THE GRATEFUL DEAD
Wake up, America. The Grateful Dead is making another pass at you. Their new two-record album, Grateful Dead, is crowned with the rose-wreathed skull of an early Dead dance poster. The release itself - all live music - is the group's seventh, marking their seventh anniversary in one of the longest marriages of the business.
For the Dead, it's been a scene - rather than a group - since the 1964 beginning. A scene, meaning an ongoing family-community which includes not only musicians (on the new album, the original Dead quintupling of Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Pigpen, Bob Weir) but also managers, sound men, equipment handlers, accountants, attorneys, and those incredible chicks who do the paperwork at the Dead house in Marin. Not only that, but more - a pyramiding of domestic scenes, recording facilities, instrument makers, designers, suppliers, good friends, protectors, disciples, all interacting in what Rolling Stone has described as "the joy of the mystic vision."
Like the weather, such a vision plays havoc with predictions and relies mostly on good luck. Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and centering influence among Dead members, laughs when asked to "define" the Dead. Listening to the Dead's music, however, one gets the impression that music is closest to their kind of truth.
Because by indirection and instinct, the Grateful Dead have been on a funky kind of truth crusade, have pursued a vision, for the seven years of their existence. At times a joyous undertaking, at others a forced march, the Dead trip - more than any other group's today - parallels the development of rock music in this country.
But from the start, the Dead's mode - an optimistic cynicism laid over a blues base like the bad tooth you loved to touch - was apparent. Remarkably, almost ten years later, that mode remains unchanged. It is music that moves, that trucks, a constant progression toward some final statement which itself keeps changing all the time. Evolution is the best way to understand Dead music.
In the late sixties, there were the experiments, the mistakes, the development of craft. All of the Dead had been into theory at one time or another. Phil Lesh (bass player) being the most formally educated in music. The big breakthrough occurred with Workingman's Dead, an album which was the result of almost a year's work plus hanging out with David Crosby, Steve Stills and Graham Nash who were working with complex, almost classical harmonies at the time. Noticeably tighter than any of the previous albums, Workingman's Dead was the beginning of a new dimension for the Dead - in terms of structure, vocals, instrumentation. Also, it was their most polished studio product - the kind of musical landscape where the trip lay in working for relative perfection.
The opposite experience - live recording - produced a different kind of mystical sweat, a spiritual statement in an environment - performance - which always affects the content of the Dead's music. During the Acid Tests, the group's performances had been "lab situations" where audience and musicians were virtually one. The euphoria of these first Trips Festivals broke down barriers on both sides of the stage. Ever since, audiences - specifically, the Dead kind of audience - have been part of the music: "Sometimes we get off on them, sometimes they get off on us, sometimes it happens together. Any which way, we make music so that what's happening (off-stage) can be worked in."
The ongoing response to the Grateful Dead comes from heads, from hippies, from free spirits, from mid-cult Americana. It consists of a unique rapport with each other and with the touring musicians to the degree that, hassles and bad press notwithstanding, the group feels "audiences all over the country are the same...we get it on great wherever we go."
At the beginning of the seventies, the Grateful Dead continues to evolve - sometimes resembling an action painting, sometimes sounding like the light shows they helped to invent. No-one in the Dead is totally satisfied. There have been major organization problems, management crimes, hassles with the media, with the studios, and an impatience to expand into other projects. Most of these remain in the category of unfinished business.
Still, after almost a decade a group mellows out, plays more music and less "material". So the greening of the Grateful Dead has inevitably influenced the music on their latest release. Produced by Warner Bros., Grateful Dead is culled from the largest aggregation of music (13 performances, 9 reels of usable songs, 60 hours' worth) the Dead has ever assembled.
The album is also a sampler of ideas long brewing but never fully realized before. First, there was the opportunity to include songs - "Bertha", "Wharf Rat", "Playing in the Band" - which weren't on any of the six previous releases. Second, there was the magic of live-performance energy - part sermon, part carnival - bouncing back and forth between the Dead and their audiences. That mood, that movement, helped to create, for example, "The Other One", a long percussion solo breaking into three-quarter time dissonance on bass and lead, complete with mike feedback and the sounds of a crowd getting off on pure rhythm. Third, there was the chance to produce an album with "good old songs" on it. Like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad", music that is traditionally western, nostalgic, that turns toward the country/western genre as both a tribute and a challenge.
Most important, Grateful Dead sums up, for the musicians, an attitude toward what they are doing right now. A live recording means that the Dead have responded to the dynamics of their setting moment by moment. And thus a listener can feel he is part of that setting - on those particular nights, at those particular places. The new album has the tight chemistry of simple songs that cut through heavier rock progressions like a laser beam. It's almost impossible to mistake the Dead sound but sometimes the message gets confused, so - from the lips of its makers - here it is: Grateful Dead means straight-arrow sanity in a chaotic world.
The album covers that - and more. It illustrates the craft of the Grateful Dead as musicians. It tells of all the mishaps and celebrations and loneliness of being on the road - perhaps somewhere in the music it tells of the difference between east and west.
Most of all, it gives a beautifully recorded slice of one month in the life of the Grateful Dead's music, sounding as it sounded on summer evenings somewhere out there on the road, where nobody knew if it was going to be any good until they got home. And listened to it all again and knew they had a record on their hands.
(from Warner Brothers, September 24 1971)