Blog post, June 28, 2015
It’s been a while since I posted to this blog! I didn’t realize there were some comments on the blog that I should address, thanks for those, and of course the book that this blog became--Grateful Dead and the Art of Rock Improvisation--has been out for a few years now, so I’ll be updating the blog description shortly too. I also have a paper the Mixolydian from the GD conference in San Jose in November of 2014 that I will be posting here shortly!
After watching the live stream on Periscope from last night’s (June 27th, 2015, Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA) kickoff to the Fare Thee Well Tour, I had so many thoughts that I wanted to write about some of them while they are still fresh, even if they are not fully fleshed out. (As an aside, I remember years ago that the surviving members of the Grateful Dead had retired the band name; I was startled to see that they are playing under this name again. Which leads me to wonder, is this really a “fare well” tour, or just another train stop on the way to more gigs? And a quick disclaimer on what follows: I haven’t listened to the whole concert yet.)
Now to the night’s music: Deadhead Christian Crumlish tweeted last night on the obvious early chronology of the songs played. Indeed it is quite amazing that Truckin’ (released in November of 1970) was the newest song they played! Obviously they are shoring up their legacy in these "final" shows. Of course the danger is that they could turn into a nostalgic revelry, but perhaps that's the point...Yet there seems to be something postmodern about all this--in particular, since the death of Garcia, the band members in various configurations have been exploring and mining this early, neglected repertoire of the late 70s and onward Dead for years now.
In any case, more interesting to me was the unity of the underlying tonalities and modes that the played and jammed in.
So with that in mind, let’s start with the set list with the keys:
Uncle John's Band: G; outro jam in Dm
Alligator: C; heavy outro in E
Cumberland Blues: G
Born Cross-Eyed D, ends in E
Cream Puff War: A
Viola Lee Blues: G
Cryptical Envelopment: E Mixolydian
Dark Star: A Mixolydian, but can have lots of E Dorian too
St. Stephen: E Mixolydian
The Eleven: A
Turn On Your Love Light: E
What's Become of the Baby? B-flat, ends on a D-flat (slightly sharp) published in C, not sure what they did it in; Phil has done it in A before
The Other One: E Mixolydian
Morning Dew: D Mixolydian
Casey Jones: C
What immediately strikes me is the preponderance of E in this early repertoire. Eight out of the sixteen songs were in E. But even more significant is the interplay of E with the tonalities, modalities and notes of G, A, and D. And of course, and what I really wanted to get to, is the preponderance of the Mixolydian sound in defining the Dead and the jam band scene generally.
“Cryptical” exemplifies this large-scale tonal process of E-A-G-D in a microcosm. The song is in the key of E Mixolydian, with the use of G (bIII) and D (bVII) in the chorus. As the introduction to “Other One,” the song previews the E-D Mixolydian interchange that is the jam basis for the “Other One.” Furthermore, G is a blue note in E minor pentatonic, so its chordalization (sorry for this word…) is not surprising. And use of a bIII is not unusual in 1960s’ and the Grateful Dead’s music. For the bridge (“the summer sun”), the song turns to the parallel key of E minor, with more G, and after some neat chord changes (including the use of D) winds its way to B7 (V7), providing a “classical” sounding cadence to bring back the E. But the coda has another twist, as it turns to a vamp on the chords A and G, which is itself the classic Mixolydian vamp (A as I and G as bVII).
But taking a detour from the “Other One,” “Cryptical” snakes into the main “Dark Star Suite” configuration. Here the A Mixolydian jumps to prominence, and usually after the first verse the band starts to move the jam into E Dorian, which I believe they did last night. The fundamental note E links the song with the standard E>D>A progression of “St. Stephen’s.” Note this is the same progression as “Gloria,” “The Last Time,” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” among many other songs! “The Eleven” takes us back the three primary chords in A—A, D, E—and then “Love Light” is a classic R & B vamp on E and A.
Following the heavy E Mixolydian statement of the “Other One,” we have another Mixolydian song, the cover “Morning Dew,” with it’s D-C (I-bVII) moments. But again, there is another cross-song tonal connection here: E (“Other One”) to D (“Morning Dew”). And if you haven’t had enough of Mixolydian yet, well, the next song, “Casey Jones,” returns to C (not heard since set one’s “Alligator”), and we get another I-bVII move, or D (“Morning Dew”) to C (“Casey Jones”).
In conclusion, much has been written about the power of entrainment and the groove element of the Dead’s early dance-oriented jam music, and also their long improvisatory jams. But underlying both of these parameters are the powerful unification force of notes, keys, and modalities. It seems that much of the Dead’s Mixolydian jam sound is built up around the constellation of the notes and modes E, A, D, and G, and the slipperiness of their harmonic and tonal functioning. As one last thought, think about the use of G as a link from the E Mixolydian of “Cryptical” to the A Mixolydian of “Dark Star.” In “Cryptical” the G starts as a sharp, as the third scale degree of E. Its lowering as part of the bIII harbors the transition to “Dark Star,” where again it is so essential for defining the “Dark Star” melody and sound (the second chord of the song is often voiced as E minor).
I wonder what tonight's (June 29th) set list will bring? Christian speculates that maybe they'll focus on the next era, '71-'77. After the June 28th retrospective, now that would be cool!