Day 46: Viola Lee Blues, 9/3/67

The Grateful Dead 1967

When I first started listening to the Dead I didn’t really like Viola Lee Blues. In fact, I didn’t really come around to it until quite recently when Furthur used it as a thread to hold a setlist together, weaving in and out of the song into others and back again. I think it was something about that big dissonant chord they play, but no matter. I’ve now seen the light and have come to really like this jam.

I don’t know how most people feel about the remastered studio albums that were put out a few years ago, but I’m a big fan. The fact that they went ahead and filled up the rest of the CDs with music is a huge plus in my book as well. I’m on record as being a big fan of the band’s studio work, but all of the extra live cuts are too much to pass up. There are some really good studio outtakes as well, but I love the live stuff. (For another example of the bonus life material from these releases check out this Eyes of the World.) All of these expanded remasters are available in 2 box sets – The Golden Road covers 1965-1973, and Beyond Description covers everything from 1973-1989 (with the exception of Steal Your Face, which was not remastered in lieu of The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack).

The song quickly fades in right at the tail end of the first verse. Fortunately, to placate this gap in the tape Jerry immediately throws down a quick, blistering solo. The “wrote a letter” verse is next, followed by another solo. This one is a not as fervent as the first salvo, but still moves along quite nicely. The guitars have that nice, organic, overdriven tube sound.

After a few minutes things settle down a bit. You can hear Pigpen adding some organ flourishes, and Jerry seems to be searching for where to go next. Right when you think Garcia is building to something big, he brings is way down again. Billy kicks in a steady drum beat, with a number of snare rolls to boot, and seems to provide an appropriate foundation. Around the 7 minute mark Jerry really steps out front again, his tone much clearer and prominent. After a minute or so of jamming, Phil reaches for the upper register. The search for the sound continues and Jerry seems intent on cementing his place as a blues rock hero here.

The peaks and valleys continue to emerge for several more minutes so sit back and just go with the flow on this one. The whole things starts to get really crazy around the 15:30 mark. It sounds like it could go off the rails at any moment. The crescendo continues to build until we’re suddenly dropped back into the song’s regular structure and groove. Jerry finally starts back on the main melody line, one that’s dripping with overdriven tone once again. It isn’t until past the 22 minute mark that the band comes back in with vocals, almost 20 minutes since last stepping to the mic. They deliver one quick verse and then the song peters out.

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6 Comments
  1. This epic jam fades in near the end of the first chorus. The sound is thin and rattly. As the regrouping to the second verse begins, a stumbly segment arrives slightly off-balance and is saved by the arrangement asserting some structure into the confusion. After the singing is done, a slow set-up to the expected huge improv begins. This is guided by Garcia’s relentless double-picking on guitar, but Phil harmonizes with him on some bass lines. At about 5:20, a drummer (likely Billy) begins a double-time chug-along beat that he occasionally abandons in favor of some tricky snare rolls. Pigpen can be heard working the keys in the background. Just after 7:00, Garcia takes a more aggressive stance with a melodic solo that soon finds some surprising corners of the scale. Pig begins a descending, sympathetic organ line, and the jam seems ready to open up. It does, a couple of minutes after, as everyone but the drummers and Jerry drop out for a few bars, adding dimension. Then it’s up and down for a while, as the guys let the jam take them where it may. Around 10:45 it heats up again and Garcia digs in yet deeper. Up to this point, Weir is damn near inaudible. But that is him nearing 13:00, striking some quiet chords. Still, this jam has not heated up to the level expected at this late juncture. A funny theme pops up soon after, but is only touched upon here, then again a minute or so later. Instead, the big, noisy build this song is famous for begins, abetted by a humming bass tone, a big organ wash, and other swell accoutrements. Somewhere around 16:30, the drop into the main groove hits, and though it is pretty dramatic, it doesn’t really rival the best ones out there. The long, lethargic trip out of here is not the best, either. Try as they may, the band just can’t seem to get it up to the level needed for true, sexy action. I’m not sure why this version rated inclusion actually, except one can’t hear too many versions of this tune, I suppose. An anti-climax follows, as a second build does not reach escape velocity before a final return to the groove gets us to an adequate last verse and chorus.

    • Steve, I’d be interested if you have suggestions for other versions that would have been better candidates. I really liked this version, as you may have ascertained, but I’m certainly intrigued by other recommended versions.

  2. Try this one:

    Viola Lee Blues (Eureka, CA 1/20/68) RT 2.2

    Be prepared for a huge entrance here. It’s scary if you are not ready. After the explosion, Garcia begins winding restrained guitar lines around the beat. This has a deep groove that sounds draggy if you don’t just lay back and dig it correctly. The judge decreed it. The clerk he wrote it down. The guitarist illustrated with sonic colors. It is full of cool dynamics and charming period tones. Some overmodulation pushes the vocal parts into warm distortion, but I kind of like that anyway. Jerry holds a lick absurdly in order to push the point, and that makes the song. After another verse, the floor is given to Phil for a bit, and he plays a wonderful little bass solo. Jerry takes over and briefly dominates, then he backs down to allow more interplay. Phil shines again. Bobby gets a few chops in, too. Don’t miss Pigpen lighting up the organ. Coming up on 8:00 a two-beat segment drives the song into a new mood. The tempo is intentionally allowed to sail here. While the beat hurries along, the dynamic rises and falls, mostly in a duel between Jerry and Phil. At 10:30 it sounds as though Lesh will enter “Caution” but he backs off and the jam continues to revolve around the less-defined pattern already established. At about 12:15 Phil decides the beat is flagging slightly and he pushes it back up to overdrive. Nearing 14:00 the bass line is all over the “Caution” theme again, but again it is subverted. Less than a minute later, a breakdown in dynamics occurs, and the band plays just as fast but much more sparsely and quietly. Phil lays out for a bit. He jumps back in to the sound of Pig and Jerry trading licks. Nice! From there, the big build begins and we are going you-know-where. The climax is long and very noisy in coming. It hits at 18:11 and we are in the afterglow of a gigantic version of this fun jam vehicle. The final verse is smooth relief at first, then it screams into the final line and the song bubbles down to zero. A great one.

    • Steve, I’ll definitely give that one a listen in the near future. Thanks for the heads up!

      I had just picked a different track from that release so I was trying to spread the wealth a bit, but it sounds like a real corker (as Conan O’Brien would say).

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