Time Traveling Back to 1972 - Unearthing the Long-Buried Dead

February 2003 - Funny thing about the Grateful Dead. Many of the band's most loyal followers never got the chance to witness the Dead at their peak. Young Deadheads, born in the Seventies, proved to be some of the most ardent fans in the group's history. They followed the band from town to town, camping in parks, and subsisting on coolers packed with soda, bean burritos, and peanut butter sandwiches. Their devotion, though, was inspired by a mellower Grateful Dead than the one that first took flight from Haight-Ashbury. These same fans would, no doubt, have been awed by the experience of the Grateful Dead in their prime.

Fortunately, a group of veteran Deadheads have unearthed and re-edited a long buried time capsule of the Grateful Dead performing at the remarkable zenith of their powers. Canis Major Filmmakers John Norris, Sam Field, and Phil DeGuere have resurrected their 1972 concert film 'Sunshine Daydream' and now offer up a breathtaking trip back in time to the quintessential era of both the Grateful Dead and acid-jamming rock 'n roll. Loosely shot, the 100-minute film captures an incredibly youthful Grateful Dead playing outdoors at a creamery benefit in Veneta, Oregon on a blisteringly hot summer afternoon. In rich, sweaty detail, the film presents a completely unexpected snapshot of the Dead playing with rapt focus in front of a joyous crowd.

'Sunshine Daydream' is something of a missing link. It offers possibly the best testament as to why the Grateful Dead became such an enduring phenomenon. Where Jerry Garcia would later inspire a generation of indulgent jam bands, in '72 he was capable of fearsome, almost metallic leads. Indeed, in the later stages of the film's uninterrupted "Dark Star" jam, the camera captures a close-up of a young Garcia just as he drills a repeating 4-note riff at staggering speed. And where the band could offer sometimes lazy and unfocused shows in the Nineties, here they jump and stomp and dance, sweating profusely on a brutally hot summer's day.

In sitting down to watch 'Sunshine Daydream,' one gets a sense of revisiting history. Because this was an era of unprecedented accessibility, the Canis Major crew were able to station their cameras squarely on the wings of the stage, mere feet from the band. The resulting footage allows the viewer to stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder with a very young Bob Weir, age 25, strumming a cherry-red hollow-body guitar; a bushy-haired Phil Lesh, dressed more like a surfer than a bassist, and belting unexpected harmony vocals; a fuzzily bearded Garcia, age 30, smiling, not a gray hair in sight; and, a tough-looking Bill Kreutzman, sitting squatly on his drum stool, chewing gum and wearing a railroad conductor's cap. Where most Dead fans only witnessed these musicians 20 years later, and from the remote mezzanine deck of a Checkerdome-Enormodome-Superstadium, here suddenly is Garcia's boot tapping on a rusty foot pedal, Phil Lesh leaping in front of Kreutzman during a jazzy drums and bass solo, and Bob Weir stepping timidly to the microphone after a long, haunting jam.

One can only speculate on just how psychedelically engaged Norris, Field, and DeGuere (along with third cameraman Lou Melson, and sound man Charlie Barreca) were as they recordeded the day's proceedings. The concert itself was organized by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, which helped to ensure a day of genuine acid craziness. But shot with synchronized, handheld cameras, the Canis Major team succeeded in capturing both the blissful playing of the musicians and the general ecstasy of the audience. The camera eye becomes almost a running commentary of the respective filmmakers' interior monologues. A close-up of Garcia's leather boot stepping on a wah-wah pedal jumps suddenly to a Christ-like figure perched precariously on a wooden pole above the stage. The camera tracks the fellow as he dances rabidly above the music, then cuts to two women walking a child behind the stage. A dog runs past them. Suddenly the music changes gears and the camera swings back to the stage, to blonde-haired Phil Lesh at the precise moment he strums a booming chord on his bass. And then the other camera takes over, offering Bob Weir baring his teeth and straining to sing a high note as he chops harsh chords on his guitar. Weir falls backward as Garcia begins to solo and the camera suddenly jumps again to a topless girl dancing nearby in the tall grass.

Such chaotic filming succeeds precisely because of its extemporaneous nature. Almost accidentally, it captures the day's events in whirlwind fashion, fortuitously recording all the peripheral "noise" of the festival. In editing the film, DeGuere, Norris, and Field wisely provided some breathing room, interspersing performance clips with vintage moments of Kesey and the Pranksters. Additional background footage delivers candid shots of the festival's organizers as they try to cope with a water shortage amidst the day's 100-degree heat. The camera pans to crowds of men and women sharing plastic jugs of water. Overdubbed walkie-talkie chatter reveals the stage crew trying to bring in a fire truck to hose down the crowd.
In true Deadhead spirit, the film preserves an event that seem awfully remote in today's world of cable TV, Internet ticketing, and heavily policed gatherings. Early in the movie, an eager crew can be seen building a simple wooden stage. No cops, no security force trolling the grounds. No bags being searched, no one ejected for cigarette smoking. What one witnesses as the movie gets underway is 30,000 folks raving about in a big, sunny meadow while the local band plays on a hastily erected platform. Two flinty piles of amplifiers broadcast loud rock 'n roll out to the countryside. Amidst such casual planning, it seems forgivable that the festival's organizers forgot to incorporate stage lights. Providentially, this lack of concert lighting works to stunning effect later in the film. As the sun sets, and a cool breeze settles on the day's revelry, Garcia can be faintly seen crooning the plaintive "Sing Me Back Home," a mere silhouette of dark hair and beard against the gathering dusk.

Such a pastoral scene, of dogs and babies and children eating ice cream, hearkens back to a bygone era. 'Sunshine Daydream' never lectures, though, never complains that such days have passed. But in its quick cuts to footage of the Merry Pranksters, and their 1964 bus slogan "A vote for Barry [Goldwater] is a vote for fun," one sees the timeless political viability of street theater. And cutting back to the Dead in blazing performance, one is reminded that the most essential American liberty is freedom of expression.

'Sunshine Daydream' will overwhelm many Deadheads and music fans simply by presenting the Grateful Dead when they were oh-so-young. But its soundtrack, including riveting performances of "Bird Song" and "Sing Me Back Home," offers vivid testimony of why the Grateful Dead were so endearing and so enduring. As was said many times, "There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert."

 

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