Another short interview from my work on liner notes for the Europe ’72 boxed set. This was a phone conversation that took place on March 3, 2011.
DG: Did you guys feel the venues you were in? I feel like New York brought out the aggression in the Grateful Dead, y’know, stuff like that; how did being in Europe affect your music?
BW: We had to take a step back and sort of introduce ourselves and our approach. We did that pretty naturally with the first set by just playing a bunch of tunes, and toward the end of the first set starting to develop them a bit—take them for a walk in the woods. And then by the second set, we had the audience with us and we could trip out.
DG: It feels like there’s a sort of sweetness to even the “out there” stuff. I remember when the Egypt stuff came out, you could almost scrape the hashish off the notes in the music. There was a sense that the music was a response to the place you were in.
BW: Yeah, well, that’s no different in Egypt or Europe than it is in California or New York. We would take the first few songs and feel out the band that night. We would also feel out the audience, see what they were responding to, and work in that direction. It was different from town to town; we would try to come out of the chute kind of tight and polished, just so that we didn’t put them off. We needed to have them on our side. And then by the time we were warmed up and they were warmed up, we could let fly.
It was a little tighter, say, in Switzerland than it was in England. I don’t want to say a stuffier audience, but it was a little more that way. It was kind of like a jazz crowd. They didn’t know what to expect. A lot of them had heard a little of us on the radio, and they’d heard the radio promotions of the gigs, and maybe read a little in the papers ’cause we had done numerous interviews before we got there. And of course, the various writers would have their take on what we were about. So we had to chip away at preconceptions, ’cause most of the writers who had submitted pieces to the local papers had never been to a show and didn’t really know what they were talkin’ about.
The folks who showed up didn’t know what they were walking into, so we had to take a step back and say, “Here’s us playing a regular song, or two or three. Now we’re gonna step out a little bit… now we’re gonna step out a little bit more… and now we’re gonna have at you!” That was the approach, but at the same time, the original mindset— “We need these guys on our side”—stuck with us throughout the tour. So if there was a sweetness to the out-there stuff, I think that was owing to the fact that we were trying to… leave no child behind.
DG: This tour coincided with what I consider your ascendance as a co-leader of the band. You had brought in a raft of new tunes over those last few months, and you were taking turns with Jerry singing leads, and Pig would come up every fourth or fifth song or so. You were establishing yourself as a songwriter and as a performer.
BW: I was starting to hit my stride. I was coming into my prime, and it was just natural. Let’s face it, I was really young when we got started.
DG: I consider this the “Americana” phase of the Grateful Dead. The American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead, the Ace material, Jerry’s first album – you guys had fattened up your songbook considerably by this time.
BW: We started out folkies, Jerry and I – and Pigpen, for that matter. In the early 70s we weren’t all that distanced from our folk roots.
DG: But you listen to Live Dead, and nobody would have expected “Jack Straw” and “Cumberland Blues.” This is by no means a complaint!
BW: At that point, on our days off when we were traveling, we would have our acoustic guitars, and Jerry and I and whoever was around would fall together and kick stuff around. A lot of it was folk material of one sort or another. We had a whole repertoire that we never played onstage – country gospel tunes that we sang in three- and four-part harmony, that kind of stuff. We did that just for fun, and for the exercise. That permeated everything that we were doing, so when I was writing, I’d just been doing that, and then I’d go back in my room and start writing something. But that Americana aspect was living with me and Jerry all the while.
DG: One odd question that came up during my contemplation of all this: did you try to record “Jack Straw” for Ace?
BW: Ah, no. It was a little late in coming.