March 23, 2008

Now Playing: Grateful Dead Road Trips

After an avalanche of archival releases from 1995 to 2005, things went dark in Grateful Dead-land in 2006. The “Vault” was licensed to Rhino and the soundboard recordings (which had circulated freely for years) were unceremoniously removed from, leaving much bitterness behind. Even the (way overpriced) download series came to a grinding halt. There were no new releases for an entire year and it was looking like the deal with Rhino was going to be all about “greatest hits” compilations sold at Starbucks. Egads.

In 2007, new releases began trickling out again. First up was Live at the Cow Palace: New Year’s Eve 1976, a nicely packaged but not particularly revelatory selection (after all, the FM broadcast had circulated forever). Then, several months later, Three from the Vault, a beautifully recorded but rather tentative and sleepy performance from 12/18/71, which had been slated for release way back in 1993, but for mysterious reasons was shelved. If Three from the Vault had been released as planned, it would have been a big deal at the time; by 2007, its sudden appearance smacked of desperation and a total lack of imagination. To make matters worse, “The Taper’s Section” suddenly converted from mp3 downloads to a streaming-only service, annoying fans who had come to enjoy the already lo-fi samples that archivist David Lemiuex uploaded from the “Vault” every Monday morning.

Then, just before Christmas, this new Road Trips series was announced – to much consternation. These (seemingly) quarterly, mail-order only releases seek to compile the “best” tracks from a handful of shows from a specific tour and, as such, they are a bit frustrating for the hardcore fan. It’s “The Taper’s Section” on disc – and, by comparison, hideously expensive. We Deadheads want complete concerts – warts and all – and there is a good reason for that. A Dead show was way more than the sum of its songs; it had an arc, it told a story. Like life itself, it had its ups and downs, but, in the end, it was the journey itself that made the whole thing worthwhile. Or something like that.

But, hey, I’m not a purist about it. Compilations can sometimes be very satisfying. For example, Stepping Out with The Grateful Dead, which summarizes the 1972 UK shows across four CDs, and Go to Nassau, a compilation from three nights at Nassau Coliseum in 1980 on two discs, are both highly enjoyable. Heck, Live Dead and Europe ‘72 are classic albums!

Unfortunately, what we have with Road Trips is a selection of (mostly) great music shoehorned onto two CDs. But wait! If you order right now, you also get a “free bonus disc!” What’s with the “bonus disc” stuff? Just make a three-disc set and do it well! Sheesh!

So, anyway, what do we have here?

Vol.1, No.1: Fall ‘79 No doubt about it, Fall 1979 was an excellent, but not well-documented, period for the Dead. Keyboardist Brent Mydland replaced Keith Godchaux in April, 1979, and was fully integrated into the Dead gestalt by the fall tour. Brent was willing to go as far out there as the rest of them and the band was clearly reinvigorated by his energy and musicianship. Some quibble with his bell-like Rhodes piano sound during this period (personally, I love it), but there is no doubt that he was a master of the Hammond B-3 organ, whose lush and swirly textures had been missing from the Dead’s sound since Pigpen’s demise in the early 1970s. The net result is a band that was more professional and polished (some might say downright slick) but still willing to jump off into extended improvisation at the drop of a hat. The “bonus” disc demonstrates this nicely with an outrageous jam out of “Saint of Circumstance” (of all things) from 11/8/79 and a middle-eastern flavored jam out of “He’s Gone” from 11/9/79.

Other highlights include Disc 1’s “Dancing in the Street>Franklin’s Tower” also from 11/9/79 with Brent’s super-funky chicken-scratching clavinet (actually Prophet 5 synth) and Disc 2’s “Shakedown Street” from 11/25/79 is a monster second-set opener with Garcia pealing off one incredible riff after another. And the “Terrapin Station>Playing in the Band” from 11/6/79 is truly epic.

So, what’s to complain about? I mean, it’s all really good stuff, but, out of context, it’s a little rich, maybe too much too fast. Note also that these recordings were made direct from the soundboard to a humble cassette by soundman Dan Healy and suffer from the inevitable anomalies and imbalances (i.e vocals way up front, drums distant, a dry and airless acoustic, etc.). Listenable, but caveat emptor!

Vol.1, No.2: October ’77 1977 was a good year. With second drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart successfully reintegrated into the band after the “hiatus” of 1975, with a return to touring in 1976, and with a half-way credible attempt at a studio album with 1977’s Terrapin Station, the Dead were (for the time being) well-rehearsed, finely tuned, and firing on all cylinders. To top it off, Betty Cantor-Jackson expertly recorded every show to a state-of-the-art Nagra reel-to-reel so, unlike Vol.1 No. 1, these discs sound mighty fine indeed.

This release is mostly made up of 10/6/77, which I’d never heard before, so that’s nice. Disc 1 ends with the exploratory “Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower” sequence from 10/11/77 which has always been a favorite version. Disc 2 cleverly grafts 10/14/77’s “Playing in the Band” and encore onto 10/6/77’s post-drums sequence and it actually works pretty well. But, once again, the real action is to be found on the so-called “bonus disc” with an unusual “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain” (also from 10/6/77) which features Mickey on talking drum and the entire post-drums sequence from 10/7/77 which opens with a gracefully loping (and, at the time, rare) performance of the New Orleans anthem, “Iko Iko.”

Again, I have no complaints about the music itself, it’s just that I’m unlikely to pull these out and listen to them again beginning to end. On the other hand, I have enjoyed having these things loaded on my iPod to listen to in the car, where I do not have the time or attentiveness to listen to complete shows anyway. In that way, the “best of” aspect suits that particular listening environment pretty nicely. Maybe these would make a better downloads than CDs, if the price was right. Either way, I’m willing to hang in there with them, for I am an unrepentant Deadhead.


Now, this is more like it: The fabled Winterland 1973 box set is finally coming out. Three complete shows (11/9-10-11/73) on nine CDs. It’s definitely a bit pricey at $100 + shipping, but these are justifiably legendary concerts, of which only 11/11 circulates in decent sound quality. I have, of course, happily pre-ordered my copy.


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