Day 168: Ship Of Fools, 6/9/76

Grateful Dead Road Trips 4.5 album cover artwork

Back to back picks from 1976 here at DFAY. There must have been something in the water during those June shows, but the band certainly had a joie de vivre that came through in the music. Clearly they were glad to be back out on the road.

Ship Of Fools was played a total of 225 but only 8 of those surfaced in 1976.

One of the interesting things about this song to me, lyrically, is how it aged with the band. The original lyrics is “thirty years upon my head,” but this changed to forty, and even fifty as Jerry got older. It’s interesting to think that even as the song’s protagonist gets old he still hasn’t learned his lesson and continues to make the same mistakes with each performance of the song. Was Jerry trying to tell us something? I guess we’ll never know.

I always liked the chord progression of this song too, and that diminished 7th chord (if I recall correctly) provides some really great tension against a rather delicate melody. I used to think it was a bit odd and didn’t fit, but now I welcome the dissonance. It’s funny how the little things grow on you like that.

Here we have a very slow and deliberate take on this tale of caution. As was the case at times the song has a ton of breathing room. The drums are almost played at a snail’s pace, and Phil is clearly the bridge here. He’s really front and center and on display for everyone’s enjoyment. Donna’s vocals are warm and on key as is Keith’s piano playing. He balances straight block chords and minor runs with precision here. Jerry finally takes a solo and it’s a very slow one. It’s almost like Jerry doesn’t have a lot to say, but he’s speaking very slowly so that there can be no mistake about what he’s saying. Listen to Weir during the chorus after Jerry’s solo, he’s doing some really cool stuff. The sound fills out a bit more with only a couple of minutes left in the song. Keith plays some double stops that you expect to keep the crescendo going, but instead drops the song back down for a calm, serene finish.

Complete Setlist 6/9/76

Previous Ship Of Fools DFAY Selections

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6 Comments
  1. You mother…….., can’t believe you step up w/ a ship of fools after my last post. You do realize the Dutch invented the slave trade (checking you Deuce Bigalow trivia knowledge). My wife is slowly and I mean slowly liking the Dead. I’ll give her lots of credit as her family completely banned her entire family from going to those crazy concerts in Western Mass that had both the Music Inn and Tanglewood hosting the best of the best in the early 70’s. She somehow gravitated to much safer music and slowly I’m weaning her off the supremes, Herman’s Hermits, Turtles etc. Not that her music was horrible, but trying to get her to stretch out a little is a user be warned experience.
    Ironically, a song like Good Lovin that the Dead recreated to their taste is a perfect Segway for her to grasp the leap to great song with better music backing it. Some people can’t grasp the fact that even pop bands loved to stretch out and jam, but were usually cut off at the knees by those Commie record not know it all’s.
    Had my wife singin Ships last summer at the Tanglewood ( how ironic) tribute to Jerry show with Warren and the BSO.

  2. My wife and I traveled to the Bay area with a friend to see the Oakland shows in early ’95; it was the farthest we’d gone to see the Dead. It was in the second set of the first night that I came to the realization that Jerry had lost more than just a step. He was slipping in ’94, too but there was a lot of hoopla in the Midwest for Dead shows and we were having fun, plus there were huge issues with the sound once John Cutler took over so it was easy to make excuses for Jerry. But that first night in Oakland there was no doubt. By the third night I had made the best of it, and it was still great to be at a Dead show. When they started into Ship of Fools I got really excited: this is their 30th year! I can’t wait to hear “30 years upon my head,” but Jerry either flubbed the lyric or missed the verse completely–I had the tape but can’t get myself to go back and listen.
    I’m not sure why I felt compelled to post such a negative story but it’s the first thing I thought of when I saw Ship of Fools as the song of the day.
    In Dave Lemieux’s latest seaside chat he more or less acknowledges that this song was not always well played, and I agree that there were times it seemed to stop the momentum of a show to some degree. But, as Dave said, when it was “on” it was really on and this version from ’76 is very enjoyable.

  3. There’s an interview with Robert Hunter, not sure if it was done by Blair Jackson or David Gans, where he confirms an old story about having a bad trip. He was backstage and stupidly took a drink out of a cup that had been sitting there for awhile. Unbeknownst to him, people were dosing it over and over and joking, “Imagine if someone actually drank out of that!” I think Janis had opened and she was pissed at her drummer for some reason and Hunter saw her yell at the drummer and when she opened her mouth he saw blood pouring out and he lost it. Later in the night Jerry calmed him down by gently playing an acoustic guitar. This is ironic in that years earlier, Jerry and his first wife Heather freaked a bit after taking acid one night and went to see Hunter, who calmed them down by playing his acoustic guitar.
    Anyway, when I hear the lyrics to Ship of Fools, I wonder if Hunter was possibly writing about the acid scene at Dead shows and his bad experience. Probably not, but he always said that the lyrics mean whatever you want them to mean and I kind of like this particular take on these lyrics. After all, he went to see the Captain, strangest he could find…

  4. Sorry to make like Columbo, “just one more thing,” but I saw Elvis Costello open for Dylan a few years ago and it was just Elvis, solo acoustic. At one point he mentioned that Ship of Fools was the most requested song at his concerts. And then he didn’t play it! His Ship was one of the best songs on Deadicated IMO.

  5. Mike, thanks for the side notes from your experiences. Really the type of stories I love to hear. Just mentioned last week while working at a music festival why I love to work and go to them so much; the stories. Meeting folks who give you their take of the songs, the bands, the hamburger etc. Not a good, bad or somewhere in between, but their personal, hopefully amusing, experience about something that they remember that impacted them in a way that for some reason needs to be shared. A whole bunch over a weekend festival, makes my life a whole lot fuller.
    Thanks for sharing you thoughts and memories and agree about Elvis’ take on Ships. He played at Gathering of the Vibes 2 years ago and there were a lot of winers before his set and then he proceeded to blow people away. He obviously knew what type of audience he was playing to so his songs had a lot more soloing’ which was a great way for him to demo his great playing. And no he didn’t play Ship of Fools, but he did a Great It must of been the Roses.

  6. How to follow that [“Looks Like Rain”]? With another ballad, of course. The Dead are not afraid. They are among friends. Jerry sails this ship with studied cool. Donna is his trusty backup. The instruments other than lead guitar provide all of the accompaniment. That is, Jer’s guitar is pretty much absent through the song until the lead break arrives. At that point a volume knob is twisted and the solo leaps out – a bluesy interlude that is the real focal point of this take. In the chorus after that some really supernatural fills are issued from that same instrument. Don’t miss ‘em! One more verse gets the point across and we head for the safety of the harbor. This version is just swell through and through. Keith pounds with both hands getting to that final chorus and his wife makes sure that one is the sweetest of all. The crowd digs.

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