When Jerry Garcia passed away on August 9, 1995, it seemed to spell the end of…well, the Grateful Dead, for starters, and perhaps the spirit of a group who along with spawning countless splinter bands and the jam band scene in general had a cultural impact at the same time that the spirit of the 60s seemed to recede in other respects. (Surely that was part of the draw: something to cling to in an increasingly soulless world.) As sad as it was to see Garcia die and the Grateful Dead proper fade away, the wonder was that their songs filled the air for as long as they did.
And no one can deny that a dark cloud had been hovering over the group in the years leading up to Garcia’s death. Here we think of Garcia’s coma in 1986, keyboardist Brent Mydland’s death from a drug overdose in 1990, and a series of fan-related incidents that culminated in the fateful 1995 Dear Creek concert. Garcia’s death later that year was a sad ending to a long, strange trip that had more than its fair share of bummers toward the end. Soon thereafter the Dead announced that their staff would be significantly reduced. Also, crowd responses after initial shows by surviving Dead members suggested the tribe was about to dwindle.
Or so it seemed. While the surviving members of the Grateful Dead began to break off into different projects, the scene ultimately sustained itself. And when the Dead reunited for seven concerts in the summer of 2015—the first time Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart shared the stage together since 2009—it was one of the major musical events of this decade.
And as you may have noticed, there’s been a spate of Dead-connected releases, so many that I kept delaying this survey due to some new arrivals. Finally I decided to stick to what I considered the highlights—including Rhino’s 30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965–1995. This 4-CD set offers one live song per year for the history of the GD, although it cheats on the opening cut, which is actually a studio track by The Emergency Crew, a pre-Dead band. It’s hard to complain, though, about “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks),” which features Ron “Pigpen” McKernan blowing some mean mouth harp and belting out the lyrics; he also plays Farfisa organ on “Cream Puff War” and sings on “Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub).” The first disc of The Definitive Live Story presents the Dead at their grungiest; on the next disc (1974–1980) both the songwriting and open-ended improvisation reach new heights, and on songs like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “Estimated Prophet” you hear a major band in its prime. Taking us from 1981 to 1995, the final two CDs include a number of newly-penned tunes, and it seems to me the songwriting had taken a dip by then. That said, there’s still plenty of magic in these performances, including the closing tracks of both CDs; the 1987 rendition of “Morning Dew” will tear your heart out, and the 1995 version of “Visions of Johanna” is equally poignant.
Keyboardist Merl Saunders released the Garcia-supported studio albums Heavy Turbulence (1972) and Fire Up (1973) while co-leading, with Garcia, Live at the Keystone in 1973. Although the Garcia-Saunders collaborations contain lengthy improvisations, the music tends to be grittier, funkier, and less trippy than Dead jams. The concerts on the three-CD set Garcia Live Volume Six (ATO) weren’t intended to be documented for an official release, and that may be why the band stretches out more than on Live at the Keystone even though the performances were only a week apart. Due in part to inconsistent audio quality, at times the soloing on Volume Six may try the patience of even devout Deadheads.
That said, it’s nice to hear a musician whose improvisational wizardry can match Garcia’s, as Saunders delivers solos as colorful, unpredictable, and yes, “mind-blowing” as the Fat Man’s. Highlights of Volume Six include a chill “After Midnight,” the bluesy “Someday Baby,” an energetic “That’s All Right Mama,” and the Motown covers “I Second That Emotion” and “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You.”
Recorded on November 8, 1976, at Sohie’s in Palo Alto, Garcia Live Volume Seven (ATO) captures a version of the Jerry Garcia Band that was active while the GD was on hiatus. At this point two other Dead members—Keith Godchaux on piano and keyboards, and Donna Godchaux on vocals—were part of the Jerry Garcia Band, along with bassist John Kahn and drummer Ron Tutt. The group’s rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “The Way You Do the Things You Do” is such a spirited opener that it makes sitting down and hearing the rest of the two-CD set seem almost imperative, and soulful readings of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” are equally convincing. On a first listen the obscure spiritual “Who Was John?” may sound soporific, but on a closer listen the dragging tempo and the way Jerry and Donna slowly tease out every syllable give an eerie vibe to the performance. Another plus: the scaled-down sound of a modest venue work to this record’s advantage, as Donna could hear herself and Keith’s piano comes through clearly.
Keith and Donna were still part of the GD in 1978, when the five previously unreleased concerts that make up Rhino’s 12-CD set July 1978: The Complete Recordings were performed. By this point other iconic late 60s bands were forced to draw from their early catalogue in concert, but recent albums still served the Dead well. The funk- and reggae-flavored “Estimated Prophet” from 1975’s Terrapin Station was a smart swipe at the quasi-visionaries all too common in the hippy scene. The jazzy “Eyes of the World” from 1973’s Wake of the Flood launched many fine Garcia solos, and “Franklin’s Tower” and “The Music Never Stopped” from 1975’s Blues for Allah were highlights as well. And of course classics like “Wharf Rat” and “Sugar Magnolia” helped sweetened the setlist. This was also the tour when the Dead began encoring with Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” one of the best singles of the year—and I can’t think of a better band to have covered it. (Also, it signaled that the GD wasn’t stuck in the 60s.)
Much fuss was made when the Dead regrouped for five shows in the summer of 2015, and the consensus is that the magic returned. While many Deadheads believe that the band peaked before the final concert, that performance, which is captured on Rhino’s 2-CD/1-DVD set Fare Thee Well July 5th 2015, ended things in a provocative manner. The show opens with such a burst of energy—“China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” followed by “Estimated Prophet”—that you’d swear you were listening to the second set; on the other hand, the closing songs, “Touch of Grey” and “Attics of My Life,” provide a soft landing instead of the fanfare you might expect to cap off such a highly-anticipated event. Yet somehow that seems appropriate. The Grateful Dead always had a serious side, and those encores remind us of that.
And finally, Bob Weir’s new album, Blue Mountain. What a welcome surprise this is—his first solo record of entirely new material in 30 years, and every bit as solid as 1972’s Ace, which has held up very nicely. The sound on Blue Mountain is warm and full, and Weir’s voice, which has deepened over time, blends in well with the tasteful, unobtrusive accompaniment. Where some albums impress you with their versatility and eclecticism, the understated Blue Mountain is more about sustaining a mood. With American roots music at peak popularity, Blue Mountain fits in nicely with the current Zeitgeist—but remember that the Grateful Dead started dipping into that well a long time ago. This is an important record as it proves that, at this late date, a key figure from the Grateful Dead is bringing something new to the table. Chances are some people will latch onto Blue Mountain who know little about the Dead or never cared for them. May the tribe continue to grow.