The Dead: ‘Beyond Description’
The studio just wasn’t the Grateful Dead’s kind of place. Yes, they made some fine studio albums, including the 1970 twins “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead,” and 1987’s out-of-nowhere commercial hit, “In the Dark.” But for the most part, the Dead seemed to find the studio too sterile, and too far removed from the live stage, where the mix of crowd energy and spontaneity fed the band. For years at a time, the Dead kept as far a distance from the studio as a working rock band could. They went the last six years of their existence without releasing a studio album, and reportedly didn’t try all too hard to make one.And yet even in their middle-to-later years, when the Dead had pretty much given up hope that their efforts in the studio would yield a hit album, or even artistic satisfaction, they never quite stopped trying. In 1973, they formed Grateful Dead Records, a short-lived means to gain control of their recorded output and whatever profits might be had. (One of the most innovative ideas associated with that venture – selling LPs out of ice cream trucks, alas never came to fruition.) And each time they ventured into the studio, the Dead tried different methods and different sorts of material to catch the lightning they often bottled on-stage.Most fans who buy “Beyond Description,” a lovingly produced 12-CD set of Dead material from 1973-89, will no doubt scavenge first through everything that was not included on the albums – eight studio efforts, two live – from that era. There are plenty of enticing studio outtakes to discover: a funky version of the bluegrass chestnut “Catfish John” that the Dead neither performed nor released; a version of “Good Lovin'” with lead vocals by Little Feat frontman Lowell George; an incredibly slow take on the bluesy, lascivious “Loose Lucy”; and the previously unknown original “What’ll You Raise,” a midtempo card-table rocker that fits in well with other dealing and cheating Dead tunes. And there’s boatloads of live stuff to feast on: most of the albums are expanded to include live versions of the songs. And perhaps most irresistible, the two live albums – the acoustic “Reckoning” and the electric “Dead Set,” both from 1981 – are fattened up to double-CD status, stuffed with rarities and exceptional performances.
But the heart of “Beyond Description” is the eight studio albums, and the set affords a chance to reassess the Dead’s studio accomplishments. The Dead could be lazy with regard to the studio, witnessed by the output of eight albums in their final 22 years. They could show a comical misunderstanding of who they were: check out, if you can, the beyond-slick, discofied take on the Motown hit “Dancin’ in the Streets.” The Dead could be simply uninspired.The range of things they attempted to bust out of their studio slumber, however, attests to their desire not to let the studio beat them completely.On “Wake of the Flood,” the earliest of the albums here, the Dead rounded up a bunch of friends – fiddler Vassar Clements, guitarist Doug Sahm, a horn section – to create an ambitious, acoustic-leaning song cycle, full of pastoral imagery, about the changing of seasons and eternal turning of the hands of time. Yielding a handful of gems – the jazzy “Eyes of the World,” the Southern-fueled “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo” – it was a near total success. But when it came time to follow it up, the Dead changed gears and made “Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel,” their most earnest effort at an album with a straightforward rock sound.On hiatus from performing in 1975, the Dead visited another dimension with “Blues for Allah.” It would be the only time the Dead went into the studio with no material, no concept. The result was ambitious and very different songwriting: the sophisticated “Help on the Way/Slipknot!” medley, Weir’s melodic instrumental “Sage & Spirit,” and the otherworldly “Blues for Allah” suite, which presaged the band’s concerts at the Egyptian pyramids two years later. But the recording sounded mostly distant and tentative, and the album was as uncommercial as anything they had done, which is saying something.
So the next time out, for 1977’s “Terrapin Station,” the Dead brought in an outside producer for the first time in a decade – Keith Olsen, who had had success with Fleetwood Mac. Could anyone see this was a bad idea from the outset? The album, featuring orchestral arrangements and more than a hint of the current disco craze, was an overblown failure. Thinking they maybe just didn’t have the right producer, the Dead used Lowell George, leader of the boogie-roc band Little Feat, on 1978’s “Shakedown Street,” but with middling results. “Go To Heaven,” another lackluster stab at mainstream rock, seemed to convince the band to stick to the stage.It would be seven years before the Dead gave the studio another shot. Lo and behold, it would be “In the Dark,” a success on all counts. Recording basic tracks before an audience in a live setting, and bringing the results to the studio, the Dead captured an invigorating, sparkling sound, and even made the pop charts with the hopeful rocker “Touch of Grey.”It would prove a brief moment in the sunshine. The Dead followed in 1989 with “Built to Last,” a decent effort but one that paled in comparison to “In the Dark.” Though the Dead would wander into the studio a time or two until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, they would never complete another studio album.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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