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Grateful Dead - Hard To Handle (Festival Express 1970)

Checking for Matches…

The Dead rip some Redding off the wall on the Festival Express train tour of 70

This was filmed on the Festival Express cross-Canada train trip tour with Janis Joplin, The Band and scores of other musicians and acts which eventually came out in the masterpiece of a movie Festival Express (2004). Staged as a traveling Woodstock, the promoters chartered a private party train to move the bands and gear, which resulted in day and night jam sessions as they thundered across the countryside. Rolling Stone dubbed it “The Million Dollar Bash” (after the Dylan song), and Garcia famously said, “That was the best time I’ve had in rock n roll. There were no straight people.”

Hard To Handle was written and recorded by Otis Redding (although not released until the summer after his tragic plane crash death in Dec. ’67). The Dead were enormous Redding fans, and begged Bill Graham to book them as Redding’s opening act just so they’d be sure to be there. He was performing with an 18-piece band, and for all 3 shows Janis stood dead-center in front of the stage as they all soaked up a PhD in soul that weekend.

In the spring of ’69, The Dead added this as a regular dish on their musical menu and it remained a popular item until their soul man Pigpen was no longer cookin’. And just as they’d stayed faithful to Redding’s version, the band stayed faithful to Pigpen and never performed it again without him  –– with the soul exception of when they were joined on stage by Etta James and Tower of Power for the ‘82 New Year’s shows.

You could talk about a whole lot with this clip –– Pigpen’s strong vocals, the tightness of the band in the middle of the afternoon, the classic rendition of a classic song –– but who cares. This is feel it rock n soul music for the mind and body, to quote Country Joe. This is just balls-out fun! For any rock fan who may not be too crazy about wooden music or deep space exploration, this is about as straight-ahead as The Dead get. It’s Clapton accessible, with Stones simplicity. If you don’t hear it here, you can cross The Dead off your list.

It’s a sunny afternoon in the universe, and The Boys are on –– as you can clearly hear from the sweet bending sustain in the opening guitar lick, and Pigpen’s vocal attack seconds later. This was the closing gig on their joyous train trip, and they seem determined to lay down something special.

But this clip is all about The Solo. This is as good an example as you’ll find on film of Garcia taking the theme of the song and working it through a myriad of permutations before resolving back to the chorus a full three minutes later. Turn your ears up from 2:10 to 5:10. Note in particular the beautiful razor-sharp clarity of the line as he returns home to the final summation (around 4:30) -- and then phattens it right up again before handing it back to Pigpen for the vocal outro.

Actually, the first hand-off is gracious as well. Around the 1:30 mark, Pigpen begins his improvised vocal rap, channeling the theme through words, but in this case, only briefly, as he hears his electric thoroughbred chopping at the musical bit to get out. Chanting, chanting, “Hear it coming, alright,” as vocal solo blends into guitar –– the finite linguistics handing off sweetly across the stage to the visceral music and some, “See ya!”

If fact, it was unusual for this song to be an instrumental showcase -- it was mostly done as a Pigpen blues vocal, with him improvising a different middle section each time. After his death in ’73, it's such a shame that the Dead never replaced him with another channeling lead vocalist to explore this important instrument during the rest of their musical journey. Of course, most lead singers are egomaniacal bastards, so that may have had something to do with it. But in this Handle you get a good look at the power of a lead vocal delivery blending with the best instrumentalists mojo can buy.

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For the more visually inclined, watch for:

Garcia’s Eddie Van Halen jaw-wide-open laugh! twice! at 3:55 and the 5 minute marks;

Several nice shots of the two drummers attacking in synch; and

Garcia’s no-look trance as he feels his way through the new solo.


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The Grateful Dead (left to right): Jerry Garcia (lead guitar); Bill Kreutzmann (drums); Bob Weir (rhythm guitar); Phil Lesh (bass); Mickey Hart (drums); Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (lead vocals).


Lisa Collins's picture

I'm loving this peek into the Festival Express tour..

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