Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 1: Big Rock Pow Wow
[May 23-24, 1969]
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2011, Volume 18, #6
Written by John Metzger
Wed September 28, 2011, 06:30 AM CDT
To laymen, the set lists that the Grateful Dead employed throughout the 1960s appear to be monumentally redundant. After all, the selection of songs that the group performed didnít change very much from one night to the next. In 1969, the Grateful Dead was just beginning to foster its relationship with lyricist Robert Hunter. In just a few more years, the bandís coffers would be filled with material that had been born from the collaborations between him and Jerry Garcia ó as well as between John Barlow and Bob Weir. In 1969, however, the collective was more intent on exploring the art of improvisation than it was on intertwining words and melodies.
One, however, must not mistake the similarities among the song cycles unfurled by the Grateful Dead in 1969 as an indication that every concert was the same. This assumption couldnít be further from the truth. In its formative years, the band had the luxury of performing for audiences that were gathered for reasons other than to hear music. This larger experience provided the Grateful Dead with plenty of room to experiment. In the process, it developed a keen knack for twisting its output in knots and changing the mood or the tempo of a work on a whim, without the risk of offending anyone. The result of its sonic explorations bore tremendous fruit as the outfit built its base of fans, reeling them in one by one through a seemingly endless series of mind-boggling journeys.
Recorded over the course of two nights in May 1969 at the Seminole Reservation in Hollywood, Florida, Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 1 captures the Grateful Dead in the very early stages of its first mammoth stylistic transition. Featuring selections like China Cat Sunflower and Doiní that Rag, the performances ó which were part of the Big Rock Pow Wow ó provided a preview, at least in part, of the direction in which the band was heading with its next album Aoxomoxoa. Instead of merely playing music to see where it would lead, the Grateful Dead essentially had begun to construct signposts and stopping points to line the psychedelic roads of its fansí minds.
Nevertheless, although the songs range from the quiet folk of He Was a Friend of Mine to the country stampede of Me and My Uncle to the boisterous blues of Turn on Your Lovelight, the primary emphasis of the material featured on Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 1 remains on the Grateful Deadís dynamic musical interplay. Dark Star is, at times, soothing and comforting; at other moments, its knotted melodies and twisted rhythms scream with intensity. Both versions of St. Stephen that are featured on the three-disc set erupt forcefully and assume a manic posture. However, where the first rendition spins wildly into the explosive whirlwind of The Eleven, the latter performance plunges into the abyss of space, conjuring images along its astronautical voyage of the birth and death of galaxies.
Considering that the performances highlighted on Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 1 were recorded at a two-night festival engagement, it isnít surprising that the collection lacks the depth of some of the Grateful Deadís full-length concerts from the era. The time constraints placed upon the band undoubtedly caused it to alter its plan of attack. The result is something considerably less epic than its shows at either the Fillmore East or the Fillmore West. Regardless, Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 1 is a delightful romp through the Grateful Deadís early songbook. After all, even when the outfit was forced to work within a schedule that was tighter than usual, it still found ways of showcasing its immense range.
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 1: Big Rock Pow Wow '69 is NOT
available from Barnes & Noble. To order, please visit
the Grateful Dead Site!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2011 The Music Box