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Music

The moment Stephen Stills joined The Grateful Dead for a killer jam session

@TylerGolsen

1969 was still “Primal Dead” territory for The Grateful Dead. Having established themselves as one of the most forward-thinking and ambitiously experimental rock bands in all of America, the group were beginning to find their footing. Psychedelia for psychedelic-sakes was out, and so was the garage rock that was found on the band’s first album. In its place came long excursions that focused on group cohesions, mixing in the classic blues covers of the group’s early days with the more Americana styles that would come to define their next few albums.

Even though they were within the state during its proliferation, the Dead were never really part of “the California sound”. Mainly rooted in Los Angeles, far away from the Dead’s hometown of San Francisco, artists like The Mamma’s and the Papa’s, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield were integrating folk elements into psychedelic rock arrangements and were pushing boundaries when it came to mainstream pop. By the time Stephen Stills recruited David Crosby from The Byrds and Graham Nash from The Hollies, their blend of harmonies solidified the idyllic nature of California in the late 1960s.

Stills eventually befriended the Dead, as did the other members of CSN, and would instrumental in helping them transition away from the acid-soaked experimentation of albums like Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa. The Dead took CSN’s lead when it came to harmonies and acoustic arrangements, eventually crafting some of their most mainstream-sounding records yet with 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two albums that came out just five months apart from each other.

Before they entered the studio, however, the band had a few of the songs already worked out, including ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Black Peter’ from Workingman’s Dead. It’s uncertain whether Stills had even heard of these songs before he decided to plug in a guitar and hop on stage with the band to perform these as-of-yet unreleased tunes during the band’s show at the Thelma Theatre in Los Angeles on December 10th, 1969 — not that it would have slowed him down at all. Stills got his legs under him on ‘Black Peter’, a song with quite a few strange chord changes in it. As a guest, Stills mostly stays out of the way, throwing in a couple of fills just to contribute a bit. He steps off for a bit while the band burn through a couple of classic tracks like ‘Me and My Uncle’ and ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ before once again reappearing for ‘Casey Jones’.

With its much simpler structure, Stills gets more confident on ‘Jones’, and when the band decided to follow it up with the pure blues of ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, Stills was really able to let loose, matching licks with Garcia. Hearing three guitars in the mix is a strange one for any Dead devotees so used to the interplay between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, but Stills’ fiery lead style does tend to jump out, especially when he doesn’t have to think about the structure and can just play off of Pigpen’s harmonica.

He’s ever-so-slightly out of his depth on ‘Morning Dew’, though. Surely Stills – as a folky at heart – had heard the song before. That said, he probably didn’t fully get how the Dead did it. Once again, Stills hangs back, and the band decide to accommodate him by launching into one of Stills’ own songs, ‘Black Queen’. At the end of the jam, the group drops into an uncharacteristically short rendition of ‘Turn on Your Love Light’. While unusual, the jam likely went on for longer than the three minutes that’s captured on tape, as whoever was recording probably had to flip the reel. By the time the band return with ‘Cryptic Envelopment’ section of ‘The Other One’, Stills’ guitar is no longer in the mix, with the musician likely having stepped back off stage.

Check out the audio from Stills’ first jam with the Grateful Dead down below.