Monday, September 20, 2010

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Grateful Dead Time

Three new releases from the land of the Dead this week. First is the awesome box set called Formerly The Warlocks which is comprised of two stellar shows from Hampton, VA October 8th and 9th 1989. I’m usually luke-warmish about the release of shows from the last 10 years of the band’s career, but this is a really special run of shows. In an attempt to quell the madness that was starting to happen in the parking lot of Dead shows in the late 80’s, they played a few “stealth shows” with little pre-announcement, in an attempt to make them for locals only. Great idea - except they then rehearsed a bunch of rare and wonderful songs and played what are probably two of the best shows of their later careers, thus driving the Dead Heads into a frenzy of promises to never miss another one. So, it didn’t really quiet down the scene, but it does make for some unbelievable listening. Housed in a super-deluxe wooden box with all kinds of cool ephemera in it, this is the fourth of the band’s ongoing multi-track, complete run series of releases. Because it was multi-tracked the quality is stunning. You’ve never heard these shows crackle with such intensity before. Each night the band broke out some major songs that had not been played for years. The first night saw the reemergence of the “Help On The Way” “Slipknot!” “Franklin’s Tower” suite which just shakes the arena to its foundations. What a great, jazzy vehicle for them to wail on. It is followed by a version of “Eyes Of The World” that is truly wonderful. Surprisingly, it is not the guitar solos or soulful vocals that make this version, but a wall of percussion that Billy and Mickey set up that sounds like a huge thunder storm brewing in the distance. Their unique abilities are really illustrated well on this “Eyes.” The other big surprise this first night was the encore of “We Bid You Goodnight” which had not been played since the closing of Winterland show. All in all a great show, but the main event was going to be the second night. A very strong first set sets the stage for one of the great second sets of their later career. Kicking off with a strong “Playin’ In The Band” “Uncle John’s Band” “Playin’ In The Band” sandwich, they are clearly in a great mood and playing with energy and precision. From there they slide into the first “Dark Star” in about five years and the audience goes ape-shit. It is a lengthy and spacey version with Jerry going way out on midi effects. The post-“Drums” contains a gigantic “Dear Mr. Fantasy/Hey Jude” medley and then, for the first time in almost 20 years they easily sail into “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” with Jerry, Bob and Brent all taking a verse. It is a profound moment. But the surprises weren’t over. The encore that night was a lovely version of “Attics Of My Life” which had been played maybe 10 times ever and certainly not in the last 20 years. This is one of the great runs in Dead history and an essential listen. There were very few times in their last decade that they raged like this.

Next up is the next in the Road Trips Series (Vol. 3 No. 4) that contains big chunks of two strong shows from May of 1980. Both of these shows shine with studio polish as the band was playing the songs from “Go To Heaven” almost every night of the tour. “Althea,” “Lost Sailor/Saint Of Circumstance” and “Feel Like A Stranger” sound like brand new songs and it is a blast to hear them trying to mimic the record so closely. The “Feel Like A Stranger” is almost absurdly faithful to the album version, until the end when they slow down, space out and flow gently into a hypnotic “He’s Gone.” Disc three contains the second set from Cornell U. in upstate New York which is a legendary venue in Dead history, and they live up to the excitement on this particular night. The heart of the set is a gorgeous “Terrapin” before “Drums” which then gives way to another great version of “Saint Of Circumstance,” this time separated from “Lost Sailor.” This was a fun and energetic period for the band as they broke in Brent Mydland and reveled in tons of new material. Just a month later, they pulled into Boulder’s Folsom Field to celebrate their 15th anniversary with Warren Zevon. I wish they would release those great shows.

Finally, something for the vinyl-minded. A new box set called The Warner Bros. Studio Albums. Somewhat self-explanatory, it contains new 180-gram versions of The Grateful Dead, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and the original mixes of Anthem Of The Sun and Aoxomoxoa which have not been available in decades. Those two albums in particular are quite different from the versions most people are familiar with, and Phil Lesh and many other Dead Scholars find this mix of Anthem to be the definitive version. The package is sumptuous and contains a beautiful 12x12 book with unpublished photos. The way these albums were meant to be heard.
-- Paul Epstein

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