My Top 1000 Songs #200: China Cat > Rider
Gonna wrap up the Top 200 with some live Dead, maybe a weird way to do it, but the long-running "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider" medley has provided me so much joy over the years that it's clawed its way much higher than anticipated.
"China Cat" itself started as one of the band's more blatantly psychedelic studio tracks. The original version on 1969's Aoxomoxoa was an infectious little trifle, highlighted by a twisty guitar duel between Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir and Garcia's loving treatment of a colorful Robert Hunter lyric. The cheesy keyboards and "na-na-nas" (dropped from live performances after the earliest days) are a little more iffy, but give it a distinctive late 60s vibe.
But as with much of the band's repertoire, the song really flourishes live. The guitar interplay is always fascinating, a showcase for both guitarists. By 1969, the Dead had begun pairing it with the traditional blues/folk tune "I Know You Rider," something that had been on their playlist since their early days, with some energetic jamming between the two; that medley remained a live staple until the very end, long after much of Aoxomoxoa had dropped by the wayside. It first showed up on record on the live Europe '72, and that version is perfectly fine.
For me, though, it became truly great--one of the band's definitive numbers--when, in 1973, they inserted a sweet little guitar and piano motif during the jam. (It's been described as the "Feeling Groovy" jam, given the chord progression's similarity to the Simon & Garfunkel song; it had originally shown up on some live "Dark Star" performances before finding a permanent home in the "China > Rider" bridge.) It's a moment of musical epiphany, the trippy psychedelic pop of "China Cat" and follow-on jam segueing into a few moments of pure bliss as the glorious din subsides and they lock into the harmonies of "Rider." Chemically abetted or not, it's one of those musical passages that either triggers an a-ha moment that brings you onto the bus for life, or... doesn't. And if it doesn't, well, I feel a little sad for you, cuz wow.
Anyway, here's a great (audio) performance from 1973 (I'm particularly partial to the 1973-1974 shows), as found on the official Dave's Picks Volume 5. The "Feeling Groovy" bridge kicks in at around the 7:15 marker on the video:And live in 1974:The original studio "China Cat Sunflower":