Through the years with “Wharf Rat” and the Grateful Dead
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Of all the things I could’ve accomplished during quarantine, I hadn’t expected “develop a heavy appreciation for the final era of the Grateful Dead” to necessarily be among them.
I haven't given a lot of time to the Grateful Dead's later years. Dragged down by midi-synths and sluggish tempos and Garcia's variable energy and enthusiasm from show to show, the final era didn't seem to offer the same energy and spark as what got me interested.
That said, entertainment is in high demand these days, and the Dead have been offering up some of that every Friday with their "Shakedown Stream" on YouTube. I started pulling these up late on Friday nights for lack of anything better to do, and most of these are naturally from the last seven or eight years of the band, when they'd been pushed into stadiums in the wake of "Touch of Grey" and mainstream success. Those shows were filmed for the video screens, and the film (sometimes with hilarious psychedelic effects) survives today.
One week, their show at Buffalo's Rich Stadium, circa July 16, 1990, was the programming for the evening. The band kicks off with "Hell in a Bucket," which Garcia playing some fiery leads, looking engaged with the rest of the band and even motioning them down when it's time to bring the tune home. They moved into "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" after that. Before I knew it I was settled in and enjoying myself. And when "The Wheel" emerged out of "Drums" and "Space" — segments I don't normally care for, but I was nearly hypnotized by them here — I was fully engaged. All the issues and stress of life was absent for a moment.
But it was when they finally wound their way to "Wharf Rat" that everything connected again. When I first began investigating and exploring the Dead, all those early albums — Live/Dead, Europe '72, Skull & Roses — were staples. But I had Without a Net early on as well, and while I liked it (and still do), it felt like listening to a different band. The textures had changed, voices were weathered, the music just seemed more settled and less chaotic than it had been 20 years earlier.
In this show, "Wharf Rat," snapped everything together. Though it didn't debut until 1971, it seemed to follow and maintain a thread from the Acid Tests through the acoustic days, European tours, retirements, Radio City Music Hall, Pigpen, Keith Godcheaux, Brent Mydland, Bruce Hornsby, stadiums, theaters, too-short shorts, gate crashers, Soldier Field and, finally, the end. I've gone through some ups and downs with this band through the years, but this moment finally seemed to put everything in place.
Since then, I've had the Dead on a much heavier rotation than in the past, running the gamut through eras. There have been gems from 1990 and '91 as well as the early 1980s, periods I hadn’t previously granted much air time. And interestingly, "Wharf Rat" is a constant. Unlike "Dark Star" or "Saint Stephen," which could disappear from setlists for years, "Wharf Rat" was consistent, popping up in about every fifth show, Robert Hunter's ode to an embattled sailor who, in that moment, just wants to relay his pain, get up and fly away. They never over-played it or ditched it. It seemed to occupy something of a sacred space in their sets, appearing as a kind of crescendo late in the second set, one final moment of weirdness and emotion before the catharsis of whatever party song was going to send the crowd home.
We've all been at this for a while now, and hopefully healthy. It's been 136 days since I started working from home and stopped going to shows, just waiting patiently for the rest of the country to get its act together and take this seriously. Until then, there's music at home. "Wharf Rat" seems to be there quite a bit, too. We'll get back on our feet someday.
July 25, 2020
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