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Robin Sylvester on seeing the Dead in London in 1972

This is another of the short interviews I did for my liner notes in the boxed set Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings. Robin was the bassist in Ratdog for many years, and before that he was in Vince Welnick’s Missing Man Formation. In recent years he has been a mainstay of the Bay Area hippie music scene. I’ve had the privilege of recording and performing with him many times! This conversation took place on March 4, 2011.

Robin Sylvester « Photograph © Bob Minkin

RS: I was a sound engineer full-time [in 1972]. I also produced a band called Byzantium, who were very Dead-influenced. We used Dead albums for comparison, especially the live recordings. And the material was sort of Dead, Crosby-Stills-and-Nashy, of its era—lots of three-part harmony and short, concise tunes. Live it was another story, but that’s why they were Deadlike.

I was involved in producing that band and trying to push them, and I was always trying with Warner Bros. Phil Carson was the head, and he would fix me up with tickets from time to time. The vibe was, “Yes, you could see the Dead, they’re like nothing else you’ve ever seen.” There were rumors they were going to turn up at Stonehenge and play for nothing.

I got the night off to go to the Lyceum shows [May 23-26]. I believe I was at the first show with some musician friends who were trying to see Jerry, and at one of the subsequent shows. They were amazing. They played longer than anyone else I had ever seen. They had incredible dynamics – very loud and very quiet. I loved everything I heard. Ace was a fairly recent release at the time, and Garcia.

DG: Did you understand what was going on in the long jams?

I was an Anthem of the Sun convert. That was the stuff I wanted to hear more than anything.

DG: Would you say that a lot of the working musicians were interested in seeing them? Were the Dead appreciated by the working musicians?

RS: I wouldn’t say so, to be honest. There were a sort of fringe element that seemed to know all about the band. They would hear them on the radio – John Peel played them fairly frequently. 

DG: What distinguished the people who got it or were interested in it?

I think the industry was baffled, and people who just enjoyed the music were fascinated. They weren’t obscure, but people weren’t following their every release. Being in the business and knowing people at Warner Bros, I would look through their release box every week and get some nice swag.

DG What did you like about Ace?

I thought “Playing in the Band” was the best studio Dead I had heard up to that time – which was not an uncommon opinion, I now know.

I played it to death. I like the songs. “Black Throated Wind” … so many on that one. So I sort of went back to the Dead in a larger way, but… how the industry reacted I can’t really say. I produced a band that enjoyed the Dead a lot. And they responded by playing improvisationally and writing short tunes with harmonies.