THE GRATEFUL DEAD GONE ASTRAY
The Grateful Dead, a San Francisco rock group that once served as houseband for Ken Kesey’s acid test, played last night before a soldout crowd of 12,000 at Baltimore’s Civic Center.
Promoters pegged the average age of the audience at about 17 - too young to have heard the Dead in the heydays of the mythical Summer of Love, the Human Be-In, the Trips Festival, and other psychedelic goings-on.
For the young people, the Dead were total enjoyment: everyone on their feet from the opening notes of the concert, swaying to the basic boogey shuffle of the band.
But to some veteran Dead watchers, it was hearing a once-great band gone astray in the musical cosmos - one more case of rock music's popularity-breeds-contempt syndrome.
In 1967, the Grateful Dead epitomized the music and manners of the burgeoning so-called youth drug culture. They would arrive late for shows, play through homemade equipment (they still do), and then perform all night long - often for free. Some of their most memorable appearances began at midnight and lasted until dawn.
But in spite of their outrageous concert procedures, it was their music that made them the early champions of the psychedelic culture. They would play songs that often lasted an hour each, with leader Jerry Garcia spinning out intricate soaring guitar solos that invariably mesmerized audiences.
Like much of the drug culture, the Dead, too, went through changes. They ventured into country-tinged music and came up with probably their two finest albums, “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.”
After a brief disappearance from the concert scene, the group returned – this time in a much more organized, slicker fashion. Shows started on time and brought in plenty of money, often in excess of $25,000 a night. Like many others, they realized that the counter-culture could be highly profitable.
In fact, it wasn't until last year that the Dead's popularity really took off. Their first album, recorded in 1966, finally became a million-dollar seller, along with several more recent ones. The reason was simple: Younger and younger audiences were discovering their music and buying it as if it were brand new.
But the music these days isn't what it once was. Gone is Garcia's graceful fluid style of playing. Gone are the times when two drummers pounded out the band's rhythms. Gone are the concerts that started with acoustical instruments and gradually built into an overwhelming electrical wave. Gone are the magical ways the Dead could make the ambience of a rock concert more like a religious service. Gone is colorful vocalist Pig Pen (Ron McKernan), who died several weeks ago of hepatitis.
Instead, the group now uses a loud, dull piano as its basic instrument. The vocals don't sound as self-assured, and the band as a whole seems more like a contrived aggregate than a flowing ensemble.
Perhaps this is just one more instance of rock’s time telescope: Yesterday’s superstar is today’s rock ‘n’ roll revival performer. To new listeners, the group may personify the ultimate height of rock, but to older ears the Dead seem somehow to have outlived their usefulness.
(by Tom Zito, from the Washington Post, March 27 1973)
Thanks to snow&rain at the Transitive Axis forum.
See also this Archive thread where this review was posted: