Jun 21, 2018

1969: Live/Dead Reviews


Whatever happened to the San Francisco sound? Don't look now, but three of the biggest groups are still intact and as good as, or better, than ever, judging from their new releases.
"The Grateful Dead" must come first because "live/dead" (W7) is the biggest surprise. In live performance, once the Dead start a set, no one knows when it will end. Jerry Garcia gathers energy from the stars and becomes superhuman, his fingers turning into fiery spokes across the guitar strings, his dynamism suffusing the rest of the group as it goes from one song to the next, seldom stopping even for a breath. When it's over, you realize you've been high, you've been on Jerry Garcia's trip. Although there are no drugs involved, I still wouldn't call it a natural high.
"The Grateful Dead," you see, are the original psychedelic, acid-rock group. They played for Ken Kesey's acid tests and trips festivals and they still list Owsley, the recently convicted "acid king," as a consulting engineer on "live-dead." But while the acid culture is a strong part of them, they are musicians first and their acid rock is not the freak-out, cop-out variety. It is instead amazingly powerful and visionary and listenable.
Their first album, largely blues-rock, was a disaster. "Anthem of the Sun" (W7), their second, was one of the most beautiful recordings I've ever heard, but it still failed to capture the essence of "The Dead." A few months ago, "Aoxomoxoa" (W7) came out and it took them a step backward with its indulgence in studio gimmickry. But now comes "Live/Dead," a two-record set and by far the best thing yet by the Dead. And it almost brings you the dead live.
Side 1 is devoted, all 23 minutes of it, to "Dark Star," a typical Dead vehicle, starting and ending softly, featuring incantations written by Robert Hunter spaced between long instrumental stretches that build you up, suspend you, build you up, etc. It's beautiful and the best thing on the album.
The whole album was recorded in live performance and sides 2 and 3 at least are just one tape of the same concert, with the Dead going nonstop for 31 minutes. "Saint Stephen" starts it off with a big-beat sound. It's an expanded and enlivened version of that on "Aoxomoxoa," where it was more lyric and lucid, but less dead.
The last side features another blues, "Death Don't Have No Mercy," a beautiful song by the Rev. Gary Davis, but again I think "The Dead" can find material more suitable to them. For instance, the following number, "Feedback." The title tells it, but it's not the wild, ear-shattering feedback of Chicago's "free form guitar." It is the Dead's own kind of lyric feedback and after the first shudder, there's a lot to enjoy. It ends on a verse of the beautiful folksong "We Bid You Goodnight." On record, it is the Grateful Dead's finest hour.

(by Al Rudis, Chicago Sun-Times Special, from the Cincinnati Enquirer, 21 December 1969)

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The Grateful Dead is essentially a performing group, one which warms to the audience's vibes - we've been waiting for a "live" album from them for quite some time, one which would help us recapture memories of the evenings when they've been inspired in ballrooms or concert halls.
Live Dead (Warner Bros. 1830) isn't quite the most persuasive or engulfing that this group can be but it is, overall, the most satisfying lp they've released, and should give everyone a better idea of why this is regarded as one of San Francisco's very best groups.
There's something about The Grateful Dead which forces you to overlook their limitations. They're so tight and together that they make their every move seem just like the essential one. They're more like a functioning organism than a collection of musicians.
They're also utterly original. They more than any group in rock have made a virtuoso trip not out of accomplished playing or even startlingly innovative ideas, but out of translating their own personalities and feelings directly into musical form.
This is summed up in Jerry Garcia's guitar-work, which is the cornerstone of The Dead. Bright-sounding lyricism and very personal phrasing are evocative of a sensibility expressing itself musically with something like the ease with which most of us converse.
Special attention has to be paid to Phil Lesh, who is one of the very best bassists yet to appear on the rock scene. His beautifully full-bodied sound is subtly propulsive and adds subliminal colors.
"Dark Star" is perhaps the most indicative example on this record of the high-level improvisational brilliance The Dead have achieved. You can listen to it over and over again and still find new highlights and nuances within the coolly driving framework which is effortlessly set up and moved along on the tracks of inner-generated dynamics. As rock music becomes more complex and sophisticated, you'll hear an increasing number of groups turning toward the joys of improvisational exploration which jazz musicians have long been living on and by. I hope these groups manage to be as satisfying as The Grateful Dead.
"The Eleven" contains some of the most exciting jamming on the record and gives you at least some idea of the kind of rush The Dead can generate when they get ready to play all night. "Feedback" is competent enough electronic music to rank with the efforts of contemporary classical composers. "Turn on Your Love Light" is their show-stopping exciter and anything is likely to go down when they launch into it. I don't think it's as effective as The Quicksilver Messenger Service's Bo Diddley-love montage from Happy Trails, but it's in the same class anyway.
Pigpen, whether singing or playing organ, is another potential driving wheel of The Dead. Though he lately seems to be taking a vacation from active playing, he comes out to dominate "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and if you want to hear a group get down, this cut is worth perhaps the entire purchase of the double album. Pigpen's no-shuck type of blue-eyed soul is sorely missed, on a fulltime basis, and we're hoping he can fit himself back into the action real soon.
The lyrics (written by lyricist Bob Hunter) are significant mystical touchstones; the vocal style in which they're delivered requires a little conditioning to appreciate. At the outset, The Dead appear to be poor vocalists. While they are not outstanding, the relevance of their shouting delivery to the ongoing action is one of textual implementation rather than upfront featuring.
Two drummers play simultaneously, and while this adds rhythmic drive and diversity, I feel that a more careful listening to jazz drummers like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, or Beaver Harris might indicate just how one ace drummer could do the same things and be more coherent, at that.
A special bonus is the manner in which The Dead make breakless transitions from tune to tune. You seem to get from place to place as though floating on air.

(by Rich Mangelsdorff, "Sound Opinions" column, from the Waukesha Daily Freeman (WI), 14 February 1970)

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[ . . . ] For more feeling good, you can dig the new Grateful Dead two-record effort on Warner Brothers, "Live Dead."
In the time-honored San Francisco, psychedelic tradition, the Dead, as much a social institution as a band, wind their way through six long and complicated cuts.
The Dead is more of a concert group than a record-cutting group, but when they do go into a studio, they give it their all.
"Live Dead" is right in the old tradition.
Freaky music, cryptic lyrics and weird effects all go together in an effort to reproduce a good trip.
They succeed. The Dead produce not only a good trip, but a beautiful trip.
For all those people who hear about the Dead but don't know much about them, for all those adoring fans the nation over and for all good "weirds" and "semi-weirds," "Live Dead" is an event that can't go unnoticed.
The Dead are beautiful people.

Also beautiful, but somewhat straighter, is Pentangle, whose new one, "Basket of Light," is now available on Reprise.
Pentangle is an English group, a branch of the folk idiom, musically literate and criminally underrated.
There's only one amplified instrument, a casual, easy-to-live-with style, some complexities that occasionally dazzle the ear, and a large helping of integrity (unwillingness to sell out to the big sound) which warms the old heart.
Pentangle is like no other group I know. Their sitar, varied time signatures, unique instrumentation and wildly original arrangements set them off in a big way.
I recommend them as a brilliant mixture of pre-Beatles folk and post-Beatle ultra sophistication - complexity made beautiful by what appears to be simplicity.
Pentangle is more than a basket of light - the group is a cargo-full.

(by Jim Knippenberg, "New Records" column, from the Cincinnati Enquirer, 21 December 1969)

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"Live-Dead" (Grateful Dead, Warner Bros. 1830; two records).
In a recent interview with Soup, Doug Yankus told us one of his favorite guitarists was Jerry Garcia of the Dead "when he's good...he's not always good, though." In this double set, which I like despite a general critical opinion of disfavor, Garcia shows both sides of his talent. He is extremely good on the 23:15 "Dark Star" but tediously redundant on the 15:30 "Turn on Your Love Light." "Dark Star," which is side one, somehow seems shorter than "Love Light," which either speaks well for it or doesn't say much for "Love Light."
Actually, "Dark Star" was the big surprise of the four sides. You could count on one hand the genuinely good super-long rock tracks (those over 15 minutes) and probably wouldn't even need that to keep track of outstanding 20-plus minute ordeals. "Dark Star" flows smoothly, develops logically, and deserves more than an assumption it is bad because it is long. Perhaps if I had to make the decision, I might have trimmed a few minutes, but it certainly justifies its existence by Garcia's jazz-like guitar work on this nearly all-instrumental piece.
"Love Light," on the other hand, is a basic and boring attempt at left-over r&b which helps prove Yankus' point about Garcia. Perhaps the key is Garcia is all right when he stays closer to jazz and out-of-place in blues.
For the rest of it, some is dull ("Saint Stephen"), some innocuous ("The Eleven"), some too long ("Death Don't Have No Mercy"), and some bad ("Feedback"), but each has its moments of inspiration and all combines for what must have been a pretty good concert.

(by David Wagner, from the Appleton Post-Crescent (WI), 26 April 1970 - also reprinted in other midwest papers, such as the Green Bay Press-Gazette (WI), "Grateful Dead Guitarist Shows Moments of Life," 10 May 1970)

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The Grateful Dead, one of the leading exponents of the San Francisco sound, have released a double album, recorded live in concert.
LIVE DEAD (Reprise) suffers from typical illness of the double album: the package would be a great deal more musical had it been reedited and reduced to a single album. The Dead, who specialize in extended improvisations, overdid their thing this time, and on some of the long cuts, appear to be grasping about in the dark for new themes to continue the show.
For instance, side one of the album is all one song, "Dark Star." Some of the jamming on this cut could easily have been tossed out and the number would have been tighter musically. The instrumentation is simply too repetitious and evidences an over-indulgence on the part of the performers. I wouldn't like to see any of the lyrics cut, however, for they are catalysts for an interesting trip through the human mind.
Side two has the same trouble as side one, and the cure is the same: leave the lyrics, but spare us some of the jamming. Side three is an exciting 15-minute presentation of "Turn On Your Love Light."
It contains plenty of real fine improvisation. Side four would be a whole lot better if the nine minutes of "Feedback" (a pet peeve of mine) was removed, for "Death Don't Have No Mercy," the side's other cut, is an excellent blues-rock number.
A principal problem with Live Dead is the recording and mixing techniques used. The instruments appear to be constantly out of balance. They could be the result of poor recording conditions at the concert.
Even through the album's slow sections, however, the talents of the Dead's great leader, Jerry Garcia, shine. Garcia's guitar work is unique - he handles his instrument as a poet handles his verse. He's one of the now sound's best.

(by Charles Burns, from the Troy Record (NY), "Masked Marauders Hoax Carried One Step Too Far," 17 January 1970) 

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And some shorter reviews...

When someone mentions acid rock or the San Francisco sound, one of the first names to come to mind is The Grateful Dead. But the group has yet to attain the mass popular following enjoyed by the likes of The Jefferson Airplane. They keep right on pushing anyway, their latest recording project being a live album set called "Live Dead" (Warner Bros. 2WS 1830).
It's a double album, although it contains only six tracks due to their length. Side one is a 23-minute cut called "Dark Star," and side three is given over to 15-1/2 minutes of "Turn On Your Lovelight." Other songs include "Saint Stephen," "The Eleven," and "Death Don't Have No Mercy."
There's also a senseless nine-minute thing on the last side titled "Feed-back" - and that's just what it is, which seems like a rather lame excuse to get through the extra time at the end of three and a half sides. 
(by Scott Campbell, from the Arizona Republic, 21 December 1969)

Buy the Grateful Dead's new two-disc album, "Live Dead" (Warner Bros. 1830), just to listen to the 23-minute version of "Dark Star." Consider it just an added plus if you like anything else on the records.
The Dead has always been a live-performance band, and its records have sometimes failed to capture what the group was all about. This one does better.
"Dark Star" is rock and roll the way the Taj Mahal is a tombstone - just about the finest of its kind you can get. The music rises and falls and leads you into itself like you were hypnotized and without a will of your own. 
(by David DeJean, from the Louisville Courier-Journal (KY), 22 March 1970)

LIVE DEAD, Grateful Dead, (Warner Bros. 2WS 1830) : After three albums that showed little of the Dead's ability, this album, recorded live, shows the zest and power and excitement that the group can generate. Jerry Garcia's guitar work is the highlight of this two-record set, which includes a full side of their version of "Turn on Your Lovelight."
(by Marshall Fine, from the Minneapolis Star, 22 December 1969)

LIVE DEAD, The Grateful Dead (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 1830) - There's little doubt that you have to be a fan of the Grateful Dead, one of the pioneer groups of the San Francisco underground rock scene, to enjoy them. There are no melodies here to hum, just driving, consuming rock. And this is a double record album, which will be good news to the fans.
(by Tom Green, from the San Bernardino Sun, 30 December 1969)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

More reviews:


  1. A collection of extracts from record-review columns, and a range of (mostly positive) opinions of the album.

    Live/Dead was widely hailed as finally showing record-buyers the "essence" of the Dead after several disappointing studio albums failed to come close to their live shows. A couple reviewers here (Rudis, Mangelsdorff) had obviously seen them live - so had Knippenberg, though he doesn't mention it - and they are full of praise. Interestingly, the reviewers who'd only heard the Dead on album were a bit more critical of the album, complaining that some tracks were too long or didn't work, etc. (Feedback was not a critical favorite!) The prior fans who'd gone to shows seem more forgiving - "there's something about the Grateful Dead which forces you to overlook their limitations," says one.

    The first article by Al Rudis is worth special mention. It ran in a syndicated column, I think, and this is only an excerpt from the full article, but I couldn't find a complete printing. (At the start he says he's reviewing three bands, but only the Dead are reviewed here; also, a sentence on Lovelight seems to be skipped in this edit, since he then cites Death Don't as "another blues" not quite suited for the Dead.)
    One remarkable thing is that Rudis gushes over the Dead much more than you'd expect in a mainstream newspaper review ("Garcia gathers energy from the stars and becomes superhuman, his fingers turning into fiery spokes," etc.) - he calls this "amazingly powerful and visionary" music, and says just listening to the Dead will get you high.
    Another unusual aspect is his openness to the Dead's more "far-out" stretches - he calls Anthem "one of the most beautiful recordings I've ever heard" and, almost uniquely, praises Feedback as lyrical and enjoyable.

    Mangelsdorff stands out here as the most insightful and the most familiar with the Dead's live sound - he has quite a few accurate comments on them that would still be true decades later. He draws several comparisons to other music - Quicksilver's raveups, modern classical-electronic compositions, jazz drummers - and he mentions many aspects of their playing overlooked by other reviewers. I think he'd seen them more than once: he says they "warm to the audience's vibes," might play all night, that Lovelight is the show-stopper where "anything might go down;" and he's also noticed that Pigpen has not been playing much in live shows lately. He says the Dead are so tight they're like a single "organism;" he's the only one here who observes that the Eleven has "some of the most exciting jamming on the record," hinting at the live rush; and he even points out the seamless transitions between songs, like "floating on air." (Oddly, he thinks Pigpen sang Death Don't, but it's the mistake of someone who knows Pigpen is the blues-singer in the band.)

    Garcia is always singled out - Mangelsdorff is the one reviewer in this bunch who calls "special attention" to Lesh's sound and playing as well. Dark Star is highlighted in almost all the reviews, though a couple critics think it might be too long. A couple people notice the cryptic lyrics ("incantations") that add to the mystical aura. One critic complains about the bad mix ("the instruments appear to be constantly out of balance"), and suspects poor recording conditions - but in fact the mix was deliberately spacy.