afterward Playin’ occurred in virtually every show for three years, usually at the end of the first set.  Not counting the additional times it was broken into the main song and the reprise, it appeared in about 430 shows, putting it just within the top 10 for most times a song was played.  Due to the unknown variables of late 60s set lists, we can’t be sure how many times Dark Star was performed, but from 1971 forward it was played in about 85 unique shows.  So that makes Playin’, along with The Other One, the Dead’s two most consistent improvisational muses throughout their career.  And since The Other One became somewhat more truncated over time, I’d argue that puts Playin’ at the top of the heap.  Only twice, and just barely, did Playin’ go more than 10 shows without appearing. And rarely did it go more than 5 or 6 shows.  So despite the myriad facets of its evolution, it was an unwavering centerpiece throughout the Dead’s career.

 

            Given what was to come, it’s hard to fathom that Playin’ arrived as a little 4-minute ditty.  And it took a full year to begin really stretching out.  During the Europe ’72 tour Playin’ made the final push into its legendary, extended, psychedelic self.  The tour opener in Wembley is 10 minutes, and by the tour closing London show seven weeks later it was close to double that length at 18 minutes.  From there, it wasn’t unusual for Playin’ to run 25+ minutes, culminating 5-21-74 Seattle where it opened the second set and stretched to a whopping 46 minutes!  This rendition offers a universe all to its own, and when the hinted notes that they’re easing back into the conclusion of the song finally come, it builds its way into Donna’s wailing ever so gradually.

 

            It’s no coincidence that the period from 1972 through 1974 saw the most extended and far reaching renditions of both Playing in the Band and Dark Star.  With Mickey’s departure, the Dead were a nimbler machine; combine that with Keith Godchaux coming on board in fall ’71 and adding an extra melodic dimension, and the stage was set for what transpired.  This configuration allowed the full-blown explorations greater dynamics and more agility.  With Bill Kreutzmann alone on the drums, his jazz sensibilities could better provide the other musicians, particularly Jerry and Phil, leeway to fluidly move the jams in various directions at the drop of a dime.  There was simply more open space available to everyone, with ample opportunity to channel musical ideas.  Combine that with Phil’s increasingly elaborate bass set-up, and now not only could things get quieter, but they could get louder, deeper, heavier, and weirder.  Over this three year span Phil’s increasing penchant (and technical capability) for dissonant bombs only added to the places the jams could go.  Nowhere were these factors better utilized than in Playin’ and Dark Star.  But while Dark Star became less of a frequent centerpiece, beginning in ’73 and increasingly so in ’74, Playin’ continued appearing at most shows and kept expanding further.  And gradually, the band realized that by breaking Playin’ into separate jams, and more importantly breaking off the Playin’ Reprise, these jams could be woven in and out of other material.  

 

            The first time Playin’ was broken apart from its original, full length, standalone composition was 10-18-72 St Louis.  And it was a doozy.  Set 2 opened with Playin’ > drums > Dark Star > Morning Dew > Playin’ (Phil drives this Dark Star, and he drives it hard).  The transition back into Playin’ is spellbinding.  The Dew jam never fully releases, and for a few seconds it’s as if they’re playing both songs at the same time.  Eventually the distinct Playin’ figure emerges, and the first broken off reprise is in the books.  I find it fascinating that it took an entire year to repeat this, but the Dead’s evolution often took the form of a mysterious beast.  Playin’ wasn’t split again until 10-21-73 Omaha, with an odd sequence of Playin’ > Mississippi Half Step > Big River > Playin’.  The main Playin’ is actually a minute shorter than the reprise, which Phil leads seamlessly out of Big River.  The better jamming here is within the reprise.  Curiously, this same sequence was repeated 10-27-73 Indianapolis, although not surprisingly it’s quite different.  Phil drives the reprise 10-21; Jerry is at the helm 10-27.  Jerry was getting solid mileage from his wah-wah effects by the end of ’73; this conspicuous tone is a hallmark of the pre-hiatus jams.  Coinciding with the more experimental take of extended suites of songs weaving around Playin’ is Jerry’s debut of his precious Doug Irvin guitar, Wolf, which he first started playing during the October ’73 mid-west tour.  In November ’73, the Dead began toying with groupings of Uncle John’s Band, Playin’, and Morning Dew, culminating with the ultimate musical sandwich.  Playin’ > Uncle John’s > Morning Dew > Uncle John’s > Playin’ occurs twice that month, 11-10-73 Winterland and 11-17-73 UCLA.  It’s hard to pick a favorite between these two Playin’ suites, although the main Playin’ body at UCLA is 5 minutes longer.  Both are incredible.  One more of these palindromes crops up 3-23-74 Cow Palace.  On 11-17-73 Denver, Playin’ 3-peats for the first time with a set 2 opening Mississippi Half Step > Playin’ > El Paso > Playin’ > Wharf Rat > Playin’.  Throughout 1974 Playin’ would be split another half dozen times, culminating with the 10-20-74 Winterland “Farewell Show” where Mickey made his return for set 2 of a 3 set show.  This set both opened and closed with Playin’.  Another unusual placement in this era is 3-28-73 Springfield, the only time a complete Playin’ closed a show.  This is a dream like sequence of Weather Report Prelude > Dark Star > Eyes of the World > Playin’, the finale a 15-minute, high energy version.  

 

            After the Dead returned from their touring break in June 1976, the band, and specifically Playin’, was an entirely different animal.  Condensed were the sound system, the crew, and the open-ended psychedelic explorations.  Arrangements were tighter and more polished.  And a second drummer was re-added to the mix, adding a thicker dimension to the sound.  Rarely would Playin’ appear in the first set.  There are a couple versions in ’76, however, where Playin’ embodied a throwback to the pre-hiatus glory years.  6-19-76 Passaic is complete, and Jerry goes wonderfully deep and weird.  12-31-76 Cow Palace is a 23-minute epic tour de force.  But after one more complete Playin’, 4-22-77 Spectrum, it was never again played without the reprise being broken off (there’s an exception, as there often is, but more on that later), although this doesn’t rise to the heights of New Year’s ‘76.  Rather than presented as an isolated jamming vehicle, Playin’ now assumed a central role in the ultimate jam – the entire second set.  One thing Playin’ gradually lost through the years was the slow, almost sensual buildup into the reprise that are hallmarks of many early 70s versions.  Too often the Dead rushed their way into the reprise in later years. 

 

A few interesting Playin’ splits after the hiatus include 6-22-76 Tower Theatre (The Wheel), 6-26-76 Chicago (Saint Stephen > The Wheel), and 9-24-76 William & Mary (Supplication). On 2-26-77 San Bernardino it’s fascinating to hear the band at work as they transition in and out of The Wheel in this split Playin’, which closed the same first set that opened with the first Terrapin Station, so it’s safe to say they’d made their night’s pay by intermission.  The second set of 9-28-76 Syracuse is simply awe inspiring, reading Playin’ > The Wheel > Samson > Comes A Time > Drums > Eyes > Dancin’ > Playin’.  Playin’ seems like a great way to jump both in and out of a set, so it surprises me the Dead didn’t do that more often.  A set ending Playin’ Reprise is both rare and powerful.  Even more rare is a show ending Playin’ Reprise.  This happened twice in the spring ’77 tour due in part to shows with no encores; 5-4-77 Palladium, with Playin’ > Comes A Time > Playin’, and 5-19-77 Atlanta, with Playin’ > Uncle John’s > Drums > The Wheel > China Doll > Playin’.  The China Doll is the first since ’74, and the reprise may be the greatest one there is.  This is surely an all-time split Playin’ sequence, which includes the transition into the lone instance where Uncle John’s starts with “wo-oh what I want to know, how does the song go?”  A third, final, and out of nowhere show ending Playin’ is 10-14-77 Houston, featuring a Brokedown Palace > Playin’ Reprise encore.  The transition is done with authority, and this is the only time Playin’ appeared in an encore slot.

 

By 1977 Playin’ was almost exclusively in the second set, although it would occasionally surprise by opening a show, such as 12-27-86 Kaiser (Playin’ > Bertha) and 7-2-89 Foxboro (Playin’ > Crazy Fingers).  6-8-80 Folsom Field features a surprise Uncle John’s > Playin’ > Uncle John's show opening sequence, perhaps owing to its official 15th year anniversary billing.  That 12-27-86 Kaiser show is the only time when Playin’ both opened and closed a show, the too brief closing reprise introduced by a series of tastily melodic Phil notes.  How many Deadheads walked out that night realizing that had never happened before?  Show closing Playin’ Reprises continued to be unusual.  Playin’ closed the second set 5 times in ’77, but it would only do so about a half dozen more times total.  There are a pair of these in 1979, the best of which is 5-3-79 Charlotte.  Garcia plays about 45 seconds of very tasteful notes out of Not Fade Away before effortlessly weaving into The Main Ten theme.  It’s a beautiful lead in jam before the reprise officially unfolds, and it ends softly, a pretty way to close the set.  10-24-79 Springfield contains a less interesting transition from Wharf Rat into the set closing reprise.  But the closing jam rocks harder, with a unique and dissonant final flourish.  Closing the second set 4-18-82 Hartford is a Sugar Magnolia that’s spilt with the Playin’ Reprise.  This is one of only 5 instances where the Dead split Sugar Magnolia with just a single song (3 of which were in summer ’76, split with U.S. Blues, Scarlet Begonias, and Stella Blue – interesting trio of splits there).  At Hartford, Playin’ is teased after Black Peter but they gingerly work their way into Sugar Magnolia.  Afterward, instead of Sunshine Daydream a quiet moment yields to more Playin’ noodling, which eventually drops into the reprise.  One drumbeat after the reprise ends and they’re seamlessly into Sunshine Daydream. 

 

In the 80s Playin’ would open second sets intermittently, some years doing so a handful of times and some years not at all, but there were only 5 show closing reprises.  These most often came to soft, quiet conclusions.  Two 80s “Bobbyisms” include 5-7-80 Barton Hall, where in a nod to the horrific barnlike acoustics Bobby sings “playin’ in the barn” several times, and 7-27-82 Red Rocks where Bobby improvises with a somewhat shocking falsetto voice as he shrieks “playin’ in the band!”, both in the main Playin’ section as well as in the reprise.  Red Rocks is also one of only 3 times when a set opened and closed with Playin’.  I find that number surprisingly low.  The first reprise with no Playin’ earlier in the show was 10-12-84 Augusta.  This remained unusual, occurring less than 20 times.  The greatest such reprise may be 11-2-84 BCT.  It comes out of space after a beautiful extended intro of sublime Garcia spiraling finger work and launches into Bertha > Good Lovin’ to close a wild and unique set.  3-31-85 Portland, ME contained a one off: the inverted Playin’.  The Wheel segued into the Playin’ Reprise, which launched a bit clumsily into the opening notes of Playin’.  The Boys were in a feisty mood typical of ’85, as the set then concluded with Day Tripper.  This Playin’ was sadly truncated, so there’s not much going on here beyond the oddity of the only inversion, like it’s April Fools’ a day early.

 

If the centerpiece of the fall ’89 tour was Dark Star, Playin’ assumed the number one supporting role.  The 10-9-89 Hampton Dark Star bust out was Playin’ > Uncle John’s > Playin’ > Dark Star, and the second Dark Star, 10-16-89 Brendan Byrne, paired Playin’ and Dark Star both before and after space, the set closing with a particularly powerful Playin’ Reprise.  After a generally raucous reprise, the set cascades to a close with an incendiary final build up.  This is one of a pair of ’89 set closers, along with 4-6-89 Ann Arbor.  Two more latter era versions of note include 7-29-88 Laguna Seca and 5-26-93 Cal Expo.  Laguna Seca is part of a wild pre-drums sequence of China Cat > Crazy Fingers > I Know You Rider > Playin’ (8-5-89 Cal Expo contains an extremely rare Rider with no China Cat, and it comes out of Playin’).  Not only is this the only time the Dead split China Rider with something else in the middle, but it’s the only complete Playin’ after 1977.  It goes deep and completely off the rails, a magnum opus of 80s Grateful Dead and a true throwback to the glory years.  I was at this show and have a distinct memory of Brent Mydland, just as the insanity was dialing up full throttle, looking across the stage in bewilderment, shrugging his shoulders, and laying into his keyboard.  5-26-93 Cal Expo represents perhaps the most serious extended jam post-Brent.  Getting bonus points for such an inspired performance in the Vince Welnick era, this Playin’ doesn’t let up, with one impressive peak after the next.  Another interesting 90s theme starts with 9-9-91 Madison Square Garden, which features a pre-drums reprise.  Between New Speedway Boogie and Uncle John’s, it assumes the main Playin’ slot and at over 10 minutes may be the longest standalone reprise.  There’s a nice gradual buildup as they steer the jam into the final Playin’ segment; this is a subtle but interesting way for the Dead to do something a little different.  The Boys embraced this placement, as the standalone reprise appeared pre-drums four more times in ’92 and once in ’93, always around either Corrina or Uncle John’s.   

           

            It’s tempting to say the most fun Playin’ experiences were the epic November ’73 Uncle John’s/Morning Dew sandwiches.  In fact, a good argument anoints November ’73 as the greatest month in the song’s history.  And one can’t discount the various split versions, full of delicate transitions, shortly after the hiatus. My personal favorite of these is 5-19-77.  The best one I saw was 7-29-88 Laguna Seca.  This version confirms the Dead still had that hidden gear late in their career.  But if I were pushed into choosing a favorite Playin’, I’d go with a clichéd favorite, 8-27-72 Veneta.  A cliché isn’t necessarily a pejorative, and sometimes popular opinion exists for good reason.  Opening set 2 of a 3 set show, the Veneta Playin’ is 18 minutes long, suggesting that under 20 minutes is sufficient for the definitive version.  There’s bigger bass, and darker, scarier places in passes from late ’73 through ’74, so one could fairly point out Veneta is missing all that, but this is a wonderfully precise, chiseled Playin’.  Jerry’s tone is dripping with sweetness.  It features two distinct peaks, the first spewing an avalanche of rapid-fire Garcia notes and the second displaying some scrubbing insanity.  The transition to the reprise is particularly mellifluous, with Donna’s shrieking even coming across as a nice warm growl.  In a nod to one of Bobby’s favorite ongoing routines, Veneta qualifies as just exactly perfect.  By summer ’72 the Dead had fully ushered in the era that cemented the legend of Playin’, and it was an astounding 2 ½ year ride.

 

            There is much debate among Deadheads as to the relative merits of the various periods in the band’s musical history.  I know some dedicated fans that aren’t interested in anything after the 1975 touring hiatus.  I’ve even heard tale of a more extreme group that only revels in 60s Dead.  I live for it all, and I’ll even go on record proclaiming certain songs gained more than they lost as the band matured into a more textured and softly weathered sound (it should go without saying that ’92 through ’95 is largely excluded from my championing of the more contemporary Dead).  Particularly, Garcia ballads took on new and soulful nuances.  That said, more than any song in the Dead’s repertoire that they continued to regularly play, Playing in the Band suffered the band’s sonic transition into 1976 and beyond.  While there are certainly some positive elements in these later version that are missing from the classics, from Brent’s richly textured organ playing in the introductory bars to the sonic wonders offered by the midi technology, 80s versions that otherwise qualify as outstanding are often equaled by reprises, mere appendages of the song’s true muscle, in the likes of 1973.  Eyes of the World is another song that comes to mind that lost a lot, given the omission of the Phil led final jam that’s been termed the Eyes coda, but Eyes gained some meat in the jams between the verses.  Truckin’ lost the open-ended blues tinged explorations, but the best Truckin’ is 11-6-77 Binghamton, after the hiatus. While The Other One no longer had its extended psychedelia, the dark brooding power it evoked never lost a step.  But Playin’, bless its soul, became a shadow of its ’72 through ’74 glory.  Dark Star would certainly fall into this category, but it’s as if the Dead knew better, retiring it into use only for special occasions until giving it a worthy stab in ’89 and beyond.  One of the wonders of the Dead is they were nothing if not continuously evolutionary, at least into the 80s, and no single number optimizes that more than Playing in the Band.

        

 

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JohnA,

 

I love reading your words and becoming

a more informed DeadHead.

 

Great read, thanks.

 

Praise DSO.

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There's an essay in Taper's Compendium (correct name?) Specifically regarding the PITB from Veneta 72. Easily the best written piece describing the music of the GD that I've ever encountered. Maybe later if i feel motivated I'll share it....perhaps a photo from my phone would suffice, it's a lot to transcribe.

 

John A, surely you've read this/have these books?

 

I love all Grateful Dead- the 90s less so (sorry Vince, i can't stand your voice or choice of keyboard sounds)- but for me the era of 72-74 contains the most dynamic and exploratory jams. And not even just the "jams"- it could be any song that takes you into warp drive. I've gotten lost in a Big River, not realizing what i was listening to anymore. Mickey's return was beneficial in some ways and i think the Dead burned out the circuits that they frequented in 72-74. In particular, November of 73 may be my favorite month of all.

 

Thanks John for sharing a taste of your vast knowledge.

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A train leaves Omaha heading to San Francisco averaging 30mph including stops, and has a 5 hour layover in San Francisco. How many round trips would it take to hear every Playin assuming you can only listen for 8 hours a day. 

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Doesn’t Viola Lee qualify as the first jam vehicle? I understood it was where the exploration began. 

 

Still reading through the essay - :-)) this is a nice diversion. Thanks John! 

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2 hours ago, PoetryGirl said:

Doesn’t Viola Lee qualify as the first jam vehicle? I understood it was where the exploration began. 

 

Still reading through the essay - :-)) this is a nice diversion. Thanks John! 

But they didn't write the song, if that makes a diff. It also didn't last too long in the repertoire

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Agree that Viola was the Dead's first major jam vehicle, but it didn't qualify for my "big 3" categorization due to the reasons Mango specifies.

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20 hours ago, John A said:

Rude - you need to specify the sampling frequency and playback jitter, which could affect the answer by at least a nanosecond.

 

Mango - not sure if this is the piece on Playin' you're thinking of, but it's pretty awesome...

http://deadessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/playing-in-band-guest-post.html

 

 

Lol I was going to say you can’t count tuning at the end of the tracks and you have to start where you would cut to start the track on a cd but I’ll trust your judgement on the bitrate. 

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Great read,  looking forward to the Other One essay. 

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Today's chores were sponsored by

11/05/85 Centrum, second set pre drums

Shakedown>Women>Ship>Supplication jam>

Playin' reprise jam (no vocals, not a completely

landed plane)>Don''t Need Love>D>S>.

I listened with a more informed ear because

of JohnA, yes the Boys indeed were feisty in 85.

 

Praise DSO.

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17 hours ago, BillK522 said:

Today's chores were sponsored by

11/05/85 Centrum, second set pre drums

Shakedown>Women>Ship>Supplication jam>

Playin' reprise jam (no vocals, not a completely

landed plane)>Don''t Need Love>D>S>.

I listened with a more informed ear because

of JohnA, yes the Boys indeed were feisty in 85.

 

Praise DSO.

 

This made me come up with a question. Do most of you skip drums space when listening at home?  I always do unless it’s just background music. Will I be damned to be forgiven. 

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Depending on how long space is, and how tired I am while driving on road trips, sometimes I’ll skip space in the interest of not dozing off and killing everyone in the car. 

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If I’m driving post show, I exclusively play Jerry band or Jerry accoustic. I don’t know when I’ve last played dead after a show. Maybe I need the cool down that only Jerry band can provide. It’s like a warm soft blanket. 

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I always listen to every note of every song, including drums/space. Especially space. It’s important. That’s what Dead music is all about. It’s all born out of space, In my opinion. After a show, I won’t listen to anything for days, except what’s still bouncing around in my skull. 

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2 hours ago, Rude said:

If I’m driving post show, I exclusively play Jerry band or Jerry accoustic. I don’t know when I’ve last played dead after a show. Maybe I need the cool down that only Jerry band can provide. It’s like a warm soft blanket. 

Post-show JGB is always what the good doctor ordered.  It's also a great post-game kickoff if you ain't drivin to another joint..

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