A chunk of the show this Viola Lee Blues was taken from was actually released as Dick’s Picks, Vol. 26. That was a shorter, 2-disc set which begs a few questions: why wasn’t it stretched to three discs? What else could have been included? Why were these songs omitted?
Clearly this Viola Lee Blues was deemed good enough to be added to the Phil Zone album, and since that was released in 1997, and DP26 didn’t come out until 2002, it was deemed unnecessary to over-lap the releases as such. At that point it time it certainly made sense. But what other pieces of Grade-A Grateful Dead were left on the cutting room floor?
Nevertheless, Viola Lee Blues functions as a master’s level course in musical dynamics and their application in a ensemble setting. When thinking in those terms it’s easy to understand how this song THE jam vehicle in the band’s early days (is that a safe statement to make?). As the band gravitated less and less to the psychedelic as the years past it kind of makes sense that this cosmic blues/R&B number would fall by the wayside, but that doesn’t make it any less of a pity. I can safely say that I never really recognized the importance of Viola Lee Blues until I started this project. This is the third time I’ve returned to this well and I’m much better for having done so, in my humble opinion.
The groove! The groove! Phil lays it down fat and thick. Jerry has an acute edge to his tone and cuts through like a hot knife, grinding out notes like sparks from a welder. The first verse in the books and the exploration begins. Before long both Jerry and Phil are you examining the upper register, only to ease back into that slinky Viola Lee Blues groove. It all falls away quickly at the end of the next verse, but Phil hits a big note, reviving the thing and soon he and Jerry are in the stratosphere, being pushed further and further by the drummers. The jam builds to a head, goes off a cliff, and they band quickly reassembles the groove from scratch. The peaks and valleys here are quite tall and quite low, respectively. You can almost feel each instrument, each player, pushing the others like kids chasing each other around a yard. Across the board the playing is spry, nimble, and energetic. Phil takes the lead around the 10 minute mark and sets a new course, and you can hear the occasional organ swirl as well. The jam isn’t as blistering as it was just a few minutes earlier, but the groove is more laid back, well, as laid back as one can be in this jam vehicle. Toward the end of the twelfth minute Phil slides in a few Caution ideas, but they don’t take. A few more seem to appear a minute or so later, and the groove takes on a bit of a Caution feel without ever truly diving into that song. Pigpen, or whoever is on organ pushes to the fore for a few measures in the 15th minute, a nice interjection to break up the wall of sound produced by the rest of the band. It sounds like Garcia either hits a few wrong notes or there’s an equipment issue shortly after… Judging by the recovery it likely wasn’t the latter though. The cacophony swells and builds at a fever pitch, symbols crash and fingers seem to be afire. Turning on a dime, however, it’s back to main groove in the blink of an eye, but this time is truly IS laid back, almost plodding in its tempo, a vast juxtaposition to what came just before. And that, as they say, is all they wrote.
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