On This Day In 1972 The Grateful Dead Play Veneta, Oregon

On This Day In 1972 The Grateful Dead Play Veneta, Oregon

Feature Photo: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

Temperatures are said to have surpassed the 100-degree mark as the Grateful Dead gave one of their most enduring performances at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Oregon on this day in 1972. The show has since gone down in history as essential listening for those who fancy themselves fans of the group as well as those looking to wrap their heads around just what exactly it is that makes this music so special to so many.

This entry into the Grateful Dead’s expansive live catalog finds the band in what many would consider to be peak form, emerging from the transitional period during which two key members would be lost – drummer Mickey Hart, who took a sabbatical from the band in 1971, and singer/keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who gave his final performance with the band in June of 1972 before passing away nine months later.

In spite of the emotional wreckage brought about these radical shifts to the internal structure of the lineup, the means by which such changes were addressed would lead the band to one their most dynamic and exhilarating periods as a live performing act.

The addition of keyboardist Keith Godchaux to the fold in 1971 – first as an auxiliary supporting player for Pigpen, whose health was limiting his capacity to perform, then later as the sole keyboardist – opened up an array of musical possibilities to the group due to Godchaux’s background as a formally educated pianist. Godchaux’s inspired contributions to later tracks such as “Scarlet Begonias,” “Ship of Fools,” and “Row Jimmy” would be indicative of the creative spark and renewed collaborative energy brought to the proceedings by the keyboardist throughout his initial years with the group.

The departure of secondary drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart – who would return to the band in late 1974 – also impacted the musical dynamic of the band. Following the supplementary drummer’s departure, drummer and original Grateful Dead member Bill Kreutzmann began to develop a rhythmically complex style of accompaniment heavily informed by jazz drumming and which made extensive use of the “swing” performance approach. Bassist Phil Lesh would refer to this period of the band as “the turbo-charged, turn-on-a-dime Grateful Dead,” in his 2005 memoir.

Though not necessarily as “turbo-charged” as they would prove to be the following year, the 1972 iteration of the Grateful Dead would be responsible for many of the most beloved performances of the band’s career, including those found on the legendary Europe ‘72 collection, and naturally, that given at Veneta, Oregon on this day in 1972.

The sets from that sweltering day ran nearly three hours total, and performances of individual songs were interspersed with announcements from the venue regarding everything from heat management to lost children at the concert site. But as memorable as the circumstances surrounding the Veneta show may have been, it is the music played on that day which keeps fans coming back to the recordings.

Imperfect audio quality notwithstanding, the documentation of the show – the audio from which saw release in 2013 by Rhino Records as Veneta OR 8/27/72: The Complete Sunshine Daydream Concert (Live) – sees the band knocking out debatably definitive performances of many of their most essential tunes, including “China Cat Sunflower,” “I Know You Rider,” “Jack Straw,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and more.

Over halfway into the performance, the Dead break into a meditative take on “Bird Song,” which clocks in at over thirteen minutes and rivals just about any performance of the live staple to ever be given by the band. This precedes a spirited “Greatest Story Ever Told” featuring a crackling lead guitar contribution from Jerry Garcia before the band moves into a version of “Dark Star” which clocks at over half an hour!

Inspired runs through future-standbys like “Playing in the Band,” “Sugaree,” “Deal,” and a raucous closing “One More Saturday Night” lend further credence to the notion of the performance being held in such high regard all these years after the fact. As evidenced by the staggeringly stacked setlist of then-relatively new (primarily) original tunes, the timeliness of the performance and enthusiasm still very much intact for the bulk of the numbers played amplifies the contagious energy already inherent in the performance itself.

Veneta 1972 sees the Grateful Dead moving into new territory while maintaining elements of the “Primal Dead” era, many which would eventually be phased out as the group progressed. Full “on-a-dime” rhythmic turnarounds from Kreutzmann, for example, were less common than they would become throughout the following year. Bassist Phil Lesh would also provide a bulk of the high harmony vocals in a role which would soon be delegated almost entirely to Donna Godchaux, who would join the band full-time shortly after her husband, Keith.

The classic Grateful Dead three-part-harmony lineup of Bob, Jerry, and Phil can be heard in fine form throughout the Veneta, Oregon performance on numbers such as “I Know You Rider,” “Bird Song,” and “Bertha.” Also of note during the performance, and general era in the band’s history, is the retaining of a particular grassroots ethos with which the band would more or less remain associated from a cultural perspective, but which appeared to undergo a rapid dissipation process throughout the 1970s.

The Grateful Dead were more akin to a series of bands and musical worlds beneath the umbrella of a single moniker than to any sort of standard ensemble. Each iteration of the group speaks to listeners and followers in its own way, with work from each respective period being considered uniquely among audiences.

Regardless of one’s personal preferences regarding the “best” lineups and shows from the prolific group, Veneta 1972 remains a testament to the considerable abilities of the Grateful Dead as a unit during one of the most critical periods of the band’s thirty-year history. The accessible nature of the show and the litany of essential tunes included throughout also present a prime opportunity for the uninitiated to gain some fundamental understanding of the significance of the music and career of the Grateful Dead.

On This Day In 1972 The Grateful Dead Play Veneta, Oregon article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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