CD reviews: Road-tripping with the Dead a tour of the decades
October 28, 2010
For the Grateful Dead, the ’60s were the time of birth and discovery; the ’70s were for expansion of the music, the songs and most notably, of touring. As a pair of recent releases demonstrate, the ’80s were a period for regrouping and rebirth. (The ’90s? They were mostly for forgetting.)Somewhat poetically, the ’80s roughly started and ended with death for the Dead. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux, pushed out of the band in 1979, died in 1980; his replacement, Brent Mydland, died in mid-1990.”Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4,” the latest in the ongoing “Road Trips” series that collects highlights from specific tours, is a window on the beginning of the ’80s. The three-disc package spotlights shows from early May of 1980, at Penn State and Cornell. (They missed an opportunity to subtitle this “Go to College,” a take-off on “Go to Heaven,” a studio album released in late April of ’80.)It is a band clearly trying to find its feet with its new member. Mydland, especially in his singing, hasn’t quite grasped the Dead way of doing things. The jams are cautious; the song selection, apart from some focus on the new “Go to Heaven” material, is heavy on tunes that have been in the repertoire for years. There are flashes of inspiration – Mydland provides one with his piano solo leading up to “I Know You Rider” – but those moments come out of nowhere, and don’t build to anything bigger. Of all things, the Dead sound stiff and predictable – and almost professional.By 1989, the band had been through plenty together: Garcia’s coma, the pop-star craziness after the release of “Touch of Grey,” some great musical stretches and more nights worth forgetting than you’d care to admit. As the decade came toward its close, though, they were on a creative upswing. The fact that their overgrown popularity caused all kinds of pressures didn’t seem to affect the music (yet). When cities and venues ordered them to do something about the unruly masses showing up for their concerts, the Dead took measures like last-minute announcements of shows and selling tickets only at the venue itself. Then, for most of 1989 at least, they went inside and played their butts off. For two shows in Hampton, Virg., Oct. 8-9, they resorted to billing themselves as The Warlocks. The gimmick wasn’t going to fool anyone – before becoming the Grateful Dead, the band has been known as the Warlocks. But as the latter-day Warlocks, they whipped up the magic. Among the tricks they pulled out of a hat was “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” the chilling Gary Davis song the Dead had retired in 1969. Here, all the voodoo is working: Jerry Garcia’s guitar is on fire, Mydland’s organ and vocals are the greasiest they would ever get, and the band reaches a place of majesty and doom. For good measure, they roll into a medley of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and give them a solid work-out.That sequence ranks with the Dead’s career highlights, but it has competition here. The poetic ballad “Attics of My Life” is broken out (with only minimal shakiness) for the first time since 1972; the jazzy “Help on the Way”/”Slipknot,” also pulled down after a few years on the shelf, has Garcia trying out licks he never played before or after; and the crowd is treated to 20 minutes of the space vehicle “Dark Star,” a rarity for the era. The Dead marketing team gives it the music the treatment it deserves – a set of six CDs and assorted memorabilia, packed into a handsomely decorated wooden box that most Deadheads will be able to put to good uses aside from musical ones.
In 1996, shortly after the Dead’s long strange trip hit the end of its road, drummer Mickey Hart released an album credited to Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box. It was mysterious – neither much related to the Dead’s music, nor the percussion-focused recordings Hart had occasionally made – but also quite lovely, emphasizing songs, lyrics, and the vocals of the British a cappella girl group, the Mint Juleps.Many years later, it’s Bill Kreutzmann’s turn to do something surprising and wonderful. Kreutzmann, Hart’s partner in the Dead’s Rhythm Devils percussion team, has joined forces with singer-guitarist Papa Mali, bassist Reed Mathis and keyboardist Matt Hubbard to form 7 Walkers. Their debut, self-titled album is a swampy, funky, rootsy-meets-experimental tribute to New Orleans, Papa Mali’s stomping grounds. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter contributes most of the words, and shows a thorough grasp of Southern imagery and style. Willie Nelson adds vocals to “King Cotton Blues,” and New Orleans bass icon George Porter Jr. contributes to the album centerpiece “Chingo!” a fascinating dive into Louisiana. “New Orleans Crawl” nods toward the city’s parade culture; “Louisiana Rain” is thick and slow as a mud bog. Outstanding.Before the birth of the Dead, Garcia was a bluegrass fanatic, the banjo his instrument of choice. In the summer of 1964, he and fellow musician Sandy Rothman drove around the South in search of their favorite bluegrass acts. Among the pickers they heard and met were the McReynolds brothers, who performed as the brother act Jim and Jesse.Jesse McReynolds, a singer and mandolinist, honors Garcia with “Songs of the Grateful Dead: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter.” Working with a cast that includes members of the extended Dead family – singer-guitarist David Nelson and banjoist Sandy Rothman, from Garcia’s acoustic band; guitarist Stu Allen of the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra – McReynolds shows an inquisitive mind, and strong musical prowess, for an 81-year-old. The music here is more folk-rock than bluegrass, and the song choices show a wide range: rockers and more acoustic-based tunes, old and more recent. McReynolds puts a stamp on the world-weary “Standing on the Moon,” and rocks out on “Alabama Getaway.” For the finale, he teams with Robert Hunter for a new song, the gospel-flavored “Day by Day.”firstname.lastname@example.org