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CD reviews: Back on the bus with the Dead

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Published: Jim Marshall
ALL |

The Dead return. The Dead ” featuring Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, plus keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and singer-guitarist Warren Haynes ” have reconvened the long, strange trip with a month-plus of shows. The tour hits Denver’s Pepsi Arena on Thursday, May 7.

Here’s what has come out of the vaults most recently, plus some related releases.

There’s a phrase I’ve run into: primal Dead. It describes the Grateful Dead’s sound at the moment they were transforming from a quasi-blues-rock band into something unique and trippy. The concerts themselves, the relationship to the audience and to the act of performing were an experiment, and the music reflected this, unpredictable and scorching.

“2/14/68” may be the height of the primal era. Following the March, 1967 release of their debut album, which didn’t really represent who they were and certainly didn’t indicate where they were heading, the Dead set out to create a new form of rock ‘n’ roll, with odd time signatures, sharp tempo changes, jams that linked one song to the next, and a determination to make each concert an experience unto itself. “2/14/68″ took place in the Carousel Ballroom, an old San Francisco dance hall that was yet another experiment ” owned and operated by a collection of Bay Area bands, the Dead among them.

Playing their new and newly arranged material ” the anything-goes “Dark Star”; “Viola Lee Blues,” a jug-band tune that they turned into a balls-to-the-wall rocker; “Caution,” a vehicle for Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s blues-rapping; and “The Eleven,” a song in 11/4 time which gave it an otherworldly effect ” the Dead became a force. The entire two-CD set ” including bonus tracks from a few weeks earlier ” plays like a highlight reel. But the high point of highlights may be the “Spanish Jam,” a 12-minute instrumental take-off on Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” that goes places the Dead would never find again.

In the ’90s, the Dead began playing six-show runs each fall at downtown Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. Cutting back on traveling was the primary impetus, but there was a potential upside musically: The band could settle in, feel at home, and maybe some sparks would commence.

In the 1990 run, the band seems to have found their comfort zone instantly. Much of “MSG, September ’90” comes from 9/14 ” the kick-off show of the run. Not only do they take a leap by busting out the jam vehicle “Dark Star,” but after segueing into “Playing in the Band,” they return for the second verse of “Dark Star” ” a true rarity in that era ” and ultimately take the song well out into the nether regions.

The two-CD package focuses almost exclusively on second-set material, meaning long songs, loads of spacey wanderings, lots of uninterrupted flow from tune to tune. They negotiate it admirably ” though the high point may be a first-set tune, a blistering take on Bob Weir’s earthy, dynamic “Let It Grow.” For those who got on the bus early in the Dead’s extended, unusual journey, and thus believe that anything after ” fill in date here, ranging from 1968 to 1977 ” was worthless, “September ’90” proves at least that, over six nights, the late-era Dead could play two CDs worth of excellent music. (Three, if you count the bonus disc, taken exclusively from 9/18).

For those who know this show in its initial form as a ragged-sounding bootleg, this official release will come as a revelation.

Garcia and bassist Kahn team for an acoustic run through the Dead (“Ripple,” “Birdsong”), Dylan (“When I Paint My Masterpiece”) and old folk (“Goodnight Irene,” “Spike Driver Blues,” “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie”). Garcia’s picking is not especially fluid by the standards of the great acoustic guitarists, but it is always charming. Kahn’s contribution is marginal; the sound is top quality.

By all rights, New Riders of the Purple Sage should have come to a quick end when co-founder Jerry Garcia ” who formed the band as an outlet for his latest interest, the pedal steel ” dropped out, in 1971. So the fact that NRPS is still in business beats considerable odds. “Where I Come From” finds the group ” still led by original singer-guitarist David Nelson ” on solid but predictable ground, making psychedelic country-rock distinguished mainly by the current pedal steel player, Buddy Cage, and lyrics by Garcia’s songwriting partner, Robert Hunter.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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