Tracking the Grateful Dead’s career via Baby Blue, pt. 1

Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today we will examine the different phases of the Grateful Dead’s career through the filter of “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”

The Grateful Dead covered many Bob Dylan songs, 38 to be exact. And that doesn’t include the Jerry Garcia Band or RatDog or Dead and Co. It began in 1/7/66 at the Matrix in San Francisco as the last song of the night. There is no audio from that show so I’ve had to track down 5/19/66 from the Avalon Ballroom, also in San Francisco. Their version is very ‘60s, it’s speedy, it’s driving, the drums are busy, especially the kick drum. Everyone in the band except Billy is exercising dynamics by coming down in volume in the pre-chorus, “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun…” and back up for, “Look out the saints are coming through.” Back down for, “It’s all over now, baby blue.” 

You know the sound of the band. See: BIODTL

or Cold Rain and Snow

They are defined by Jerry’s young voice, not yet weathered by an abusive lifestyle. By Guild humbucking pickups firing through Fender tube amps. By a dry, decade defining, organ sound. By energized guitar riffs not yet sculpted by years of melodic and harmonic training. I could argue this period lasts roughly through around 1968. 

So I find 4/6/69 again at the Avalon and 220 shows since they’ve last performed the song. Two drummers now playing in half time, swinging it, and more aware of the dynamic changes. Jerry’s voice sounds like Jerry, Jerry’s Gibson SG guitar now has that Live Dead sound about it. 

1970 always seemed to be a pivotal year for the Dead in my mind. They picked up acoustic instruments and recorded two of their best albums. Their vocals became a centerpiece of their sound. So I venture to 11/8/70 at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, to see what “Baby Blue” has become just 19 months after the last version I listened to. The first set is acoustic and quickly I realize I’ve listened to at least some of this run spanning from 11/5 to this final night, 11/8. Having been 54 shows since their last performance of the song, “Baby Blue” shows up mid-way through the electric set. Jerry is a much-improved vocalist at this point. He can control his air, his volume, and his pitch with much more accuracy. This growth period has given him more confidence as melodic improvisor on the guitar, sometimes stretching to two choruses, a notion *spoiler alert* he abandons in later versions. And finally, we can hear Weir’s guitar! He’s been hard at work learning how to move around the guitar neck using chord inversions and has really developed a sound for himself by late 1970. This nearly eleven-minute version is worth a listen as it’s packed with guitar tonal changes, tuning corrections, and an inspired vocal performance. 

Next week we will look at modern versions of the song spanning from 1972-1995.