Weir-d Chord Sequences

A small confession here: I was a teenage Deadhead. I'm now a middle-aged Deadhead. Yes, I possess a modest collection of live shows—first on cassette, these days as mp3s on my laptop. I've seen the Grateful Dead live, but only twice (6/21/84 and 6/30/87 for the record, both local shows at Kingswood Music Theatre up in Maple). And I'm one of those solitary Heads who's never felt the need to be part of the Deadhead community or enhance the listening experience by ingesting drugs, psychedelic or otherwise. The music is trippy enough.

The current Dead & Company tour has rekindled the flame for us old-timers and caused some newbies to hop on the bus, so to speak. It's been great to hear this rejuvenated band revisit the canon and put its own stamp on the songs. I'm bummed that I couldn't make it to the show closest to me (Buffalo, November 11), especially considering they played the rare and spacey "Dark Star" that night. I did, however, download the entire show a day later. If you're interested, you can stream and/or download endless Dead and related concerts at the Internet Archive.

Anyway, the other night in St. Louis they busted out a tune I was delighted to hear again, the Weir-Barlow classic "Black-Throated Wind." Always on the hunt for new cover material, I thought I'd try it out on my guitar. Parts of the song are near the top of my vocal range, but on the whole I can sing it comfortably. What came as a surprise, though, was the chord sequence. It's one of the most bizarre I've heard in a popular song.

Things start off simply enough. After an intro lick around E, Esus4 and E7, the verse goes like this:
  • E F#m D A E, repeated once
  • A D Bm E, repeated once
We're pretty clearly in the key of E here, with the sorts of chords you'd expect to see. Nothing really stands out. Then comes this jaw-dropping chorus:
  • D C#m A Em C A D C#m A Em A G D A
I don't know music theory well enough to explain what's going on, but suffice it to say I've never encountered a song where C, C#m, D, E and Em coexist. All are common chords in rock songs, just not in the same song. They make no sense in terms of graceful key relationships (or anything conventionally musical), yet somehow Bob Weir makes them work, weaving a powerful and unusual melody around them. The structure and variety of the chords also ensure that "Black-Throated Wind" is one of those rare songs that needs no bridge. With all that chordal movement, a bridge would be too much. Weir has always had a reputation as a bit of a quirky songwriter, and now I see why. Well done, sir!

A tip for those of you who want to learn the song: use Capo 2 and transpose the above chords down a whole step. It's far more playable this way. Here are the transposed chords—first, the verses:
  • D Em C G D, repeated once
  • G C Am D, repeated once
  • C Bm G Dm Bb G C Bm G Dm G F C G
As a bonus, I've expanded my harmonica knowledge by working up this tune. I play the opening guitar lick on the harmonica, and the only way to get those "blue" notes is to play in cross-harp or second position. Which I finally figured out: for second position, your harmonica key should be a fourth above the key of the song. So, song in E? Choose a harmonica in the key of A.

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