Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Telegram.com articel



by Scott McLennan

It was 40 years ago this summer that a rock ’n’ roll guitar player bursting with ideas corralled a foundering postal worker to play bass in a band that was forming in San Francisco during that city’s psychedelic renaissance. And it was 10 years ago this summer that the same guitar player died while trying to clean up a lifestyle that had slowly eaten away his health. Such are the bittersweet set of anniversaries confronting Deadheads this year.
Without Jerry Garcia in that lead guitar spot, the Grateful Dead effectively ended. The remaining members of The Dead soldier on, often in groups of their own and occasionally as an ensemble. But the magic the Grateful Dead made when Garcia was at the helm is readily available via a steady stream of archival recordings flowing from the band’s tape vault. While there are no plans yet to officially mark the 40th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s launch, much has been going on to continue cataloging the band’s music in a manner very few artists merit. The Grateful Dead is in a league with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan when it comes to efforts made for preserving every possible note ever played by an artist. With more than 30 volumes available of a concert-recording series known as “Dick’s Picks,” plus annual drops from other Grateful Dead Production’s vault series, the preservation act is well past being viewed as a cashing-in on a great band’s legacy. So much product is out there the exercise now seems more academic than commercial, and considering that many of the multidisc sets are typically selling at bargain prices, there’s little evidence of gouging fans. But some of the offerings are somewhat dubious. For an example of just how deep the weirdness runs around Grateful Dead music, one needs to experience Dark Star Orchestra, a band that performs note-for-note copies of concerts that the Dead played years ago. Dark Star Orchestra recently went so far as to release on CD and DVD its version of a Grateful Dead concert originally conceived May 5, 1977. DSO used the talents of Bob Matthews, one of the original members of the Grateful Dead sound crew, to record the concert, at which onetime Grateful Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux sat in for the recreation. Dark Star Orchestra’s novelty makes for a better night out than for repeated viewings, and Dead fans will be better served by the real article. The latest crop of Dead titles spans music from the early ’70s to the late ’80s, and just listening to the way the music morphs and changes with time makes clear why there is an audience not just for the band but also subset audiences for the band at certain eras. The earliest incarnation of The Dead recently made available can be found on “Dick’s Picks 35,” which captures the Grateful Dead playing Aug. 6, 1971, in Hollywood; Aug. 7, 1971, in San Diego; and Aug. 24, 1971, in Chicago. These performances were long thought lost as Garcia gave the tapes to keyboard player Keith Godchaux prior to his joining the band. Rather than learn the tunes he needed to get up to speed with the band, Godchaux stashed the tapes on his parent’s houseboat. Fast forward 35 years, and Godchaux’s brother and son come across the tapes while cleaning the houseboat and turn over the booty to Grateful Dead archivist Dave Lemieux (the guy who replaced the late Dick Latvala, the Dick of Dick’s Picks). The remarkably well-preserved recordings feature the leanest version of the Grateful Dead, with Garcia, rhythm guitar player Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and organ player, harmonica player and singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan coming off a psychedelic high of the late ’60s and moving into a sleeker, bluesier mode. The tunes are rocked hard, and Pigpen belted out stone cold versions of “Big Boss Man,” “Hard to Handle” and some of his rarely heard originals, such as “Empty Pages,” marking some fine performances just before his health went into decline. File this one under “Dead at Bar Band Best.” Next in the chronology is “The Grateful Dead Movie” soundtrack, a five-CD collection of material culled from shows staged Oct. 16-20, 1974, at the Winterland arena in San Francisco. This gem fleshes out the material seen in the band’s concert movie that Garcia shot just before the band went on a hiatus that some felt was going to be permanent. Even drummer Mickey Hart, who left the band four years earlier, sat in on the last night of the run just in case it was his last chance to play with The Dead. The soundtrack also supplants the oft-maligned “Steal Your Face” live album as the definitive document of this run of shows which shows the Grateful Dead growing bolder, jazzier and on the brink of generating material that put a whole fresh spin on traditional rock ’n’ roll. By this point both Keith Godchaux and his wife, Donna, were in the band, considerably fattening the sound heard inthe ’71 “houseboat recordings.” The “Grateful Dead Movie” soundtrack nicely bridges the band’s earliest days with a renewed outlook, as old standbys such as “China Cat Sunflower” and “Dark Star” get interesting makeovers and new songs such as “Eyes of the World,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Weather Report Suite” bring forth fresh ideas in the band’s writing and overall attack. File this one under “The Dead in Transition.” “Dick’s Picks 34” offers the next stop on this ride, with the destination being the Community War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y., on Nov. 5, 1977 (plus a little taste of music made in Toronto on Nov. 2, 1977). This era of Grateful Dead is the second high point of confidently played, mind-blowing experimentation. Hart was back in the band full time and in perfect synch with Kreutzmann; the Godchauxs honed their respective roles; and the core of Garcia, Lesh and Weir had some seriously cosmic musical dialogues going on among them. Unlike the band’s first great psychedelic era, this new trippiness rested upon supremely mellow vibes; even the full-tilt boogies had a laid-back attitude. File this one under “Dead for Chilling Out.” The most recent offering from the vault is “Trucking Up to Buffalo,” a recording of the Grateful Dead’s July 4, 1989, concert at Rich Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills. There is a two-CD audio package as well as a single DVD release, both offering the entire show. By ’89, The Dead was an American musical institution, and coming off its commercial peak sparked a couple years earlier by the success of the song “Touch of Grey.” Typical of a Dead show from this time period, the band blasted through some fine renditions of Bob Dylan songs (“All Along the Watchtower” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”) and settled on a first set that offered fairly concise readings of the material and a second set open to more sprawl. Late-’80s Dead concerts often seemed to depend on Garcia’s mood, and on this night he appeared in fine fettle. You can hear that on the CD as Garcia’s playing glows on “Terrapin Station” and “Morning Dew,” or see it on the nicely shot and edited performance offered on the CD. The music may be going through less invention by this point in the band’s history, but the playing itself remained inspired. File “Truckin’ Up to Buffalo” under “Fireworks from the Final Years.” “Truckin’ Up to Buffalo” and “The Grateful Dead Movie” soundtrack are available through regular retail channels, while Dick’s Picks titles are sold through Grateful Dead merchandising (accessed online at gdstore.com, or telephone, (800) 225-3323). Scott McLennan can be reached at
tgmusic1@yahoo.com

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