The Dead’s Hottest Versions of “Brown-Eyed Women”

by Peter Wendel
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JerryGarcia92ShorelineSMillman SongMango.com

Jerry at Shoreline [photo: Susana Millman]

This song is perfect for Jerry – the weathered, soulful traveler whose life took as many turns and carried as many burdens as the characters in this musical folk tale of hardship and survival during Prohibition and the Depression.

“Brown-Eyed Women” (BEW) captures the mournful, rough-and-tumble times of early industrial America – a period marked by hard-nosed bootleggers, whiskey drinking, “red-eyed gin,” brutal snow and rain, and of course, death itself. Times were tough with no relief in sight.

DelilahJonesBEW SongMango.comJerry is the ideal messenger for this kind of hardscrabble folklore, imbued with the “we will survive” sentiment embraced by The Dead and their fans. (see full lyrics at bottom):

1920 when he stepped to the bar
Drank to the dregs of the whiskey jar
1930 when the walls caved in
He made his way selling red-eyed gin

And:

Tumble down shack in Big Foot County
Snowed so hard that the roof caved in
Delilah Jones went to meet her God
And the old man never was the same again

Life was hard back then – even cruel – and the odds were stacked against you (just ask Jack and Delilah Jones). A warm sunshine daydream, it’s not. But it does bring out the best in Jerry’s strained, soulful vocals. Unlike most other rock stars, Jerry’s singing became even more compelling and moving (in many ways) as he aged and his voice became gravelly and burdened. They say authenticity is key to creating great music – and nobody performed more authentically than Garcia.

BrownEyedWomanDead SongMango.com

Modern-day Delilah Jones

The band debuted BEW on August 23, 1971, at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. It was sandwiched between “BIODTL” and “Me & My Uncle,” placed late in the first set.

BEW became a staple – played nearly 350 times – with the last performance on July 6, 1995, in Missouri just a month before Jerry’s death.

December 31, 1971 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA
Another amazing performance from the 5,400-seat Winterland Arena, a venue that witnessed some of the best the band had to offer. This version arrives early in the 1st set, a place where BEW frequently popped up in the ’70s. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux had just joined the band two months earlier to help support an ailing Pigpen, who rarely played the keys anymore but still sang and played harmonica. No Donna backup vocals yet. She would come on board in March of the coming year, just in time for the epic European run. Listen (archive track 3).

May 4, 1972 – Olympia Theater, Paris, France
This one has more character than the definitive version from Europe ’72, which was recorded two weeks earlier in Copenhagen. A nice easy tempo with a relaxed, soulful Jerry solo. Some absolutely beautiful piano fills from Keith. Jerry massages the lyrics (3:24): “I cut hickory, boy, to fire the still/Burn down a bottle and you’re ready to kill.” As the band goes into “Chinatown Shuffle,” Bobby banters a bit with the crowd and does a shout-out to “Pigs.” The Grateful Dead’s first keyboardist, hard-partying bluesman Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, would leave the band for good only five weeks later due to health problems brought on by his excessive drinking (reportedly Southern Comfort or Thunderbird). His last show was June 17, 1972.

March 26, 1973 – Baltimore Civic Center, Baltimore, MD
It’s a beautiful thing when the band completely nails it. Not a blemish anywhere on this one. Slow-and-easy cadence, no rush at all. Listen (archive track 11).

September 11, 1974 – Alexandra Palace, London, England 
It just doesn’t get any tighter or cleaner than this one. Phil and Keith are way high up in the mix so you can hear exactly how inspired their play is. Phil lays down precision lines that push the song along from below. Godchaux moves up and down his keyboard with confidence and ease – from slamming raunch to delicate cascades. Released commercially on Dick’s Picks Vol. 7.

June 19, 1976 – Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY
Fantastic vintage footage, featuring an impressive, heartfelt vocal performance from Jerome. His bridge solo is as flawless as ever. This version still has much of the relaxed spareness of the early-’70s, which would soon give way to a more complex intensity in the coming years. This one was commercially released as part of the Download Series Vol. 4.

May 28, 1977 – Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT
Don’t miss out. This is one of the smoothest versions from a banner year for the song. It’s like the best bootleg whiskey you can find – smooth and full-bodied with just enough burn to give it some balls. The year 1977 produced a feast of tight, super-smooth BEW renditions, and this is definitely one of the very best. Super sweet Jerry intro, and his solo (1:39) pops and bubbles, and dances right along. There’s an ethereal, almost dreamlike, feel to the recording. Jerry sounds like he’s singing from inside heaven’s arc.

May 9, 1977 – War Memorial, Buffalo, NY
Best ever? I’d say yes, or damn close. The well-documented technical brilliance of 1977 shines through. A truly magnificent solo from Jerry (1:43), and the vocals from the entire band are full and lush. This rendition certainly rivals – if not surpasses – the excellence and energy of the Barton Hall performance at Cornell, which was recorded the previous night. This is most definitely an under-appreciated version. Listen (archive track 3).

December 27, 1977 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA
The band rocks this one hard, bringing a rougher edge to the usual mellow BEW interpretation. Aggressive playing from Jerry and Bobby – some raunch and heavy-handedness rarely heard on this song. Jerry even gets a little wild with his solo, squeezing chirps and whines out of his guitar. Beautiful vocal finish. Listen (archive track 3).

February 3, 1978 – Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI
Quick pace right out of the gate. Jerry lays down a big-time rippin’ solo (1:35) – tree-top tall and it soars on up from there. Nice rhythm work from Bobby. The one weak link in this version is Godchaux, whose drug and alcohol abuse had dramatically eroded his once-prodigious improv skills. Rather than producing complementary leads, Keith took to simply mimicking Jerry’s leads – a lazy practice that would ultimately lead to his firing in 1979. Released commercially on Dick’s Picks Vol. 18.

October 31, 1980 – Radio City Music Hall, New York, NY
Some nice close-ups of Jerry’s crazy-fingered guitar work. Simply amazing.

April 6, 1982 – The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
One of the best of the early-’80s. Jerry nails the vocals, and lays down a nice subdued, super-smooth solo. Brent tickles the ivories like a man possessed. Released on Road Trips Vol. 4 No 4.

June 24, 1983 – Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI
Just beautiful! Jerry’s fretboard dance is alive and well – his famed dexterity in all its glory. His solo (1:31) is mind-blowing – absolutely blistering. Ranked as one of the best performances of the ’80s. Listen (archive track 5).

June 30, 1985 – Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD
Killer mid-’80s performance from one of the greatest outdoor venues on the East Coast to see The Dead. Both Billboard magazine and Rolling Stone have ranked Merriweather within the top five best amphitheaters in the country. BEW is the third song in the 1st set, coming out of “C.C. Rider” and a “Half Step” opener. Brent is on fire, and has some tasty lead exchanges with Jer. This show included one of the best versions of “Shakedown” ever. Listen (archive track 3).

April 2, 1989 – Pittsburgh Civic Arena, Pittsburgh, PA
Uptempo version featuring stellar keyboard play from Brent. He must have four hands. Jerry’s vocals are mixed close to the top so you can hear all the strain and roughness (in a good way) – so much bedraggled emotion. Released commercially on Dick Pick’s Vol. 21.

March 24, 1991 – Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY

August 17, 1991 – Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA
Beautiful work from Hornsby. Jerry looks on in approval, and the two exchange smiles and a few leads. It’s a great Garcia-Hornsby moment, showing the powerful musical chemistry the two had. The kaledescopic fun starts at 3:15.

June 17, 1991 – Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ
The band rips it for the Jersey crowd. Jerry is fired up, and he whips everybody into a frenzy. Great back and forth between Garcia and Hornsby on the grand piano. It was the third song in the 1st set, following “Eyes” and “Walkin’ Blues.”

“Brown-Eyed Women”
Lyrics by Robert Hunter & Music by Jerry Garcia

Gone are the days when the ox fall down
Take up the yoke and plow the fields around
Gone are the days when the ladies said
“Please gentle Jack Jones won’t you come to me”

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine
The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean
Sound of the thunder with the rain pourin’ down
And it looks like the old man’s gettin’ on

1929 when he stepped to the bar
Drank to the dregs of the whiskey jar
1930 when the wall caved in
He made his way selling red-eyed gin

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine
The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean
Sound of the thunder with the rain pourin’ down
And it looks like the old man’s gettin’ on

Delilah Jones was the mother of twins
Two times over and the rest were sins
Raised eight boys, only I turned bad
Didn’t get the lickin’s that the other ones had

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine
The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean
Sound of the thunder with the rain pourin’ down
And it looks like the old man’s gettin’ on

Tumble down shack on Big Foot County
Snowed so hard that the roof caved in
Delilah Jones went to meet her God
And the old man never was the same again

Daddy made whiskey and he made it well
Cost two dollars and it burned like hell
I cut hick’ry just to fire the still
Drink down a bottle and be ready to kill

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine
The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean
Sound of the thunder with the rain pourin’ down
And it looks like the old man’s gettin’ on

Gone are the days when the ox fall down
Take up the yoke and plow the fields around
Gone are the days when the ladies said
“Please gentle Jack Jones won’t you come to me”

Brown-eyed women and red grenadine
The bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean
Sound of the thunder with the rain pourin’ down
And it looks like the old man’s gettin’ on
And it looks like the old man’s gettin’ on

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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