This live performance was recorded in July, 1964, at the Top of the Tangent, Palo Alto, California, by Stanford students Pete Wanger and Wayne Ott, who were collecting material for their KZSU-FM radio program, "Live from the Top of the Tangent."
It was July 1964, when a small audience gathered in the music hall of a Palo Alto, California pizza and beer hang-out called The Tangent. It’s certain that no one in attendance knew how priceless a slice of Grateful Dead history they were about to witness or that thirty-five years later, this collection would be released by Grateful Dead Merchandising and hailed as the Rosetta Stone of Grateful Dead tape archaeology. Yet, there they were — Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron Pigpen McKernan, and three other musicians, performing a 45-minute set of jug band music.
At the time, Garcia had already made quite a name for himself as one of the best bluegrass musicians in the Bay Area. Less than a year later, Garcia, Weir, and McKernan would go on to form The Warlocks, which would quickly evolve into the Grateful Dead, turning Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions into a faint memory.
The performance contained on this disc was recorded for a Stanford University radio program called Live at the Top of the Tangent. Five years later, several tracks were culled from this program for a Grateful Dead documentary on San Francisco’s KSAN. Unfortunately, over the years, the original recording made by Pete Wanger was misplaced. In fact, it wasn’t until 1997, when Pete and his brother Michael found all of the Live at the Top of the Tangent tapes including the Mother McCree’s broadcast, stashed in their mother’s attic. In the usual Grateful Dead fashion, the tapes were digitally remastered, and the result sounds quite good, considering the circumstances.
Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions incorporated guitar, banjo, mandolin, kazoo, washboard, and other assorted instruments into a delightful and fun-filled excursion that played off the folk music revival of the early ’60s. It’s no surprise that the album has a free-spirited looseness about it as the sextet tackled a variety of songs from Chuck Berry (Memphis) to Jimmie Rodgers (In the Jailhouse Now). Scattered throughout the disc are a number of cover songs that later turned up in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, including Ain’t It Crazy, Monkey & the Engineer, and Beat It On Down the Line. In addition, the album also includes some amusing stage banter that added to the levity of the happy-go-lucky set.
Make no mistake, this is certainly not the Grateful Dead, but it is a charming romp through the first collaboration of several of the band’s future members. Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, while quite different from the Grateful Dead’s electrified, psychedelic sound, provides invaluable insight into the group’s influences and developmental process, and therefore it must be included in any true Deadhead’s collection. More importantly, the pure joy that the band experienced by performing shines brightly throughout this set, and this exuberance is sure to put a spring in your step and a smile on your face. --- John Metzger