Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Arrow

(Yeah, long time, no blog, sorry about that!)

When I was a kid, I used to think of a song as a song. Period. A song was a fixed entity, and it was supposed to be identical every time. In retrospect I can't really understand why I thought like that, maybe it's because kids want/need things in their life to be stable and predictable? Well, "why" doesn't really matter that much. I don't know exactly when, but at some point I became aware of the fact that music was much more fluid than that - hey, jazz musicians are improvising - and that a band can include one song inside another! Or, similarly, instead of stopping to play when a song ends, why not improvise something on the spot which ties that song to the next one? I knew about this to a small extent for quite a while - e.g. Motorpsycho who in 1998 started doing the "Super/Wheel" which was in other words "Superstooge -> The Wheel". The "->" is an arrow, and means that the first song segues into the following. I would find out later, when I started collecting live recordings that Motorpsycho had done segues for years before that.

So. The Grateful Dead. I remember when I first got "Live/Dead" I listened to it a lot, but I could never understand where one track ended and the other began! Of course I was a "newbie", but still. Most songs were obvious if you just listened to the lyrics, but e.g. the "St. Stephen -> The Eleven" - that was incredible. Where did one end and the other begin?

This changed my view on songs and music quite fundamentaly, especially when I started listening to Grateful Dead a lot. The wild twists and turns and improvisations that band pulled off are more often than not too good to believe.

So far I've identified 3 (or 4) main kinds of segues/transitions. Or, that is slightly unprecise. Let me elaborate:
  1. When a song's normal parts/sections are finished, the band continues to play, and improvises their way into the next song. (A variant on this is when a song finished normally and the next one immediately starts, without anything inbetween. This is a lot less exciting.)
  2. Before a song is completely finished, the band jams their way into another song, and when that one finishes the band jams their way back into the previous song. This rule may be used recursively, so that the sequence contains 3 songs or more. The Grateful Dead did this a lot, Motorpsycho has done it (not too often, but it has happened, in varying degrees), Phish has done it (many times, probably) and another good example is the Disco Biscuits, e.g. this one. This kind of segueing is often called a "sandwhich". It can be both symmetric and asymmetric. Here is another wild example: The ending of Disco Biscuits 2002-07-26. Quite something! This also demonstrates a variation: the band starts a song, but jams into something else, and when they pause, it seems they have forgotten about what they originally started. But then, after a while, they jam out of a song later in the show, and into the originally unfinished song, so they can finish it.
  3. This is less common, but happens every now and then: A song is for some reason not finished during a gig (mainly because the band gets carried away and jams into something else and forgets all about it) - and then they finish it the next day! I don't know what term to put on this - a trans-performance segue? Of course, this can be seen as a variation on the above. Notably, Motorpsycho did this during the spring 2006 tour: on April 30 they ended the show with a unfinished version of "Hogwash", but the next day in Berlin they spontaneously finish it (it wasn't on the setlist that night, it just came out of the end-jam in "Bonny Lee") - see Alex' superb Motorpsycho blog for details. Another good example, tied to the previous point, is again the Disco Biscuits. Several of the songs started in the above mentioned example (2002-07-26) were left unfinished that night, but they finished them the next night (2002-07-27). (Note: I haven't actually heard these two DB shows, but I've heard other shows by them, and I trust the comments and setlists for these two shows.) Grateful Dead also did this, but I can't remember any dates from the top of my head.
It could also be noted that both Ratdog and Phil & Friends have become masters of playing shows where the songs intertwine and one or more songs becomes the "frame" for a show, much like the literary device where the author lets one story be the frame for a multitude of sub-stories. A good example is "Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer, where a lot of characters are assembled together and they haven't got much to do to pass the time but tell each other stories.

So, here are, from the top of my head, some of my favorite segues so far (but hey, there's a lot I haven't heard!):
  • Grateful Dead 1972-04-08: Dark Star -> Sugar Magnolia In addition to being a scaringly good Dark Star, the transition into Sugar Magnolia is simply put the definition of smooth. It's incredible. Too incredible to be true. It's hair-raising every time. Every baby's ass envies this one. It's totally incomprehensible! Go listen, and melt. (Btw, 1972-04-14 has a similar sequence of "Dark Star -> Sugar Magnolia", which is just as good as -04-08.)
  • Grateful Dead 1977-05-19: Playin' In The Band -> Uncle John's Band AKA How To Do Uncle John From Behind. I believe this is the only time they did this: They jam from Playin' into the ending of Uncle John's Band, and then they continue with the song from the beginning as normal. But the jam and the transition into UJB is phenomenal. Man oh man. I think this is the only time they "entered UJB from the behind".
  • Grateful Dead 1972-01-02: Good Lovin' -> China Cat Sunflower -> Good Lovin' I believe this is another one-time-only, but the transition from Good Lovin' into China Cat is superb, with a great example of the entire band turning around on the spot, and some really beautiful interplay between Garcia and Weir!
  • Grateful Dead 1974-03-23: Playin' in the Band -> Uncle John's Band -> Morning Dew -> Uncle John's Band -> Playin' in the Band I mean - come on!
    Look at that sequence! They only did that a few times, and this one is totally over the edge. As someone on a forum somewhere once remarked: "This one wrote the textbook on 'How To Do Transitions Between Songs'!" - I remember one time I had a really bad hangover, and I put this one in my discman and went for a walk. Seriously, I was immediately cured!
  • Motorpsycho 2006-05-14: Triggerman -> Manmower -> Triggerman OH yeah. They really did that.
  • Grateful Dead, Fall 1971, The Other One -> Cowboy song -> The Other One In this context, "Cowboy song" means "Me and My Uncle", or "El Paso", or "Me and Bobby McGee", and "The Other One" could also be "Dark Star", depending on the jamming vehicle of choice a particular night, but usually it was TOO.
  • Grateful Dead 1972-05-25: Uncle John's Band -> Wharf Rat -> Dark Star -> Sugar Magnolia A quite unusual sequence, but super-smooth segues! The transitions are beautifully seamless, and it's both a huge listening pleasure and a good way to show off what this band was capable of!
  • Grateful Dead 1973-02-19: He's Gone -> Truckin' -> The Other One -> Eyes Of The World -> China Doll This is one of my favorite pieces of GD music ever. "Eyes" & "China Doll" are picture perfect, and all the jamming and transitions inbetween these songs (there's a lot more than it seems!) is just gorgeous!
  • Motorpsycho 1993-09-18: 21st Century Schizoid Girl -> Giftland -> Blueberry Daydream -> Free Your Mind Wow, this shows off MP's ability to do strange things. Especially the Giftland -> Blueberry segue is cool, mainly 'cause they play a long & heavy version of Blueberry Daydream instead of the normal quiet acoustic version.
  • Motorpsycho 2006-04-22: The Wheel -> Plan #1 I was there. OK, so maybe the segue wasn't an amazing pull-off, they just made sure they were in the right key and triggered the Matt Burt sample, but holy c-rap! After that huge and powerful "The Wheel", which was the first I ever experience live, I got another huge first - "Plan #1"! I'd never experienced it live before. This combo is one of the greatest things i've experienced in live music, even thought the sound at the venue was crap. I swear, I was trembling and shaking and had tears in my eyes during this. Wow-o-wow!
Ya, okay. That was some of the best segues I could think of from the top of my head. I'll probably continue this subject later, I definitely need to include some Phish in that list, but for now this'll do.