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"Keep truckin', like the Doodah man"

Class D

Main Category: Psychedelia
Also applicable: Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years,

The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties




Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Grateful Dead fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Grateful Dead fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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The Most Pleasantly Mediocre Band In World History. That's my official judgement on these guys, and it's neither a compliment nor a condemnation.

Whatever you might say about these guys, they are unique. But definitely not because of their actual music: take any song or album of theirs out of context and the meaning of the Dead will remain as obscure to you as the meaning of Chinese rituals to a freshly arrived European. By any standards, and I'm not the only one to tell you that, the Grateful Dead weren't musical geniuses. They were competent, and as a guitar player Jerry Garcia could often rise fairly above mere competence, but nothing in their catalog has ever blown me away either from a technical or a compositional point of view. They were competent players and competent songwriters, but that's about it. In terms of hook-filled melodies and raw energetic playing, CCR had the band beat to pulp; in terms of jamming, they were no Cream; in terms of virtuoso playing, they were no Led Zeppelin. They weren't exactly 'softies', but neither were they 'hardies'. They didn't normally play too fast, yet they rarely played too slow, either. They had decent singing voices, but none of the members of the band had good ranges, and during their live shows, frequently sang off key, not to mention that only Garcia's high-pitched, whiny singing tone was at least moderately distinctive.

In short, the band was mediocre - far from "godawful", but beaten in almost every respect by better competition. So whassup with all the fuss? What's up with the "Grateful Dead Legend"? How come these guys made it so big and bright and so respectable?

Reason number one, I'd say, is the band's tenaciousness. The Grateful Dead were always intent on making it big, real big, yet, nice and honest guys as they were, they didn't resort on cheap PR tricks to make it big. When they first appeared on the scene, in the midst of the psychedelic Sixties, they made it look like they single-handedly personified all the "winds of change". They were a bunch of friendly, keep-it-all-together guys, joined in a common bond, propagating the ideas of freedom, coolness, friendship, and, of course, drug culture, both through their music and through their image. Out of all the Frisco bands, they were the ones that showed the least concern for profit - heck, they even occasionally gave out free shows, paying for all the expenses out of their own pockets. In this way, they managed to happily outlive all competition: where some of the bands fell apart because of bickering over personal and financial issues, others burnt out, and still others just couldn't think of anything distinctive to do at all, the Grateful Dead carried on.

In the late Sixties, they were among the first bands to jump on the 'roots-rock' bandwagon, not a difficult thing for them to do because of Jerry Garcia's innate love for Ye Olde Music of Americana, and thus appealed to the older generation just as they appealed to the younger one. At one point, the Dead were everywhere and all the time - constant, breakneck-tempo touring, an endless stream of recorded product, and band member appearances on about half of the albums made in the States in the early Seventies. In terms of diversity of approach, they were hungrily stretching towards everything they could lay their hands on: rock, folk, blues, country, lounge music, R&B, soul, gospel - for a good illustration, check out the 4-CD Ladies And Gentlemen set documenting their final performances at Bill Graham's Fillmore East in 1971 and prepare to be overwhelmed about the Dead playing everything. It doesn't matter that every song they're playing (except their own ones, of course) has at one point or other been done better by somebody else. It matters they're all there.

A particular point is the Dead's attitude towards their fans: if there ever was a band more willing to pander to its audience and more willing to be on equal terms with every single guy and gal out there, I'd like to hear about it. Dead shows were said to be happenings, musical celebrations where the band would really become one with the audience, the dream of Pete Townshend having come to life. Unlike so many "distant" rock stars, the Dead never castigated bootleggers either, on the contrary, they openly supported them, and the ritual of collecting Deadshow tapes has long since passed into legend.

However, if the success of the Dead were limited to these factors, I would never have paid the band any attention. Sure their PR campaigns were much cleverer and much more honest than anybody's, but it's the music that matters, anyway. No, there is another reason. The Dead, and particularly Jerry Garcia, the closest thing to a musical leader they had, weren't your just your average Joes raised on a wave of success by simply saying "hey man, you're as cool as we are, now let's groove to some nice country music". They had a really deep-going understanding of traditional American culture and folklore, maybe with a whiff of 'academicism' to it, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Garcia's knowledge of the subject knew no bounds, and the way he could unearth some deeply hidden, forgotten treasure of days gone by was almost magical. He was everywhere, knew everything, played every style, and above all, deeply loved it all. No, he did not have genius, he did not have many original ideas of his own, but he was an excellent interpreter, and the sincerity of each and every move he made, even if it were trying to write a disco tune or trying to fit a song to MOR standards, I cannot put into doubt.

All of which means I really can't give the Dead a high rating, no matter how long they stayed together, no matter how high the number of their released live performances rises, no matter how honest their music is - they lack the one true spark of excitement that is necessary for me revering them. But all of which also means that the Dead will hardly ever be forgotten as long as there still is interest towards traditionally oriented American music, and that it is fairly necessary for anybody to give the Dead a chance - but beware, if you're ready to give the Dead a chance, you can't do it based on a greatest hits collection, or even on one or two of their best studio albums like American Beauty. No, you'll have to have at least a dozen Dead records, and at last half of these live, to be able to say, "I have honestly given the Dead a chance, and they're still one of the most horrible listening experiences I've ever had in my life". Or something like that.:)

Lineup: Jerry Garcia - lead guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - rhythm guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Ron "Pigpen" McKernan - organ, harmonica, vocals; Bill Kreutzmann - drums; Mickey Hart - percussion. Pigpen died in 1972, replaced by Keith Godchaux; Donna Godchaux also officially added on backing vocals. The Godchauxs were dropped around 1979, replaced by Brent Mydland on keyboards. Mydland died in 1990, replaced by Bruce Hornsby. Garcia died in 1995, and with him passed the Grateful Dead, although the other members do occasionally gather and play a show or two, as far as I know.



Year Of Release: 1967
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

This album only exists as a testimony so that the Dead could say afterwards, "well, we did know how to kick ass once, but we preferred to forget about it".


Track listing: 1) The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion); 2) Beat It On Down The Line; 3) Good Morning Little School Girl; 4) Cold Rain And Snow; 5) Sitting On Top Of The World; 6) Cream Puff War; 7) Morning Dew; 8) New New Minglewood Blues; 9) Viola Lee Blues.

Most Deadheads pan the band's debut, saying it sounds nothing like their 'classic' sound and they hadn't yet grown into their unique style. This is true, and definitely the main reason for me liking it quite a bit. See, when the Grateful Dead formed out of several different shards and smithereens of their former bands, they weren't exactly driven together by the will to experiment and come up with a radically new type of music. They were nothing but a bunch of cool Californian guys with some playing experience behind their backs - Garcia with more of a folky background; Lesh, if I'm to believe the liner notes, from "electronic music" background, which pretty much makes him the only 'experimental' element back then; and the others from various rock bands. And at this point, the band's musical direction was primarily indicated by Pigpen, with his love for blues and R'n'B and cool Hammond organ tone which is actually more audible on this particular record than Jerry's guitar.

And I like it. It is definitely untrue that the album sounds nothing like their further stuff. Well, it definitely sounds nothing like the subsequent two studio albums, where the Dead plunged headlong into lethargic psychedelia. But many of the tunes on here aren't that far removed from their country/folk "retro-fication" on Workingman's Dead and later on; not to mention that more than half of the songs on here made it into the regular Deadshow, and stayed there at least until the passing of Pigpen, and some even further. The crucial difference is they rock, and they rock much more than anything the Dead have created ever since.

The very opening of the record, those distorted electric chords and the slightly fuzzy organ tone of 'The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)', show that pumping up the energy level was by no means a technique unknown to the Dead in those early days. In fact, when two rocking guitars, a rocking organ, and loud, almost "brawny", harmonies all join together, it results in a wall-of-sound effect that is radically opposed to the 'classic' thin, wimpy Deadsound. You can find similar melodies all over their career, but a similar sound? Only on a particularly energetic live night, I guess.

Another thing is that on this record, they're no sworn enemies of fast tempos. 'Beat It On Down The Line' is lively, friendly, and toe-tappy all over, and still rendered quite "Deadly" because of Pigpen's identifiable organ playing. And I totally dig their reworking of 'Sitting On Top Of The World', here turned into a fast, frantic shuffle which makes its point in a breathtakingly short span of two minutes, replete with a nimble solo from Mr Garcia (I presume), shining in all of its Chuck Berry-ish glory. 'Cold Rain And Snow' and 'New New Minglewood Blues' are slightly less involving in terms of power, but more interesting from a melodic point of view, especially the former with its optimistic organ 'interludes' and stuff - no wonder it readily made it back into their concert set when they started moving away from psychedelia.

Of course, the record isn't free of some of that "sterile" approach to the blues that is already rearing its ugly head in the Deadcamp. 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' is much shorter here than it is on any of the band's live records, but actually feels longer than some of the better live versions, because it emphasizes Pigpen strutting his stuff rather than tight interplay between the band members. And their rendition of the folkie ballad 'Morning Dew' I find myself respecting much more than actually falling for - which supposedly means they don't manage to capture the song's tragic essence, even if they try to. Heck, I'll take the Rod Stewart, or even the inventive-as-hell Nazareth version of the song, over the Dead version any day.

That said, the best treat comes at the end in the form of the ten-minute 'Viola Lee Blues'. Now that's a real monster of a jam if there ever was one. Go ahead Deadheads and crucify me, but the Dead never, and I repeat, never did a more murderous instrumental sequence in their entire career than the steam-raising crescendo in the middle of this tune. It doesn't hint at much when it begins, just a standard riff-driven blues-rocker with an occasional "initiation of a rock solo" that quickly dissipates into oblivion, but then somewhere around the fourth minute the Dead are starting to exercise in "math-rock", gradually pushing up the valves and handles and spinning up the dials and blowing up the pistons and increasing the tempo and playing more notes per second and zooping up the bass fretboards and crashing the cymbals and inserting splinters of funky rhythms and suddenly pushing Pigpen's psychedelic organ riffs to the top of everything and then making Garcia solo with even more aggression on top of these riffs and then Pigpen starts rising the volume even higher and then Garcia breaks into an ass-kicking repetitive rock'n'roll phrase and they start hitting higher and higher "stingey" chords and going into trills and barrages of chords and then poof! - it is over. Yeah, believe it or not, I just described (as best as I could) an actual Grateful Dead jam which is not a 'Dark Star' or a 'The Eleven' by any means.

Which leads us to the obvious conclusion - if you hate the Dead more than filling in tax declarations, this is the only album of theirs that can possibly impress you. But if you love the Dead more than the living, you will probably be ready to join the chorus of those who are always ready to point out how it is not a "true" Dead album. In fact, I'm not even sure if they were stoned while recording it. And besides, it's the only Grateful Dead album where you'll find a clean-shaven Jerry Garcia looking at you from the front cover. If that ain't a reason for exchanging your entire collection of dried butterflies for something musically-related, I don't know what is.



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8

Throw on some points for potheads, but leave me out of this.

Best song: ALLIGATOR

Track listing: 1) That's It For The Other One; 2) New Potato Caboose; 3) Born Cross-Eyed; 4) Alligator; 5) Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks).

The Dead's second album tipped them over the threshold in an instant - with a record like that behind their back, a devoted cult following was immediately guaranteed. Anthem Of The Sun, as far as I understand it, often draws comparisons with After Bathing At Baxter's, and I can justify the comparison - it's the second album I've heard that can definitely be enjoyed only while you're tripping. I suppose everything on here, at least, the studio side, has been definitely recorded while under the influence of pot or maybe something more serious - otherwise, romantically minded hippies wouldn't have too much of a ground to identify themselves with it. My personal "music reviewing paradigm", however, doesn't support pot smoking as one of its integral parts (even if I had reader comments provoking me to do you-know-what); so I just say no and try to review music from a standard point of view, which means that all you potheads might just skip this here review. Why don't you check out the Timothy Leary home page instead?

Anyway, Anthem Of The Sun (what a bloody pretentious name, too) is a 'double' experience: its first side consists of a bunch of sloppy studio jams, and the second side presents us with a sloppy live jam, recorded at the end of 1967 in some LA hole. Taken from a non-drug-influenced point of view, the studio side simply sucks - all of it. I can hardly distinguish 'That's It For The Other One' from 'New Potato Caboose', and that short bit at the end, the chaotic two-minute noisefest of 'Born Cross-Eyed', just violates every possible law of music, so I'm not amused. The most vicious thing to realize is that this is not even avantgarde - these guys just take what could be some potentially okayish melodies and jams and then brutally warp them through some hideous 'psychedelic' techniques of theirs, like randomly changing tempo, key, throwing in bits and pieces of riffs and solos that don't seem to belong anywhere, singing off-key and crowning it all with some very weak production. Sometimes it sounds as if they recorded one piece of the 'song' on one hand-held tape recorder, another one on another, and then spliced them together by playing these two at the same time and holding a third one ten feet away. Oh, and with all the tapes chewn, of course. I will admit that the main melody of 'That's It For The Other One' (in the first part, called 'Cryptical Envelopment') is a wee bit catchy and could have been worked into a pleasant, moving ballad, but they go ahead and bog it down with the usual cacophony instead. Pathetic. The liner notes actually say that for 'That's It', "overlays of several concert performances were mixed together to create a multi-dimensional song suite". Well, it ends up having so many dimensions that I feel like an astronaut thrown out in space without a spacesuit on...

Fortunately, the second side is much better, simply because it has 'Alligator' on it. Ooh, I like that one - at least, the main fast part when they really jam, not the ending part where they slow everything down and start playing random crap seguing into 'Caution' which sucks just as much as the rest of this stuff. 'Alligator' was the first officially released Dead jam, and while the recording is supposedly not up to the band's highest standards, it really showed the world what a masterful machine this band could be when they really locked themselves into a tight groove. They function ideally as a band - not just a collection of self-indulgent soloists, and the alchemy works. Mickey Hart's dexterous, swinging, paranoid drumming, "Pigpen"'s cute organ swirls, Garcia's frantic leads, all this entwined with wonderfully ridiculous kazoos, it really gets my blood flowing. I can't imagine any other American band at the time putting on a show like that. Okay, maybe Santana - but Santana weren't around yet. 'Alligator' really saves the record, dragging it up one or two points; unfortunately, as I said, the track then neatly segues into 'Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)' which bores you for two minutes with simplistic rhythms and then completely falls apart, degenerating into four minutes worth of feedback, scratching, hoarse grunts from instruments and silence. Also recorded live, but I wish I hadn't mentioned that...

All said, Anthem Of The Sun is still a key historical document of unbelievable significance - together with Baxter's, it is perhaps the best epitomy of 'psycho excesses' that San Francisco was so rich on those days. Calling this stuff "crap" in an open and uncompromised matter seems a bit of a stretch to me, as it would involve getting into the discussion about the ups and downs of hippie culture, the usefulness of acid substances, etc.; but certainly, the album has not dated well at all, and I'd be very surprised if I found out that it still finds its own particular fans after all these years. Me, I just don't buy into that aesthetics as a whole - and for the record, hippie philosophy and culture resulted in a lot of far more pleasant and truly enjoyable records than this one. Namely, give me Surrealistic Pillow or even Quicksilver Messenger Service over this c... er, sorry, over this outdated product any time of day. But if you're like me and you see this for ten cents lying somewhere in a used bin - give it a try. You need to hear it at least once to get a whiff of that culture. Hey, c'mon, it's not that bad. A whiff of hippie excess never really hurt anyone. And if you're particularly drawn to Live Dead performances, 'Alligator' might be a treat as well. Sure is for me.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8

God, these guys really needed someone to teach them how to write good songs...

Best song: DOIN' THAT RAG

Track listing: 1) St Stephen; 2) Dupree's Diamond Blues; 3) Rosemary; 4) Doin' That Rag; 5) Mountains Of The Moon; 6) China Cat Sunflower; 7) What's Become Of The Baby; 8) Cosmic Charlie.

Every critic alive gracefully smiles at this record, dismissing it with the statement 'this is yet another attempt to put that famous live Dead sound on record', but I tell ya: either no critics really listened to this record, or, well, the live Dead pretty much sucked around 1969. The record isn't horrendous at all, nope, parts of it are even enjoyable (other parts are dreadful, though). But there's not a single trace of an instrumental jam on this record, the thing that the Dead were most famous for, after all, and some songs do not differ very much in mood from the assumingly 'classic' American Beauty. The funny thing is that, while all the band members are really good at their instruments, especially Jerry Garcia on guitar and Tom Constanten on keyboards, they almost never really know what to do with them. True, this time around the band had obviously decided to try their hand at something more 'conventional', drawing on all kinds of rootsy and folkish inspirations to help them in the process, but they were still too stoned to make anything decent. Indeed, I've rarely seen such a sloppy, uninspired, draggy bunch of songs all collected together on one record. The basic impression is that most of them are based on some rudimentary folk melody or other, which the band members effectively try to profanate by diluting it with rather bland instrumentation and a loose, almost 'stoned' style of playing. Even worse, some tracks are offensively spoiled by dated gimmicks, like electronic voice encoding ('Rosemary').

But never mind the spicing up: it's the heart of the tree that's rotten. When you finally take as much listens as you need to get to the musical essence of the songs, you'll see that it's usually plain banal. The opening tune, 'St Stephen', for instance, is built on a perfectly simple fast folk melody - it's just that the song is so stoned out that you don't notice it for a while. The ballads are totally uninspired and uninspiring, and no matter how convincingly Lesh or Garcia try to pull them off, it just doesn't work for me: I'm not aware of who actually gets the lead vocals on 'Mountains Of The Moon', but it doesn't matter - the song is plain dull, and the pretty harpsichord does nothing to save it in the long run. As for 'Rosemary', it's all plain atmosphere: slow, noodling acoustic guitar with those dreadful encoded vocals, thankfully lasting not more than two minutes.

The good news here is a couple of spooky country-western send-ups, complete with Robert Hunter lyrics that deal with the usual country-western topics (personal problems with the juridicial branch of power in 'Dupree's Diamond Blues', personal problems with maturing in 'Doin' That Rag'), but dress them up in pretentious and not very entertaining imagery. However, nobody listens to the Dead for the lyrics: I'm able to enjoy the former song because it has the closest thing to a solid melody on the album (one has only to close one's eyes to the fact that it's a generic country-western pattern), and able to enjoy the latter one because the chorus features a fast, nice, inviting, and at the same time somewhat ominous riff (Garcia's trademark style, eh? or is it Bob Weir? I'm not sure of their separate functions on the albums) that nicely intertwines with the organs. I'd say that the song presages the very similar (in mood, not in melody) 'Friend Of The Devil' on Beauty, but of course, this one is overlong and overall, still boring, at least when it comes to the regular verses.

Apart from these two acceptable numbers and some tasteful slide work on 'Cosmic Charlie' that more or less works as the album closer (it could have been shorter by a couple of minutes too, though), however, there's no real good news about the record. 'China Cat Sunflower', the best known song off the album, is plain stupid - a typical example of how crazy and pointless hippie music could be when it wanted to. Some say that it was a great live number, but I can't judge by the version on here. It's completely chaotic, with several guitars going in completely different directions and a complicated drum pattern that goes in a third one, while the 'nah-nah-nah' hippie backing vocals try to simulate a 'nice' vibe throughout. And, of course, the truly low point of the album, for which I refuse to even give it an overall rating of nine (these guys need to be punished), is a horrendous, eight-and-a-half minute long mantra ('What's Become Of The Baby?') that has no instrumental playing at all - just a lot of echoey, almost dissonant chanting that makes your ears burst and your patience explode. Whereas the liner notes call the song 'eerie', I just say that the 'song' is ridiculously bad and could have been recorded by just anybody. Typical hippie excess, you'll say? Well, might as well be - but that's just yet another sign of the record having dated badly.

Whatever. I mean, the main problem is very easy to see - the band's members were (still are, I guess, at least, the ones that are still alive) very unskilful songwriters. And what happens when a very unskilful (but very stoned) songwriter takes a handful of moderately decent folk/country melodies and performs them as if he were playing a Jefferson Airplane song? You're right - shit happens. Later on (actually, on the next album) they'd correct this mistake, outgrow this transitional phase and throw the 'psychedelic' elements out of their folkish rip-offs, but that would be later on. For the moment, forget about buying this album. Isn't it strange that a band that's always quoted as one of the main psychedelic ensembles and hippie gurus of the Sixties didn't really hit its stride until the Seventies? Well - like I said, shit happens...



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Actually, the Dead jams are more diverse than people usually assume - unfortunately, not always for better.

Best song: DARK STAR

Track listing: 1) Dark Star; 2) Saint Stephen; 3) The Eleven; 4) Turn On Your Lovelight; 5) Death Don't Have No Mercy; 6) Feedback; 7) And We Bid You Goodnight.

The first in an endless row of the Grateful Dead's trademark double live albums and one of the best-loved ones. Tired of mimicking their live craft in the studio, or, at best, interpolating live stuff with pointless studio overdubs, the Dead finally agreed here to follow the usual way and split into a 'live band', putting out their real live experiences, and a 'studio band', putting out well-crafted studio recordings. Not that the two sides of the band wouldn't ever be meeting from now on, but for the most part, all of the band's acid excesses were now left on genuine live albums. Like this one.

If you find out you hate the album, don't despair. It's certainly not for everybody. But let me tell you this, brothers and sisters - there is a way to enjoy the album, and the way lies in the album's incredible diversity. Oh well, wait a bit, it's not actually that diverse, because it's the Grateful Dead after all, and they don't do no Roy Wood kind of freakshow; they got their own. But what strikes me on here is that none of the seven tracks actually sound similar; all follow slightly different patterns, and you get to witness the Dead in all kinds of 'environments' - it's not just the notorious "acid jams" that you're gonna get, but rather a vast palette of styles and moods. I doubt that anybody but the most loyal Deadheads would enjoy the record in its entirety, though; most probably, you won't like all of these styles, and even I certainly don't. What good is there still makes the record well worth owning, though.

Actually, there's only one "acid jam" on there, the massive, epic 'Dark Star' that opens the album. This is a number you have to get used to, but you know - you have to get used to it. An excellent amalgam of blues and jazz, all mostly played in a minor key for further moodiness, it showcases Garcia at his very, very best. Frankly speaking, I really don't know how it is theoretically possible to play all these twenty-minute solos without dropping dead at the end. The only person I know who's capable of doing that is Clapton, and we all know that Clapton is God, now don't we? But truthfully, Jerry's masterful and atmospheric passages on 'Dark Star' are quite comparable with some of Clapton's best jams in Cream. Particularly impressive is the moment when Jerry goes 'duelling' with Bob Weir and the entire band just goes crazy without you even noticing it - everything is so smooth and well-controlled that even in the very middle of this endless jam they can still take you by surprise.

Exhausted on that one, the band rips into an inspired rendition of 'St Stephen', completely obliterating the studio original. It's one of the shorter tunes on here, but also one of the tightest and most easily accessible - it's just a folksy little chant, after all. Then the band goes really raunchy and rockin' on the stomping jam 'The Eleven', where they are faster and angrier than anywhere else on the album. Then there's time for about fifteen minutes worth of goofiness: Pigpen steps in with an exaggerated, schizophrenic rendition of the old R'n'B song 'Turn On Your Lovelight'. Then they get into 'blues mode', playing a lengthy, drawn-out, bleeding little blooze number appropriately called 'Death Don't Have No Mercy'. Then things get weird again, with a lengthy, drawn-out, bleeding little noisefest appropriately called 'Feedback'; and after abusing our ears for so long, the Dead close with a few farewellish vocal harmonies ('And We Bid You Goodnight'). Whatever the actual length of these pieces might be, you at least gotta give them their due - they're not overexhausting our patience. Well, not my patience, at least. My patience has learned how to stretch itself out through the long years full of hardship and toil and listening to too much Captain Beefheart. My patience is cool and relaxed; what about your patience, dear Sir?

That said, patience is one thing, and pure enjoyability is another. Like I said, you probably won't like every style they tackle. Listen to me now. Me - I can easily tolerate 'Dark Star', because it's really dark and really trippy and really takes you places, all the time never stopping you from tapping your foot and keeping within the groove. And I can easily tolerate 'St Stephen', and to a lesser extent, 'The Eleven' and 'Death Don't Have No Mercy': the latter might be just ten minutes of generic blues, but it sets such a creepy, somber mood, that I take it. However, I just can't understand the very meaning of 'Turn On Your Love Light'. My hypothesis is that it's just Pigpen fooling around and trying to kill time or something. I mean, take something like the Stones' 'Goin' Home', throw out the cool guitar lines and the exaggerated, hilarious vocals, throw in a drunk unfunny clown and you guarantee yourself some prime boredom. Likewise, I won't accept anything like 'Feedback' in my world. If you want something really noisy and messy, go listen to Amon Düül II and spare yourself all that American feedback psychedelia crap. Even if you deem such things to be 'mind-liberating', there simply were lots of bands doing the noise schtick much better.

With all these faults, it's obvious I can't grant the album a maximum rating; even so, let's at least not forget that it's a double one and they managed to fit it all on one CD, so you can just disregard the twenty five minutes of stupid filler and concentrate on the fifty minutes of the really interesting stuff. Simply put, I highly doubt that in the America of 1969 there ever existed a band capable of producing something like 'Dark Star' on the stage. Certainly not Quicksilver Messenger Service, who took their 'professional' duties far lighter than the Dead. And definitely not the Airplane, as Jorma Kaukonen never had the ace guitar skills of Garcia; besides, whenever that band entered 'jam mode', it was like they rather were playing 'lightweight pothead' music, while the Dead were playing 'serious pothead' music. Feel the difference? Hey, you don't really NEED to be a pothead to feel the difference!



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Hey, whoever said we're tripping, man? Look at us! We're doing country!

Best song: DIRE WOLF

Track listing: 1) Uncle John's Band; 2) High Time; 3) Dire Wolf; 4) New Speedway Boogie; 5) Cumberland Blues; 6) Black Peter; 7) Easy Wind; 8) Casey Jones.

A radical and completely unexpected change in style - once and for all, the Dead suddenly cut short all the attempts to annihilate the differences between their live and studio sound and go off pursuing a more laid-back, mainstreamish country-rock direction. General musical philosophy usually ascribes this change of the Dead's musical philosophy to the passing of an era: the Altamont Massacre (which, by the way, was an event that had a deep impact on the band indeed - 'New Speedway Boogie' is sometimes said to be dedicated to the event) and the fade-away of the hippie ideology made them leave all their psycho jams for the live shows and concentrate on more concise, rational work in the studio.

That said, Workingman's Dead certainly doesn't deserve the 'classic' status so readily appended on it by most musical critics. It's a fairly good and enjoyable record, for sure, but by all objective means, there ain't that much special about it. The eight tracks on here more or less exploit the same two or three vibes (slow rambling acoustic country shuffle; mid-tempo mellow acoustic country boogie; mid- or fast-tempo soft electric country rocker), and the melodies aren't all that outstanding, either. And still, after repeated listens, I find myself liking this stuff much more than I really should, even considering my general subjective musical tastes which certainly aren't all that tolerant towards this kind of music.

In the end, I suppose this is due not to some kind of hidden magic (actually, I never believe in 'hidden magic' - leave that crap for Trout Mask Replica lovers), but rather to a number of small details, each of which is not too significant on its own, but taken altogether they make the record really work. There's Garcia's soulful, gentle, emotional voice that's very inviting. There's the lyrics, more often interesting and intriguing than not (by the way, the absolute majority of songs on here were penned by the Garcia-Hunter team). There's the fact that the melodies, while not being exceedingly catchy, are almost always a wee bit untrivial - it looks like the Dead were taking generic patterns and always taking care to make a few twists here and there so that they wouldn't turn out generic in the end, thus not only making the album sound more surprising, but also more personal. There's the sparse, economic instrumentation which always allows the listener to concentrate on one or two instruments (very well placed in the mix) and enjoy the fullness of their sound instead of just having to swallow the whole 'package' like some tasteless medicine. And finally, there's the playing, particularly Jerry's tasteful slide work.

I mean, sure, one could always object and say that Garcia's voice can get monotonous, the lyrics don't mean a lot, the melodies are unmemorable, the sparse instrumentation isn't varying all that much, and there were tons of more professional musicians whose slide work was far more tasteful than Garcia's. But like I said, it's the combination of all this that matters; simply put, this is one of the most carefully crafted roots rock records that I've ever heard, and the most amazing thing is, even with all that immaculate craftsmanship, it still does not sound slick and lifeless, like some generic sterile country recording.

Well, I suppose I just put all that lengthy analysis because I couldn't say all that much about the actual songs, could I? More or less so. Okay, first of all, despite all the praise, I could still easily live without the two slow acoustic shuffles, each on one side ('High Time' and 'Black Peter', two excellent cures for insomnia, although nowhere near as appalling as 'Attics Of My Life' on the next record). I'm also not terribly impressed by the album opener, 'Uncle John's Band', even it does have a nice, intimate vibe about it and went on to become one of the band's stage favourites.

But the rest is good. The faster songs boogie along and make you tap your foot and revel in their subtle malevolence, particularly 'New Speedway Boogie' which is quite malevolent indeed; and the guitar interplay on 'Cumberland Blues' really gets me going as well. 'Easy Wind' overdoes the chaotic jamming section at the end a bit, but at least it's not that chaotic jamming that we usually associate with the Dead; otherwise, it's another good mid-tempo rocker. But the real highlights of the album are, without a doubt, 'Dire Wolf' and 'Casey Jones'. 'Dire Wolf', in fact, gives me the creeps - it's structured as a pleasant, laid-back soft country rocker with homely slide guitar homely sliding in the background, but the chorus? 'Don't murder me, I beg you, you don't murder me, please don't murder me', sung in Garcia's nicest tone ever. Woof, pretty scary, and a worthy predecessor to the even more grappling 'Friend Of The Devil' on American Beauty. And 'Casey Jones'? It tells the story of an engineer who's driving a train "under intoxication" and gets into a lethal accident, but that would be hard to guess from the playful, 'lightweight' melody (the catchiest refrain on the album, for sure). Imagine that.

Of course, their next album would seriously build on this foundation, with the Dead somewhat expanding their territory and drawing on more styles and moods, so anybody looking for this band's "studio wonders" should first look up American Beauty. But no fans of American Beauty will ever be disappointed in Workingman's Dead, that's for sure.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

'Roots rock' that's probably s'pposed to act upon your deepest senses, 'cause I can't rationally explain its appeal!!


Track listing: 1) Box Of Rain; 2) Friend Of The Devil; 3) Sugar Magnolia; 4) Operator; 5) Candyman; 6) Ripple; 7) Brokedown Palace; 8) Till The Morning Comes; 9) Attics Of My Life; 10) Truckin'.

Indeed. What an appropriate title for a record that takes some of the eldest, bearded, most respectable American musical styles, strips them bare of everything that witty rock musicians have invented in the past two or three years and presents in their 'naked beauty'. On first listen, I hated this album. 'I can't believe it!' I was saying to myself. 'They call it a classic? This dead-ly bore with not a single original or memorable melody in sight?' But of course, this turned out to be one of those cunning records that are not melody-oriented at all, or at least, not hook-oriented...

Like Workingman's Dead, this record presents the Grateful Dead as a folk/country band, with no traces of a spaced-out jam anywhere in sight; unlike Workingman's Dead, though, the album is somewhat more diverse and the songs are somewhat more edgy, which is why most fans of the two records prefer the second one over the first one. There's just about, like, totally nothing revolutionary or revelatory about this album - all of this stuff was already done by the Byrds (whose output many of the numbers painfully recall, especially the more 'harmonized' ones) and other, less significant folk-rock bands before. However, once you take a somewhat deeper insight (and take a couple more listens, which also won't hurt), you'll discover that this style has little in common with the Byrds, harmonies excepted. In fact, the 'harmonized' numbers are eventually the worst on record - like the dreadful 'Attics Of My Life', a super-slow, lethargic lullaby that'll put a zombie back in the ground in a second's time. Of course, it's probably a fan favourite, but I've already offended so many fans' favourites on this site that one more will have little effect on the death sentence already carried out... But hey, my commentators tend to agree with me on that one, so at least I don't feel alone and deserted.

The biggest difference is, of course, that the Dead use their typical guitar sound that bears no resemblance to McGuinn's patented '12-string jangle'. Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir use their instruments with mastership - and, in this case, quite economically. Tasteful guitar licks abound - like the riff that holds together the pretty, fast-paced folkish ditty 'Sugar Magnolia', or the R'n'B elements on 'Truckin'. The production is also much more 'thin' than the Byrds' one, and the material is thus somewhat more 'accessible' - sometimes it sounds like the band are just having a groovy time in your living-room. And, of course, harmonies or no harmonies, the boys always do a great singing job each on his own (I'm just not a fan of singing in unison!).

Now the material here is really uneven, which is still my main complaint. Yet this is also an advantage - see, while the style of this record was never invented by the members of the Dead themselves, the actual melodies on here are hardly ripped-off: I hear plenty of ideas that I'd never heard before. I mean, I can often accuse Dylan of stealing folk melodies and passing them for his own, but I really couldn't say the same about the Dead. These songs, in contrast to the general marking 'traditional, arranged by so-and-so', should all be tagged: 'traditionally arranged, by the Grateful Dead' (now do you see the improtance of commas?).

So yeah, there are some hit and miss moments on the album, but that's gotta be forgiven. Like I said, 'Attics Of My Life' is a horrendous song, and I'll probably never change my opinion about that one. 'I-i-i-i-i-n the a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ttics o-o-o-o-o-f my-y-y-y-y-y li-i-i-i-i-i-ife...', boy, I feel this coma coming on again. Let's change subject and speak of Garcia's 'Friend Of The Devil', the song I like the most on here because it's probably your best bet for a heart-wrenching pessimistic ballad on the album, you know, of the type 'got-that-hound-on-my-trail-gotta-run-afore-it's-too-late' kinda stuff. It's got some great countryish guitar, too, but my main compliments are directed at the singing and lyrics. Out of the sad, whiny numbers there's also the opening 'Box Of Rain', a great multi-guitar song where, for once, the harmonies sound really really good. The message is a little unclear, although, but I don't mind.

Out of the fast numbers you're probably sure to know 'Truckin', with its great instrumentation and telling lyrics about the band's touring schedule and their, well, disappointment in True Love (a subject common in 1970, but to hear lines like 'Most of the cats you meet on the street speak of True Love/Most of the time they're sitting and crying at home' in a Grateful Dead is a little like hearing Richard Nixon advising American kids to drop out). 'What a long strange trip it's been' indeed. It also strikes you as pretty upbeat and even 'raving' as compared to the quiet atmosphere of the album - and the vocal melody style is definitely ripped-off of Chuck Berry's numbers such as 'No Particular Place To Go', with just a wee bit of speeding up. But I guess that's a conscious rip-off: after all, it was only natural for the band to end this 'roots tribute' with a Fifties' boogie sendup.

But if that's all you know from this record, don't you miss the already mentioned 'Sugar Magnolia' with that cool guitar riff, nor 'Operator', a sly slide-driven number with particularly 'attractive' (yeah, right) vocals by Pigpen, the harmonica player. Finally, I've even overcome myself to appreciate 'Candyman', a number that recalls Bob Dylan circa 1962: a lengthy, drooning folk number that nevertheless sounds inviting and very disposing - where 'Attics Of My Life' just invites you to lean on your pillow, 'Candyman' really invites you to lightly tap your foot and rock to and fro in harmony with the melody.

So, as you see, apart from the wretched 'Attics' and a couple of other minor misfires, I pretty much manage to dig this record. I almost find this strange, because I never really usually dig 'hardcore Americano' records (hell, I even expressed my displeasure towards Willy And The Poorboys), and yet, this album is likable for me, even if I can't name any original ideas on here. I guess I ought to put the blame on the band's high-heeled professionalism and, well, taste: sure, I know that accusing the Dead of having taste is pretty much an oxymoron, but what can one do if one is put in front of inescapable facts? Go buy this record and put it next to the American flag if you keep one in your house. Well, I don't suppose it's called American Beauty for nothing - here's a title that matches an album's content as perfectly as it ever gets.



Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

Quite a controversial live album, this one: half "Live/Dead", half "American Beauty".

Best song: BERTHA

Track listing: 1) Bertha; 2) Mama Tried; 3) Big Railroad Blues; 4) Playing In The Band; 5) The Other One; 6) Me & My Uncle; 7) Big Boss Man; 8) Me & Bobby McGee; 9) Johnny B. Goode; 10) Wharf Rat; 11) Not Fade Away/Goin' Down The Road/Feeling Bad.

Another year, another double live album. (Did the Dead actually know of any other format?). And while it's nowhere near the disaster that Wilson & Alroy claimed to be, it's painfully mediocre for the band; frankly speaking, I don't have the least idea why, right after the release of two of their most polished, most well-designed and well-recorded studio records, they took the decision to unveil this patchy and uneven collection of live performances.

True to the Dead's conception of development of their sound, Skull & Roses (the most acceptable title of the album, so as not to be confused with their first self titled record of 1967) sounds nowhere near Live/Dead, apart from exactly one track. That track is no mean feat, though: it's 'The Other One' (an abbreviated title of 'That's It For The Other One' off Anthem Of The Sun), and it goes on for eighteen minutes, occupying an entire side. In spots, it sounds exactly like 'Dark Star', a typical psychedelic jam that you can enjoy only in a very relaxed and trippy state of mind. Like when you're watching Sesame Street. Is it good? That's a very hard thing to tell when you deal with the Grateful Dead. I guess it is good, although I thought 'Dark Star' was a bit more focused. Which raises the question: should the Grateful Dead be focused? The idea is to trip and splatter all over the place, after all. I leave it to you to decide.

In any case, the other three sides of the album don't sound an iota like 'The Other One'. It's just the Grateful Dead doing some more of that humble, harmless, half hearted, harnessed country-rock sound, in a confused mix of covers and originals. Namely, there are three originals (all new), and everything else is covers. And while the covers range from Merle Haggard ('Mama Tried') to Kris Kristofferson ('Me And Bobby McGee') to Chuck Berry ('Johnny B. Goode'), they all sound pretty much the same: same whinin' Garcia vocals, same whinin' thin guitar tones, same bouncy Lesh bass guitar, same pounding Kreutzmann drumming. And the problem is, they all sound painfully generic. I mean, they sound the way you'd hear all these songs covered by just about any half-decent barroom boogie band. I was never an ardent fan of the way the Dead play their instruments, at least not when they're doing their typical roots-rock shtick; it was the songs that actually mattered, their particular atmospheres and their particular hooks. But when the Dead take well-known songs and treat them in a similar way, it just sounds thin and hell, I could almost swear I was hearing some novices picking up their instruments for the first time. Loose on the point of falling apart.

One of the weakest versions of 'Johnny B. Goode' I ever heard, for instance - heck, even the Beatles did a far more smokin' version on their BBC Sessions. And what the hell do I need from a version of 'Big Boss Man' that's thinner than a liquid cristal monitor? Okay, they can play, but so could millions of bands all around the world. I never thought I could actually yearn for one more 'Dark Star' or 'The Other One', but I suppose that the time has finally come. GIVE ME MORE OF YOUR GODDAMN PSYCHO STUFF! Don't bore me with things that everybody bores me with - you're supposed to bore me with things that nobody else can bore me with! Boredom is golden!

Still, it's not all that bad. The originals, for one, are rather tasty and with a few extra arranging tricks could have easily fit onto any of the preceding two studio albums. Two of the originals, that is: Garcia's 'Bertha' is a pleasant organ-led shuffle with those comfortable, 'plaintive' vocal harmonies we'd already gotten used to and which are by far the most endearing element of the Dead's style, while Weir's 'Playing In The Band' is somewhat more anthemic and hippiesque, but in a nice, uprising way. The third original is hideous, though: 'Wharf Rat' drags on for eight and a half minutes with not as much as an extra chord change, at the same snail pace as 'Attics Of My Life' and worse. It's not even 'psychedelic' or anything; it's somewhat 'introspective', but it ain't no 'Desolation Row' anyway. Horrid horrid friggin' horrid listening experience.

Fortunately, it is more than compensated by an inspired (half-inspired) rendition of Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away', included in a medley with 'Goin' Down The Road' at the end of the album. Once again, the Dead bring some of their trippy psychosis inside, and while on a particularly bad day I would have despised the track, here, right after the moribund lethargy of 'Wharf Rat', these solos just rattle the wall for me. 'Nuff said.

All in all, though, I'd hardly recommend this record to anybody - you'd be embarrassed at how fragile and unexperienced the Dead actually sound when playing old standards onstage. The thin, soft-rockish sound will hardly satisfy a demanding listener, and the psycho elements will only confuse you. It's listenable enough to warrant an acceptable, if not particularly laudable, rating, but you'd never guess the main strengths and idiosyncrasies of the band even after a dozen listens to this monster. Ironically, this was the Dead's first No. 1 in the States, or so I've heard - clearly, it was simply coming on the heels of American Beauty.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Overkill, but you can always scrape up enough material to mold into a solid nine.


Track listing: 1) Cumberland Blues; 2) He's Gone; 3) One More Saturday Night; 4) Jack Straw; 5) You Win Again; 6) China Cat Sunflower; 7) I Know You Rider; 8) Brown-Eyed Woman; 9) Hurts Me Too; 10) Ramble On Rose; 11) Sugar Magnolia; 12) Mr Charlie; 13) Tennessee Jed; 14) Truckin'; 15) Epilogue; 16) Prelude; 17) (Walk Me Out In The) Morning Dew.

A triple live album, no less, and coming from America's personification of roots-rock friendliness, not from some pompous spaced out symph-rock outfit like Yes, either. This one, true to its name, is culled from recordings made all over Europe on the Dead's first major tour through a non-American environment, just to find out how much they still love smelly countrified hippies across the Ocean. They sure loved them a lot, although this doesn't translate well onto the record - for some reason, the Dead had decided to wipe out any traces of the audience off the recordings (I guess just about the only spot that betrays the 'live' character of the songs is the one where they have a stop-and-start in the midst of 'Sugar Magnolia', with a pause long enough to make you hear the hoos and boos). Add to this the weird introduction of many a song, both covers and originals, that marks its first appearance on this album, and in a way, I guess Europe '72 can be regarded as a true sequel to Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, completing an original 'trilogy' of records celebrating the Dead's preoccupation with the most basic, down to earth forms of country-rock and blues-rock imaginable. Especially since after 1972 the Dead underwent a serious stylistic change (seriously due to the absence of Pig Pen and addition of Keith and Donna Godchaux, who make their debut as full-fledged members on this album - mostly Keith, though, because I'm almost unaware of Donna's presence throughout).

Anyway, in terms of consistency, this puppy is sure an improvement over Skull & Roses. The most interesting thing about it, perhaps, is the entire lack of the Dead's psychedelic facet: the only lengthy instrumental jam here is quoted as a part of "Truckin'", no less, and it's more bluesy in essence than psychedelic (although I could certainly do without the comatose 'Epilogue', which is basically the continuation of the jam, but with the rhythm foundation whisked off from under all the actual soloing). So the entire Disc 1 is the Dead doing reasonably short (from four to seven minutes long, that is) versions of rootsy tunes, and the entire Disc 2 is the Dead doing unreasonably long (from seven to eighteen, if we count 'Prelude' as a connected intro to 'Morning Dew', which it is) versions of rootsy tunes.

After you've figured it out, there are no particular surprises. It's the Dead doing roots-rock. Slow, relaxed, easy-on-the-ear roots-rock. No distorted guitars (God forbid), no rock'n'roll energy, everything safe, sound, and moderately tasteful. Thankfully, the songs are mostly good. First, speaking of the numbers that can already be found on earlier records - I've never been a big fan of 'China Cat Sunflower', and I can't say this particular version changes my opinion much. Still the same weird, typically Dead-stoned-like twist that takes the basics of country-rock and instead of shaping them into a memorable song, shapes them into some hideous Frankenstein of a composition. But on the good side, I've always liked the involving guitar interplay on 'Cumberland Blues', and they arguably do it even better here than on the studio version, so you just got to boogie on with these guys. Woohoo! Rednecky pleasure! Whip out your air guitars, play Garcia's part with your right hand and Weir's part with your left hand and you're all set! Oh, and Keith's piano boogie is thrilling as well. 'Sugar Magnolia', always a favourite, always welcome on any live album. "Truckin'" - excellent sung part, debatable jam. The 'Epilogue' to that song is one of those tracks I'll probably never learn to love, even when I finally take up smoking pot.

As for the 'new' songs, some of them are so good they could have easily occupied the necessary "classic" spots next to highlights off the band's 1970 albums, indeed rightly so. 'Brown-Eyed Woman' is my personal favourite, one of those pleading Garcia/Hunter numbers that just breathe friendliness and compassion, not to mention catchiness. Now this is some roots-rock to die for. Have I taken the time to rave about Jerry's voice in this review yet? No? One of the most beautiful voices on the entire American roots-rock scene, and you know, it always struck me as weird that such a tender, soft, trembling delivery was coming out of the lungs of such a visually rough-and-tough guy as Mr Garcia. Well, okay, he never really looked "dangerous", but at least he always looked really "big", if you know what I mean. But no Meatloaf vocals from that one - all for the better, I guess. Listen to Jerry singing 'sound of the thunder and the rain falling down...' on this particular track, you'll know what I mean. Beautiful.

Other songwriting highlights include 'Ramble On Rose' (another of those semi-lethargic country-rock tunes that somehow turn out to be catchy when Garcia and Hunter aren't trying to turn them into 'China Cat Sunflower'), the hilarious blues-rocker 'Mr Charlie', and the soulful, delicate 'He's Gone'. Solid covers include an impressive take on Hank Williams' 'You Win Again' (which they actually seem to be doing closer to the Jerry Lee Lewis version, although I'm not sure who's on vocals - Weir? Pig Pen?) and an almost equally take on Elmore James' 'Hurts Me Too', although the latter is dragged out a little too obviously for my tastes. The eighteen-minute, 'Prelude'-including Gargantuan take on '(Walk Me Out In The) Morning Dew' I could give or take, though - as far as I'm concerned, Nazareth did that song much better. Okay, that's an unreasonable comparison, because Nazareth did it in their unique Scottish hard-rock style. Reasonable comparison? Hmm... well, the Jeff Beck Group did it better, too. How's about that?

Overall, the album is a bit too much - two hours of Dead material ain't nothin' to be jokin' about. Nobody but the most loyal Deadheads could enjoy all of it (and even that is doubtful, given the fact that the more loyal the Deadhead is, the more dismissive the Deadhead usually is about the band's 'commercial' releases), but also nobody but the most fervent Deadhaters could dismiss all of it, either. That's how it goes with triple albums, see. I personally vote to preserve all of Disc 1, throw in the first three songs from Disc 2, discard the "Truckin'" and 'Morning Dew' jams and turn this into a pretty good double album. That's the one that gets a strong nine. The triple album gets a weak nine/high eight. Something like that, but don't kill me for my mathematics.



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

Nice, but hardly essential, unless you really fall for the acoustic Dead. And what kind of dork would let a BEAR make his choice, anyway?


Track listing: 1) Katie Mae; 2) Dark Hollow; 3) I've Been All Around This World; 4) Wake Up Little Suzie; 5) Black Peter; 6) Smokestack Lightnin'; 7) Hard To Handle.

Together with Magic Bus: The Who On Tour, this thing gotta rank as one of the world's most misleading album titles ever. Not only has there never been a Vol. 2 of this thing, it's also nowhere near close to representing the 'history' of the Grateful Dead; the only 'historical' thing about the record is that it serves as a first - it's the first officially released Grateful Dead archive set, actually running ahead of time a good twenty years or so (since the Dead only started seriousl cashing in on their past glories around the early Nineties). It is, in fact, a contractual-obligation-only recording; the Dead owed a record to their company yet were apparently unable to come up with original material around that time, so they trusted "Bear" - a 'longtime Dead associate', as the liner notes claim - to round up a set of live performances instead, taken from the vaults.

I guess the idea was 'try something different', stuff that didn't make it onto either of the three previous live albums. So "Bear" fell upon the Fillmore East shows of February 13 and 14, 1970, and extracted a bunch of acoustic numbers to fill up one side of the album, plus a giant jam of 'Smokestack Lightnin' and just one standard length R'n'B tune 'Hard To Handle' to fill up the second side. One can only guess how much pain it took to make these selections, considering that all the previous live albums ranged from double to triple - this one clocks in at a miserable forty-seven minutes.

Strange enough, it's not as bad as it could have been. 'Smokestack Lightnin' is, of course, the main offender; when I want to have a Grateful Dead jam, I'll take 'Dark Star' or something like that, something with wild psychedelic guitar solos. If I really want an eighteen-minute blues jam, in those rare unpredictable cases when I do want one, I'll take Cream instead. The Dead set a nice relaxing groove going, but it doesn't seem like they're really into it, with Weir's and Garcia's guitars playing the same scrambled, isolated, minimalistic licks over and over and over, over the course of three excruciatingly long solo passages (the last one actually sounds like they're playing in their sleep for some time), and Pigpen's vocalizing gets tiresome pretty quick. I'm sorry, but any blues-based band of the time, includin' those that never made it big, could probably play like that - I'm not sure why we have to praise this monster.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is decent. I'm not a big fan of the Dead's acoustic performances, either, but they do have this endearing Sixties-soaked charisma that makes it easy to sit through their stripped-down material. I mean, it's cool to have the record start with Pigpen fiddling around on guitar, saying things like 'let me make my mistakes on my own, I don't need your help' and then delivering a fun version of the Hopkins blues tune 'Katie Mae'. It's also fun to see the band's crucial members take turns in the spotlight: first Pigpen, then Bob Weir steps in with a countryish thing called 'Dark Hollow', and then Garcia replaces him with the folk based 'I've Been All Around This World', which is my pick for best song on the album just because I'm such a sucker for Jerry's voice, and then they all join in on a hilarious rendition of 'Wake Up Little Suzie'. None of these performances are outstanding or anything, but if you like the Unplugged vibes, you'll probably enjoy this early 'unplugged' prototype, too. "This is a Bill Russell double action capo, what they call it... you can lose a finger trying to use 'em..." Remarks like these certainly make my day. Of course, my excitement is a bit marred because they have the nerve to end the first side with 'Black Peter' - the only non-cover tune of all, and since I didn't like it much in the studio, I don't like it much live. Seven minutes? Aaarggh!

At least that last performance, 'Hard To Handle', totally cooks - maybe 'Smokestack Lightnin' did evoke visions of fingerless guitar players walking in a daze in some remote place in the Underworld, but on 'Hard To Handle' these guys are waking up and finally pumping up some passion as Garcia and Weir play off each other like there was no tomorrow. Maybe I just don't get something; I don't understand how it is possible to play in a "see me dying onstage" manner, and then totally rip it up within the frame of one show. Then again, there are some people who like 'Smokestack Lightning', I guess.

Since the album has so much emphasis on Pigpen, it's often been regarded as a posthumous tribute to the guy who died in 1972; this, and also the facts I've told about in the first paragraph, make Bear's Choice assume sort of a "special cult album" status for Deadheads, so I guess if you're one of 'em 'eads, pick it up if you see it for cheap. Supposedly it's got some overlaps with Dick's Picks Vol. 4, but since Vol. 4 misses the entire acoustic set, it's not rendered superfluous in the process. But if you're up and against all the "cult album" crap, I really don't see why you should need it.



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

A very sleepy country-pop record, but you have to wait some time before its hypnotic charm gets into you.


Track listing: 1) Mississipi Half - Step Upon Toodeloo; 2) Let Me Sing Your Blues Away; 3) Row Jimmy; 4) Stella Blue; 5) Here Comes Sunshine; 6) Eyes Of The World; 7) Weather Report Suite.

Pigpen was dead and gone by the time the Dead finally got around to recording this album, their first new studio release in three years. It hardly makes any serious difference, though: the record is a rather predictable successor to American Beauty, but a thoroughly inferior one. I admit that not too many rock'n'roll lovers will be able to get into it, and I myself hated it first two or three times around. There are seven lengthy sleep-fests on the record, all complete with hypnotizing female background voices (courtesy of new band member Donna Godchaux), soft, lethargic guitars and soothing, paralyzing sax and organ solos. The songs rarely even venture into mid-tempo - most of them are slow as hell, and this will send many a desperate rocker cursin' and sneerin' in search of some contemporary Stones or even some contemporary New York Dolls. The melodies are uninspiring, bogged-down rehashings of some old country songs, with next to no hooks or just anything to cling unto and scream, 'hey, that's at least entertaining!'

But eventually the record proves itself worthy - there's a certain hidden charm about most of these songs which you just don't notice at first. It's certainly due to the Dead's exclusive playing - there's no virtuosity here, but the instrumentation is tasteful, full and professional, and at least they know exactly what they're doing, unlike so many imitators. Once again, they go off in search of the 'American spirit' - but this time, with a little more pretention (that's the bad side) and a little more sensitivity (that's the good one). The important thing is that these numbers are not as generic as the tunes on Beauty - while on the latter the Dead were just proving themselves worthy imitators of the traditional folkie/country style, on Flood they certainly add a lot of their own ideas and spirit. So the arrangements are less stripped down - on most of the songs, there are at least several guitar parties, accompanied by moody keyboards and decent vocal harmonizing; and yet, there is no orchestration that would probably make all this seem as banal as possible.

The problem, of course, is whether you'll be able to stay awake while listening to this stuff. But if you do, don't miss such interesting mini-gems as the gentle pop anthem 'Eyes Of The World', with its Beach Boys-ey spirit married to a folkish vibe; it might not be the definite highlight on the album, but I still counted it as the best song because it's the most upbeat one - a jovial pop tune that almost seems to invite you to wake up after the previous lethargic numbers. I also quite enjoy 'Here Comes Sunshine', a groovy Beatlesque tune whose refrain is ripped off... nah, not from 'Here Comes The Sun', as you might have thought, but off of 'Sun King' - there's one amusing delusion for ya! And the jolly 'Let Me Sing Your Blues Away', with its boppy, catchy structure and mellow saxophone lines all over the place, will really do just what the title suggests.

Then there's the presumably deadly dull seven-minute crucifixion of the listener on 'Row Jimmy Row', a tune that's equally despisable and mesmerizing - just go ahead and tell me that the repetitive chorus 'I say row Jimmy row/Gonna get there I don't know' isn't brilliant! It is, and for those who are able to get into the mood the song will be a real treat - a soothing, embalming anthem about nothing (who knows what the hell these lyrics mean) that nevertheless really gives the impression of steady, slow rowing down the stream on a quiet, early evening. Man, these Dead really could create a suitable mood - let's score 'em one for the fact.

The two other 'short' songs don't thrill me as much, but are still moody as hell: the country waltz 'Mississipi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo' has some sharp fiddle/guitar interplay and really tearful vocals. It's certainly the most 'generic' country excourse on the record, but that's also what makes it somewhat incompatible with the other tracks... on the other hand, maybe it's a plus. Whatever. I told you. You might love it the most, I dunno. It's nice. 'Stella Blue', on the other hand, is reminiscent of a lame imitation of a bad George Harrison solo song: it's pure atmosphere, and the vocals are nowhere near as impressive or sincere as George's. It's also the one song that's guaranteed to put you off to sleep even if you've just come out of a twelve-year coma. The guitars sound exactly like they've been taken off a lullaby, and the background vocals add to the nursery atmosphere. Ooh... my jaw is dropping already... sorry.

What really annoys me, though, and I ditched 'em a whole point for that, is the 'Weather Report Suite' that ends the album - twelve minutes of generic boredom. It's deemed to be some sort of 'times of year cycle' for the Dead, but Jerry Garcia is no Vivaldi, and the composition just drags on and on with no hints at a melody. Strange enough, it's also the least atmospheric song on record - maybe you just get so used to the sound that you don't appreciate yet another effort at the end, but... aarrgh, I friggin' hate that song. It has no jovial optimism of 'Eyes Of The World', no heartfelt romanticism of 'Here Comes Sunshine', no funny folkie feel of 'Toodeloo', and no successful imagery of 'Row Jimmy Row'. Not to mention that one of the parts is entitled 'Let It Grow' which was also the title of a contemporary Eric Clapton ballad that beats to hell every song on this album. It's just nothing - like some of the mid-Seventies Jethro Tull stuff. They play and play and play and there's just no sense to it.

Yet, if you switch your CD off before Garcia hits his first acoustic notes, the album is a perfect example of the mellowest side of the Dead: moody, atmospheric, professional and tasteful. Like I said, it just takes some (maybe a lot of) time to get used to this stuff, seeing as there's not even a single true rocker in sight.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

Most of these tunes are just your average pedestrian folk rock - who needs 'em?

Best song: U. S. BLUES

Track listing: 1) U. S. Blues; 2) China Doll; 3) Unbroken Chain; 4) Loose Lucy; 5) Scarlet Begonias; 6) Pride Of Cucamonga; 7) Money Money; 8) Ship Of Fools.

Well, it's not as bad as I originally envisaged it - but still, definitely not a stellar moment for the GD. The seemingly good news would be that this album is not as spaced out or lethargic as Wake Of The Flood; it has its share of more or less fast and upbeat numbers, like 'U. S. Blues' or 'Loose Lucy'. In fact, to some extent it is a conscious return to the stylistics of American Beauty: decently played self-penned roots-rock with a bit of intelligence and somewhat obscure lyrics to make things seem more exciting. However, good news turns out to be bad news at a closer look. The preceding album, not to mention Beauty, had a lot of personality going for it; this one has none at all. Sure, you can tell it's the Dead because of Garcia's voice, but apart from that, nothing interesting or idiosyncratic ever happens on here. For the most part, they stick to a routine, uninteresting folk-rock, hell, even folk-pop sound that's about as attention-attractive as a fly on the wall. No matter how much you listen to this swampy muck, it just refuses to stick in your head, and what's worse, you've already heard it all before in a better variant. A few bleak hooks do jump out at you on the n-th listen, but is it really worth the wait? Only about two or three of the eight tracks are at least somewhat emotionally resonant, and only about one or two of them make you wanna tap your feet. But there's no moody lethargic atmospherics either - just a bunch of... of... of songs. Yeah. These are songs. Songs, nothing more. Never an "experience".

That said, I was still a bit too harsh on these songs in my original review, because almost none of the material is offensive and with a little bit of concentration, you might at least moderately enjoy the songs while they're actually playing. Garcia still sticks with his usual soulful schtick, but this time around it just refuses to work properly - 'Ship Of Fools' is an updated version of 'Row Jimmy', but without the harmonies and the dreamy guitars that made it such a perfect lullaby. The guitar solo is good, though, and the classic 'melancholic blooze' is still in place if that's what you're looking for. He also gets in another ultra-slow, mantra-like ballad ('China Doll') that's guaranteed to cure an elephant of insomnia - it has something like two verses over the course of four minutes (yay, brother!) But then again, half of the Dead songs are perfect anthems to Morphaeus, aren't they? It's cool to fall asleep to the sounds of 'China Doll'.

Out of Jerry's three faster numbers, only one is somewhat noteworthy, the America-bashing 'U. S. Blues'. Could have been a hit in the anti-Vietnam era, but came out somewhat late - what a pity, because the song is worthy, it's fast, it's got a somewhat unusual melody for a generic blues and it's got the only decent set of lyrics on the entire record. The other two, however, are nothing but pleasant throwaways: 'Loose Lucy' is a (probably) misogynistic shuffle that's about as original or convincing as a Monkees' blues cover, and 'Scarlet Begonias' is utterly dull with its folkish groove that goes absolutely nowhere. There's just not an ounce of tension in these songs, and tension is essential for a folk-rocker if you're going to attract somebody but the most devoted. Maybe it's just the production that sucks so much - everything sounds so polished and slick, with not a note sticking out, almost as if they were taking lessons from the Carpenters in the production department. All of these songs therefore fall into the "ungrateful dead" category.

That's not all, though - Lesh makes two more contributions, and they're even worse, with not an ounce of memorability: one is a murky, melodyless toss-off with idiotic lyrics and again a jaw-dropping arrangement the most prominent part of which is sci-fi synth noises suddenly popping out of nowhere in the least expected places ('Unbroken Chain'), and the other is a generic country excourse with a nice, but totally predictable slide guitar part as the only redeeming factor ('Pride Of Cucamonga'). Again, hardly offensive, but never ever deviating from the standard "manual formula" of roots-rock.

Finally, Bob Weir gets in 'Money Money': the loudest song on the album, it's also the most atrocious - the repetitive chorus that consists of one phrase 'she wants money' can't help getting on my nerves all the time (and no, they didn't rip off ABBA's song because it hadn't yet been written at this point). Good Lord, it seems that all the band members have conjured to write as many forgettable songs as possible, each member trying to outdo the others. To be serious, though, they probably just wanted another American Beauty, deciding that the previous album was way too slow and pretentious. What they forgot to do was to come up with decent lyrics: most of the time I don't get even the slightest idea of what they're talking about, because Hunter goes for spontaneous, meaningless imagery that does nothing for nobody. Just as well, they forgot to come up with decent melodies: no interesting riffs, no tuneful acoustic numbers, no fascinating guitar interplay. Aw shucks, I'm repeating myself - why waste web space on such an insignificant album? It's not the Dead's weakest album, of course - they have certainly offended our ears to a far more hurting effect on some of their other albums; but out of the ones I heard, it turns out to be the most undistinctive. Come on, these songs could have been written by just about any American (or British, for that matter) band at the time.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

An essential Dead-style album with some soft-rock gems on here.


Track listing: 1) Help On The Way/Slip Knot; 2) Franklin's Tower; 3) King Solomon's Marbles; 4) The Music Never Stopped; 5) Crazy Fingers; 6) Sage And Spirit; 7) Blues For Allah.

For the first time in six years, well, for the first time since Anthem Of The Sun, to be precise, the band has finally gotten its act together and gone into the studio to record something, well, more Dead-like. Yeah, the country-rock stylizations are still there, but this time, they're stylizations and that's that: loyal psycho Deadheads who'd probably already given up on the band's studio work, should have been pleased. Like everybody who's not too well used to their 'normal' sound, I hated the album at first: the sound was thoroughly reminiscent of the album cover, it was indeed like a white-haired skull fiddling its diddle for forty damn minutes. But this is the kind of record that's able, at least partially, to grow upon you - because, unlike From The Mars Hotel that didn't feature even a single creative idea, there are some pretty and clever melodies here, and there's an atmosphere. An atmosphere totally different from Wake Of The Flood with its lethargic mood, but equally different from the earlier aimless chaos of Anthem. They're still going with their soft, 'lightweight' vibe, but this time it's a little bit more boppy and a trifle more fast - like your friendly soft rock band that doesn't want to spend its energy on roaring and tearing but instead spends it on making enjoyable, user-friendly background music with enough professionalism and taste to make it worth the while. Some of the parts are even jazzy, especially the jams on 'Slip Knot' and the instrumental suite 'King Solomon's Marbles', and even if they are in no way memorable, they're tolerable. Yup. Not that there's a ton of good songs, mind you. 'Franklin's Tower' is considered a Dead classic, and it is: some more whiny vocals from Garcia, the repetitive, but charming chorus 'Roll Away The Dew' and that wonderful bopping rhythm playing are enough to make it my favourite on here. Apart from that, however, the melodies are not exceedingly strong.

Apart from 'Tower', I enjoy the living hell out of 'Help On The Way', the pretentious, mystical album opener with some of the most incomprehensible lyrics Hunter ever wrote, but shucks, nobody listens to the Dead for their lyrics that are worthless anyway. I know I'm gonna get it from the Deadheads but I know what I'm talking about and I'm not afraid. On the other hand, the guitar workout there is beautiful, with these little gritty 'bursts' coming out of Jerry's guitar now and then. And then there's the little instrumental 'Sage & Spirit' with some cool flutework. Bob Weir's 'The Music Never Stopped', though, is a letdown, with its unsuccessful soul groove and Donna Godchaux's generic backing vocals completely ruining the song, but what the hell...

The most complex thing here, of course, and the real centerpiece, is the closing symphony - the title track and its 'derivative' parts. This is probably the most 'Dead' of the tracks on here, the quintessence of the band in audible form. Normal people should probably avoid these kinds of things, but I made a serious effort to 'get it' and I think I 'got it', at least partially. Out of the song's three parts, a conventional listener (alias Undeadhead) could probably enjoy only the third one, the little 'romantic mantra' where the band keeps chanting 'under eternity, under eternity', just because it's so really really pretty, with the cool harmonies and Donna adding more generic but, let's face it, very professional backing vocals. Of course, even this possibility is limited, because a mantra's got to do what a mantra's gotta do - that is, be as repetitive as can be, and this one is quite repetitive.

The big problem is with the first two parts. The title track itself is a gloomy chant with lyrics trying to feature Islamic motives (but failing to do so properly) that almost reminds me of 'What's Become Of The Baby' from Aoxomoxoa: a couple musical phrases repeated endlessly over the band's melancholical reciting. And later on, the song degenerates into a messy, rhythm-less psycho jam ('Sand Castles & Glass Camels') that sounds like it was recorded in Hell. The weirdest thing, though, is that when I got around to the third listen, I was hooked - I don't know what people are supposed to feel when they're listening to stuff like this, but I personally felt like I was stoned although I wasn't. This is sooooo damn trippy and atmospheric that it's possible to listen to. Gee, maybe I'm slowly becoming a Deadhead? Well, at least my skin is still firmly in place and I don't look like that dermally challenged dude on the front cover.

Oh, I just forgot to mention that the album's entirely written by Garcia and Hunter, except for Weir's 'Music Never Stopped', and it shows who was the real psycho leader in the band for all those years. I don't really know why I gave it such a high rating, but I guess the sentence had better be re-stated as 'I don't really know why I feel like recommending this record'. Apparently Jerry and the Deadmakers really had some inner magic of their own that attracts me and others to this stuff. What do you think, anyway? And by the way, this was the Dead's last 'epochal' studio record - and by 'epochal' I mean 'of any truly serious historic and artistic value'. I may be wrong, of course, but then again, I may be right! Did that idea ever occur to anybody?



Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

A strange album - half-folk, half-progressive. Seems like the band was really lost for words - in the direct sense.


Track listing: 1) Estimated Prophet; 2) Dancing In The Streets; 3) Passenger; 4) Samson And Delilah; 5) Sunrise; 6) Terrapin Station.

This album marked the Dead' shift to Arista Records (the label that seemed to specialize on 'dinosaurs' at the time, by the way: around the same time they got the Kinks, the Allman Brothers Band and God knows who else. Unfortunately, they didn't think to buy them all at an earlier stage), and the period which is often dismissed even by fans as 'sold-out'. May well be, but then again, Terrapin Station does get quite a lot of respect, considered by some as the last great Dead album, and certainly the last great Dead album before their 'comeback' in the late Eighties.

Well, it ain't bad, that's for sure. But great? Man, weird times we're living in... Anyway, unlike most other Dead records, this one's clearly divided in two. The second side is dominated entirely by the lengthy sixteen-minute title track - the 'Terrapin Station Suite', most parts of which are credited to the trusty Garcia - Hunter couple. The first side, however, is the realm of other members of the band - Lesh, Weir, even Donna Godchaux, and there's an obvious difference in quality. After all, like it or not, but Garcia was the best songwriter in the band, and certainly the one who made the Grateful Dead what they were - the Grateful Dead! On the other hand, even Garcia was not God, and especially in the songwriting department. This here suite in particular can really get a tad lengthy and boring. But let us deal with it in due time, okay?

So, like I said, the first side is all given up to satisfy the ridiculous ambitions of Garcia's bandmates. There are five songs here, and only about two of them are worthy enough to be noticed. The opening track, Weir's 'Estimated Prophet', is a strange pretentious shuffle with reggae influences and a pathetic vocal spilling out sets of very important-sounding but nevertheless meaningless phrases, and even so, it would have been a total throwaway if not for the tasty bits of wah-wah guitar that give the song a strange, ominous echo. And Phil Lesh's country-rocker 'Passenger', while it would not even make a decent contribution to a Free record, is still the most energetic song on here, so if you wanna dance, go out and dance. But no 'Dancing In The Streets', no sir! The cover of that famous Martha & The Vandellas song blows, blows and blows again - dozens of acts did it better. 'Dying In The Streets' would be a better title, as everything in the song, including Donna Godchaux's vocals, sounds so muffled, quiet and passionless that one really begins to admire the Dead's talent for ruining good songs. Furthermore, their version of 'Samson & Delilah', a traditional folkie song based on you-know-what if you ever read the Bible, drags in an even more explicit way: for really good, careful and tasteful renditions of folk numbers please see your Fairport Convention. Hell, please see your Bob Dylan - he'll at least whine and gruff, not just mumble the lyrics in a toneless voice as is done by Weir (Is it really Weir who sings that? I'm not sure). Of course, though, the biggest offender is Donna's 'Sunrise'. Don't condemn me if it's not her song, I don't know the credits, but if it is, I have nothing but pity for poor Donna. Who wants to be a third-rate Aretha Franklin imitator? Her vocals are nice, but absolutely not special, and she has nothing, simply nothing to de-banalize the sappy orchestration or make the idiotic lyrics seem meaningful. Perhaps she just had better to stick to backup vocals after all.

And finally, we are left with 'Terrapin Station Part 1' (yes, that's the full name of the song; I wonder where has 'Part 2' gone to?) This is probably Garcia's magnum opus with the band, and, truthfully, it deserves the status of a classic, even if I'm not in love with it. It's divided into several parts, not all of which are orchestrated. Strangely, it's the mellower parts (you know, these typical Garcia-style whiny countryish shuffles) that usually go unaccompanied by strings; these appear later on, when the 'mellower' parts are replaced by little grumbling distorted riffs. So the overall feel is very funny - it's like you get orchestrated hard rock. Of course, the Dead never wrote true hard rock, but whatever be, this is probably the closest thing you'll ever find to a 'symph-hard-rock' piece.

Needless to say, the suite never varies enough to hold your interest for too long, despite a couple of moments being downright beautiful (the 'some rise, some fall' line, etc.), and a couple being weirdly Pink Floyd-ish - huh? Yeah, you heard right, but I'll let you figure these moments out for yourself. And, of course, the lyrics don't make even an ounce of sense, but that's okay. You just have to put up with the concept of a 'terrapin station', and besides, aren't the terrapins on the front cover downright lovely? Fat, green and dancing. I love terrapins! I like this album. Yeah, it's dumb as a daffodil, but all Grateful Dead albums are. At least, this one ain't nasty, and it ain't too generic. I could have even given it an 8, if that 'Sunrise' thing didn't suck so badly...



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

Disillusioned Druggies Doing Disco. Well, it could have been worse.


Track listing: 1) Good Lovin'; 2) France; 3) Shakedown Street; 4) Serengetti; 5) Fire On The Mountain; 6) I Need A Miracle; 7) From The Heart Of Me; 8) Stagger Lee; 9) All New Minglewood Blues; 10) If I Had The World To Give.

Every band with a cult following and a huge catalog has to have one album as sort of a scapegoat, so that every single diehard fan could gather round this unfortunate and say: "Hey, I'm nowhere near a rabid Genesis/Jethro Tull/ELP/Pink Floyd fanatic! In fact, I friggin' hate From Genesis To Revelation/Under Wraps/Love Beach/More Soundtrack, so there!" For the Grateful Dead, the scapegoat album is usually this one.

The way I see it, scapegoats usually differ in quality: most of the time, they just sound very much unlike the band's 'standard' sound, and that 'unlikeness' is what causes the fan to curse it rather than the actual quality. However, the misfortune of Shakedown Street can indeed be justified, because it's not like the Dead started doing two-minute punk rock tunes on here or anything. More likely they just sort of petered out for a while - Garcia's drug habit was starting to seriously hinder his creative juices, and Bob Weir just wasn't smart enough to step up to the steering wheel and set the course right. Blues For Allah was a minor artistic triumph and sort of showed them a clear direction in which they could be heading - but they blew it all on Terrapin Station (which at least had the ambitious title suite to be of notice), and came back together to do this album with absolutely no hint at a working scheme in mind. To top it all off, they recruited Little Feat's Lowell George as producer, and he somehow didn't really give a fuck about what would come out of the whole deal.

But on the positive side, Shakedown Street is more of a bizarre confused mess than a straightforward suckjob, if you can get the difference between the two. It's strange - it's not like the Dead never did any of these types of songs before or after (although 'Shakedown Street' probably remains their one and only straightforward venture into disco, unless 'Feel Like A Stranger' counts), but there's just too much of a percentage of things they tackled rarely, such as: generic cock-rock (sic!), McCartney-like pop ballads (yep), a remake of a previously released song, and even a Donna Godcheaux-sung tune of all things.

Naturally, this has a lot to do with Garcia's disfunctionality. Judging by the quality of the Garcia/Hunter contributions, the problem is minor, but judging by the quantity - only three of 'em in total - Jerry was all but forced to step aside from the leadership and let Bob Weir do too much of his questionable stuff here. So Bobby grabs the chance to display his love for straightahead non-experimental material, and it just doesn't cook. For some reason, 'I Need A Miracle' is regarded as a highlight and even became a regular live show favourite, but it's a plain horrible song, easily one of the worst on here. Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but when it comes to hard rock territory, I likes me some Led Zeppelin or, at least, some Lynyrd Skynyrd or whatnot, bands that can actually get a real hard rock sound going on in any of its manifestations. I definitely do not need to hear a cocky-sounding Bob Weir delivering a mild, half-assed attempt at a 'heavier' sound, no matter how many "scary" bluesy harmonica solos he inserts in there. It is nothing short of ridiculous that I've heard some Dead fans referring to the song as "edgy" or to the guitar sound as "blazing" or "crisp" - I can only surmise these particular people listen to nothing but the Dead, because such epithets can only be just by the Dead's own standards, not by anybody else's.

Elsewhere, Weir, for some reason, reinstates oldies like "Good Lovin'", an earlier showcase for Pigpen in concert - as a tribute to a deceased buddy or what? Again, he tries to sound all 'ballsy' or something and fails, making the final result a relative embarrassment. And as for the audaciously called 'All New Minglewood Blues', it adds nothing but a relatively more dense sound to the original version. The band is indeed in a state of confusion if it has to resort to "remaking" songs from their very first album.

The Weir/Godcheaux duet on 'France' is not as excessive, but the song does sound rather clumsy, as if it doesn't itself understand whether it's more jazz or calypso, and the sole Donna contribution 'From The Heart Of Me' is a very undistinguished ballad. If anything is good about them, it's probably Mickey Hart's percussion work: you could say Hart was arguably the most inspired person at the sessions, because his drumwork on most of the songs is tricky, diverse, and incorporates all kinds of untrivial ethnic influences he's now famous for. He even gets a little solo spot along with Kreutzmann (so, rather, a drum duet) on the two-minute instrumental 'Serengetti', which is actually far more interesting and involving than a good half of the actual songs on here. Count this as a short and tasty prelude to all the stuff that would later on appear in much more overblown form on Infrared Roses.

Hart also gets a real composition here, with Hunter's lyrics attached, and it turns out to be the best song - 'Fire On The Mountain'. A stately, graceful shuffle that somehow manages to reflect the classic "Dead-Zen Contemplative Sound" while maintaining a steady toe-tapping rhythm and only containing a single repetitive hookline - the chanted chorus. Very simple and very humble, with no trace of hurriedness or confusion or embarrassment or drug addiction or whatever. A just classic.

Still, in terms of overall statistics, drugs or no drugs, Garcia as usual comes out as the winner. You may hate disco as much as you want, but I personally dig 'Shakedown Street' in this very incarnation, not necessarily in the live settings where it would often lose the direct disco flavour and become more of a straightforward R'n'B jam. Sure the verses sound a bit cheesy and even - oh God oh God - Bee Gees-ish, but how can you resist the 'nothin' shakin' on Shakedown Street' chorus? Or the stupid, but charming eight-note introductory synth riff? If you can tolerate the idea of Dead Doing Disco at all, it's a good song. 'Stagger Lee', a Garcia/Hunter "reworking" of the traditional folk song, is the most "typical Dead" number on here and could probably fit on any of their two 1970 albums even, if not as a highlight. And 'If I Had The World To Give' is really unusual for Jerry, with all kinds of sentimental piano chord changes, catchy and emotional vocal hooks, and an overall feel like the song belongs in a music hall rather than in a country bar where most of his other songs do belong.

In the end, Shakedown Street is not really as bad as it's pictured by "loyal" Dead fans - and definitely more enjoyable than stuff like Anthem Of The Sun, too. Yeah, so about half of it sucks, but only the most obnoxious Bob Weir-dominated tunes really make me vomit all over the keyboard, and even so only if I already did feel like vomiting. And on the positive side, hey! Fire! Fire On The Mountain!



Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 8

Finally, the Dead try to keep up with the times (a little), but that sure ain't no big advantage.


Track listing: 1) Alabama Getaway; 2) Far From Me; 3) Althea; 4) Feel Like A Stranger; 5) Lost Sailor; 6) Saint Of Circumstance; 7) Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber); 8) Easy To Love You; 9) Don't Ease Me In

For those few Deadheads that still find something salvageable about Shakedown Street, it is Go To Heaven, the last studio album the band recorded before taking a seven-year break, that is their absolute nadir: and it's understandable, as after Shakedown Street it's perhaps the least Dead-styled Dead album in their entire catalog. The record is indeed quite weak; however, as usual, I suppose that my feelings about it will probably be more positive as I'm no Deadhead and I can simply appreciate some of the songs here without worrying about whether they suit the 'style' or not.

The big rub, probably, is related to the fact that the Dead go for a refined 'pop' sound on this record: it's almost never 'psychedelic' and dang never 'experimental'. The songs themselves can be grouped in three categories - the ones written or arranged by Garcia, the ones written by the new member - keyboardist Brent Mydland, and the ones written by Bob Weir; in fact, none of these groups sound anything like the others. And, unfortunately, just like last time around, the last group plainly sucks. I really don't know what kind of message old Bobby Weir was trying to communicate to us with his three lengthy, never ending 'epics', but whatever it be, the message never reaches the addressee. The worst is his disco/funk exercise 'Feel Like A Stranger', with cheesy backing vocals and annoying burps and bursts of synths all over the place; not only does this, indeed, sound nothing like the Dead of old, but it also shows that the Dead should stay as far away from 'modern' dance rhythms as possible. The song doesn't even have a melody, not to mention an overall sense. And on his two other numbers, Weir goes for a 'soulful' groove that might, perhaps, satisfy a long lost soul on a desert island, but would never satisfy such a selective wimp as your humble servant. Gee, and there was once a time when Bob used to write good songs! I mean - good songs, when the word 'melody', and, sometimes, even the word 'hook' didn't sound so annoyingly out of place! Honestly, I don't see how anybody could like, let alone love 'Lost Sailor' and 'Saint Of Circumstance'. Both overstay their welcome at at least twice the desired time (five and a half minutes of groundless wailing for each? Pleeeeaase!), and both abuse the same basic principles of 'soul' music like endless call-and-response sessions between lead and backing vocals, 'cute' harmonies, and 'heavenly' guitar/keyboards tones. However, it still seems to me that Bob didn't really bother to read the 'Soul Manual' further than the introductory chapter; otherwise, he would have probably learned that good 'soul' songs also need steam, aka energy, and passion, aka sincerity, not to mention hooks, aka memorability. As such - fifteen minutes of the record fade away to dust.

Mydland's two contributions are a little bit better - mainly because they are cute little ballads where he obviously tries to emulate Garcia's vocal style. They're also relatively short, and therefore inoffensive. However, that doesn't mean that they're memorable, either: sacchariney, yes, but memorable? They have nothing but atmosphere. They are nothing but atmosphere. Oh well. At least they aren't exactly pretentious, as would be the standard for Mydland's tunes on later Dead records, where he started emulating Dylan rather than Garcia. Wilson & Alroy dismissed the guy with the statement 'whitebread California soft-rock', and while I'm no 'labelist' (do they really think that whitebread California soft-rock has no right to exist on this planet?), I have to agree that this guy ranks among its weakest emulators. The Dead never had any luck with their keyboard players.

That leaves us with Garcia, and yes, damn well he's the saviour of this album. He is probably responsible for the contribution of the folk cover 'Don't Ease Me In', a jolly happy dance ditty that kinda relieves you from the boring as hell atmosphere of the previous cuts. He also contributes the two best original numbers, the ones that stand far, far ahead of everything Weir and Mydland have pumped out on here. There's 'Alabama Getaway', yet another fast song, a great country rock stylization with a steady, pulsating rhythm, a catchy chorus and superb, simply superb guitar licks all over the place. In fact, I absolutely admire Garcia's guitar playing on this album: either it was the production, or he was just in an exceptionally good storm, and he plays up a mini-thunderstorm on all of his tracks and on some of his companions', too. Country guitar can be heavenly - if it is played well, and Garcia demonstrates that he's far ahead of any Nashville competition. Hmm, maybe not far ahead. Once again, you caught me abusing superlatives - sorry. No more superlatives in this review. I promise. I'm just kinda excited.

Yup, I even like 'Althea', Jerry's lengthy seven-minute sonic exploration where he ponders questions of life and love in an imaginary dialogue with some gal of his with a mythic Greek name (at least, that's the best deal I can get out of Hunter's lyrics). It's slow, but it's soooo moody - and it's rhythmic, too, rhythmic, moody and heavy on the guitar (note: not guitar-heavy! That's a different thing). Probably the clos... sorry, I promised no superlatives. Anyway: it reminds me very much of the classic Grateful Dead style. Which I used to hate. 'Althea', however, is pretty cool.

Does that make sense to you?

Probably doesn't.

Never mind. Jerry's just a good lad. And notice how cool he looks on the front cover - you know, the one where they are prepared to go to heaven. Hardcore fans probably had nothing against the idea after spinning this record a couple of times, but I tell ya, if only they'd cut out Mydland's and Weir's tunes out and only left the three songs with Garcia's identity on 'em, the record would have been a blast. Would have gotten an easy ten, in fact. What? Oh, yeah, you want to tell me that it would only be fourteen minutes long? Well, since when do we count the album's lengthiness as a valid criterium for rating it?



Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

Unplugged. Where's Eric Clapton when you need him?

Best song: RIPPLE

Track listing: 1) Dire Wolf; 2) The Race Is On; 3) It Must Have Been The Roses; 4) Dark Hollow; 5) China Doll; 6) Been All Around This World; 7) Monkey And The Engineer; 8) Jack-A-Roe; 9) Deep Elem Blues; 10) Cassidy; 11) To Lay Me Down; 12) Rosa Lee McFall; 13) On The Road Again; 14) Bird Song; 15) Ripple.

Nice! The Dead release something different for a change - another double live album, but this time a totally acoustic one, culled from several different performances in October 1980; the electric "parts" of these (or contemporary) shows later made it to Dead Set. The closest they came around to something like this was with Bear's Choice seven years ago, but even that album wasn't fully acoustic, besides being too short; here, the entire atmosphere is to get as laid back and cozy as possible and chuck away any signs of jamming or spacing out or trying to incorporate any of those hip new sounds like disco and stuff. This is straightahead folk, country and blues and American Beauty all around your threshold. This is a retro album, a nod to the band's past - the very format of the material means there really is little chance of any post-1970 song making it on to there. And given the Dead's respect for their betters, there really is little chance of a lot of Dead-penned songs making it on to there; less than half of the tracks are originals.

Now me not being a Deadhead and all and not knowing the big difference between an October '71 and a May '72 show (so sue me!), I can't really say if these performances are much better or much worse than the "average" Dead show. If you ask my ignorant opinion, I don't really think the band's acoustic material ever varied in quality that much, what with no jamming involved and no "electric energy" required. But that's just me, I don't even like "Sugaree", so what do I know? Considering, though, that it was 1980 and Jerry was on his worst drugs and they were still fitting in their new keyboard player and they had just released two of their least respectable albums in a row, I'd warrant Reckoning is pretty damn good for that kind of time, and that, no matter how hard the problems, the band's heart was still in that material.

And how could it not be? They're singing some of their most heartfelt songs on here. 'Dire Wolf'! 'Ripple'! 'It Must Have Been The Roses'! 'China Doll'! You have to be a heartless monster not to get moved by some of them at least! Or a random member of the Web Reviewing Community, for that matter, which doesn't exactly hold the Grateful Dead in high esteem, not generally, at least. But 'It Must Have Been The Roses', by the way, is amazingly pretty in this version (much better than the strangely more tepid rendition on One From The Vault), and mind you, I'd have to thank Brent Mydland for that, who sprinkles wonderful, crystal clear piano lines all over the tune and gives it an almost classically-tinged sense of grace and magnificence. Normally I twirl my nose at ultra-slow Garcia/Hunter declarations of love, sadness, and submission, but every now and then they manage to pull it all together and go like "well, try and resist this", and I admit I can't, even if it still doesn't exactly bring tears to my eyes. For some reason. Strange how different people are: I, for one, find Jerry's voice pretty and occasionally even "beautiful" in the formal sense of the word, but it has never been able to penetrate me like the utterly non-proverbial "beautiful" voice of Bob Dylan could. Maybe it's just too 'whiny' or self-consciously 'tearful'? But from the other side there's stuff like Carl Wilson's self-consciously 'angelic' voice on songs like 'I Can Hear Music'... I'm a-guessin' there's tons and tons of factors determining our choice here. But I digress. This stuff is good anyway.

I must say, though, that as soon as Mydland switches to moody-sounding harpsichord on 'China Doll', the old feeling of boredom starts creeping over me all over all over again. Aaaarggh! Worst offender, or, rather, the most "take-it-or-leave-it" thing on here is the sprawling nine minute creeping death of 'To Lay Me Down' - in terms of embracing the Chinese policy of "acting without doing anything", the song is only beaten by 'Attics Of My Life' in the entire Dead catalog, and I do feel like lying down and dying every time it comes along. Then again, maybe that's adequate, I dunno.

But don't be alarmed! Still hope lingers in the hearts of the brave, and there are only a few lethargic creepers like that on here. There's plenty of fun fast rollickin' stuff, mostly covers, like Don Rollins' 'The Race Is On' or the eternal folk marvel 'Jack-A-Roe'. Among the familiar tunes you'll also discover 'Dark Hollow' and 'Been All Around This World', and rare gems include a hilarious reading on Jesse Fuller's 'Monkey And The Engineer', among others. The usual Dead thing - none of the songs really stand out from the other ones, but all together they form a great collective entity that warms your heart and cuddles your soul. By the time the double set skims by towards the crowd-pleasing conclusion of 'Ripple' (rather randomly chosen by me as best tune - hey, I had to say something, and I really like it, I do), you'll almost feel sorry that it's already over.

But once again, note that this is the Dead - don't expect to be bawled over by marvelous playing technique or jaw-dropping acoustic solos. This is standard Dead playing, no more, no less, very down to earth and quiet and humble. Don't go into this expecting a wonder-o'-the-world. And in case you are very very much interested, note that this has been placed on one CD by Arista at the expense of one track whose name escapes me at the moment. So you might want to look up some mega-expensive Japanese 2-CD import for that one, or go rummaging through old vinyl stores. Take your choice.



Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

Dead Set? More like "Hanging On A Thread"! HA! HA! Okay, that was stupid.

Best song: forget it.

Track listing: 1) Samson And Delilah; 2) Friend Of The Devil; 3) New Minglewood Blues; 4) Deal; 5) Candyman; 6) Little Red Rooster; 7) Loser; 8) Passenger; 9) Feel Like A Stranger; 10) Franklin's Tower; 11) Space; 12) Fire On The Mountain; 13) Greatest Story Ever Told; 14) Brokedown Palace.

Now, now, in this modern world full of latest technological wonders like Dick's Picks Volume Did They Think Of A Number For It Yet, I sort of understand that even the average Joe who ain't never "felt the incredible emotion of an entire stadium of Dead Heads shakin' it to Sugaree", like a generous reader comment once said to me, will twirl the average Joe's nose and pout the average Joe's lips and say: "A live Dead album assembled from several different 1980 performances? Who needs that shit?" But let us be generous. In 1980 the tradition of releases "from the vault" was yet to be invented, and in the meantime everyone went ahead and did just that - assembling live albums from a variety of recorded tapes. After all, that was the way the Dead did Europe '72, wasn't it?

The problem, then, is that in 1980, the Grateful Dead were in transition. Perhaps the idea of 'separating' the acoustic stuff on Reckoning from the electric stuff on this double set was not as cool as it might have seemed to whoever burped it out in the first place. Reckoning showed us the Dead hearkening back to their past, drawing inspiration from a deep well that looked as if it were depleted, but in reality could never be drained to the last drop as long as these guys were still alive. Dead Set, on the other hand, shows us the Dead suspiciously staring at the future - a band that's trying to get their fans to cope with material from their last three records and make them believe they are as worthy of recognition as the best stuff from years ago. It doesn't really work; even if the fans still show their respect, ready to swallow anything as long as you can groove around to it in a stony haze, the record sounds thin, unsure of itself, and just plain unnecessary.

Again, Bob Weir takes the lead for the most part - on Reckoning, Jerry was much more prominent because he was the soul of their past, but this present/future course just seems a bit out of hand with his usual preoccupations. So Garcia still manages to shine on 'Franklin's Tower' and particularly 'Brokedown Palace' - an awesome touch to end the album with that song, just as it was an awesome touch to end Reckoning with 'Ripple'; but 'Friend Of The Devil' is played about thrice as slow as it's supposed to be played and butchered in the process, and I only hope that wasn't the regular treatment the song got in concert.

Elsewhere, the first half is choking with "Weirisms", and that nearly ruins the album. Bobby, stay away from R'n'B. Stay. Away. If you think your screaming out the last syllable in every verse of 'Samson And Delilah' gives the song more power, let me tell you it only gives it stupidity. You might just as well start adding behind-the-screen laughter at every funny line in your compositions. 'New Minglewood Blues' gets its, rather moronic, lyrics, spelled out so clearly ('stealing womenZZZ from their men...') that I almost seem to get written confirmation for the band's desire to descend into the depths of cock rock for a spell. And the cover of 'Little Red Rooster' defines "generic piss-poor boring blues" for me personally; download the performance for yourselves and see if you ever get the desire to call the Rolling Stones' or Eric Clapton's blueswailing "generic" after that one.

Still, overall the track listing is not bad, and no number of misfires can stop 'Fire On The Mountain' and 'Candyman' from ruling. 'Feels Like A Stranger', rendered as a straight funk number and devoid of its disco-isms, is also an improvement over the studio version - not by a long shot, though, because this band wasn't made to play funk either. Heck, they got two drummers sitting out there in their seats, and not one of them can get an exciting swing pattern going! Even Charlie Watts could do it on 'Sympathy For The Devil', and ol' Charlie ain't really known for frequently stepping outside the 4/4 formula in a live setting. Which just gets me to the point: for every genre the Grateful Dead are doing, you can find somebody doing it much better - it's just that few people do as much of 'em as the Dead do, not to mention doing it for such a friggin' long period of time.

Actually, I like 'Space'. Well, I mean the 'space' jam they have on here; it is told that it had to be seriously shortened in order to fit the entire experience on one CD, but frankly, I do not mind at all - three minutes of bizarre noises are enough for me in this context; if I want more, I'll address myself to Infrared Roses. As somebody who knows shit about the Dead, I'm not exactly sure of the time period when these 'space jams' started replacing the traditional 'Dark Star/St Stephen'-type psychedelic noodling; I'm guessing it had something to do with Mickey Hart's return to the old stool. In any case, if you wanna know, during these three minutes the Dead make a hell of a lot of astral noise that could seriously rival some of the Krautrock biggies, and then smoothly proceed onto 'Fire On The Mountain'.

Other than that, there's not much to recommend here. The bigger Dead-lover you are, the more you'll probably dislike this album; personally, I don't think there's a whole wide abyss of quality between this and their best performances, but it sure feels a bit tired and excessive. And Bob Weir sucks.



Year Of Release: 1987
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Directed towards the kiddie market! Front cover features a new game called "Spot That Jerry"!

Best song: any of the Garcia-Hunter ones.

Track listing: 1) Touch Of Grey; 2) Hell In A Bucket; 3) When Push Comes To Shove; 4) West LA Fadeaway; 5) Tons Of Steel; 6) Throwing Stones; 7) Black Muddy River.

Hi! I'm a new Grateful Dead album. I want to be friends with you... and with you, and you, and you, and you, and you guys over there in the corner, too. My creators invented me and fleshed me out and squeezed my soul into me and put me on the shelf of your nearest music store and sprinkled me all over the radio and even cut off a hunk of me and tucked it onto MTV, and that's just because I want to be friends with you... and you, and you, and you too little mister, even if you're just a snotty little kid and didn't even have sperm form when my creators were rockin' the Fillmore to the sweet scent of illegal substances sixteen years ago.

I don't bite, I don't scream, I'm glossy and shiny all over, I don't rock too much because I'm afraid to scare you and I don't rock too little because I have to give you some o' that good ol' timey music to make you tap your foot and bob your head. I'm not at all overproduced, so don't go crappin' all over me how I'm just pandering to the stinky spirit of the times or some other jabberwocky like that. But I'm not exactly shunning all these cute-looking new synthesizers either, or you might go crappin' all over me about how I'm all retro and nostalgia and "bring back that Leroy Brown" and other things I'm too simple and naive to understand.

I carry 'Touch Of Grey' on me, too. Some people think it's a good thing because it's a good song, a touching declaration of optimism and hope from Garcia and Hunter, with hopeful optimistic guitar chords and hopeful optimistic Mydland chimes and the "I will get by, I will survive" message being both a statement of overall love and a statement that Jerry is well again and ready to trot the world with his colleagues. Other people think it's just so-so and somewhat cheesy, and made the guys - at least, in the eyes of the unsuspecting public - into MOR oriented hacks, not to be taken seriously at all. Betrayed the Dead cult to the overall public at large, so to speak. Well, whaddaya know, I'm just a skinny little music record, so I don't know a big deal about MTV anyway. Me likes that song.

I mean, it's not my fault some of my owners put me next to all these late period Eagles records like The Long Run, I do realize I sound somewhat similar, but have mercy on a little piece of plastic. Give me a fair chance and you'll find out that the only suckjob on me is actually Brent Mydland's 'Tons Of Steel', because when that Brent guy is left all to himself, he likes to plaster his ugly industrial synths all over the chorus and sing by means of emitting a series of rusty raspy hungry mid-pitched acoustic signals which he probably calls his "voice" but I really don't know, I have no problems with "voice" usually, and this series of signals made me all scratchy inside. He also adds his ugly "harmonies" to other songs but at least he is not very audible on them. One of my neighbours yesterday suggested that he is "pulling a Springsteen" on this song. I have no idea what that is, maybe this is the equivalent of "violently throwing up in a dark slime-covered cavern?". You tell me, I'm just an ignorant little record.

Other than that, I even like the two Bob Weir tunes on here. 'Hell In A Bucket' is a mid-tempo rocker that might not be as spooky as Bob probably wanted to make it, but it's catchy and fun and there's very little vocal exaggeration and stupid posturing of the sort that plagues my brothers in arms, Shakedown Street and Go To Heaven. Rumour has it Bobby had been listening to a lot of mid-period Dire Straits, and developed a taste for "storytelling" akin to that of Mark Knopfler, which is why there are so many verses both here and on that very very long thing called 'Throwing Stones'. All day long people keep skipping these two tracks, leaving them shining and unscratched and it makes me a little sad because they're not bad at all. In fact, I like the ethnic percussion on 'Throwing Stones' and the cute pauses between each chorus and the da-dee-da-dum little guitar twinkle that introduces the next verse. Don't you stupid people say "God is in the details" or some other non-music industry related aphorism like that to illustrate what I'm trying to tell you here?

Still, even a stupid little record like me wouldn't argue that Garcia's contributions are the best on here. 'Touch Of Grey', yes, but also the hilarious groovey dance number 'When Push Comes To Shove', the gloomy blues-rock sendup 'West L. A. Fadeaway', and the emotional closing ballad 'Black Muddy River' are all good songs. Maybe he dreamt them all up while lying in that comatose state of his. Maybe they're all so simple and uncluttered with extra ideas because he had to relearn guitar playing after that incident - but no matter how little 'technique' there is, the spirit is all there, and I know something about spirit, I'm a rock record, don't mess around with me.

I must say, though, I do feel a little sad about how there's only seven tracks on me, and most of them around six minutes long. But they're mostly good, you know. Very radio friendly and, uh, well, not much of the Dead's "guardian of the past riches" image on here, which is what that snub-nosed elitist whore American Beauty keeps telling me. But one day that stupid swaggercock of an album wll be all scratched and rusty and all and then my owner will remember me and put me on and realize that Jerry Fuckin' Garcia knows what he's doing and that if he's using fuller production and borrowing a few Eagles-like elements that doesn't mean he's just gonna "sell out" and leave it at that. Hear that? Now PUT ME ON, YOU FUCKER! PUT ME ON THIS MINUTE!



Year Of Release: 1989
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 7

Bland, hookless, unmemorable and only pretending to rock - such was the Dead's musical testament.


Track listing: 1) Foolish Heart; 2) Just A Little Light; 3) Built To Last; 4) Blow Away; 5) Victim Or The Crime; 6) We Can Run; 7) Standing On The Moon; 8) Picasso Moon; 9) I Will Take You Home.

The name of the album seems to hint at the Dead's cultural longevity and, in fact, would probably suggest that they would really stay and kick around for more and more years. Right? Wrong! What happened is that they probably missed the word 'be' in between the second and the third one, since this, indeed, was their last studio effort, and quite a weak effort this is, in all honesty.

After the Dead made such a triumphant comeback in 1987 with In The Dark, expectations were set pretty high - and everybody was disappointed. Me too. Now, to tell you the truth, nothing here is awful or offensive. Nothing is even boring - in that Dead-only sense of the word. I mean, the whole album is boring, but it's the normal kind of boredom, not the kind of stoned-away boredom where you just sit blandly staring at the ceiling while Garcia and Weir buzz in with their droning, lethargic studio jams. No, the record is pretty normal - your average soft-rock product, with a usual country and soul influence. But... but... that's exactly what I dislike. They have forgotten to insert the Grateful Dead Soul in this album.

Actually, this is not entirely true. The biggest problem with the record is that it is almost entirely dominated by keyboardist Brent Mydland - four of the nine tunes are his, and I suspect he sings lead vocals on a couple others, as well. And the guy finally turns out to be a worthless songwriter! Sure, he's trying to cope, and he's even trying to be diverse. There are a couple of fast-going rockers ('Just A Little Light', 'Blow Away'); an anthemic chant ('We Can Run'); and a soft, stripped-down piano/acoustic ballad ('I Will Take You Home'). But none of them manage to thrill me. First, he's got a truly awful voice - hoarse, gruff, frequently off-key; maybe he's trying to emulate Dylan, but he who tries to emulate Dylan is an asshole. Note to any occasional Mydland fan who happens to pass by: I'm only supposing he's trying to emulate Dylan. I have no ample proof. (But I wish I had). Anyway, Dylan or no Dylan, these songs suck. The 'rockers' turn out to be little more than over-emotion-alized synth-pop with a couple of distorted, very unusual for the Dead, crunchy guitar solos that nevertheless get lost in a sea of synths and different stuff. The 'anthemic chant' is rotten to the core, a soulful hymn that's a good find for church revivals. And the ballad is just unmemorable.

So it is up to the old war horses to save the album from utter ruin. Bob Weir comes to the rescue, but nearly screws it up even further, with a lengthy 'introspective' seven-minute epic ('Victim Or The Crime'); what could have been a normal, passable three-minute tune becomes unfairly pretentious and even grossly overblown at seven minutes. It's always a big bluff with these lengthy numbers - and where 'Throwing Stones' is fortunate enough to hold our attention for most of the time, 'Victim' simply doesn't qualify. Fortunately, his other contribution to the album, 'Picasso Moon', is far better, the album's most substantial rocker that doesn't follow the synth-pop formula so closely. Sometimes I even sing along, before remembering that this is the Grateful Dead, geez, what am I doing.

The best stuff, however, comes from Garcia - which is hardly strange, considering his inspired songwriting on the previous record; yet even so, in comparison to In The Dark, these songs seem to be lacking energy anyway. Jerry seems to be relatively inactive throughout. Together with Hunter, he's responsible for the title track, 'Foolish Heart' and 'Standing On The Moon' - the three best cuts on the whole record. And it's not that these are really good songs. Okay, 'Standing On The Moon' is a near-classic, with its steady beat, pretty lyrics (and I mean it) and a really soulful delivery from Jerry. And then there's the title track, which has that groovy chorus and a pretty good, jumpy, bouncy, rhythmic structure... cut the crap. It's impossible to describe a Grateful Dead song, they all sound so damn alike and undescribable. 'Foolish Heart' is a cute little ballad, but again, much too heavy on the cheesy synths. And overall, this whole thing simply waxes nostalgic - most of the charm in these songs comes when you realise they're being sung by a good old fart with a great musical legacy. Guess I just feel good towards Jerry's vocals - and when taken next to Mydland's, they are simply stunning. 'Show me something built to last...' Point taken.

It seems to me, now that I have become acquainted with a fairly large chunk of the Dead's studio albums, that they were simply cursed by the curse of 'fourth member'. While the 'core trio' of Garcia/Lesh/Weir could hardly do any serious wrong (well, actually, they could, but that's a different kind of wrong), all these obscure personalities like the Godchauxs or Mydland were there only to mess things up. Why the hell did they need all the synths on this album? I'd bet you anything that taken on a simple acoustic/electric guitar scale with an occasional piano thrown in, this album would have been hugley improved upon. Why, it might have even gotten a six! Why give the guy four songs? FOUR? Were they that spent or what? Crucify the keyboardist! Throw him to the wolves! Show me something built to last!



Year Of Release: 1990
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

I know Sting is hiding somewhere out there under one of the drummer's seats. It just can't be otherwise!


Track listing: CD I: 1) Feel Like A Stranger; 2) Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo; 3) Walkin' Blues; 4) Althea; 5) Cassidy; 6) Bird Song; 7) Let It Grow;

CD II: 1) China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider; 2) Looks Like Rain; 3) Eyes Of The World; 4) Victim Or The Crime; 5) Help On The Way/Slipknot/Franklin's Tower; 6) One More Saturday Night; 7) Dear Mr Fantasy.

Nice! The only "reunion-era" live Dead album actually released 'on time' (i.e. not a from the vaults tape), and it's well worth your money if you find it used like I did (in an old cracked case, dust and all, but at least the CDs do not rattle inside and sit quite tightly, wink wink). Be careful though, it's long, and I mean it. The Dead weren't too eager to benefit from the CD length when it came around to recording actual songs - a wise decision, if you ask me - but with live material, it was always "give the fan as much of the live stuff as his back can carry", and so we go from double LPs to double CDs, this one carrying well over two hours of music.

And for an album that carries well over two hours of music, there sure is not a lot of different tracks on here - yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's jamming and jamming and more jamming, all over the place. Actually, more jamming than before, in a way: they are now keen on extending lots of their tracks rather than going the 'Dark Star' route. You never thought 'Bird Song' could extend to twelve minutes cuz Jerry'd start soloing and then nobody was really sure when to stop, right? Well, that's exactly what happens. That said, Without A Net is not a complete show; like the 1980 live albums, the performances here have been culled from different venues and sort of strung together, but this time they don't even really feel cohesive - what kind of a Dead show would end with a Brent Mydland-sung cover of 'Dear Mr Fantasy' anyway?

On the other hand, I can understand this; obviously, the aim was to acquaint the world with songs that had never, or very rarely, made it onto Dead live albums before. I mean, like, 'Eyes Of The World' had been a regular concert staple since the day it was written or something, yet up until 1990, the band never put it on a live record. And so on. The record has pretty few predictable choices: the 'China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider' is pretty much the only classic live number that we'd already heard before, and was probably thrown on at the last minute to appease the ol'-timey fan of the band.

However, the track selection isn't the main point here. I mean, it's not even all that good - too much Bob Weir, with pathetic soul ballads like 'Looks Like Rain' and equally pathetic disco swaggering like 'Feel Like A Stranger'. Holy shit, does that man like to use the word "like" in his song titles. Fuck you, Bobby, you made my sentence look all clumsy because of that. The main point is to notice how the live Dead sound has radically changed in the past few years. All these jams, they sound very, very different from before. The sound has somewhat become bigger, in fact it's downright BIG - it feels like a huge stadium rock band we're having here, instead of a homely friendly cult attraction. And, well, in a certain way it is, just you look at all the megalomaniac photos in the booklet. It IS the era of mega-tours, after all, and if the Stones can do it, why can't the Grateful Dead?

But have a huge setting is only part of the thang. The sound itself changes, too. I think it is very much due to the presence of the Mydland fellow. He may have a voice that makes lizards bite their tails off in agony, and a complete lack of songwriting talent to go along with it, but I can't deny his talents on his instruments - be it piano, organ, or (most frequently) synth, he manages to make it very noticeable, boosting the band's thickness of sound, and at the same time thoroughly non-annoying. In the past, be it Pigpen or Keith Godchaux, I must say I haven't been noticing the keyboards too much, unless they were really prominent in specific contexts. Here it's not possible not to notice them even when they're not supposed to be important - but listen to Brent hackin' at it all through 'Eyes Of The World', for instance, and you'll hear some great lines laid on there.

His overall style is jazzy, and somehow both Weir and Garcia see it fit to 'accommodate' themselves to his style - and Without A Net in its entirety has a strong jazz tinge to it, more so than any other Dead album, in fact. It's hardly a coincidence that they invite Branford Marsalis to provide his sax playing for 'Eyes Of The World': it doesn't feel one iota out of place here. There also seems to be some brass sound going on during 'Let It Grow', but I hadn't paid too much attention... maybe it's just Mydland fiddling around with a different synth out there. There are some strange sounds coming out of the speakers now and then, and I won't really go out of myself trying to identify them.

As a result, anyway, I find a great chunk of this stuff not particularly interesting, but perfectly working for me as background music. Scroll down a bit and you'll see me complaining in my review of One From The Vault about how these guys had terrific jazz potential yet only explored it occasionally throughout their career. Well, apparently the older they got the jazzier they were becoming - according to the common notion that jazz knows no age limitations where rock does know some. It takes Garcia just a minor twist o' the wrist to transform his psychedelic noodling into jazzy noodling, and while the music doesn't become much more exciting, it becomes much less annoying. It's a very nice, calm, soothing listen throughout, and I highly recommend it as such... although perhaps it could be wiser to simply go for some Branford Marsalis instead. Just stop your player before 'Dear Mr Fantasy' comes on. Don't let Mydland's buzzsaw of a voice spoil your pleasure.



Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

The Grateful Dead want to be Amon Düül II. Good luck, boys!

Best song: no songs.

The Dead have many weird albums in their catalog, but this one's the weirdest of them all. It's actually so weird that even a lot of Deadheads have trouble getting it. See, chronologically this stuff fits in with the miriads of archive live releases from the band's catalog, but unlike the absolute majority of Dick's Picks and the rest of that stuff, Infrared Roses is more like a 'sonic collage'. The twelve tracks on this CD are cut-and-paste extracts from the so-called "Drums" and "Space" sections of the Dead shows, which means that about half of the album are drum solos and about the other half are weird dissonant guitar/keyboards jams. And nothing else, not a word spoken or lyric sung.

Sounds pretty hideous, doesn't it? I've always heard about the awful reputation of this stuff and frankly speaking, didn't expect much when I put it on. Yet the final product turns out to be far more interesting than our expectations would have had it. First of all, Infrared Roses shouldn't really be judged according to typical Grateful Dead standards. What the album does is present a 'different' kind of band; an album like this could have easily put out by some obscure Krautrock band or any other avantgardist in existence, and there's not even a single tiny link to the Dead's parallel 'roots-rock' image, nor are there any true links to their free-jazz background. The only more or less 'normal' instrumental section comes at the end, with eight minutes of sax-dominated 'Apollo At The Ritz', and to tell you the truth, that's the part of the album that inspires me the least - typical boring free-jazz jam. Don't even know why they put it in there at all. Maybe just to ruin the general impression? Whatever.

The rest just kinda takes you on a journey, even if it's a rather disjointed journey. It's avantgarde, yes, but not the kind of avantgarde you'd hear on a Zappa record - bizarre stuff designed either to intentionally spook you off or, on the contrary, make you proudly proclaim that you "get this kind of music" where all the other simpletons don't. It ain't the kind of avantgarde you'd meet on King Crimson's THRaKaTTaK, either, where a bunch of really talented people make weird noise with the main intent of seeing if any good comes out of it incidentally. It's atmospheric avantgarde, free-flowing sonic landscapes that work in an ambient kind of way rather than in a dynamic kind of way.

The good news is, all the pieces are relatively short and almost all of them have something interesting to say. We begin with 'Parallelogram', Hart and Kreutzmann's inspired "drum solo duel", one of those rare occasions when I actually take pleasure in listening to a drum solo. The very idea of a 'drum battle' is cool, and these guys are so dang rhythmic at it it hurts. From there on, we skip into 'Little Nemo In Nightland', this time a guitar duet between Weir and Garcia, a duet which beats just about any sprawling King Crimson jam. One guitar gives out ominous dzinnnngs of feedback, while the other guitar shimmers and shivers in little silverish outbursts of tiny licks all around it. That's trippy.

Then there's 'Riverside Rhapsody' which is pretty normal, a little jazzy interlude with more of those beautiful 'silver licks' as I call 'em and an actual slight psychedelic rhythm (as I call it) backing up the near-non-existent melody. From then on, we head into 'Post-Modern Highrise Table Top Stomp', another drum solo, this time less rhythmic and therefore less interesting. That's one of the pieces on the album I really dislike, tricky pseudo-complex jazz signatures and all. Give that to well trained aural experts to enjoy, leave me out of this. Next comes the title track, which really fits in very well with the album cover (the one I have - this one, which I pilfered from AMG, seems to be kinda different. Mine is better, with two rocks shaped as skulls leading onto what looks like an endless cross between a chessboard and a psychedelic ocean). Anyway, the sonic landscape of the track is quite beautiful. Brent Mydland and Garcia are both responsible for some of the synthesized sounds on here, and they're mind-blowing.

'Silver Apples Of The Moon' showcases Bruce Hornsby on the piano and is quite anthemic in a certain way. Very soothing classically-influenced keyboard work, backed by a synthesizer wall-of-sound with occasional choral harmonies and stuff. Atmosphere don't get better than this. Yet then it fades away and is replaced by the scariest track on the album, 'Speaking In Swords', another percussion battle between Hart and Kreutzmann, but this time they're both using electronically enhanced instruments. That stuff really makes me shiver when played on headphones in a dark room. The impression gets spoiled with ugly distorted guitar blasts, though, as it scrolls into 'Magnesium Night Light'. Don't like that one, don't want no ugly distortion in my smooth atmospheric panoramas.

Finally, the last quarter of the album goes from further evil musical chaos ('Sparrow Hawk Row') to another drum battle that sounds very modernistic ('River Of Nine Sorrows') and then ends on a boring note with the already mentioned 'Apollo At The Ritz'.

Not sure, really, how fine did you get that description, but two things are obvious: a) this is pretty daring and b) you probably won't like all of the tracks, even if your tastes might not coincide with mine. As somebody who has been listening to a lot of Krautrock and early electronic music recently, though, I can state with certainty that Infrared Roses do not give the impression of a bunch of crazy stoned American guys trying to go somewhere beyond their limited abilities and failing. No. This is mature, experienced "static" music-making, and while it was never designed as an adequate representation of Dead shows, it just ain't SUPPOSED to be one. You just gotta relax to this. Heck, I do.



Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

For those who want more "Blues For Allah".

Best song: HELP ON THE WAY

Track listing: CD I: 1) Introduction; 2) Help On The Way; 3) Franklin's Tower; 4) The Music Never Stopped; 5) It Must Have Been The Roses; 6) Eyes Of The World/Drums; 7) King Solomon's Marbles; 8) Around And Around;

CD II: 1) Sugaree; 2) Big River; 3) Crazy Fingers/Drums; 4) The Other One; 5) Sage And Spirit; 6) Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad; 7) US Blues; 8) Blues For Allah.

The vaults are open. Starting from this point, Grateful Dead Records have inundated the market with their production - as of the writing of this review, May 13, 2003, I can't even keep up with the speed of the Dead archaeologists. The funny thing is, One From The Vault, the very first archive release, never really shook anybody's foundations. People were probably waiting for high-quality recorded performances from the Dead's peak period, around 1969-72, and what did they get? A one-time-only performance from mid-'75, a year when the Dead never really even toured in the first place.

What this performance is: once the Dead finished recording Blues For Allah, they decided to give out one show to celebrate the matter, as well as the establishment of Grateful Dead Records that would put it out for them. The show was small and non-advertised - what you see on the album cover is an example of a 'cordial invitation' to the performance which the band sent around to a small group of friends, industry members, and what-not, telling them to come to The Great American Music Hall on August 13, 1975. The motives are not quite clear, but arguably one of them was just a little bit of promotion - the show was later broadcast on the radio.

It's a good performance overall, but hardly typical for a quintessential Dead show: the chief aim was to play Blues For Allah in its entirety, a thing the Dead rarely, if ever, did with their new albums, occasionally diluting the material with stuff from their then-current setlist (which is why many of the non-BFA songs you will easily meet on Steal Your Face). On the positive side, this gives you many live performances of stuff you won't meet in a live version anywhere else; certainly not 'Blues For Allah' itself, for instance, although 'Franklin's Tower' and 'King Solomon's Marbles', if I'm not mistaken, would be regular partners o' the Dead for years on.

Now I wouldn't be in the first row among those who cry out loud that "ANY LIVE DEAD IS BETTER THAN ANY STUDIO DEAD AND I PITY YOU IF YOU THINK OTHERWISE BECAUSE YOU CAN'T EXPERIENCE THE SAME INTENSE FEELING OF LOVE AND BROTHERHOOD AS I CAN, YOU FUCKIN' PIECE OF DICK" because, frankly speaking, Blues For Allah was where the Dead really got their studio act together - and these live readings are hardly much better, but they sure as hell ain't worse. I've always felt the Dead made up for a really nice little jazz band, and when they jam on 'Help On The Way' or 'King Solomon's Marbles', it's not like they're doing anything special, but whatever they're doing sure ain't boring: it's very friendly, lively music, totally devoid of snobbery, so common for such a lot of jazz outfits, accessible, yet at the same time both heartfelt and technically well-accomplished. If you ask me, this mid-tempo jazzy stuff is WAY ahead of their stoned jams...

...such as found on 'Blues For Allah'. Yeah, yeah, there was a good reason why that suite never found a way into their regular set - no matter how much they try, it still comes out sounding exactly like 'Cryptical Envelopment' in the middle. And since there already was one 'Cryptical Envelopment', there was no big need to add another, was there? It's the most unbearable moment on the record, apart from the opening and closing sections, but since it's the last track, you can just ignore it if you're like me and concentrate instead on the folkie pleasantry of 'Crazy Fingers' and the meditative bliss of 'Sage And Spirit'.

Other highlights include a terrific version of 'Eyes Of The World' - more jazzy perfection which can't even be spoiled by a drum solo (there's another shorter one on 'Crazy Fingers', too, but at least they got two drummers for this show, so you get to watch Kreutzmann and Hart play off each other if that comforts you), and a fast rocking version of Johnny Cash' 'Big River', which really gets the groove going on Disc 2 for a while. 'Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad' is a bit of a disappointment for me here, being so replete with Donna Godcheaux's generic "soul" wailing, but it's still one of the Dead's best fast country-rockers, so who am I to complain. Yet I am somebody, after all, because I will complain about the band's silly bastardization of 'Around And Around'... what the hell is that crap? That song was never meant to be played at a slow tempo! Never! Play it fast or don't play it at all! Otherwise it's just some kind of ridiculous mockery.

Overall, though, the old material blends in perfectly well with the new one - the Dead have changed, but not so as to become incompatible with their past or something. And they demonstrate it well on Disc 2 where they just interweave the Allah material in between (a mercifully short) 'The Other One' and 'Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad' and nothing really sounds out of place. However, I do feel a little bit of 'uneasiness' at the show. Maybe it was because there was so much new material, or maybe because the unusually scarce audience just didn't feel right... or then again, maybe it was just because there was no more Pigpen dicking around. So it's not among the best live Dead you can get, but it sure can qualify as a fairly unnatural live Dead performance, and it definitely whipped up the appetite for further releases, too. Maybe that was exactly the aim of the "Dead archaeologists", too.



Year Of Release: 1992
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

For those who want more "Live/Dead".

Best song: DARK STAR

Track listing: CD I: 1) Good Morning Little Schoolgirl; 2) Dark Star; 3) Saint Stephen; 4) The Eleven; 5) Death Don't Have No Mercy;

CD II: 1) The Other One; 2) New Potato Caboose; 3) Turn On Your Lovelight; 4) (Walk Me Out In The) Morning Dew.

Reason number one why this 2-CD thingaling is worth having: so far, it's been the chronologically earliest Dead show to be officially released. They played it on August 23, 1968, at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., and I'm actually suspecting that not many boots exist dating back to such an early period, let alone excellently recorded tapes - and if we are to believe the liner notes, we get treated to a whole terrifying story about how the Dead were recording with Warners' super new 8-track recording equipment and how the tapes were never used and fell in disrepair with everything being out of synch and all and how only more than twenty years later they were able to repair everything and how, by a sheer touch of totally unexpected luck, this so wonderfully coincided with the start of a program to pour down a whole lot of archived stuff on the happy Deadheads. Okay, I just made that last bit up meself - do real Deadheads even start buying all these zillions of releases? A real Deadhead can probably release a couple hundred Dick's Picks all by himself.

Anyway, as you can tell, this here stuff is very much jam-obsessed. Not only do the Dead, as of yet, not possess a whole bunch of original material themselves, with only two albums (and only one of them filled with original compositions) behind their belt, but they haven't even mastered the "cosmic jam" technology completely. So, most of these jams are pretty down-to-earth, if you get what I mean. Live/Dead, the album I reviewed a million miles away from here, dates more or less to the same epoch (and has pretty much all the same songs, only less), but it was mostly recorded about a year or so later, and it shows - the "astral" feel is much more prominent on that release than on this one.

On the other hand, there's definitely some good jamming on here, too. Mostly on disc one, with a very strong 'Dark Star/St Stephen/The Eleven' sequence - with 'Dark Star' being much shorter than on Live/Dead (they start singing the vocal melody almost as soon as the song starts, the sellouts), but every bit as good. I admit that somewhere towards the middle of 'The Eleven' (which, on the other hand, is longer than the Live/Dead version) I start dozing off, but I don't mean it in a bad way necessarily. It's good stuff ladies and gentlemen, I just can't do it much justice 'cuz I've already said all that needs to be said in the Live/Dead review. What, you want me to analyze the heavenly effect of every single note Jerry plays on here for half an hour?

More duplication is to be found with 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' and 'Turn On Your Lovelight' - now I don't want to try and locate my Live/Dead CD right now because I've not lost my head entirely yet, but it seems to me that the former was better on Live/Dead, because Jerry didn't sing so almost defiantly out of key (Jesus, one of the biggest problems with this band has always been in that they were tackling vocal material which they just couldn't pull off - hey, bringing in even, I dunno, Jorma Kaukonen as guest vocalist couldn't hurt if they really wanted to make an emotional monster out of this Rev. Gary Davis tune); and the latter, I guess, is better here, because it doesn't seem to annoy me that much. Prob'ly because Pigpen tones down his antics a bit and the band extends the pure jam section instead. Then again, maybe I'm just becoming limp as the years go by.

Now what Live/Dead didn't have and this sucker does have is one more-or-less good thing and one less-or-more bad thing. 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' is a rare treat on Dead live albums unless you're a dick-picker de luxe, and although they also used to do 'Smokestack Lightning' in a very similar extended way (see the review of Bear's Choice for that one), the fact remains that you're not gonna hear Pigpen squeal 'good mo-o-o-o-o-orning lil' schoolgirl' for so many minutes of your life anywhere else but on here. I don't go head over heels for that one, but it's at least better in the pure energy and commitment department than that pretty piss poor version of 'Lightning'. Ah well, but that's all subjective anyway.

Now look, I know it's an archive release and all and I shouldn't be complaining too much because it's meant for people who specifically love that stuff and all, and I could close my eyes and forget about its existence and leave it to rabid Dead fans to gloat over it, but the thing is, I'm surprised I can stand - and often, even enjoy - all the stuff on here. EXCEPT for that dreadful 'The Other One/New Potato Caboose' shitjam on the second disc. Oh, okay, 'The Other One' is alright in spots (but definitely the weakest, least concentrated version I've ever heard), but 'New Potato Caboose' just... eh... twelve minutes of meandering without actually doing anything. Perhaps it's the lack of a well-established rhythmic groove that leaves me so angry - Kee-rist, you guys have two drummers doing their stuff out there and they look like they're doing stuff that's totally different from each other and the bass guy obviously plays something completely unrelated. Maybe that's why, when 'Turn On Your Lovelight' flows out of that mess, I'm so goddang relieved I'm ready to hug Pigpen like a long lost brother.

Oh, they also close the show with a rambling, but nice 'Morning Dew', which, I assume, ends up so unexpectedly 'cuz they cut the power or something. In all, plenty of historical importance here, and disc 1 is perfectly reasonable, but, of course, if you already have Live/Dead, you don't have to hunt for this one. The packaging is sort of nice, though. And! Excellent sound quality. You can even tell the two drummers apart. (Not that you'd want to).



Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

For those who want more "Europe '72".


Track listing: CD I: 1) Bertha; 2) Me And My Uncle; 3) Next Time You See Me; 4) China Cat Sunflower; 5) I Know You Rider; 6) Jack Straw; 7) Big Railroad Blues; 8) Playing In The Band; 9) Turn On Your Lovelight; 10) Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad; 11) One More Saturday Night;

CD II: 1) Truckin'; 2) Cryptical Envelopment; 3) Comes A Time; 4) Sugar Magnolia.

Looks like Robert Hunter has taken a liking to these old German castles. Hmm. Well, forget it, I'm not gonna comment on liner notes anyway. Dry facts are as follows: this is an archive live recording of the show the band played... jestaminit... ach ja! Jahrhundert Halle Frankfurt, Germany, Recorded Live 4-26-72, Album Artwork copyright 1995 Grateful Dead, sorry I can't put that little "R" in a circle. In case you can't make out the cover, that's the boys (and girls, cuz Donna Jean Godchaux is contributing her, mostly inaudible, contributions here) out there intertwined in the stained glass, so no, they're not exactly ripping off German artistry.

Arguably this is not the entire show, but it's still a more than two-hour-long performance, and for most people that will be enough. It manages to be fairly representative of all the sides of the Dead without being way too drawn out like Ladies And Gentlemen, or way too incoherent like Europe '72, but that doesn't exactly make it indispensable or anything. Still, it was a good night for the band, and in places they're actually tighter here than on these other two releases, subjective as that statement is.

There's one big plus here in this package along with a very big minus. The minus is predictable: thirty-six minutes of 'Cryptical Envelopment'. Thirty. Six. Minutes. of 'Cryptical Envelopment'. I'm ready to kill myself by the ninth or tenth minute, and there's thirty-six minutes of it. Holy beegeezus, in parts this "highlight" of the show isn't much different from the two-year-old-like keyboard piddling on King Crimson's 'Moonchild'. I simply do not get that aesthetics at all, and don't want to get it. Five minutes of the Who jamming on 'My Generation' beats thirty-five minutes of 'Cryptical Envelopment' into a messy stinky pulp. I can't even imagine Weir, Garcia, and Lesh standing when they're playing this shit, more like lying on their backs with stoned expressions on their faces and twiddling their flabby fingers at whatever rate the Great God of Pot tells 'em to do it.

Fortunately, that's just one side of the band. The other side gives us an unexpected surprise: easily the best rendition of 'Turn On Your Lovelight' I've heard so far, because where earlier Pigpen would have his inane ten or fifteen minutes of jumping and adlibbing boring nonsense, they now go straight ahead into a powerful jam - a powerful jam, which means a rhythm, a beat, and intertwined guitar lines that actually carry some emotion in their acoustic waves. Maybe Pigpen just wasn't in the mood, or wasn't capable of doing his thang (it was, after all, his last tour with the band), but whatever be the case, I was mighty surprised. And then, "without a warning", without even bothering to end the song properly, they launch straight into 'Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad', a long and inspired version capturing the band at their very very best. You know what kind of stuff the Dead do best? Fast friendly wimpy songs like 'Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad'. Because they're friendly and wimpy guys, and when friendly and wimpy guys do friendly and wimpy songs and actually play them fast, there's a special chemistry in the air! Special bonding going on, if you know what I mean! If you don't, just listen to the song. Not even Donna Godcheaux can't spoil it, even if she takes special care to sing harmonies in all the wrong places so the microphone can capture her voice separate from all the others.

Elsewhere, it's standard fare on Disc 1, songs you probably already know off Skull Fuck and Europe '72. That said, the emphasis that evening really was on fast, tight jamming, and both 'I Know You Rider' and 'Playing In The Band' have these lengthy extended sections which aren't bad at all. The only disappointment for me is 'Jack Straw', but then again, the band never really did justice to the song because they're all such shitty singers. No, really, I mean it - no one in the band can manage a long high note without cracking. That pisses me off. Sing the blues, guys, or fast rollickin' country, but why stretch out when you can't? Especially when you crack on the word 'Santa Fe', which just happens to be a very special American city for yours truly. Aaarrgh.

Disc 2, like I said, is mostly occupied by 'Cryptical Envelopment' and I tend to not put it inside my CD player that often, but there's some classy jamming on 'Truckin'' as well (here stretched into an impressive seventeen-minute performance); an exclusive new Hunter-Garcia song called 'Comes A Time', slow, laborious, and with a trademark plaintive Jerry delivery - thank God his plaintive intonations tend to overshadow his singing deficiencies; and a crowd-raising Lowenbrau-stimulating take on 'Sugar Magnolia'. So if you want the radio hits, you'll have to have them on the 'Cryptical Environment' disc.

As is usual with all non-Dick's Picks archives, the sound quality is excellent, and the packaging is really neat. And I didn't want to discuss the liner notes, but then it kinda struck me how fine Robert Hunter is interpreting 'Cryptical Envelopment'. Quote: "Jerry tries a scale inimicable with the key and Phil follows him into the forest as percussion all but suspends until Billy decides to practice a little rudimental drumming on his own... Keith awakens once in awhile, but mostly dreams silent on the keys". Goddammit, now how can you tell from this description this ain't gonna be a musical masterpiece? Nohow.



Year Of Release: 2000
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

There's so much different stuff here they could have made this their final shows ever and no-one would complain... Okay, okay, just kidding.

Best song: what-friggin'-ever.

Track listing: CD I: 1) Truckin'; 2) Bertha; 3) Next Time You See Me; 4) Beat It On Down The Line; 5) Bird Song; 6) Dark Hollow; 7) Second That Emotion; 8) Me And My Uncle; 9) Cumberland Blues; 10) Good Lovin'; 11) Drums; 12) Good Lovin';

CD II: 1) Sugar Magnolia; 2) Loser; 3) Ain't It Crazy (The Rub); 4) El Paso; 5) I'm A King Bee; 6) Ripple; 7) Me And Bobby McGee; 8) Uncle John's Band; 9) Turn On Your Lovelight;

CD III: 1) China Cat Sunflower; 2) I Know You Rider; 3) It Hurts Me Too; 4) Sing Me Back Home; 5) Hard To Handle; 6) Dark Star; 7) St Stephen; 8) Not Fade Away; 9) Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad; 10) Not Fade Away;

CD IV: 1) Morning Dew; 2) New Minglewood Blues; 3) Wharf Rat; 4) Alligator; 5) Drums; 6) Jam; 7) Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad; 8) Cold Rain And Snow; 9) Casey Jones; 10) In The Midnight Hour; 11) We Bid You Goodnight.

This is probably the lengthiest Dead archive release from the "classic years" that doesn't make part of the lock-stock-and-barrel-Deadhead fan only Dick's Picks collections. A four-CD boxset, it documents a bunch of Dead shows recorded at the Fillmore East on April 25-29, 1971 - from the "Farewell" series of concerts held by Bill Graham as he was preparing to shut down his Fillmores due to an unhappy commercialization of the venues. Obviously, even four CDs couldn't host all the complete shows, and while Deadheads might find this a problem (these guys like to have 'em experiences all compact and complete - the more 'Dark Stars' there are, the better!), I find it a blessing.

The four CDs have been very well constructed, with next to no superfluous tracks; only 'Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad' is reprised both on Disc 3 and 4, and only because it forms part of two extremely different jams. In no small part, this is an asset due to the band itself: by 1971, their repertoire was so huge they could easily play several lengthy sets without repeating themselves. (Imagine even the Rolling Stones giving a series of shows like that! No dice!). And because of it, arguably no other easily available Dead product represents the stylistic diversity of the band as well as Ladies And Gentlemen. Don't even mind that these shows were recorded in a 'transitional' period for the Dead, when they were at the same time essaying a "conversion" to more basic roots-rock from their early psychedelic stance and adjusting to the loss of Mickey Hart and the progressing decay of Pigpen. In fact, it was the same period that yielded the subpar self-titled live album; and yet, for these Fillmore performances the Dead somehow managed to pull themselves together and deliver a series of impressive strong sets, with even Pigpen at his live best (and most obnoxious, too, but that's Pigpen for you).

If anything, the lengthiness of this monster gets me grievous about one thing - there's lots and lots and lots of really good stuff on here, but not a single track that would make me bulge out my eyes and go totally wow. That's the essence of the Dead, you know. They're pleasant nice guys, but they don't stun you. They reduce everything, no matter how diverse it is, to that same mid-tempo mid-volume mid-pitch mid-everything, and you're just enjoying track after track after track and... and.... and... and whatever. I'm just mentioning this here, even if I probably already expressed that idea a million times before, because Ladies is, like, the totally quintessential Dead release. It's got everything. In fact, you might just make this your first and only Dead purchase.

The CDs are very carefully structured: for instance, every single one of them has ONE very long song/jam, but not more, so you don't get all the short songs in one place and all the patience-demanding tracks in another. On the first two CDs, it's Pigpen galore: 'Good Lovin', interrupted by a long drum solo, on disc 1, and the regular chestnut 'Turn On Your Lovelight' on disc 2. The third CD is the 'Dark Star/St Stephen' sequence (no 'The Eleven', though), and the fourth CD is the 'Wharf Rat/Alligator' thing. 'Dark Star' is surprisingly lethargic in this setting: shorter than usual, and much more minimalistic than I'm accustomed to. The 'Wharf Rat' sequence is supposed to be legendary among Deadheads, but predictably, I think it's the most boring part on the entire album. The Pigpen tracks are, well, Pigpen tracks. Take 'em or leave 'em, that's all.

Highlights on disc 1: an energetic, inspired intro with "Truckin'"; the bluegrassy 'Dark Hollow'; the hilarious, nearly-out-of-tune rendition of Smokey Robinson's 'Second That Emotion' (what's next, Jerry? 'Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay'? Never mind, don't answer that); 'Cumberland Blues'.

Highlights on disc 2: 'Sugar Magnolia'; Lightnin' Hopkins' 'Ain't It Crazy (The Rub)', easily the most rocking performance on the entire album; the restrained (as usual) rendition of the blues classic 'I'm A King Bee'.

Highlights on disc 3: 'Hard To Handle' (go Pigpen, this is the kind of material you do best of all); 'Not Fade Away';

Highlights on disc 4: uhm... 'Casey Jones'? 'Morning Dew'? Whatever.

Actually, just scrap all these, because there are no highlights/lowlights on the album whatsoever. I'm not offended by anything, and I'm not excited over my head by anything. Like I said, the only thing that excites me beyond measure is the sheer volume of stuff the Dead can (and will!) play. Country, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, Latin, folk, R'n'B, you name it, everything goes as long as it's not heavy and all-distortin'-over-the-tartin'. Speaking on a very serious level, if you don't feel at least a little bit of respect for this band after sitting through all this crap, you're a thoroughly insensitive being, sir. I'll be the first to say that if you take all the covers on this album, you'll find out that all of them are worse than the originals (it'd be weird to like 'Second That Emotion' better in the Dead version than in Smokey's own, or to think they actually improve on Merle Haggard's 'Sing Me Back Home' by dragging it out for ten minutes), but who else in the world is able to do that many covers on a decent level? Phish????

The defense repeats - if you only want to buy one Dead album, buy American Beauty. If you have cash unlimited and still only want to buy one Dead album, buy this one (it has three tracks off Beauty on it anyway). It may not help, but it's guaranteed not to hurt unless you're one of them Deadhaters who's convinced that the Dead do hurt a lot.


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