I approached this album with mixed feelings; one side of me saying "Well, you love the Dead don't you?" and the other half repeating "They went commercial, and this ain't no different."
Well, I'm right on both counts, I think. Sure they do hummable c&w-type tunes now, but they mix in such fine rhythms and Garcia's talking guitar on this live album so it's hard not to like it.
Side one is very catchy, with ‘Bertha’ (known to some as ‘Had to Move’ from their bootlegs), Merle Haggard's ‘Mama Tried’ (pure spiff), ‘Big Railroad Blues’ (gosh, so great) and ‘Playing in the Band’ (Bob Weir can sing so well when he wants; he and Garcia are a perfect match).
Side two, an eighteen-minute version of ‘The Other One’ opens with a solo by Bill the Drummer that's too long (if he had Mickey Hart to jam with, then it might be something to groove-on-out-to; unfortunately, this is shades of ‘Toad’ boredom), and finally goes into ‘That's It For the Other One’ (if you remember Anthem of the Sun, the greatest Dead album ever). Well, after taking so long to get into it, it isn't all that astounding, mind-boggling, or whatever. Don't get me wrong, it ain't bad, but Mickey Hart – wherever you are – please return to the Dead 'cause they can't do the old stuff anymore.
Side three has its high points and low ones, and starts off with the latter, a pointless song entitled ‘Me & My Uncle’. ‘Big Boss Man’ is the only Pig Pen song on the entire album (a real shame; they could have at least whet our whistle with ‘Good Lovin'’ and/or ‘Smokestack Lightning’), which makes it a necessary track but unless Jerry & the boys start featuring McKernan more on albums, he better start recording with another band cuz his talent is too strong to discard. ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ is nice, but this kind of stuff is better suited for the New Riders. The Dead do a wonderful version of ‘The Weight’; why is it not here? ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is, by its very nature, one of the better tracks on the album and rocks like the Dead should do more often.
Side four is the one where you expect the big thing to happen, right? Well, it starts off with a quite unspectacular song ‘Wharf Rat’, which lasts for eight minutes and goes literally nowhere. But there is a saving cut on this album, a piece de resistance, as they say...
I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be –
You're gonna give your love to me.
I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna stay –
Where love is not love not fade away.
‘Not Fade Away’, with that Bo Diddley beat and fine harmonies, this is the cut on the album. The typical genius guitar solo of Mr. Garcia, wailing away into ‘Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad’. A very nice cut, and if it wasn't on the album [then] the Dead fans of old might just as well not buy this album. This is an album for followers of the new Dead, the Grateful Dead quartet that plays pretty songs and sometimes has a grungy-looking singer making guest appearances, but never plays like the two-drummer, two-guitar, keyboards Dead of the past.
(by Jon Tiven, from Phonograph Record, November 1971)
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To avoid any possible disappointments for those who once had visions of saving the world through the music on Anthem of the Sun and any number of live performances, it might be nice to think of this album as an interlude for the Grateful Dead, a resting place where they’ve stopped over to brace themselves for the next series of atmospheric excursions.
Despite some heartening knew-they-could-do-it-all-along moments, it has all the earmarks of such a betwixt and between record – produced live, mostly other people’s songs, filtered through with a kind of relaxed air that relies on renditions of old familiars and any number of debt-paying tributes.
But if nothing else, Grateful Dead does make me a bit nostalgic for them golden days of yore, when not much of anything could be predicted from the group except that they would inevitably try through the course of each performance to take you some place you’d never been before. They would likely miss a good percentage of the time, and you’d perhaps spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs while they’d try out and discard all combinations of musical paths, but the chances were good that they would leave you with enough massively memorable moments during the night to make the whole thing worthwhile.
The trouble is, however, that I don’t hear many of those memorable moments here. Except for some extended beauty that falls at the end of ‘The Other One’ on side two, what we get is another version of your local Dead bootleg that just happens to be recorded from the stage rather than vice-versa. This isn’t entirely bad – I’d much rather listen to the Dead light into ‘Johnny B. Goode’ than virtually anyone else – except when you happen to remember that the Dead used to be in the forefront of the rock avant-garde, using the basics of the earlier forms to flesh out the structures (or non-structures) of a music that might provide a stunning entrance into the cosmos of the third millennium A.D. Free jazz folks have been aware of this relatively untapped dimension for years (you know the usual names, I’m sure), but ever since the pyrotechnics of Live Dead, our boys seem to have backed away from such experimentation and confrontation, and the result is a mixture of pleasant good-time music and solid solos, brought up and made even more attractive by the Dead’s uniquely rich and majestic sound. It can’t quite be called bad, since it’s pretty clear that the Dead have progressed so far beyond your average garage band that there’s no danger of them ever slipping back, but it still can provide a bit of a letdown for those who have come to expect only great things from the grate.
‘Bertha’ opens the album, faded up at the beginning so that you are literally pulled into the "live" experience, and it’s a good way to start, with an irresistible rolling beat and a drive which might make Creedence sit up and take notice, superb Hunter lyrics and all. The rest of the side varies, with a nice Bob Weir rendition of ‘Mama Tried’, a sonofabitchin’ ‘Big Railroad Blues,’ and a Weir-Hunter composition called ‘Playing In The Band’ that is noteworthy for its great series of chord progressions and little else.
The programming, which up to now has taken a wait-and-see attitude, breaks down when you hit side two and are greeted by an extended Bill Kreutzmann drum solo. It pains me to say this about a drummer who blissfully shines throughout the rest of the album, playing what amounts to perfect supportive percussion despite any quick changes that are going down in the rest of the group, but given his solo group of minutes, he don’t cut it here at all. While his individual ideas are good, he never manages to give them internal coherence, any sort of organic connection, and the result is almost as if he had a list of tricks in front of him, and as he does each one he mentally crosses it off and jumps to the next.
But when Kreutzmann finally catches the beam at the end, the rest of the Dead are there to greet him with one of those supremely beautiful chord bursts that have given ample reason for their fans to become some of the truest fanatics in rock and roll, and from there until they stumble off the end of the side, there’s no holding them back. On a good night, the Dead can construct a masterful weave where everything seems to swirl around the next, and they’re at their finest here, spurred by the loving bite of Garcia’s guitar, Weir’s slap-dash rhythm, driven along by some of the finest bass playing on four planets, Mars and the asteroid belt included. Which only then makes the rest of the album so hard to explain. If they’re going to take you that high on side two, why do they give up the good fight and go back to "arranged" songs and cover versions for the remaining half of the record? With the exception of ‘Wharf Rat’ over on side four, of which I might say that it is assuredly one of the finest examples of Garcia-Hunter’s combined talents we’ve yet been privileged to see, there’s nothing here that doesn’t really amount to filler at an average Dead performance. The problem, of course, is that you don’t develop a ‘St. Stephen’ or a ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ overnight; but why settle for second best? And if you argue that even second-best Dead is better than just about anything else on the market, I’d tend to agree. But again, why settle for second best?
Well, maybe they’ll clear that up for us on the next outing. In the meantime, think of this album as an interlude for the Grateful Dead, a resting place where they’ve stopped over to brace themselves for the next series of atmospheric excursions...
(by Lenny Kaye, from Rolling Stone, November 11 1971)
For Lenny Kaye's review of Live/Dead, see:
For other reviews of the 1971 live album, see: