Wednesday, March 18, 2009

China Cat Sunflower - Grateful Dead Song Review

Chinal Cat Sunflower originally released on the Dead's third studio album Aoxomoxoa is a real "one of a kind" rock song. The opening "fat" rhythm guitar figure and the beautiful lead contrapuntal melody (played by Bobby!) set the tone for the song as a combination of rock and "mystical" eastern themes. This happy melody should've inspired an entire genre of music to develop but never have I heard anything else remotely like China Cat Sunflower.

I mean, really, this song is a psychedelic gem that is so creative in melody and lyric that it is a total masterpiece.

The two versions that are really the most familiar to me are the Europe '72 and the Without a Net versions - both live. That isn't to write off the Aoxomoxoa studio version which is phenomenal too (and perhaps a little more psychedelic as a result of heavy studio effects).

Look, for a while at the China Cat
Proud walking jingle in the midnight sun

The rest of the lyrics are pure fantasy much like the opening stanza. This song sounds like the result of talented musicians taking the world's best acid and having the perfect trip. No wonder nothing else quite like it is out there.

The song is totally well played almost every time and leads into I Know You Rider (hence the designation China Rider on tapes and setlist transcriptions). I can't think of any time I've heard China Cat and it was weak. Some great Dead songs really suffer from being inconsistent (Help on the Way comes to mind for some reason) but China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider was always a winner.

For a medley with so much jamming the structure of China Cat Sunflower remained pretty rigidly the same for decades - even down to Jerry's scripted lead. Of course there was a lot of noodling in the transition into I Know You Rider but that was always a really consistent surge of energy as the tempo and dynamics of the song increased. The rock soloing in between the two songs always remained in the keys of D and G so wasn't harmonically explorative but extremely effective.

China Cat Sunflower is one of the first "real" dead live songs I fell in love with. What I mean is that while I enjoyed my cassete copies of Skeletons From the Closet and parts of American Beauty and most of Workingman's Dead, I had some very epiphanous moments while listening to China Rider (on both Without a Net and Europe '72) during which I started to understand what the Grateful Dead were really about. I can't put into words what the Grateful Dead concert experience was like but I could partially describe it as a joyous collaborative musical improvisation that incorporated the energy of the audience. China Rider is a good example of this at its best because it "worked" almost every time.

I am really glad I got to see a China Rider live (12-9-1993 at Los Angeles Sports Arena). It wasn't the rarest song but I only saw it once in the 17 Grateful Dead shows I went to. I will never get tired of these songs and when it comes on I will always stop what I am doing and listen carefully to the jam that connects the two songs.

China Cat Sunflower 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).

No comments: