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Grateful Dead & James Brown: When Live Music Beats the Studio

The Curmudgeon as Secretary of Culture

Music Features The Grateful Dead
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Back in the 1970s, I had this fantasy that President Jimmy Carter was going to appoint me as America’s first-ever Secretary of Culture. And as my first act as a cabinet member, was going to issue an executive order banning the Grateful Dead from ever entering a recording studio again. Not because I hated the Dead, but because I loved them.

The Grateful Dead  were the ultimate example of a pop-music act that made its most memorable music on stage and its most forgettable music in the studio. As a White House cabinet member, the least I could do would be to make them focus on their strength and avoid their weakness.

I was reminded of my old fantasy by the recent release of a new Grateful Dead album, Ready or Not. It’s another live recording but one with a specific purpose: It gathers the songs the band was trying to cut in the studio in the months before Jerry Garcia died. The group was unhappy with the results in the studio—just as many listeners had been with so many of their other studio sessions.

In these live versions, however, you can hear how good the songs were and how good the album might have been if a government official had banned them from the studio and thus forced them to release these stage performances. These nine songs were cherry-picked from eight different shows, much as a producer would have chosen them from different takes in a studio.

And the Dead’s best live versions of songs were almost always better than their best studio versions of the same songs. Their interaction with a live audience inspired them to better singing and better playing than they could ever summon up in a studio with no audience around. The stop-and-go nature of studio recording interrupted the flow they got in going from one song to the next on stage.

Why was a band like the Dead forced to release their albums of new material as studio recordings when the live versions were so much better? Why did they bow to the industry’s insistence that that’s just the way things are done? Wouldn’t they have been better off if all their new songs had been first released as live recordings, as their final collection of new songs has been on Ready or Not?

It wasn’t just the Dead that got caught in this trap. Many artists have done better work on stage than in the studio: James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Al Green, Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers, Mary J. Blige, Tedeschi-Trucks, Mavis Staples, the Dustbowl Revival, Fela Kuti, Alison Krauss, Santana, Old Crow Medicine Show and many more.

On the other hand, there are also acts who have prospered more in the studio than on stage. Think of the three great B-bands of the ’60s: the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Byrds. Think of studio-savvy indie-rockers such as R.E.M., Beck, Vampire Weekend and the National. Think of one-man bands such as Prince and Stevie Wonder; think of two-man bands such as Steely Dan. Think of vocally challenged, studio-bolstered songwriters such as Madonna and Taylor Swift. Think of every hip-hop act in history but the Roots. Think of every EDM act without exception.

I’m sure you can add your own nominations to both lists, but for every artist in either category, the crucial takeaway is the same: Some artists make their most convincing music in the studio and some do their best work on stage. Why should those in the latter group be forced to work in the studio merely because that’s the conventional wisdom? And who made it the conventional wisdom anyway?

Radio did. Radio, which is often heard through tinny car speakers—or, even worse, ear buds—wants songs that are short and concise with maximal clarity and minimal experimentation with its open door to mistakes. And for some artists, that recipe really works. But the Grateful Dead? They were supposed to undermine their greatest strengths in hopes of gaining the airplay destined to be forever beyond their grasp?

One of the highlights of the Dead’s Ready or Not is “Eternity,” which features music by guitarist Bob Weir and non-member Rob Wasserman with lyrics by blues legend Willie Dixon. An early rehearsal version of the song without an audience can be heard on the box set So Many Roads, and while the verses had gelled, the chorus was still uncomfortably stiff, and that’s how the studio version probably would have sounded if they rushed in and recorded it before trying it out on tour. The newly released version benefits from that road testing, and it flows from a simple opening into a long instrumental section and an impassioned vocal coda.

The same is true of the audience-free rehearsal version of “Lazy River Road,” also on So Many Roads. This folk/country ballad by guitarist Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter is given a tentative, slow-motion vocal by Garcia, as if he’s trying to play it safe in the studio. The newly released version on Ready or Not, taped just a month later before a live audience in Chapel Hill, brims with confidence, as if the ailing Garcia is feeding off the crowd’s support. A carefree bounce lifts the song and sends it skipping along.

These two songs, plus the Garcia/Hunter classics “So Many Roads” and “Days Between” as well as the funk-flavored “Corrina” by Hunter, Weir and drummer Mickey Hart, are among the finest post-1975 compositions by the Dead. If they had released this album of live tracks in 1995, rather than waiting for the studio sessions to coalesce, the ’90s wouldn’t have been such a lost decade for the group.

The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 is one of the finest live albums ever released, but so is James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, recorded in 1962 and released the next year. Introduced as “the hardest working man in show business,” Brown took the legendary Harlem stage and proved he deserved the label. Just as impressive was his band, with its seven-piece horn section, hitting on all pistons and pushing their leader into performances beyond anything he’d done in the studio.

Last November, another classic Brown concert was finally released in its entirety. His October 1, 1969, concert in his hometown of Augusta was one of his last with his late-’60s band featuring saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley and trumpeter Kush Griffith—all future members of Parliament-Funkadelic as the Horny Horns. Half of the concert was released in adulterated form for the 1970 Sex Machine album, but the unaltered, complete show is now available as At Home with His Bad Self.

Brown was planning a return to the city where he’d shined shoes for nickels as a child. He’d bought a new apartment and a local radio station, and he was eager to show his former neighbors that he had made it big and was bringing it all back home. Backed by the legendary guitarist Jimmy Nolen and a trio of groundbreaking funk drummers—Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks and Melvin Parker (Maceo’s brother)—Brown was able to surf a wave of horns and percussion. His musicians hit every pre-planned accent on the head, freeing the singer to improvise at will.

The show starts strong with “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” and keeps building through instrumentals and odd covers (including a feverish version of “Kansas City”) to a final 45-minute medley of nine songs, with one blistering number bleeding into the next, climaxing with nine minutes of “Mother Popcorn.”

The strength of live music can also be its downfall. The same interaction with an audience that can spark an impassioned performance can also overstimulate an entertainer into overstatement. When the singing gets too melodramatic and the playing too showy, the concert environment can backfire. The Grateful Dead were too laid back and Brown too rhythmically disciplined to fall prey to this danger, but others are less able to resist temptation.

Prince’s new five-disc box set, 1999, contains not only the original 1982 album of that name but also all the B-sides, alternate takes and unreleased songs from that period. It also includes a 1982 concert in Detroit as both an audio CD and a video DVD.

It would be inaccurate to say that Prince’s live shows were ever less than enjoyable, but it would also be inaccurate to say they’re better than his studio work, where he often played all the instruments himself, creating marvels of rhythmic and melodic precision without sacrificing any sensuality. If his concerts sometimes drifted into pushy come-ons, his studio creations were always sly seductions.

Like Bruce Springsteen during the same 1980-84 period, Prince wrote far more terrific songs than he had room for on the albums his record label was willing to release (a crucial reason he declared himself an unhappy “slave” of Warner Bros.). This period yielded best ballad Prince ever wrote, “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” but it was left off the album and relegated to the B-side of “1999.” The two understated studio versions of “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” in the box set clearly trump the overdone live version.

The oft-bootlegged, 11-minute “Purple Music” is both an artistic manifesto and a masterpiece of funk minimalism. Songs such as “Feel You Up,” “Teacher, Teacher,” “Turn It Up,” “No Call U” and “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” boasted hooks sharp enough to deserve release not only on albums but possibly as singles.

Like Brian Wilson, Prince was a creature of the studio, using its technology to fashion one-man confections that were impossible to replicate on stage. Wilson quit the road so he could concentrate on his studio work. Perhaps if Prince had done the same, he could have escaped the travel-induced pain that prompted his fatal self-medication.

If only Carter had been wise enough to appoint me as Secretary of Culture, I’m sure I could have gotten him reelected. If I had sent Al Green to Teheran and Neil Young to Moscow, we could have defused the tensions that torpedoed his presidency. If I had mediated the dispute between James Brown and Maceo Parker, maybe they could have continued to work together. At the very least, I could have helped the Grateful Dead focus on what they did best and avoid what they did worst.

The 12 best historical releases of 2019:

Sam Rivers: Emanation (NoBusiness)
Prince: 1999 (NPG/Warner)
Various Artists: The Bakersfield Story: Country Music Capital of the West: 1940-1974 (Bear Family)
Al Green: The Hi Records Singles Collection (Fat Possum)
Eric Dolphy: Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
John Coltrane: Blue World (Impulse)
James Brown: Live at Home with His Bad Self (Republic)
The Grateful Dead: Ready or Not (Rhino)
Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash: Travelin’ Thru (Columbia/Legacy)
Neil Young: Tuscaloosa (Reprise)
The Kinks: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (BMG)
J.J. Cale: Stay Around (Because)

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