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Scarlet Begonias 1989, Pt. 1

Deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than you’ve ever gone before
by Nate LaPointe

Today we’ll be looking at Jerry Garcia’s guitar solo in the middle of “Scarlet Begonias”, specifically in the summer of 1989, culminating with what I believe to be his best solo on August 6th at Cal Expo.

The Grateful Dead were known for their improvisation. Some have even accused them of having too much “noodling” or “rambling” in their music. And while this approach to improvisation is prevalent in their music, by no means does it define them. I can point to countless examples where the improvised sections of the songs are coming from a jazz player’s perspective in which a form is established and repeated with improvised parts being played over the top, often based on the original melody of the song. 

Take, for instance, the song “Candyman.” Garcia routinely took only one chorus on this song. Even though the song spanned three decades, it’s clear he worked from a single melodic component, bringing in variations that suited the song night to night. Even MORE clearly, the “Touch of Grey” solo between the bridges stuck firmly to the melody and had very little variation over the thirteen-year span it was performed live. For extra credit, go listen to other songs and their solo sections such as “Looks Like Rain,” “Ramble On Rose,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” and really ANY blues song from their repertoire, including “Little Red Rooster” and “Minglewood Blues.”  These clearly display a form structure and melodic approach to improvisation.

Years ago, my friend Steve Harris told me he had a theory about how a musician’s brain works. He said, “a musician’s short-term memory is largely comprised of how he or she played the song the last time.” Think about that for a second…when an improvising musician performs a song, their short-term memory of that song is replaced by the current version they are playing. I frequently find this in my own playing, expanding upon a concept or idea that came about the LAST TIME I played that tune.

In the summer of 1989, my family took a vacation to Sacramento, CA to see the Grateful Dead perform for three nights at Cal Expo. The two-day drive west on I-80 was grueling in our 1972 Chevy Suburban, which I might add had no air conditioning. Not to mention, Sacramento in the August can be a brutal mix of 100+ degrees and humidity. But as Deadheads, we braved the heat and the day-long lines, justifying our 1000 mile pilgrimage with three spectacular shows from the core six.

It’s hard to pick which night was the best. The first night, August 4th, started with a killer version of “Bertha” and was followed by ten more songs, making it the longest first set I’d ever witnessed. The second set featured a rare second set “ “Cumberland Blues,” a fast “Eyes of the World,” and an emotional “Stella Blue.”

The next night’s highlight for me was the “China Cat”-less “I Know You Rider” out of the “Playin’” jam. It might be worth examining that phenomenon in a later edition since it so rarely happened.

But I digress. Night three, August 6th, set two began with “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On the Mountain.”  From the first tuning notes, there was an unmistakable energy. We knew Jerry was completely engaged. Once we hit the guitar solo over the verse structure, we got three splendid choruses, culminating with the musical moment in the second half of the third chorus. I’m certain by this point you know where to find live archives of Dead music. Go there now and listen. Hint: it starts at 3:36. We will do in-depth analysis next week. See you then!