Grateful Dead – Crimson, White & Indigo: July 7 1989, JFK Stadium, Philadelphia Rhino GRA2-6015 (2010)
The 1980s were not kind to the Dead. It was a time of one terrible album after another. This live set recorded in 1989 does something to improve the era’s reputation. First off, we get piano instead of synthesizer, and it it makes all the difference. Plus, selections from the 80s albums sound better than the studio counterparts generally. And although Bob Weir had long ago given up trying to sing well, he’s less annoying here than usual. This probably won’t win over a lot of new deadheads, but it’s a surprisingly decent offering for the era.
Grateful Dead – Aoxomoxoa Warner Bros.-Seven Arts WS 1790 (1969)
Looking back, this album is a big disappointment compared to the great albums Anthem of the Sun before it and Live/Dead after. It’s a shame because this was recorded with arguably the best lineup the band ever had. Every time I listen to this disc a single word comes to mind: overproduced. The Dead seem so enamored with building up layers upon layers of sound in the studio that some of the songs get lost amongst it all. Still, “St. Stephen” is a good song, even if it sounds better recorded live. Perhaps the most effective song here is “Doin’ That Rag”, which to my knowledge never made it into regular rotation in live shows.
Grateful Dead – Live/Dead Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 2WS-1830 (1969)
Live/Dead was the Grateful Dead’s first live album and is still one of their greatest. The group was at its peak and a classic lineup was still intact: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Tom “T.C.” Constanten, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Supposedly released to pay off a debt to their record company amassed when recording Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead has since proved its own worth many times over.
The Dead in the late 1960s were more comfortable with themselves as a band than in earlier years. They had a symbiotic relationship going where each member’s contributions sparked even more creative output. Three songs in the middle of this double-disc album are a good as any Grateful Dead on record (the myriad of bootleg material included). “Saint Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and “Turn On Your Lovelight” capture the Dead at their most daring and impassioned. I think just those three songs alone make this album well worth a listen. There is something almost sinister about this album that seems to have only really surfaced here, never to return. That’s a shame. While there are other good (even very good) live Dead albums, this is one of the few to have any of the anarchistic flavor of the late 60s. Into the 70s and beyond, when Dead live sets started coming out without almost a kind of regularity, the emphasis on easygoing songs seemed to take attention away from the abandon of pure performance.
On the other hand, this album feels like it goes just beyond their previous releases. Where earlier Dead studio albums (with the exception of the live/studio hybrid Anthem of the Sun) tried too hard to be something they weren’t, Live/Dead is more direct and to the point. It makes the case for the Grateful Dead being one of the great live rock bands of the late 60s. This is the album that established the Dead’s reputation as a fan’s band. It avoids pretentiousness by simply showcasing the music that enthralled their fans at live performances. Too often live material is a note-for-note rehash of what you’ve already heard, and little more than a way to bilk die-hard fans for a few more dollars. This was almost unthinkable for the Dead (overlooking many ill-conceived post-1973 diversions). Early on, they seemed to have made music to have fun themselves. Taking chances wasn’t optional. Live/Dead is a glimpse into a time when things weren’t perfect but the essence of the feeling had lots of potential. Though it marked the end of the Dead’s early period–they next moved to a country-rock style–the album is fluid and unapologetic.
Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks Volume Twenty-Two (Kings Beach Bowl, Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, CA – 2/23-24/68) Grateful Dead Records GDCD 4042 (2001)
I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead for quite a long time, and albums like Dick’s Picks, Vol. 22 are the reasons why I keep coming back. The Dead from about 1967 to 1970 were a great musical force. They were energetic, genuine and unique. I almost hesitate to say unique, but I do mean it. For one, the Dead had a postmodern style that drew heavily on blues, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, and even modern classical elements. And it’s true that they never really contributed much to any of those genres individually. But in their extended jams that drew all of them together, their revelry of juxtaposition was something unique. This stuff was fun! Rather than the dour, pretentious attitude so familiar to postmodern music, the Dead sounded completely different. Perhaps the fact that the Dead don’t quite sound as “serious” as some people think they should is the very reason they are almost deemed off-limits. Sure, it wasn’t that long before the Dead became content to churn out unremarkable AOR rock, with forays into faddish trends like their silly attempt at disco a decade on. Yet here in 1968, playing in a bowling alley no less, the group sounds thrilled to be making music, without sounding like they are forcing themselves to sound like anything in particular. Later on, that didn’t seem to be the case. Contrary to their reputation, I don’t feel like they challenged themselves much from about 1970 onwards, instead becoming content to rest on a few of their own perceived strengths and ending up sounding just like a lot of other bands. But those days lay far in the future back in February of 1968, back when maybe anything seemed possible.
I hate to say it, but the sound quality here is fair at best. Still, the unusual mix (likely a necessity given the source tape) lends a few pleasant surprises in making Pigpen‘s organ and Phil Lesh‘s bass more readily audible. In the end, substance wise, this is one of the finest live sets in the Dead’s extensive catalog, and I think the concerns about sound quality can’t really hold this album back much at all.