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CDs, live shows create good vibe for Deadheads

Stewart Oksenhorn
Bob Weir has released a two-CD career retrospective, "Weir Here," one of several new Grateful Dead-related recordings. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.
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It’s good times for Deadheads.

The Mix, featuring Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Melvin Seals and members of the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, played on a sublime day halfway up Snowmass Mountain to end the ski season.

The Dead – not the Grateful Dead, but the successor band featuring the four surviving original members – have announced a lengthy summer tour which opens, after a gig at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival, with five nights at Red Rocks, June 15-16 and 18-20. Sweetening the news is that jam-world superstar Warren Haynes – whose other commitments include the Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh & Friends and his own Gov’t Mule – has been added to the Dead. The solo, acoustic Haynes will also open the first two Red Rocks shows, with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter opening the other three.

And here are four new CD projects from the Dead world.

Jerry Garcia, “All Good Things: Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions”

(Rhino)

A misnomer to be sure, “All Good Things” is a mixed bag that leans toward the bottom of the barrel. The subtitle should serve as an adequate warning: Jerry Garcia was rarely at his best in the studio, and this six-disc package collects a whole lot of stuff that wasn’t good enough to make it onto released albums.

“All Good Things” collects remastered versions of all five of Jerry Garcia’s studio albums, which in themselves cover a wide range of quality and ideas. Each album includes bonus material in the form of alternate takes and songs that didn’t make the final cut. A sixth CD collects studio jams, outtakes and tunes that were likely played once by Garcia and mates and never given a second thought.

Garcia’s five proper CDs in themselves represented wild up-and-down fluctuations. The dynamite 1978 album “Cats Under the Stars” – considered by Garcia the best studio album he ever made, with anyone – yielded such original gems as “Rubin and Cherise” and the title track. Opposite that is 1982’s god-awful “Run for the Roses,” which I nominate as the worst album Garcia was ever associated with. “Garcia” – the 1974 album commonly known as “Compliments of Garcia” – is a tame collection of covers of songs by Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson and Irving Berlin. The other “Garcia,” from 1972, was an experiment in production and sound that mixed songs that would become foundations of the Dead’s repertoire (“Sugaree,” “The Wheel,” “Deal”) with unstructured sound collages. Garcia himself played all instruments but drums on the album.

What has Deadheads drooling, of course, is the trove of previously unreleased material, some of its never even suspected. Predictably, the unearthed cache of goodies ranges from stellar to slop.

Sad to report, but the bonus CD “Outtakes, Jams & Alternates” is mostly slop. The studio jams of such unexpected tunes as “Iko Iko” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” are rough run-throughs. The most interesting of the tracks is “Lonesome Town,” with mandolinist David Grisman and fiddler Vassar Clements adding a country flavor, and a not-bad stab at Warren Zevon’s “Accidentally Like a Martyr.”

Somewhat better on the whole is the bonus material appended to the previously issued CDs. Worth a listen are versions of the funky “Mighty High” from the “Cats Under the Stars” sessions, a spunky “Mystery Train” from the 1976 album “Reflections” recordings and an all-acoustic instrumental “Back Home in Indiana,” a “Compliments” outtake. But even of these, I can’t say that even one is revelatory listening.

The best part of “All Good Things” is the booklet, 129 pages packed with photos, essays and info. The booklet shows that, despite the sketchy nature of the music on “All Good Things,” some heart was put into this project.

Bob Weir, “Weir Here”

(Hybrid Recordings)

It’s probably the first time ever that Bob Weir has upstaged Jerry Garcia. But “Weir Here,” a two-CD set of Weir’s finest, is almost all cream from top to bottom.

“Weir Here” has a few advantages over “All Good Things.” First, it uses live material; Disc 2 is virtually all live stuff, half of it previously unreleased. Second, it mixes Weir solo projects with his Grateful Dead output.

In fact, the package relies too much on the Dead. The live disc is all taken from Dead performances, leaving out entirely Weir’s live music with his current band Ratdog. Yes, the Dead music is of a higher quality, but surely there are some live Ratdog tracks that could have made the cut. It leaves a sizable hole in the Weir portrait.

Otherwise, “Weir Here” casts Weir in a most positive light. As a composer, Weir’s output was limited. But his high points were impressive. Songs like “Cassidy” and “Playing in the Band,” both taken from the fine 1971 studio album “Ace,” and “Estimated Prophet,” here in a previously unreleased 1990 live version, were high points of any Dead concert, thanks in large part to the distinctiveness and complexity of Weir’s composing. Weir’s ability as an interpreter is reflected in live versions of “Me & Bobby McGee” and the traditional “New Minglewood Blues.”

Even the two unexpected nuggets here were worth excavating. A Ratdog rehearsal version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is moody and mesmerizing; an acoustic “Wabash Cannonball,” from Dan Zanes and Friends’ “House Party,” is light and undeniably fun.

Jerry Garcia & David Grisman, “I’ve Been All Around This World”

produced by Grisman (Acoustic Disc)

Nine years after Jerry Garcia’s death, and with numerous posthumous recordings released, David Grisman is surely scraping the bottom of the barrel by now, yes?

Well, it may be the last we’ll hear from Garcia/Grisman; in his liner notes, Grisman says this is possibly the last stop for this train. But “I’ve Been All Around This World” is no bottom-scraper, not even close. Amazingly, the latest Garcia/Grisman project digs up material that is not only new and unexpected, but also high quality. The biggest surprise and the best thrill here is a cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” (I want to see some Deadhead come up with a bootleg version of THAT!) that shows Garcia reaching for a totally new kind of singing. The version of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” seems overly understated – until one realizes that Dylan’s original was just as laid-back.

Though there are a few songs – “Sittin’ Here in Limbo,” “Blue Yodel #9” and “I’m Troubled” – that have been released before by G&G, there are far more here that are new additions to their folky repertoire. Among the better ones are takes on George Jones’ “Take Me” and a pair of Merle Travis tunes, “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Dark As a Dungeon.” The album – and the collaboration? – ends on an appropriate note, with Freddie Hart’s “Drink Up and Go Home.”

Heart of Gold Band, “At the Table”

produced by Heart of Gold Band (Heart of Gold Records)

The Heart of Gold Band, begun by Grateful Dead members, the late keyboardist Keith Godchaux and singer Donna Jean Godchaux in 1980, is reconstituted here by Donna.

“At the Table” offers a bunch of surprises. Not the least is the composition of the band. Joining Donna – now Donna Jean Godchuax-MacKay – are Zion Godchaux, her son with Keith; Brian Godchaux, Keith’s brother; and David MacKay, the original Heart of Gold bassist and now Donna’s husband.

Next on the list of the unexpected is the musical style. “At the Table” is all over the place, from pop-funk to jazzy rock to soft ballads, yet never comes within spitting distance of Dead-style jamming. With Brian Godchaux leading the way on mandolin, violin and bouzouki, the album is at its best when it leans in the folk-rock direction, as on “Little Red-Haired Girl.”

Last of the surprises: Donna sings in tune! “At the Table” isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it sure beats the painful wailing of a 1972 “Playing in the Band” reprise.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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