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When Jerry Garcia can blow the lyrics to "Saint Stephen," as he did last spring at the Fillmore East, you know the Grateful Dead have come a long way since Dead, Grateful Dead, their newest release, shows it.
After Live Dead the group released two studio albums with music totally different from anything that they had done before. Thus music was much smoother, oriented more toward country and Fifties rock music.
With the exodus of drummer Mickey Hart and organist Tom Constanten, the Dead is now composed of its original five members--the five who put out the Dead's five members--the five who put out the Dead's first album. And, not surprisingly, their new album resembles their first more than any since.
The result of these changes is an album oriented toward Dead renditions of country and simple rock songs. Unfortunately, since Grateful Dead is weighted to one side, it gives an inaccurate picture of what the group is like in concert now.
The Dead have by no means moved away from the type of music that they did on Live Dead, but the new album gives that impression. The group still does "China Cat Sunflower" and "Saint Stephen," and "Dark Star," the epitome of the Dead's jazz-influenced acid rock, has come back into their repertoire.
So, the Dead have by no means moved away from the acid rock of old; they have merely tempered it with a good measure of country and rock.
The new Dead material on the album is all of the quality that a true Dead freak would expect. However, since there are only three new songs by the Dead, it is hard to tell from the album what direction they are headed in their writing.
The best of the three is "Wharf Rat," which almost unquestionably reflects the musical state of mind that brought forth American-Beauty. A reflection on a chance encounter during a walk through a city's docks. "Wharf Rat" is the Dead at their mellowest.
The other two new Dead songs, "Bertha" and "Playing in the Band," are almost polar opposites. "Bertha," typical of the Dead's blues, is a lament on moving on and leaving a woman. "Playing in the Band," however, is a personal statement on what playing in a group means to one of the members.
Standing on a tower, world at my command,
You just keep a-dreaming while I'm playing in the band.
If a man among you got no sin upon his hands,
Let him cast a stone at me for playing in the band.
There is one cut that the Dead have recorded before: "The Other One," first released on Anthem of the Sun. The number merely demonstrates how much the Dead have been limited by the loss of Hart and Constanten. The opening drum solo shows that Bill Kreutzmann, in spite of his technical skill, is unable to fashion a solo with enough continuity and development to hold the listener's attention. Without Constanten's classically-influenced keyboard work to give the number structure, the remaining instrumental portion of the song degenerates into a rather aimless, formless guitar exhibition by Garcia and Weir.
The remainder of the album is made up of Dead renditions of other people's songs. The best of these is a 12-minute medley of "Not Fade Away" and "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad." This is one of the few songs on the album that sustains the energy that is the live Dead's trademark.
Some of the shorter numbers on the album are tight, but almost all of them seem to lack this energy that the Dead can inject into a song to lift it far above any version any other group could do.
Quite a few of these shorter songs suffer from a common fault--they are almost skeletal compared to the usual concert versions. Many of them consist of precious little beyond vocals and a short instrumental break. And, as any good Dead freak knows, vocals have never been the Dead's strongest point. So, in effect, one often gets a tantalizing whiff of what the Dead can be, rather than a substantial a taste of what the Dead are. "Mama Tried" and "Me and My Uncle" epitomize this lethargy.
The Dead have done much better versions of many of the songs on the album, as a single listening to the bootleg album of the Dead at the closing show of the Fillmore West will show.
The Dead's choice of material for the album is disappointing. Anyone who has seen the Dead in the last six months knows that the group has some incredibly good new originals that were not included. The album could not have suffered if a version of "Morning Dew" or another of the Dead's long numbers was released instead of "The Other One."
Garcia's performance on this album is truly superb, as it has seen on every other Dead recording. His playing seems to be more mature, with fewer of the acid pyrotechnics and a much more reserved, flowing style. He is beginning to show the almost lyrical influence of the pedal steel guitar, especially on the country numbers that the Dead do.
Weir and Lesh both turn in amazingly good performances, although the Dead have mixed Lesh too low again. Weir's vocals have also improved amazingly in the last two years.
Pigpen, for one who has stolen the show as often as he, seems to have been slighted on this album. The Grateful Dead should have included one more of his better concert numbers, such as "This is a Man's World" or "Hard to Handle."
Kreutzmann's drumming is adequate throughout, even good in places. However, it is simply impossible for any one drummer to replace the Hart-Kreutzmann combination of Live Dead.
One thing that is incredibly irritating about this album is that there is so little music on it. There is no one side with as much as 19 minutes of music, and two sides don't even top 18 minutes. When Captain Beefheart can squeeze 28 minutes of music onto a side of a live album, there is no reason for the Dead to be content with 18.
Grateful Dead cannot be seen as anything but a good rock album. Unfortunately, it does not approach the near-perfection of which the Dead are capable.
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