The Grateful Dead’s New Orleans adventures began in 1970 with a booking for two shows at the infamous Warehouse. The New Orleans’s police department was well aware of their reputation, and proceeded to procure search warrants, which led to a sensationalistic drug bust. The Dead were still able to play their show that night, and their record label was able to get them off the hook later on. They also added a show, even inviting the police, as a benefit to cover their legal costs.
In 1969 the Dead had broken out the song “New Orleans,” a 1960 hit for Gary US Bonds. It was admirably handled by Weir, and segued into the Coasters’ hit “Searchin’.” Surprisingly “New Orleans” was composed by a white songwriter, though as a conscious imitation of the African-American rhythmic pulse of the Crescent City. This rhythmic essence has been referred to as the “Mardi Gras” beat by Clyde Stubblefield, the drummer for James Brown who reinvented funk based on this style of beat. It is also related to the beat of Bo Diddley, who recorded it back in 1955 in his eponymous hit (more on this below). Buddy Holly employed the beat for his “Not Fade Away,” which also came became an improvisationl launching pad for the Dead in 1969. We can think of this propulsive rhythm, with its off-beat Afro-Cuban style syncopations, as an inspiring dance rhythm running through the course of the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, to name a few at the onset of their career: from “Caution,” to the searing energy of “The Other One,” the intro to“Good Lovin’,” “Alligator” (with its classic “boogaloo”-style drum introduction) to the drum breaks in “Lovelight.”
Dr. John informs us that this “Bo Diddley” rhythm is used as a second-line rhythm in New Orleans brass music (the main line is the main parade, the second line is comprised of the bands/audience that follow the parade). The rhythm certainly predates Bo Diddley’s use of it, and has its roots in Afro-Cuban rhythms; again, it is used in countless rock, R & B, and jazz songs. For its musical notation click here (called "Son clave").
But back to the song “New Orleans.” In the original version it begins with a solo drum introduction accompanying a vocal street cry in call-and-response form, imploring the audience for an answer. The closest the Dead get to the original, and also their most spirited version, is at Port Chester’s Capitol Theater on November 8, 1970, a fascinating show in many respects--especially the highly unique set list, the only “Mystery Train” and “My Babe” (with its “Big Railroad Blues” style guitar-riff/shuffle intro) performed by the Dead, and Jerry’s soulful delivery of “Morning Dew,” among other things. Kreutzman’s drum intro to "New Orleans" is worthy of any Mardi Gras drummer (aside: it sounds like there might be a tape splice; as a couple of bars in the beat speeds up), and Weir’s vocal energizes the band.
After 1970, “New Orleans” was featured only one other time, as the beginning of a three-song encore in Maple, Ontario at the Kingswood Music Theatre (6-21-84; according to Deadbase it was played with The Band, though it is not so discernable from the tape). The song ends rather abruptly, and is followed by a pedantic version of “Big Boss Man” (the only one from 1984), originally sung by Jerry Reed who released it in 1960. This leads into another favorite from New Orleans, “Aiko Aiko.” (Note that the encore pairing of “Big Boss Man” and “Aiko Aiko” occurs at the New Years concert for 1983 at the San Francisco Auditorium, in much better versions, also with The Band.)
“Aiko Aiko” (also written as “Iko Iko”) was premiered by the Dead in the middle of their now legendary East coast, Midwest, Southern tour in Spring 1977, on May 15th in St. Louis. The song would prove a staple at Dead shows, imbibing any show with the exuberant Mardi Gardi party atmosphere. The first version has a long rhythmic introduction, where Garcia simply plays the song’s lone two chords (E and B). At times tt sounds as though they are playing “Not Fade Away,” which in fact they play after “Aiko Aiko.” Yet from Garcia’s vocal in this first version of “Aiko” it is clear that the song captures the polyrhythmic drive of what the Dead’s music is about, and that the song is there to stay. Note that the key of the song would change to C (chords are C and G) the next time the Dead played it, 10/7/77 in Albuquerque, but a week later at Manor Downs in Austin, they raised it back up a step to D (chords are D and A) where it would remain for the next 18 years. D is the traditional key of “Aiko,” as played by Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Meters and others.
Closely related to the Caribbean style beat of “Aiko” is another song in the Dead’s repertoire, “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” The song was popularized by Harry Belafonte in his classic 1956 album, Calypso. In the Dead's version, “Woman are Smarter” is also a two-chord song (E and B), and shares the same beat as “Aiko”: the connection is explicitly and tantalizingly stated by the Dead at the Kaiser Convention Center on February 19, 1985, where “Woman” leads into a short “Aiko” led by Weir (I cannot make out some of the words he sings), then back to “Woman.”
And finally, the Dead introduced to their sets “Hey Pocky Way” in the late 1980s, another New Orleans song with a second-line beat from the late 1980s, probably influenced by their playing with the Neville Brothers (according to Oliver Trager in his beautifully written Grateful Dead Encyclopedia). The song also has an old lineage, with its first commercial imprint by the Meters in 1974, a regional hit in New Orleans. Brent Mydland sang it admirably, and accentuates the hook on his keyboard. The Dead begin the song with a chordal turn-around (D-C-G) that is used in the middle of the Meters version, giving the song a more definitive opening.
The beauty of the New Orleans’s second-line rhythms is that it allowed the Dead to escape what could be the incessant tyranny of the standard rock, R &B (and by the late 1960s country) backbeat, and to create a show atmosphere recalling the great street parades of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.