A CONSUMER'S GUIDE TO THE GRATEFUL DEAD
Well, Dead freaks your time is here. Never before in the history of Los Angeles have you had so many opportunities to hear the Grateful Dead. First and foremost is the upcoming concert in Pauley Pavilion. Next comes the plethora of Dead records which has recently become available. These records include the new double album on Warners (WS 1935), two bootleg sets, one of which is a double album of the last night at the Fillmore West, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, an effort featuring Jerry Garcia and several other people, who have each at one time or another assisted the Dead. Finally there's Hooteroll? (Douglas 5), an effort featuring Garcia and keyboard man Howard Wales.
With regards to the live concert, it should be pointed out that on a good night there is no other rock band that can come anywhere near equalling a Dead performance. This point will be readily admitted to by Dead freaks, but the uninitiated will understandably be skeptical. To substantiate this point it should be noted that the Dead usually play for two hours and often play much longer than that. During this time they will perform country folk songs, rhythm and blues numbers, old time rock and roll, and inevitably end up with an extended tune in which they will reach musical frontiers undreamed of by most rock musicians, and attained by none others. During this time they will be doing new material and redoing old material (not surprising as the Dead rarely do a song the same way twice), in contrast to your ordinary rock band which will do most of the songs off of their new album and a few favorite oldies.
The problems and advantages of live as opposed to recorded music are well exemplified in the New Riders of the Purple Sage album (Columbia C 30888). The band consists of Dead side kicks John Dawson (Marmaduke), who wrote all of the album's cuts and sings and plays guitar, David Nelson singing, guitaring, and mandolining, Dave Torbert singing, guitaring, and bassing, with J. Garcia pedal steeling and banjoing, and Spencer Dryden (late of Airplane) drumming. Occasional drums are provided by Mickey Hart (late of Dead) and occasional piano by Commander Cody.
The set is a tightly done collection of country tunes and as such has few mistakes in it. The vocals and harmonies are all flawless and so forth. Very nice, but the whole affair is nonetheless rather sterile and lacks the excitement of the live product, though you might well counter that the live product is often accompanied by less than perfect vocals and assorted raunch. Undeniable, however, is the fact that the only innovative aspect of the album is Garcia's weird pedal steel guitar work on "Dirty Business." On that song, he makes use of assorted distortions and unusual pedal steel techniques which he uses extensively in concert and which have never been equalled by anyone else. The album is pleasant to have around, but I would rather see them live doing "Street Fighting Man" and other shitkicking music.
Rolling on down the line drinking a little wine, we come across the hallowed Hooteroll? (Douglas 5). What is this Hooteroll? It is none other than our hero J. Garcia ganging up with Howard Wales, flash keyboard player, and a few of their friends to play 2 sides of music sans vocals. The whole album is very mellow and soothing to the spirit, ideal for laying back and listening to while the universe merrily slips by on its way to oblivion.
While all tunes on the album share a lay back quality, there are differences in all of them. At one extreme is "One A.M. Approach," a slow modal tune featuring Wales on electric piano and Garcia on electric guitar. At the other extreme is "DC-502" which is a more quickly paced boogie type tune which inspires the listener to get up out of his vegetative state and dance around. Here Garcia is still on electric guitar and Wales is playing electric organ with the rhythm section being much more prominent than on the previously mentioned cut, so that the whole group cooks along. Still, the album as a whole seems to lack real guts and may inspire some critics to dismiss it as so much more shlock, especially in light of some of the overdone horn arrangements on the first side. However, with repeated listening, the superb musicianship of Garcia and Wales overpowers any real or imagined flaws, instilling joy and involvement. This is definitely not music to sniff glue by, but may well be a fine elixir to the souls of those who care to become involved with it. It definitely sounds better with each subsequent listening. Skeptic, bear with it.
Of major significance is Grateful Dead (Warner Bros. WS1935), which is the first Dead album to give an idea of the full abilities and versatility of the Dead to those who have never seen the band live. Contained in this two record live set are a number of country tunes such as "Me and Bobby McGee," some good old rock and roll which is best exemplified by "Johnny B. Goode," and an extended jam, called "The Other One."
In some ways it should be said that this album is superior to the Dead in concert because it is edited down from a number of concerts and as such contains the best moments, especially in the case of the vocals, an area in which the Dead are not very consistent. This particular problem is usually a function of inferior sound systems which lack proper monitors. This, in turn, causes the band to be unable to hear each other, and that results in the occasional bad harmonies.
On the other hand this album is much shorter than a typical Dead concert, and more importantly, "The Other One" has been shortened to one side of the album. The Dead have been known to put this song together with one or two others in a jam which goes on for an hour. Needless to say the impact of the recorded version is less than the live version, but it will give the novice insight into what is in store for him at a live concert, and will stimulate the pleasant memories of long-time Dead freaks.
The country and rock and roll on the album is all well executed and a gas to hear. It is, however, the Dead's jams which set them apart from any other known rock band. This is attested to by the fact that whenever critics fall in love with false gods they immediately say that this band does what the Grateful Dead is supposed to do. This is usually in reference to some group exploiting with little creativity some new electronic gadget. Unfortunately, that particular group is usually only as good as their latest electronic toy. Not so for the Dead, folks. They've been doing many of the same songs for years now, but they are constantly changing and a tune is rarely played the same way twice.
For those interested in the quintessence of rock improvisation, I refer you to "The Other One." This song was originally recorded in 1967 and 1968 for Anthem of the Sun (Warner Bros. WS1749). I have listened to this cut hundreds of times and can say assuredly that every time I listen to it I find something new in it. The new live version is easier to come to grips with than the old one, due to the fact that keyboard man Tom Constaten and second drummer Mickey Hart have since left the group. The tune starts off with a solo by drummer Bill Kreutzmann after which the rest of the band comes in. On top, playing over the rhythm, is lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. His playing and Kreutzmann's drumming constitute the extremes of the tune. Between them play bassist Phil Lesh and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, always in constant motion, moving from one side to the other. Sometimes Weir will play chords while Lesh will play runs moving right along with the lead, while at other times Lesh will play rhythm while Weir plays in and around the lead. All of the time the relations of the musicians to each other are constantly changing in the uncanny fashion which comes from playing together for years. The only other group of rock musicians ever to display such amazing interaction was the Paul Butterfield Band on "East West."
The Grateful Dead is the finest improvising band in rock and there is good exposition of this on their new album as well as in concert, like the one coming up this Saturday in Pauley Pavilion. One should be warned however, that as an improvisational band they are subject to off nights, and as Frank Zappa said, "When you play music in a place designed for basketball, you take your chances." However if everything comes off well, those who are there will never be the same.
Depending on your interests you might also be well advised to pick up the New Riders of the Purple Sage and/or Hooteroll? Hard core Dead freaks should be advised of the existence of the two bootleg albums, but should be warned that the technical quality of them is somewhat marginal.
(by Bob Lynn, from the UCLA Daily Bruin, November 18 1971)