Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brokedown Palace: The Capitol Theatre and the Grateful Dead

The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY is a short-lived yet deeply significant landmark in the world map and history of the Grateful Dead. As you start getting into the Dead's live shows you might end up with a copy of the 2/18/71 show, first of the Betty Boards (for more on Betty Cantor Jackson's famous recordings follow this link). You might have your face melted by the "beautiful Jam" in the Wharf Rat>Dark Star segue. As you get a little deeper you might hear about Capitol Theatre ushers Ken and Judy Lee. With permission from the owner, they made legendary early audience recordings from the Balcony of the Cap. These recordings are precious documents of the cultural phenomenon of a Grateful Dead show in 1970.  If you were intrigued by these performances and continued with your research of the famed venue, you might stumble across this quote from Jerry Garcia indicating even the Grateful Dead knew how special this place was at the time:

"See, there's only two theaters, man that are set up pretty groovy all around for music and for smooth stage changes, good lighting and all that - the Fillmore and The Capitol Theatre. And those are the only two in the whole country."

Mike Dubois's excellent tribute to the dead shows at the Cap (available for sale here)

Joe Russo's Almost Dead 12/27/13
What is it about this place? When Pete Shapiro re-opened the Capitol Theatre and started putting on rock shows, I knew I had to check it out. My first show there was the 12/27/13 performance of Joe Russo's Almost Dead. I absolutely adore Brothers Past. I saw them as much as I could in and after college, catching around 40 shows before they disbanded. A NYC Taper article and accompanying tape began circulating of a band called Joe Russo's Almost Dead. While I had seen and adored Joe Russo in a number of different projects, the real excitement for me was Tommy Hamilton of Brothers Past playing Grateful Dead music. Playing Dead music exceptionally well with an unbelievable band. When they announced a second date, this time at the legendary Capitol Theatre, I and a ton of friends all made the trip down from Albany. They played an incredible show and an informative one for me.

Long time co-conspirators Tom Hamilton and Joe Russo 12/27/13
My passion for the Grateful Dead really started to take off in 2011-12. I went from a casual listener to an attentive one, beginning to follow trails, study eras and sink deeper into the immensity of their legacy. For the JRAD show in 2013, I was about 100 shows deep into my  research. Imagine my surprise when they started the show with Cream Puff War, a tune I honestly wasn't too familiar with! I also heard the entire Terrapin Suite for the first time that night. I still had a lot to learn. Evidently primal and album Dead needed to be investigated more thoroughly! 

I’m truly grateful to have caught their second live performance. I continue to see them when I can, listen to the beautiful recordings being made and rock couch tour streams with friends.  They are among the most talented musicians in all of live music today. They pay homage to the legacy of the Grateful Dead in the most authentic of ways while reinventing improvisational music and whats possible with every single jam.

From left to right: Marco Benevento, Tom Hamilton, Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz and Scott Metzger 12/27/13
Photos from Mark Dershowitz's excellent gallery on the Waster. Check out the rest here

When the Disco Biscuits announced their debut at the Capitol Theatre, levels of excitement and anticipation set ultra high for the JRAD show were exceeded. The Disco Biscuits are my favorite live act of all time and following their music has shaped my adult life significantly. I was also over 2 years and several hundred shows deeper into my Grateful Dead obsession so the true import of the Capitol Theatre in their mythos was more fully revealed to me at this point. I decided as a mental and spiritual preparation for the biscuits at the Cap, I was going to listen to all of the shows the Dead played there in 1970 and 1971 in order.

March 1970
The phenomenal dead essays blog has a fascinating piece on the integration of acoustic music into the Grateful Dead's performances from 1969-1970 (read it here). In the March shows at the Cap, we see a one of the steps in that evolution. They play an early electric show followed by a late show in which they go Electric>Acoustic>Electric. It must've been shocking for the audience to see the rippin', eardrum rattling psychedelic blues rock band they knew put on such a different face. The audience was extremely rowdy and the band threw it right back at em. Through the years, the band talk to the audience less and less, so to listen to a night with constant running dialog between band and audience is very special. There is a lot to discover and treasure. Grateful Dead scholar Patrick Kinsella cites the jam in Dancin' in the Streets on 3/21/70 as his favorite moment of Grateful Dead improvisation of all time.

Mickey Hart 11/6/70
The Grateful Dead had just recorded Workingman's Dead in February and would record American Beauty from August to October. The band, along with lyricist Robert Hunter, had entered one of their most prolific periods and the band was taking all of this material on the road. This new music was a dosed interpretation of  Americana. The writing style and studio work stripped down the ornate work on the last two albums and focused on voice and song. Instrumentation was sparse and integrated acoustic instruments with the Dead's electric sound. I, like many Grateful Dead fans, was exposed to these two albums before any later or live material. My dad played me the tapes, which I eventually "borrowed" indefinitely. Hearing the primitive versions of these songs taking shape in their performances at the Capitol Theater so many years after my initial exposure felt like a full circle moment in my listening journey.

Bob Weir 11/6/70
Ken and Judy Lee's Audience Recording

The Grateful Dead Return to the Capitol Theatre in June. This time they bring along the New Riders of the Purple Sage and bill it as "An Evening With the Grateful Dead" which they had started touring in May. The Dead play acoustic, then the New Riders play (with Jerry Garcia on Pedal Steel guitar and Micky Hart on drums), followed by an extended electric Dead set. Workingman's Dead was released on June fourteenth. This performance finds the band straddling its late 60's sound and where Workingman's Dead and American Beauty would lead them in the early 70's. They were still playing blistering, monumental psychedelic jam music, most notably the Dark Star/ Attics sequence but are playing roots music like Candyman, Uncle John's Band and Friend of the Devil so very beautifully. This show is a delicate moment of flux and transition for the Grateful Dead and the brittle intimacy of Ken Lee's recording is the perfect transportation device to take you there.

Jerry Garcia backstage 11/6/70
November 1970
 The November Capitol Theatre run finds the band having released Workingman's Dead in June and American beauty on November first, touring relentlessly besides. They had expanded out from from the psychedelic ballrooms of major cities to college campuses across the country. At this point, the band had retired the "Evening with the Grateful Dead" show format but decided to bust it out one last time at the Capitol Theatre, bringing the New Riders of the Purple Sage along for the ride again. I think that's a neat fact. As if the spring and summer acoustic/ electric shows at the Capitol Theatre were so special, they wanted to capture that magic again? Capture it they did. Both the Dead Listening and Dead Essay blogs do wonderful jobs writing up this run so I'll leave you to explore those links at the bottom of the post on your own. Suffice it to say that the recordings, often a composite of the 3 taper’s yields that made the run, capture another dose of pure Capitol Theatre/Grateful Dead Magic. 11/6 and 11/8 tend to get the most attention as they have the best sound quality but there is plenty of X factor throughout all four nights. There's something about listening to these nights in their entirety that's so satisfying and calming to me. First the acoustic Dead, transitioning perfectly into the New Riders set, followed by face-melting electric Dead. Of all the Capitol Theatre Grateful Dead performances, this run is my favorite.

Mickey Hart in a moment of reflection 11/6/70
The recordings of the Capitol Theatre performances in 1970 offer a vibrant historic sampling of the Grateful Dead at critical point in their career. The back to back release of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty mark the transition of the band from infamy to legitimate fame. The year of 1970 is an incredible one for them musically with countless performance highlights and the respective shows at the Cap manage to nicely sample each phase of the year.

Bob Weir in the zone 11/6/70

February 1971
While only three months pass between the November 1970 and February 1971 runs, we have ourselves a very different band. On night one, they debut five new songs, all of which find their forever home in the Grateful Dead's sets. Bertha, Loser (my personal favorite dead song), Greatest Story Ever Told (which hadn't taken its final shape yet), Johnny B. Goode (RIP Check Berry) and Wharf Rat arrive and set the tone for how this band will continue to evolve in the coming years. While I'd read about and listened to the 2/18/71 "beautiful Jam" out of Wharf Rat and back into Dark Star several times, I wasn't prepared for my most recent listening experience in preparation to write this post. It moved me as deeply as any piece of Grateful Dead live performance I've listened to. It sent several waves of goosebumps across my body and gave me that soaring feeling in my heart that only comes from true art's brush with the divine. Its amazing how you can listen to the same performance by the Grateful Dead many times and discover something new with each reading.

Jerry Garcia connecting 11/6/70
On night two, Deal and Birdsong, which would find their way on to Jerry Garcia's first solo album in 1972 are debuted, but certainly the bigger news is the departure of drummer Mickey Hart. The details of this situation are written about quite well in the blogs I've linked below so I wont go too crazy into detail. Mickey's father had been managing the band and was caught stealing. When the jig was up, he cut himself a fat check in March of 1970 and ran off, leaving the Dead nearly penniless. Mickey grew increasingly distraught over the course of 1970 and after the first night of the February Cap run, leaves the band. Thankfully he did return in October 1974. While Bill Kreutzmann does an incredible job during his time as the sole drummer, you get an almost palpable sense of loss and confusion from the playing on 2/19/71. Over the course of the remaining nights of the run, the band gets back on their feet and continue to dial in the new material which would be featured on the self-titled live album known informally as Skull and Roses. The simplification of the sound down to one drummer, coupled with some new, rockin' material, changed the sound of the Grateful Dead significantly from 1970 to 1971. The Psychedelic church music of 1970 was distilled down to a concise honky tonk blues rock sound that still managed to wiggle quite a bit around the edges.

Mickey Hart preparing the gong 11/6/70

 Personal loss figures heavily in the era when the Grateful Dead performed at the Capitol Theatre. Jerry Garcia loses his mother. Phil Lesh's father passed during the recording of American Beauty.  He wrote Box of Rain with Robert Hunter for him. One of the most touching stories from Phil’s autobiography is him rushing off to perform this piece which he was so proud of, for his father in the hospital on his death bed. Janis Joplin was a friend of the band, and especially close to Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, sharing with him love of and commitment to the blues. Birdsong, which debuted at the Cap in 1971, was written as a memorial to Janis. With the betrayal of the Grateful Dead by Lenny Hart, the band not only lost a big chunk of money, they lost a piece of their innocence. More sadly still, Mickey lost his father. Following this, the Grateful Dead (temporarily) lose Mickey. Their involvement in the Altamont tragedy weighed heavily on their consciences in this time period as well, spawning both Mason’s Children and New Speedway Boogie. Great art often grows out of the muck of sadness and loss. I believe that these shows, the band’s evolution, and the path they'd take in life were deeply affected by tragedy. They did not sink in to despair or quit, however. They instead, created a legacy of beauty that grows stronger with time.

The Grateful Dead's performances at the Capitol Theatre between 1970-71 offer a truly potent document of some of this band's best playing in a tumultuous era, both for them and the world as a whole. The members of the band were dealing with personal loss and betrayal, while still coming of age. All the while a social movement, which they played a significant part in, rose and fell (but did it fall entirely?). The Grateful Dead reacted in the way that true artists have reacted to trials, loss and strife through time: creating. They created incredible music of course, their most visible legacy. Songs that will resonate for eternity and fleeting performances we are blessed to have any traces of. They also created community though, an equally important contribution which can at times be overshadowed.  At first the community they created was close to them. Friends, lovers, the crew, the pranksters, the bikers, the alchemists and the suits. The community grew through time, fostered by their unique approach to live performance, business and life in general. It became the much larger scene which crystallized in the 1980’s, still exists today, and is currently accepting applications. Meeting daily on the internet, in venue parking lots and the muddy/ dusty fields of summer. 

Bob Weir 11/6/70
It’s easy to notice the theme of darkness vs light in the music and iconography of the Grateful Dead. It’s also easy to dismiss as hippie dreck, Jerry and company as bearers of the light, vanquishers of darkness and evil. Maybe just humble conduits of the holy frequency, the vibration of life? They are just humans after all. Simple meat bags shot through with sentient electricity. Whether they created this light, this beauty, or were simple conduits is fascinating to ponder but not necessarily important to fully understand. What’s important is that it happened and still is happening. The beauty of the music and society built around the Grateful Dead, was and is that you can seek refuge from the darkness, battle it, or join its ranks on any given night. You can participate in the endless battle-dance of darkness and light. If only for 3 or 4 hours at a time. It’s more than most people get. 

"One way or another, this darkness got to give."  
-Robert Hunter
Photographs by Marcia Cohen and Stephen Gilbert. Courtesy of

The Disco Biscuits 3/26/16
There is no doubt in my mind that the cosmic goo the Dead smeared all over the Capitol Theatre left a significant residue. J and I were beyond excited for our first show since our son Hunter was born in November of 2015. We had a babysitter and a hotel with all our friends! Stars seemed aligned early as one of my favorite modern music artists Mark Serlo had designed a stunning psychedelic poster and matching pin for the run. Our dear friends Jay and Cate went to both nights so I pleaded with them to grab me one of each on night one, knowing they would definitely sell out. Also, Brandon Lawwill (Bee L. Designs) who I had met through the bisco pins group had designed a great pin with the venue and signature biscuits laser light show, so I got a ten pack of those to share with my friends and sell a couple as well.

My Serlo Capitol Theater poster
Mark Serlo and Brandon Lawwill's excellent commemorative pins

It was great to catch up with old friends and rage a pre-show hotel party like the old days. Well this old guy should've known I can't throw down like I used to haha. I slugged beers like a 25 year old  and ended up in the 'too much too fast' club for the show. I had to sit for large portions. Luckily, we had invested in loge seats which are the front row of the balcony, considered by many (now including myself) as the best seats in that house. There in my seat I witnessed a truly spectacular Disco Biscuits performance I'll never forget. One that will likely live in my top 10 forever.

The first set was tremendous, with an extended intro jam to Bernstein and Chasnoff getting things started in a way to let you know that the Grateful Dead's legacy in this room was understood by The Disco Biscuits. Every segue was creative and the peak in the inverted Shelby Rose was one of the most furious I've ever heard. Barber attacks and stretches out the peak to the point of madness. They finished the first set by completing the Bernstein and Chasnoff. It was at this point I realized they hadn't stopped once. This isn't entirely out of character for the Disco Biscuits but this set was particularly unrelenting and fluid.

We tried to get our heads together after the biscuits had scrambled our brain waves for an hour and a half but no amount of recovery could prepare us for the second set. Hope is probably my favorite Disco Biscuits song as far as lyrical content and a message I take very seriously. Starting the second set with it shook me deeply in the best way possible. The second set sequence of  Hope>(><) Above the Waves>Mr. Don>Home (LCD Soundsytem cover)>Helicopters was truly a triumphant performance for the ages. It delivered everything the potential of this band promises. The Biscuits had debuted Home by LCD Soundsystem at Camp Bisco the previous summer which I had missed. I'm a huge fan of LCD and the album 'This Is Happening', which Home is off of so I was thrilled to get the chance to hear it live.  The standing ovation the band rightfully received at the end of the night is a moment I'll never forget. I've been in far bigger crowds and far louder crowds but I've never felt so intensely the energy of elation and gratitude that I felt from that roaring applause.

Saint Gutwillig
While I'm sure the soundboard recording of the show is great, I thought it right and proper in the tradition of the Cap to listen to Jesse Hurlburt's audience recording to relive the experience. This recording is spectacular and transmits the energy exchange between the band and the fans admirably.

Addendum: Bobby's birthday party 10/16/16
I hope I'm never done seeing concerts at the Capitol Theater. When the tour was announced supporting Bob Weir's stunning Blue Mountain solo album, I was elated to see he would play at the Cap on his birthday. That excitement quickly dissolved when I struck out on the pre-sale as well as the regular sale. The secondary market prices were instantly and consistently way out of my league so I made peace with not going and life went on. The week of the show I saw a floor ticket offered up in a Grateful Dead marketplace on Facebook. I made inquiries and found out that the ticket was not only still available but was being sold by a former co-worker! Smalbany, Weir everywhere etc. J was kind enough to encourage me to go and take care of Hunter for the evening so a few days later I found myself cruising down the Taconic Parkway for a quick visit to the Cap.

I can't remember the last time I had gone solo to see a show but needless to say it had been a while. There was a Peruvian fair going on right across the street so I'll always associate the smells of delicious food and the echoes of  Peruvian dance music bouncing down Westchester Avenue with my experience that night. I shared a moment with another fan, taking it all in and smiling. I wandered the theater a bit before making my way down to the floor. I thought about all those spectacular Dead shows. Then I thought about the spectacular music I had witnessed there myself. Then I grabbed a beer.

Remembering the JRAD show, I knew it was going to be close quarters if I wanted to get close on the floor but I decided to commit to it anyway. The way I figured it, I may never get a chance like this again to see anyone from the Grateful Dead so up close and personal in such an intimate venue. The artwork for the Blue Mountain album was shown on a large screen behind the stage, which was packed with instruments. The stark and monochromatic western landscapes were evocative of the album's music and struck a deep chord in my soul as a lover of nature. Bobby came out alone with his acoustic and played four songs. One More Saturday Night (snickering about missing it the night before, as it was Sunday), Peggy-O (which was breathtaking), When I Paint my Masterpiece (in Honor of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize) and Blue Mountain (the title track off the new album).

Next he brought out the Campfire Tour band and played five songs off of Blue Mountain, with Dark Hollow (featuring the very talented Leslie Mendelson singing harmonies with Bobby) thrown in for good measure. A trio of vocalists, the Bandana Splits thickened out the sound soulfully. I had decided to wait on listening to the album until I had heard it live so it was all new to me. After the original drummer of the Disco Biscuits, Sam Altman, left the band, I sort of fell out of listening to jam music and ended up discovering a lot of great indie/ college radio music that was happening at the time. Bands like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Cloud Cult, Iron and Wine and the National really struck a chord with me. When Bobby started collaborating with members of the National I was so excited to see what the merging of two of my favorite kinds of music would yield. The end result was truly spectacular. The songs are delicate, soulful and shimmered with energy. Accessing a type of emotional response I don't commonly associate with jam-bands. I stood rapt, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow music lovers for all the first set, forgetting about the empty plastic beer cup clutched in my hand.

I was still reeling from the music after the lights came up for set break. I decided to hang tight since I didn't really need a beer or a bathroom break. I wasn't alone. The crowd hardly budged over the course of the 40 minute set break, if anything getting thicker as set 2 approached. It was an exercise in musical devotion to stay on my feet haha. Since Hunter was born, I just can't keep up like I used to. I get sore and tired at shows. This was a worthy cause though and all my efforts paid off as the house lights went down and the walls of the Cap started writhing with color. Leslie Mendelson came out once again, this time to help out on Mamma Tried. West L.A. Fadeaway came sauntering up next along with the dawning realization that set 2 was likely going to be just jammed out Dead tunes. Joy! Ecstacy! Tired back be damned! Leslie M added the Donna parts beautifully to a melodic Eyes of the World which had me in a flowy music trance head-space.

The Bandana Splits came back out for Uncle John's Band and with Leslie already on stage, it sounded like a massive (yet professional) campfire singalong. While I love the album version of UJB, I often find live versions (especially later ones) to be a bit of a train wreck. This performance though was truly Uncle John's Band how it was meant to sound. It reverberated melodically around the hall with most of the crowd adding their voice to the mix.  Morning Dew was monumentally, ground shakingly awesome. Bobby really hits this one out of the park here and with Dead and Company. Not Fade Away wrapped up set 2 of Bobby's 69th birthday show perfectly with the entire room taking up the signature Not Fade Away chant for several minutes after the band had left the stage.

Bobby came out for the encore in a cowboy hat and before you knew it, Pete Shapiro and company were throwing hundreds of baby blue cowboy hats into the audience while presenting him with a cake. I'm sure Shapiro gets sick of comparisons with Bill Graham but these special touches certainly evoke Uncle Bobo. We all donned our hats for a solo Ki Yi Bossie. The band came back out (also wearing the baby blue cowboy hats) and closed the night with a lovely and perfect Brokedown Palace which was met with a roaring ovation. There was a free stream of the show that night and this lovely recording has stayed on my iPod ever since. 

  I am deeply grateful for this (no longer) Brokedown Palace in Port Chester, New York. The Grateful Dead's groundbreaking and awe-inspiring performances there makes it, to me, one of the most important venues from their formative time.With modern acts from both inside and outside of the jam community playing there regularly, and with Bobby and Phil still playing there (a lot!), its one of the most vital rooms to see live music today. Based on the quality of music the Grateful Dead played there in 1970 and 1971 and my experiences these past few years, I have no doubt that there is magic in this stately old theater. Whether you want to call it the X factor, as the deadheads did or Bisco as bisco kids call it. That special something where the walls between the audience and the band, between every soul in the room, the very fabric of time itself, seems to dissolve and unify. This seems to happen at the Capitol Theatre. A lot.

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