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Weir Sings Like (a) Pig – Pt. 3

“How Does the Song Go?”, a column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before.
By Nate LaPointe

Today we continue with “Weir Sings Like (a) Pig.

“In the Midnight Hour” is another Pig classic. Wilson Pickett originally wrote and recorded this tune in 1965 on Stax Records. The Dead’s version was of similar tempo, but Pig definitely took it to be one of his own, with the band extending it so he could riff on it. The final version Pig sang was on April 29, 1971, as part of the second encore that night. It was also the final time the Dead ever played Fillmore East in New York. Let’s listen to the first verse of that ’71 Pig version.

730 shows later, on December 31, 1982, to close the third set, the Dead bust out “Midnight Hour” again in Oakland. The entire third set this night included Etta James and the Tower of Power Horn section. Listen to this version and you’ll notice how much more similar it sounds to the original Wilson Pickett version, mostly because of the horn section. Check it out.

Later in the tune, there is some sax soloing and vocal call and response, but nothing on the scale that Pig did. Go back and check out Pig’s vocal work in ’71 and then some of Weir’s vocal call and response from New Years ’82-’83 in Oakland.

So, lots of folks chiming in there with vocals.  The song stuck around in the repertoire all the way until ’94, but wasn’t really played with any frequency, sometimes hiding for up to 136 shows at a time. It seemed to crop up often on New Year’s Eve, for obvious reasons, including 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1989. 

Let’s move on to “Smokestack Lightning,” a classic blues number written by none other than Howlin’ Wolf. Pigpen’s last version was sung on March 25, 1972 at the Academy of Music in New York, which doubled as a Hell’s Angels benefit and which also featured Bo Diddley in the first set. Worth mentioning, it was also Donna’s first show as a member of the Grateful Dead. So, a lot happening again this particular night. Go listen to the intro, first verse, and second verse from Smokestack Lightning on 3/25/72.

We’re gonna look at Pig’s interpretation of the lyrics and how they differ from Wolf’s before diving into the Weir versions. So for comparison go listen to the intro, first verse, and second verse from the original Howlin’ Wolf version.

The original Wolf lyrics in verse one are:

“Ah oh, smokestack lightnin’
Shinin’, just like gold
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?”

Pig is nearly identical, with one exception:

“Ah oh, smokestack lightnin’
Shinin’, just like gold
Why CAN’T ya hear me cryin’?”

You’ll notice the second verse is different. Pig decided to take Wolf’s 4th verse and put it second. Wolf sang:

“Whoa-oh, stop your train
Let her, go for a ride
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?”

And when Pig sang that verse he changed it to:

“Whoa-oh, stop your train
Let A POOR BOY ride
Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?”

Let’s move on and listen to the first time Bob Weir sang the song which was 795 shows after Pig last sang it. This is October 9, 1984 in Worcester, Massachusetts coming out of “He’s Gone.” Both slow shuffles in E, they were a natural fit from day one. Listen to verse one and two from 10/9/84.

Bobby’s first verse is:

“Ah oh, smokestack lightnin’
Shinin’, just like gold
____don’t ya hear me cryin’?”

He takes out the “why” before don’t ya hear me crying. For the second verse, Weir sticks with Pig’s version using Wolf’s 4th verse as his second. And instead of, “Let A POOR BOY ride,” he says, “Let THIS POOR BOY ride.”

More interestingly however, is the length of the phrases. Since it’s not a traditional 12 bar blues form, it’s not as crucial to stick to a certain length for the phrases. Now Wolf and Pig both kept 16 bar phrases. Weir changes it to be only 12 bars though. Go listen and see if you can count the bars on Weir’s 10/9/84 version. And now the last Pig version on 3/25/72. It’s the same length as Wolf.

Other versions of this song Weir would make the phrases one-two bars longer or shorter. I encourage you to open up the Deadbase and look up “Smokestack,” and then start listening to the different versions and counting the phrases. See how much variation there was both in Pig’s versions and in Weir’s versions. Have your homework on my desk at 9am next Monday morning. I joke, but really, the best tool you have are your ears. Use them not only to enjoy the music, but to analyze it and appreciate it on another level.

That’s all for us today. Thanks for reading. See you next week.