I have explored, mentally more than online, the hypothesis that when Jerry's vocals were especially, noteworthily bad, he compensated with his guitar playing, really concentrating on it and giving it extra "oomph".
If we could gather all the data (like continuous measures of the quality of singing and guitar playing), the compensation hypothesis might be testable in a satisfactorily scientific sense.
That's not going to happen.
Instead, I'll say that I believe it sometimes to have been true, which is a simply a statement of possibility. And I might offer in support the Grateful Dead show at Golden Hall, San Diego, CA, January 7, 1978.
I think there are several tapes, but this is the one I am listening to. It's a great tape that puts you right in the sweet spot.
The worst case of laryngitis in his 30-plus career struck Garcia in early 1978. If outright pneumonia caused cancellations --even the Dead had humanitarian standards, and even its Garcia was subject to the relevant labor laws-- for mere laryngits, The Show Would Go On, and they played two nights in San Diego (Sunday 1/7 and Monday 1/8) without "Jerry songs", i.e., no Garcia lead vocals. On the tape linked above, Weir informs the crowd of this (track 9, "Jerry's problem").
The results are pretty striking, and I think are indicative of various compensation effects.
From a Grateful Dead perspective (not usually the one I take here), the whole band seems to respond. The bassist and the drummers all have great nights. Partly this is the tape, I assume, but Phil, Bill and presumably Mickey just sound great. Lesh plays some very forward, fluid stuff all night long. The drummers sound alive, really as one on this night (which was too infrequently the case - I am not a fan of the two-drummer sound). I don't hear Bob tearing it up on guitar quite as might as one might expect, but I am not firm on that.
The key pieces of evidence from the tape are "Let It Grow" and the big jam on "Dancing In The Street".
"Let It Grow" might be exhibit #1 in support of the compensation
possibility from a Garciacentric perspective. (Though the whole band is
great, I think that's partly endogenous to Jerry.) Pantagruel's tape
picks this up beautifully, but any recording would find Garcia playing "Let It Grow" like a
man with his hair on fire, scrubbing, hammering, scrubbing some more, occasionally soaring; parkour guitar. Maybe
he's a little angry, and he takes it out on the Tiger (right? I should
know these things). Somewhere around 3:45 and again right around the 5-minute mark, he fans with tremendous power. If you have good speakers and a good room --this tape needs space to breathe, but given the space I think it will sound very nice indeed -- go ahead and turn it up, LOUD.
Dancin' finds the whole band highly exploratory, a great piece of group improvisation. For at least five or eight minutes they explore lots of creative byways. "Compensation" has a quite specific manifestation here, because I don't think that, initially, they are trying harder so much as the tried and true is not ready-to-hand. When you reach for the standard formula and it's not there, right where it usually is and where you implicitly expected it to be, what do you do? You improvise.
(Note here that Corry has discussed a related phenomenon, whereby the band "compensates", responds to, a small and alien crowd by hunkering down and, together, tearing the roof off the place. Not only that, he discussed in the context of this very tour, and specifically the 1/15 show at Selland Arena in Fresno. JGMF: Corry's ideas, my turgid prose.)
I lament the institution of the vocal rotation in the Dead. It began very early and didn't really start to stifle things, too much, until other features, such as the setlist structure, and the subsong types such as "Bob rockers" and "Jerry ballads", populating a rather limited ecology, ossified around it. By 1980 a Dead setlist was highly predictable on all kinds of dimensions, and various members of any given crew of fans typically specialized in "calling songs". Alas, it wasn't rocket science.
I don't consider 1978 to be a great year for the Dead, but I like it relative to what followed because I so strongly dislike the ossuary that the setlist structure became, a deadweight around the band's neck. One could still be surprised by a GD setlist in 1978 in ways that one could never be in any of the band's remaining years that contained an '8'. And 1/7/78 has this in spades, since even what was already tried-and-trued by this time, the Bob-Jerry rotation, and certain song combinations, were ruled out by Jerry's laryngitis.
With routinization, space for true exploration becomes more and more constrained. This is probably tautological. What this show allows us to see is that the vocal rotation was part of this limitation, and breaking it down posed interesting questions, calling forth interesting answers. On more than a few occasions I hear Jerry suggesting "Franklin's Tower", for example. Now maybe he had a mic set up and was considering exercising a vocal option. Or maybe he just wanted to attack the song from a new angle, free of singing responsibilities and with a chance to focus on just playing it. Or maybe he just stumbled into it. Whatever the case, the whole band is fun and engaged and ripping it up in a very interesting Dancin' - looking down the setlist, I have high hopes for what looks like a tight Playin, a long and hopefully not too dull Drums -> NFA, and what I am hoping is a hot Around & Around (with the double-time ending? I hope so). I hope not to listen to OMNS, but I might slip up.
(some hours later)
I have picked this up again after being taken away by other things. I love this "Playing In The Band" - not as long as it had been, which is fine - more like a nice compact 1972 version. At 9:19 Garcia quotes "Close Encounters" a few times, which I am contractually obligated to remind you he broke out with the Garcia Band, not the Dead, in November.
Still listening, but anyway, I hear this show as strong evidence in support of the compensation hypothesis. Of course I am listening *for* this, to some extent. But either way, it's there.
Let me be clear: I don't think there's a linear and negative relationship between vocals and guitar, symmetrical across all the values those two things can take. Instead, I would model this as a conditional relationship: it's only when the vocals fall below some threshhold that the compensation kicks in. When the vocals are really terrible (or, in the limit, as with 1/7/78, Garcia cannot sing), then he compensates. It's a categorical ("if ..., then ...") rather than a continuous ("as ..., then ...") kind of statement.
One last set of points, the kind of thing we ask in my day job, what's the mechanism? Here, I speculate.
1) Marginal reallocation of attention/effort: Here, the idea is that Garcia has some amount of relatively fungible energy and attention to expend. When he doesn't have to worry about singing, he can reallocate that stuff into his playing. This doesn't have to be conscious.
2) Guilt: I have discussed at some length how important the idea of being a competent professional musician was to Garcia. If this sounds obvious, it shouldn't. Some great players don't give a shit about this. But Garcia cared about being a pro, embracing if not always respective a set of professional standards. He rejected "Cabaret Economics" as a concept, even if he sometimes inflicted it on his loyal fans. But I surmise that when he couldn't sing, or when he knew that his vocals were objectively embarrassing, he would feel that he needed to make it up to his fans with better guitar work. This one sort of implies a lit more consciousness.
3) anything else?
Anyway, do check this show out. NFA playing and Garcia still sounds great. Two snaps up.