Essential Music: The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack

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If you follow this blog, or read my writing on Macworld, you’ve noticed that, among my varied musical interests, one artist stands out: the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for 35 years, since I first saw the band in the Spring of 1977 at the Palladium in New York. (To be honest, I was already a fan by then, having heard a number of their albums, both live and studio.) People sometimes ask me to recommend a Grateful Dead album for them to discover, and this post answers that question.

In late 1974, the Grateful Dead decided to “retire.” At the time, it wasn’t clear if the band would continue, but the increased pressure and cost of touring with their one-of-a-kind “Wall of Sound” sound system, made them realize that they couldn’t go on. They had to tour to pay for the cost of touring, and the time it took to set up and break down the Wall of Sound make touring more complicated.

So to celebrate their retirement, the Dead played five shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Introduced by Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter, these last five concerts were held from October 16-20. On the 20th, Bill Graham had the concert tickets stamped “The Last One” as a souvenir for those attending.

But while the Dead suggested that this would be a retirement, they actually had big plans for the final run. Much of the music was filmed and all of it was recorded with the idea of making a movie. Jerry Garcia was the engine for this project, and during the hiatus – the band came back to performing in April 1976 (there were four gigs in 1975) – he worked on editing the movie.

Released in 1977, the Grateful Dead movie was an attempt to translate the experience of a Grateful Dead concert to the screen. Concert movies were a recent phenomenon at the time, and this was more than just a film of the concert. There is footage of people waiting in line, interviews with Deadheads, clips of people dancing and enjoying the music, and some pretty hokey animation, notably a long animated introduction. The movie fails as both a concert movie and as a documentary, but, back in the day, it was amazing to see such great footage of the band on a big screen.

For years, the tapes of these five shows languished in the Grateful Dead vault, until a re-release of the movie on DVD in 2004, when the best parts of the five concerts were remastered and released on five CDs, for a total of about 6 1/2 hours of music. (This is a bit more than 1/3 of all the music played on those five nights.) Each of the CDs tries to represent a set of music; the songs flow together well, even on the discs where the music is from different nights. Three of the discs are essentially all from single nights, with a couple of exceptions.

One reason why the Grateful Dead was so interesting is because no two concerts were the same. Not only did they not have set lists – they’d choose what to play as they went along – they were consummate improvisers, and would segue from one song to another seamlessly. There were some songs that were often played together, and that formed units: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, and Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. But in 1974, only the first (China > Rider) was immutably joined, and from one show to another, the order of songs would change. In addition to these fluid set lists, the Dead would often jam on songs for a very long time; the longest track in this set is the 31:45 Playing in the Band, which is a perfect example of the band’s transcendent improvisations.

1974 was a watershed year for the Dead. One of the founding members, Pigpen (Ron McKernan) had died in 1973, and the Dead dropped many of the songs that he made famous, such as the long R&B-inspired Turn On Your Love Light, In the Midnight Hour, and Dancing In the Streets. Pigpen was a male Janis Joplin (they were lovers for a time), and he lived the blues the way he sang them; so much so that liquor killed him.

After Pigpen’s death, the Dead took a new direction, veering away from the early R&B songs, and the later folky Americana, toward some jazzier playing. That comes out here in the long Eyes of the World, a 1973 release, the mystical Playing in the Band, and Bob Weir’s Weather Report Suite, a long ballad. The Dead still played their staples: songs like U.S. Blues, He’s Gone, and One More Saturday Night, but this set doesn’t feature any of the “cowboy” songs the band played consistently in the early 1970s, such as Jack Straw, Beat It On Down the Line, Loser, Friend of the Devil, El Paso, or the perennial Me and My Uncle. The band played these songs at the five concerts, but they weren’t selected for this box set.

So on five CDs, this set gives an excellent overview of the Dead in 1974. Free jams, tight songs, a jazzier sound than in, say, 1972, but with all the power and mastery that the band had developed since their formation in 1965. While the Complete Europe ’72 box set remains the ultimate document of the Dead on tour, these edited recordings are probably the best introduction for someone interested in discovering the wide range of music the Grateful Dead played. (If you want a sample of the Dead on tour in 1972, the recent Europe ’72 Vol. 2, culled from that complete set, and tastefully remastered, is for you.) Or better yet, get both.

On Instrument Positioning in Live Recordings

All recordings of concerts are artificial. But once you’ve gotten that out of the way – you simply accept that you can never reproduce the actual sound of a live performance – you have to approach the question of how these recordings should be mixed. Not only are there questions of the volume of individual voices, instruments or groups of instruments, but also where they should be in the soundscape.

In the simplest type of live recording, you have one performer playing a solo instrument; say, a guitar. That instrument is centered in the soundstage, and there are no problems. Add a singer to the guitar, and it’s still simple to position.

But move to a slightly more complex instrument, such as a piano. There are two ways to record a piano, using microphones or a pickup. With the former, you can position microphones around the piano – most often, this is just two microphones placed facing the open lid – or you can use a pickup, which is transducers placed on the soundboard inside the piano. (There are many ways you can combine these devices, or use multiple microphones, both inside and outside the piano.) But a recording engineer faces a dilemma: do they place the piano in the center of the soundscape, or do they try to position it so the different keys are heard in different locations? I’ve heard recordings which are made to sound as though the listener is sitting in front of the keyboard; the lower notes are to the left, and the higher notes to the right. This is essentially false, because no one other than the performer hears a piano in this way. However, it does give the piano a bit more “life,” and makes the sound less static.

When there are multiple performers, the questions become much different. Generally, you want to have the performers sound as though they are in their appropriate position on stage. So a string quartet will have two instruments more on the left channel, and the other two on the right (generally the two violins are on the left and the viola and cello on the right). But I’ve heard string quartet recordings where the two instruments on the left are almost entirely on the left channel, and the same for the instruments on the right. This approximates what it would sound like to be in the middle of the string quartet, but no one ever sits there.

A jazz piano trio is an interesting group. Generally, the piano is on the left, the bass in the middle, and the drums on the right. This leads to many recordings trying to replicate this positioning. For example, listen to Brad Mehldau’s The Art Of The Trio Volume 2: Live At The Village Vanguard . (You can listen to samples of the recordings I cite by following the Amazon links.) The piano is far to the left, the drums to the right, and the bass in the middle, as they are on stage. However, you would only hear a performance like this if you were sitting in the first row, dead center. This gives a certain artificiality to these recordings, which is compounded if you listen on headphones. In fact, I find this approach very annoying on headphones, and generally don’t listen to recordings like this except on speakers. (Though even with speakers, the positioning is very obvious.)

Take the same artist when he’s in the studio. On Songs: The Art Of The Trio, Volume Three, recorded in the studio, the piano is centered, and the drums are quite creatively spread across the soundstage, while the bass is also centered. Musically, this is much more interesting than if the instruments were positioned laterally.

This positioning is even more obvious in the recent Grateful Dead releases from the band’s Europe 72 tour. You can hear this clearly on the Europe ’72 Vol. 2 release, notably on Dark Star. When the Grateful Dead performed, Jerry Garcia was stage left, Bob Weir in the center, and Phil Lesh stage right. Garcia’s guitar, in these new mixes, is far to the left, but Weir’s guitar is on the right channel. Lesh’s bass is in the center; I agree that the bass should be centered no matter what, but the positioning of the guitars is simply odd. No one would have heard the music like that, unless they were in the first few rows, and even then, the resonance of the halls would attenuate that positioning greatly. Add to that the fact that the vocals are centered. This is logical, but having Jerry’s guitar far to the left and his voice in the center is a bit jarring.

The Grateful Dead’s recent release of some music from their Spring 1990 tour follows this approach. But the drums are more spread out than in the Europe 72 mixes (probably because the multi-tracking used in 1990 allowed for this giving more tracks to the drums), and the keyboards are also far to the right (keyboardist Brent Mydland did sit on the right, as did keyboardist Keith Godchaux, in 1972). But on these recordings, Bob Weir’s guitar is in the center, which is more logical.

No matter what, an engineer has to establish a soundspace. All I’m saying here is that sometimes this soundspace is too artificial; in attempting to reproduce some of a band’s positioning, it creates music that doesn’t sound realistic. You certainly don’t want all the instruments in the center, but putting them far to either side can sound strange. Could it be that these recordings are mixed for people who keep their speakers very close together? I don’t; I have speakers on my desk that are a couple of feet to either side of my head, and my living room stereo’s speakers are fairly far apart. This speaker positioning makes sense for most recordings – especially those of an orchestra – but for some recent recordings, it just sounds weird.

iPad mini vs. Kindle Paperwhite

I like the idea of the Kindle, and the idea of the Kindle Paperwhite even more. Offering the ability to read both outdoors in sunlight, and indoors with a backlight, it seems like the best of both worlds.

Alas, having received a Kindle Paperwhite yesterday, I’m very disappointed. Not only is the backlight not very bright – not really bright enough to read indoors if there’s a lot of light – but it’s very uneven, with dark spots around the edges, especially at the bottom.

Here’s a photo I took of the Kindle Paperwhite next to the iPad mini, the latter showing a book in the Kindle app. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

As you can see, even in this small photo, the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness (both devices are set to maximal brightness in the photo above). While the iPad mini won’t work in bright light – such as outdoors – I have a Kindle Touch for that. So that Paperwhite is being returned. It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.

A Year with iTunes Match

Apple introduced iTunes Match one year ago today. To mark the anniversary, I’ve written an article for Macworld, iTunes Match: One year in, where I discuss some of the problems with Apple’s cloud service, and offer some suggestions for improvement.

I also joined Macworld’s Chris Breen and Dan Moren on this week’s Macworld podcast, to discuss iTunes Match, iTunes and the iTunes Store.

So if you’re interested in iTunes Match, check out the article and podcast.

Why Record Labels Don’t Provide More Digital Booklets on the iTunes Store

A few months ago, I pondered why there are so few albums with digital booklets on the iTunes Store. I had discovered at the time that Apple imposes their own page format, which is not that of CD booklets, adding an extra step in the production process for record labels.

Well I found out something else recently: why record labels don’t add digital booklets to older releases. The answer is interesting; it’s because they can’t. Apple won’t let them. If a label has uploaded an album to the iTunes Store and wants to add a digital booklet later, the only way they can do this is to delete the original, and create a new album listing with a new SKU. And if they do this, then purchasers will no longer be able to re-download music listed under the old SKU.

It’s kind of foolish; it should be drop-dead simple to add something to an album on the iTunes Store, but Apple’s system is so rigid that it’s impossible. So if you wonder why your favorite label hasn’t added digital booklets to older releases, you now know why.