CD (and other stuff) reviews: Dead and more Dead | AspenTimes.com

CD (and other stuff) reviews: Dead and more Dead

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesThe Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh will play an East Coast run in mid-December with Further.

Short of the resurrection of Jerry Garcia, the news could hardly be better on the Grateful Dead front.

Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, once on opposite sides in the battle over the Dead’s treasure chest of recordings, have reconciled to the point of becoming bandmates again. Further, which features Dark Star Orchestra guitarist John Kadlecik and drummer Joe Russo of the Benevento/Russo Duo, debuted late this past summer. Those dates went well enough that they’ve signed on for a short East Coast run in mid-December.

Hopefully, the advent of Further doesn’t spell an end to the Dead, the band that features Weir and Lesh as well as the longtime Grateful Dead drumming corps of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. That group’s spring tour was almost unanimously applauded, thanks to the spectacular work of singer-guitarist Warren Haynes.

On the live and local front, Colorado’s Shakedown Street, which has been paying tribute to the Grateful Dead since the days that “Touch of Grey” video was playing on MTV, rolls into Belly Up Aspen on Saturday, Nov. 14.

And there’s all kinds of Dead-related cultural artifacts to pick add to the stash, including a book, a board game, and a plethora of new music releases.

So let’s get on with the show …

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The peak year of 1977. A three-night home-stand at San Francisco’s Winterland, site of numerous triumphant runs. A knock-out package of new original art, photos, booklet, mementos, and a bonus disc from a Chicago date later that month.

So it’s a sad surprise that “Winterland, June, 1977” doesn’t just grab you by the throat for a 10-hour joy ride. “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain” is still in the gestation phase; not only does Garcia stumble over the lyrics, but it never ignites. For every high point (“Help on the Way”/”Slipknot!”/”Franklin’s Tower”; “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”) there are four or so ho-hum moments (“Friend of the Devil,” “Bertha”). The magic just wasn’t there that week.

This pales next to a similarly packaged Winterland release, documenting the magnificent September 1973 run. And for a better taste of 1977, try “Dick’s Picks #34,” featuring November shows from Toronto, and Rochester, N.Y.

The latest volume of the Road Trips series was released, one presumes, to feature an era – mid-’90s – that hasn’t been exposed much, and a handful of late-era songs – “Liberty,” “Picasso Moon,” a cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow” – that haven’t gotten much play on CD.

OK, now they can say they did it. And they never have to do it again. The voices are trashed, no one seems to be listening to anyone else. And “Victim of the Crime” is as nasty a lyric as they ever came up with.

This two-disc set from a pair of Berkeley, Calif. shows in November 1975 is the perfect ammunition for those who never grasped the whole Garcia thing. The quartet – with bassist John Kahn, British pianist Nicky Hopkins, and Ron Tutt, who had been Elvis Presley’s drummer – seems to relish taking slow songs (Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” Allen Toussaint’s “I’ll Take a Melody,” Garcia’s “Sugaree”) and seeing exactly how slow they can be played before they stop altogether. At moments, it appears they actually have nodded out, mid-note, before finally wrapping it up – often around the 12-minute mark.

For the faithful, though, this is must-hear stuff. It’s rare: Hopkins only played a handful of dates in the band, and his sound – acoustic piano – adds a different dimension to the Garcia Band sound. There are a trio of Hopkins tunes here, including “Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder,” which closes the set on an unexpectedly uptempo note. There are versions of “Ain’t No Use,” the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the blues tune “(I’m a) Road Runner” – all fairly rare. And all those slow rhythms give Garcia a chance to articulate his guitar notes precisely. And slowly.

“Bay Area 1978” is a whole different Garcia Band. With female vocalists Maria Muldaur and Donna Jean Godchaux on board, and Hopkins replaced by the Dead’s Keith Godchaux, the beat picks up some, and the sound gets a gospel feel – especially on the trio of actual gospel tunes that close this set.

The writing was usually amateurish, the booster-ish stance could be embarrassing, and the choice of stories – “How Do You Feel About Disco?”; “Yukotopia,” about a Dead-affiliated musician’s travels among Japan’s Deadhead community – could make you cringe. But in the pre-Internet age, the magazine Relix was an essential source of Dead info. And there are bright spots to this book-length collection commemorating Relix’s 30-year anniversary: “The History of Taping,” by Relix founder Les Kippel was an amusing look at a time in Dead history, 1969, that most of us missed. The collection of reflections on Garcia, from the likes of Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan is heart-warming and illuminating.

It’s Monopoly, Dead-style. Tokens are guitars, a tour bus, and Weir’s dog, Otis. You don’t land in jail; you are thrown off the bus. And instead of wandering the streets of Atlantic City, you’re on tour – checking out a show at Winterland, cruising the parking lot scene. The artwork is tremendous, and there’s a sense of humor about it all: “Jerry plays an extra long solo on ‘China Cat.’ Collect $50.”

The number of artists who cover Dead songs is always impressive. And the identity of those closet Dead lovers – Elvis Costello, gospel band the Persuasions, jazz saxophonist David Murray, bluegrass mandolinist Ronnie McCoury – is gratifying.

Two recent albums kick off with versions of Dead tunes. Levon Helm, singer-drummer of the Band, continues his career revitalization with “Electric Dirt,” a roots-rock album that opens with a potent cover of “Tennessee Jed.”

More improbable is the catchy “Sugar Magnolia” that opens “Under the Covers, Vol. 2,” a collection of ’70s covers by pop singer Matthew Sweet and former Bangles member Susanna Hoffs.

stewart@aspentimes.com