Friday, January 16, 2009

Bird Song - Grateful Dead Song Review

Bird Song

I was eyeing this song since I started the “songs that start with ‘B’ reviews” and during the somewhat painful review of the previous "first set rockers" I couldn’t wait to effuse about Bird Song.

This is a signature Grateful Dead song with what I consider to be Jerry’s signature lick. The main guitar refrain just sounds like the essence of how Jerry built his melodies… simple, rambling, and melodic.

The song also has a very open modal quality to it. The original studio recording (released on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album) was in the key of D (dom) but the Dead version of later years is in E (dom). There are some early live versions of Bird Song that the Dead played which sound very similar to the studio version – and frankly I don’t like these. The song didn’t really gel until sometime in the mid 80s. I would also say that I’m not too big of a fan of the acoustic versions of Bird Song (from around the Reckoning era) either. I think the song needs electricity (and midi) to realize its open modern jazz potential.

So the version that I am really a fan of is on Without a Net. This version is just recorded so well and played so well I’ve never really found a version I like more (but if you know of one, by all means – suggest it to me!). Of course, Jerry plays the midi flute on the Without a Net version and the sound of his guitar on that CD is just impeccable in general. I believe the guitar he was using was Rosebud and I’ve never really heard a better sounding Jerry guitar. I can’t remember the reason he switched to the “lightning bolt” guitar but I’ve seem to remember reading that it had great sustain and was lighter.

Bird Song is about Janis Joplin I’ve been told, but you know… it doesn’t really evoke her in my opinion. To me the song’s lyrics are a wondrous monologue from one entity about another that is the “bird” which seems to me to represent the spirit of woman, a muse, or something else desirable. Sorry to get a little abstract, but the point that I am making is that while I love Janis, I’ve never felt that this song is for or about her. (Cassidy on the other hand is a different story - that song has lines that could only be about Neal Cassady).

This song opens up with the rambling main figure, then there is a verse and a very interesting chorus and great background vocals when they sing “la la la la lAAAAAhhhh…” (you know what I’m referring to - that part is so beautiful). After the second verse the song opens up into the “jam” and I just love the way the jam always starts off with Jerry subtlely noodling over the standard song rhythm, and then the band gradually “stepping out” with him and collectively improvising based on Jerry’s leads. The jam is always spacious and ambitious – really the fact that the key rests on the Dominant I for the entire jam causes this song to really go “out there” and they swell and build with crescendos and then long spacious passages. Often time the jam will have multiple swells and then quieter passages. This is not only some of the most “spacey” improvisational type of playing the Dead did in the 1st set, it is actually one of the more routinely harmonically experimental jams the band had in their repertoire.

The open “jam” part ends with the one of the main guitar riffs pulling it right into the chorus. The jam was usually so far “out there” that I’ve notice this transition back into the song is often not very “tight” as you would expect the Dead would want it, but a worthy tradeoff for the openness of the jam.

Then one more chorus, verse, chorus and then the end of the song. The structure is very simple but the playing is always ambitious. This song reminds me of some of the modal jazz epic songs from the 70s from the likes of Coltrane and Miles Davis. It is just a great, great song with a great history and the entire band participated in it’s evolution from a simple 2 part song to an epic jam vehicle. I saw this song at my first show (Las Vegas, May 15th, 1993) and I can say without a doubt that I had no idea at that moment how great the song was and how I would listen to it hundreds of times for years to come. Now it is definitely a highly beloved Dead song that causes me great emotion when I hear it.

Bird Song Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 9.9

Disclaimer: This is part of my review of every Grateful Dead song from A-Z. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so keep in mind that this is one man's opinion (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).

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