Grateful Dead: From the Archives and From the Road
“ An old saying 'There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert' is still true today--in more ways than one. ”
"There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert."
Originally spoken as a wondrous compliment to the seminal San Francisco band and its followers, the phrase eventually came to have multiple meanings as the group, its fanbase and its music changed. Judging from The Dead's recent two-night stand at the outside Boston, as well as two archive cd packages that clearly illustrate the contradictions of The Dead experience, the ambiguity is still there.
But, credit where credit is due, to a group of musicians who became larger than life almost from their inception. Soldiering on in various forms since the death of founder member/figurehead Jerry Garcia is but a continuation of the perseverance of the band as its personnel has evolved during its extended history (The Dead celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2005). And their approach to playing live, as evidenced July 30 and 31st at the Tweeter Center, remains the essence of serendipity: even today the group is convinced that, as they invoke their collective muse, any given song has the potential to open them up to the glorious experience about which their fans rhapsodize. You might argue that's clearly not the case based on the contrasting song selections from the two nights, a perception only reinforced by the wide disparity in the recordings contained on Rockin' The Rhein (Rhino) and Dick's Picks Volume 32 (Grateful Dead). The sound quality of the performances is starkly different, a you-are-there ambiance on the former and a virtually bass-less mix on the latter. Even the cd packages give a wholly different impression, accurately representing the music contained therein: Rhein is a colorful fold-out digipak with ornate graphics and actions shots of the band during is 1972 show, while #32, like most of the entries in the archival series, has rather generic artwork and little technical info(apart from a somewhat apologetic back-cover note from engineer Jeffrey Norman) in its double-disc jewel case.
There's a distinct difference in the band's playing as well, not surprising given the decade interim between the two shows in question. The Dead were on a roll much of the Seventies, having learned the value of economy by dint of the two studio albums that began the decade Workingman's Dead and American Beauty as well as having a wealth of new original material to work with; little wonder, Rhein is the fourth title from this period, following the initial official Europe '72, Hundred Year Hall and Steppin' Out (not to mention the titles in the late Dick Latvala's archival series). The Eighties, by contrast, found the band floundering at regular intervalstheir 1987 mainstream hit, "Touch of Grey," arguably notwithstandingin part because of Garcia's recurrent health problems, but also because they were not coming up with inspired original material to fire them up as musicians
Set lists in print can't tell the story of a show, but in the case of this 1982 Alpine Valley concert, the rather humdrum reliance on rootsy covers such as "CC Rider" and "Beat It on Down the Line" confirms the impression of a band moving on its own inertia. To be fair, the effortless transitions on segues such as "I Know You Rider"/China Cat Sunflower" are the work of pure group instinct, but that particular coupling has nothing of the joyous sense of discovery in a similar mating of "Not Fade Away"/"Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" on the other cd set. And perhaps it's not fair to level a criticisms at The Dead on that score, because, again, you have to marvel at the ease with which they maneuver as a group: in perhaps a deliberately lazy way, this may have very well been a wilful a means of embodying the summer season at what became on of their favorite venues, beginning right away with the imagery in the opener "The Music Never Stopped."
Theories might then abound to explain the night-and-day difference between the first and second night shows in Massachusetts, appearances early in the second leg of 2004's Wave That Flag tour. A capsule summary might suggest the best show of the season and the worst show of the season and those results seem grounded in the choice of material: July 30 was a compendium of vintage material, right from the triptych of "Help on the Way"/"Slipknot"/"Franklin's Tower"(off the much underrated Blues For Allah that sent a charge through the audience, to the virtually non-stop marathon second set, including "Terrapin Station" in its entirety on to a string of songs that bring you right back to the Dead's heyday in more ways than one: "St. Stephen," "The Eleven," "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire On the Mountain"(drummer Mickey Hart's nonsensical vocal delivery aside). Even as each successive tune and its accompanying jam elevated the intensity level, it was an almost imperceptible progression, so that the overall effect was more cerebral than visceral. The light touch demonstrated by the unison drumming of Hart and Bill Kreutzman kept the music fundamentally fluid, as did the lightning quick runs of guitarist Jimmy Herring, who feeds a seeming endless imagination with Dead material.(you would do well to search out the discs by the band Jazz Is Dead when Herring was part of that quartet.)