Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4: Penn State - Cornell
[May 6-7, 1980]
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2011, Volume 18, #4
Written by John Metzger
Tue April 19, 2011, 06:30 AM CDT
It was truly amazing how much the Grateful Dead was able to alter its approach from one tour to the next. Throughout its career, the band was in a constant state of evolution, and every time it regrouped, it seemed to restock its arsenal with an abundance of fresh ideas. Perhaps the Grateful Deadís greatest transformations occurred between its year-end sojourns and its expansive, springtime excursions. Typically flush with new material, the outfit often would adapt its entire repertoire ó sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly ó to fit within the framework of whatever its reconstituted vision happened to be.
Between 1979 and 1980, many different factors were weighing upon the Grateful Dead. First and foremost, the outfit had tapped keyboard player Brent Mydland to replace Keith Godchaux. When the group hit the road in April 1979, it was immediately apparent that the addition of Mydland would cause a seismic shift in the Grateful Deadís sound. By November ó amidst the tour that was documented on Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 1: Fall í79 ó Mydland routinely was demonstrating that he was quite capable of not only supporting but also leading the bandís improvisational mayhem. At the same time, in a fashion that was diametrically opposed to the Grateful Deadís heady, freewheeling forays, he brought a greater emphasis on soulful pop to the collectiveís repertoire.
The other factor that played a key role in the Grateful Deadís development during this era was its relationship to record company executive Clive Davis. Davis made no bones about his belief that the Grateful Dead could have a hit record ó or at least a hit single ó and there are plenty of indications that the band believed his plan could be successful. Issued in late April 1980 ó just prior to the concerts captured on Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4: Penn State-Cornell, 1980 ó Go to Heaven contained eight songs as well as a brief percussion interlude, all of which were dominated by their tightly knit construction, glistening beneath their infectious, pop-oriented sheen. Not surprisingly, these tracks surfaced most frequently and comfortably within the Grateful Deadís opening sets.
Throughout the shows featured on Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4: Penn State-Cornell, 1980, the Grateful Dead toyed with its new material, testing the songs in various slots within the rapidly congealing structure for its concerts. Still, there was a certain level of uncertainty that crept into the bandís performances, and as a result, most of the recently penned tracks drifted in and out of focus. Saint of Circumstance, for example, erupted from a racing, jazz-inflected Space segment but sometimes struggled to transcend the Grateful Deadís sluggish approach. Likewise, Feel Like a Stranger took a while to find its groove, but after locking onto the funky interplay between Mydland and guitarist Bob Weir, the tune assumed an air of playful celebration.
Unevenness plagued the Grateful Deadís older material, too. Built around Phil Leshís driving bass line, Shakedown Street was propulsive and fun. Yet, at times, the bandís members struggled to stay in synch. The emergence of Bertha temporarily pushed aside the confusion, and Playing in the Band was suitably spirited. Elsewhere, Wharf Rat pitted tumultuous anguish against the sweetly soulful sounds of salvation, while Around and Around was merely a gateway to the furious charge of Johnny B. Goode.
In truth, Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4: Penn State-Cornell, 1980 provides a distinctive examination of a band that was wrestling with its commercial and creative aspirations. Like many of the Grateful Deadís latter-day shows, it highlights how the outfit learned to compromise without necessarily sacrificing its integrity as it forged a template to follow for its final 15 years. Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4: Penn State-Cornell, 1980 might not feature the best performances that the Grateful Dead ever gave, but it does paint an honest portrait of the groupís unwavering need to experiment and evolve. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 4: Penn State - Cornell, 1980 is NOT
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