Folksy Database

Part of the charm of the greater Grateful Dead culture was that there was something for everyone. Like any good pastime there was some aspect of a Grateful Dead show to please everyone.

I often compare the sub-culture of Deadheads to baseball fans. There are those that go for the scene, the roar of the crowd or to see their heroes play. Others go for the party, the beer & hot dogs on the one hand or the recreational drugs and lightshow on the other.

Then there are the stat nerds which also exist in both cultures. Go to any ball game and you’ll see people with detailed score cards, recording every hit and at bat using their own custom shorthand.

Baseball scorecard from September 10, 1999 Red Sox v Yankees game

There are stat nerds in Deadhead culture too. These are the people that can tell you the last time the band opened the second set with Saint of Circumstance or when they last played Red Rocks. There’s a special language of code to how they talk and a learned shorthand to normalize communication.

During the time when I saw the band, computers were not that widespread so a lot of the documentation was collected from memory and passed around on handwritten notes. Historic setlists were passed down as legend.

Printknot Printer’s 1985 Year at a Glance

The photo above is something I found in a drawer as I was packing to move house. It’s a handwritten collection of every setlist from every concert the Grateful Dead played in 1985. Crib sheets like these were passed around like a folksy database of shared knowledge.

Detail with graphic annotations

There’s endless detail in the notations that hint at a shared understanding of how a Grateful Dead setlist works. The capital “E” in the detail above ties Estimated Profit and Eyes of the World together as those two are often paired and segue seamlessly from one to the other. The “Gimmie Gimmie” scrawled above Gimme Some Lovin’ is a wink to the fact that Bob Weir was especially enthusiastic in his rendition of Spencer Davis that night.

All this was just to say that while the ever-connected phones in our pockets are wonderful for precision and recall, they don’t transmit knowledge and understanding as well as these folksy databases of handwritten notes. An illuminated manuscript from the medieval past, carefully hand-copied and embellished, is so much better at transmitting culture and passes on so much more than just the written word.

To listen to two Deadhead stat nerds get into the weeds, check out my post on Alex and JM Hart’s discussion about the evolution of Bob Weir’s playing style on Deadicated.


Alex Wise is a professional musician ( and longtime Deadhead. As an accomplished guitarist, he listens to the music of the Grateful Dead with a careful ear for detail and can speak to the evolution of their style in a much more nuanced way than your average Deadhead.

Listening to Alex’s interview with Brokedown Podcast’s JM Hart is like listening to two baseball stat nerds get into the weeds on the specifics of the game. I love it. The cracks about Weir’s attempts at slide guitar are something that would make any member of this particular tribe smile.

If you have a passing interest in the the music of the Grateful Dead and wondered what all the fuss was about and how people can listen to so many different versions of Morning Dew, this podcast episode will unveil some of layers of that fan-hood.

The entire episode is above but the two get down to details at around 18:30.

For Deadheads Only

When Deadheads try to explain their appreciation for the Grateful Dead, they will probably point you to a concert at Cornell University in 1977, in particular the sequence from Scarlet Begonias to Fire on the Mountain.

YouTuber Michael Palmisano has built up his channel, Guitar Teacher REACTS around the deconstruction of live music jams. To celebrate his 100,000th subscriber, Michael deconstructed Scarlet > Fire from 5/8/77.

I’ve listened to this version many times but following the Guitar Teacher through his hour-long analysis revealed flourishes that I knew all along were there but never fully appreciated or had the vocabulary to explain. From Scarlet’s “mixolidian lick” to Keith’s arpeggiating progressions – he calls out all the shiny bits and holds each one up to the light like its own little gem.

At the transition into Fire at around 21 minutes, Michael breaks down how each musician transitions over “step-by-step” until the band collectively agree it’s time to jump over. Watching him walk you thru the magic, painted in real-time as only a band that plays together, night after night, can do is infectious.


Listener’s Notes

Live for Live review

Jambase review

If you’re interested in hearing the recording, straight thru, without interruption, here’s a link to the recording.

John Perry Barlow (1947 ~ 2018)

I’m struggling to process the passing of JPB this week. For many that got connected via dial-up in the 80’s he was the soul of the .net. He set the tone. His spirit prevailed as the founding principle of many online communities – his tone of “live & let live and be helpful and nice y’all” was foundation of many of the pinned posts of the early BBS that taught us how to behave in this new world. Whenever we struggled with some great calamity, we would turn to Barlow for guidance. Through it all, he was ever the prankster reminding that no one should take themselves too seriously.

Others have been more eloquent.

John Battelle

Steven Levy in Wired

Kevin Kelly

Cory Doctrow

Alabama Getaway

With last Tuesday’s ground-breaking repudiation of Roy Moore this past week in the Alabama special election a Facebook friend shared a few lines that opened up a journey down a rabbit hole that I had to share.

Thirty two teeth in a jawbone
Alabama cryin for none
Before I have to hit him
I hope he’s got the sense to run

If you know me, you know I’ve had an obsession with the Grateful Dead that spans many years. There are so many aspects of this band that make them an endless well of lore and history. While I get my own special satisfaction from their music it is the rich history of their songs and performances that makes them so fascinating. Like an intricate Tibetan mandala, the closer you look, the more you see.

Reason those poor girls love him
Promise them anything
Reason they believe him
He wears a big diamond ring

Go to Heaven was released in 1980 during the dying days of disco. Funkytown, Captain & Tennille, and the Commodores were in the Billboard 100 but green shoots of something new were coming through from Blondie, The Police, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Rolling Stone was impressed by the band’s cover photo which they felt was “very contemporary, very artsy, airbrushed soft-focus portrait” but not by the music which they dismissed as “uninspired fluff”

What many didn’t seem to realize is that the incessant pranksters were pulling an epic inside joke on the entire music industry. This was their last album under their disastrous record contract with Arista before they could go back to releasing live albums which curated the best music from the shows which they and their fans loved so much. Go to Heaven was the band’s giant kiss off.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

Which brings me to Alabama Getaway. Ever the free love, why-can’t-we all-just-get-along types from Northern California, the band has always had a love/hate relationship with the South. Tracing their roots from jug bands and bluegrass pickers from folk America, many of their songs told tales of cowboys and the backwoods spirit of frontier folk. But while they celebrated the spirit of the individuals, they shunned the racist and divisive culture from where they came.

Majordomo Billy Bojangles
Sit down and have a drink with me
What’s this about Alabame
Keeps comin back to me?

I think Alabama Getaway, the opening song on Go to Heaven, is the band’s way of sneaking in a political message wrapped in a hard-driving Chuck Berry beat that would have fans in the South swinging their hips before they knew what hit them. References to male privilege, corruption, and lynching are woven throughout the cryptic verses, hidden in plain sight.

Heard your plea in the courthouse
Jurybox began to rock and rise
Forty-nine sister states all had
Alabama in their eyes

Neil Young didn’t do himself any favors by so directly confronting the South with his accusatory anthem Southern Man. I’m sure he stirred up quite a bit of controversy and probably wore out his welcome. Lynyrd Skynyrd even took his message and turned it into their own hit with Sweet Home Alabama’s rallying cry, “A Southern Man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

The Grateful Dead were more subtle. Like a Shakespearean court jester they will have you laughing and singing before their deeper message sinks in. Yes, they wanted to send a message but knew they would not be able to do so shouting down at people or dividing their fans against their friends. As any “social media consultant” will tell you today, the best way to crowdsource a movement is via your core fans. The only way to deliver this particular medicine was with a spoonful of sugar.

Why don’t we just give Alabama
rope enough to hang himself?
Ain’t no call to worry the jury
His kind takes care of itself

But none of this was really obvious to me until I carefully parsed the lyrics and consulted the lore. It was not until I looked into the history of this song that I unlocked the masterful prank being played. Go to Heaven was released on April 28, 1980. That very evening, the band made a special trip for a one-day concert at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. The first song? Alabama Getaway.

Twenty-third Psalm Majordomo
reserve me a table for three
in the Valley of the Shadow
just you, Alabama and me

It cracks me up to think that all these years the band would play this song all across the South with no one the wiser. Look at the photo on the album cover again. They are all trying desperately to keep from smirking, determined to play the part of cool disco kings – only Phil Lesh, in the back, can’t keep from cracking up. Merry Pranksters indeed.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
turn around and leave
and walk away

If you want to listen to the Grateful Dead playing Alabama Getaway at that concert in Birmingham in 1980, visit this page and click play. It’s the first song.

Taper Dave’s Drunk Friend

In the digital age it seems quaint to have a collection of audio cassette tapes. Most of my collection was replaced by CD and then ripped to a hard disk archive years ago. But I hung on to my hundreds of Grateful Dead concert bootlegs over the years and dutifully packed them up for moves across the country and around the world.

On occasion, I plugged in an old Nakamachi deck, and played some of these old tapes to see what was on them. Many were inferior to the carefully restored digital transfers that serious traders have spruced up and put into circulation. When better copies were to be found, I chucked the tapes and was left with a 30 or so original tapes that I had made myself by “patching in” my Sony D5 into another taper’s mic setup.

I finally digitized one of my last originals and found this gem of a segment from a New Year’s Eve run in Oakland. It’s amazing how listening to something from 27 years ago can bring you right back. I’ll set the scene.

There were three or four of us daisy-chained off of a mic setup in the taper’s section which was towards the rear of the Oakland Coliseum Arena. It was the second night in a four night run and after an fairly standard first set we were just relaxing waiting for the second set to begin. I’d been chatting with one of the other tapers and we were swapping tales and discussing what might come next. The guy with the mics was named Dave and he seemed a bit nervous and was checking his equipment.

Just then, Dave’s friend came over carrying two enormous buckets of beer. He wasn’t really hip to the whole “taper vibe” and the friend was clearly annoyed because it’s not really cool to be a loudmouth in the Taper’s Section and Dave was clearly concerned that his friend was going to cause a ruckus once the music started.

Anyway, Dave’s friend tries to make his way over, climbing over the seats and is trying to watch his step as he tiptoes over all the cords and equipment below while keeping the beers from spilling over. The other taper and I are looking on with bemusement but Dave’s eyes are getting wider as his friend lumbers over to his delicately calibrated setup.

“Dave! Hey Dave! I got you some beeer!” he hollers.

Just then he trips on something and falls into the mic stand which he hits with his elbow, crumpling it in the process.

“What the hell? Watch what you’re doing?” Dave and his friend start to argue. Everything is in disarray. Dave is visibly annoyed and tries to salvage the situation by pulling out some duct tape to see if he can patch things up and get the mics pointing in the right direction.

The taper dude and I are completely at the mercy of Dave and we basically resigned ourselves to not being able to tape the second set. The argument continues with Dave muttering under his breath and Dave’s drunk friend half-apologizing but also giving Dave grief for not packing the right equipment. It’s a funny moment – two East Coasters clearly out of their element, definitely not “go with the flow” types that are the Deadhead types on the West Coast.

It’s a funny moment. I look over at the other taper and we both decide at that point to hit <Rec>

To cap things off, Dave gets everything patched up right as the lights go down and the band drops into a sweet China Cat > Rider. A slice of history.