Listen To Grateful Dead Plant Seeds Of ‘Estimated Prophet’ Years Before Its Official Debut

The band jammed on a theme that would be central to the song three years ahead of its proper premiere.

By Andy Kahn Feb 22, 2024 10:50 am PST

On February 22, 1974, the Grateful Dead played their first concert of what would be for them a relatively light year of touring ahead of a hiatus. The first show of ‘74 was noteworthy for the live debuts of several now-classic Dead tunes, “U.S. Blues,” “It Must Have Been The Roses” and “Ship Of Fools.”

Those in attendance at The Winterland in San Francisco that night 50 years ago got to hear the birth of three new Dead songs, but anyone who heard the band soundcheck before the show also got to hear the early seeds of a song that would not make its proper debut for three more years.

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A recording of the soundcheck from February 22, 1974, captures the Grateful Dead rehearsing “U.S. Blues,” twice running through what would soon be the first set opener. Soundcheck also included a rehearsal of one of the other soon-to-be debuts, “It Must Have Been The Roses,” but the tapes do not have “Ship Of Fools.”

“Attics Of My Life,” which had not been performed for two years, was also soundchecked but did not appear in a Grateful Dead setlist until 1989. Additional warm-up songs played during soundcheck were “Let It Grow” and “They Love Each Other,” only the latter later popping up as part of the show.

A brief instrumental jam was performed by the Dead at soundcheck (there’s some discrepancy regarding the date of the soundcheck, which has been labeled February 24, 1974 as well). While not exactly the same form it would later become, the jam strongly resembles a portion of what became “Estimated Prophet.” The song, with the fleshed-out “California” theme played at soundcheck in ‘74, was recorded for inclusion on the Dead’s 1977 album, Terrapin Station.

A previous JamBase feature on “Estimated Prophet” delved into the song’s origin:

Though credited to lyricist John Perry Barlow and guitarist Bob Weir, the genesis of the album-opening “Estimated Prophet” can be traced to Jerry Garcia’s boredom-breaking bible reading while the Grateful Dead toured in the 1970s. Particularly motivated by Old Testament stories in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, after a show Garcia called Weir’s hotel room in the middle of the night, waking his bandmate and imploring him to read the same inspiring passages.

Weir later brought the verses (Ezekiel 1:1 – 7:27; 10:8 – 19 and Daniel 7:9) to Barlow, his longtime friend and writing partner, and the two came up with “Estimated Prophet.” Barlow’s loosely based lyrics on the biblical Hebrew prophet Ezekiel’s first vision, also closely reference the traditional folk song “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel,” which was recorded by Woody Guthrie and many others.

Weir stated in a 1977 interview with David Gans shortly after the release of Terrapin Station that “Estimated Prophet” was about a “bug-eyed” guy that’s “taken a lot of dope” having a vision concerning the guitarist or the band. He elaborated that he sees that type of person at “nearly every backstage door” and that the point of the song is “you shouldn’t take it all that seriously.” Decades later, Bobby’s assessment of “Estimated” would remain true to the time of its inception, telling the Poughkeepsie Journal in 2003:

“I took up music to begin with because it does something that words by themselves can’t do It takes you to a place that words by themselves can’t take you to. That said, for most folks, it’s experiencing the moment and when they leave that moment, they just know it’s there and they know they can go back there in another concert. Or maybe it will come their way in another experience.

“But there are some folks who aren’t prepared to leave that moment and try to take that with them and these are the folks that are walking a very, very perilous path, because if you can’t let go of that moment … those people are the acid burnouts who are trying to live in that moment or keep it always and they miss the appreciation, the beauty of the moment that it is fleeting. And they think they can live there that’s something you can’t have, it’s elusive. If you spend your time trying to reconnect with it rather than being open to visiting it every now and again, you’re basically chasing your tail. If there is a message in ‘Estimated Prophet,’ that’s it.”

The song’s original 7/4 time signature was conceived by Weir using a metronome-like device known as a Trinome. The song’s structure was pieced together by self-described “shards of stuff in seven” Weir had been working on with a riff that he developed during a band rehearsal. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann took Weir’s at-the-time fascination with 7/4 and further developed the rhythm to give the LP’s lead track its “groove.”

“Bobby came and showed me ‘Estimated Prophet’ at rehearsal,” Kreutzmann explained to Alan Paul in 2015. “And he had it going, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven … ‘one, two, three, four, five, six, seven …’ I said, ‘Bobby, that’s no groove, That’s not working.’ I went home on a rainy night and stood in front of my fireplace by myself, rocking my body back and forth and counting and thinking. And I went, ‘Wow. Why don’t we make it half time and make two bars of seven into a 14? So it’s seven doublets and you come down on an even number!’ So we play sevens in bars of two; phrasing it that way is much more musical. That’s how I gave ‘Estimated Prophet’ groove. [sings the beat] The half time is the end of four, which takes you to a new seven.”

Producer Keith Olsen brought in Tom Scott to perform a solo on the electric woodwind instrument known as a lyricon for the Terrapin Station version of “Estimated Prophet.” Scott’s other credits included sessions with George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Wings, Pink Floyd and many others.


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“Estimated Prophet” made its proper live debut on February 26, 1977, almost exactly three years after the seeds were planted at The Winterland. Listen to the ‘74 soundcheck “Estimated Prophet” jam below:

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