Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2: April Fools '88
[March 31 & April 1, 1988]
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2011, Volume 18, #8
Written by John Metzger
Tue November 29, 2011, 05:30 AM CST
The things that made the Grateful Dead’s concerts so engaging in the 1970s were very different from those facets of its performances that enthralled audiences in the late 1980s. The 28 years that separated its concerts at the Fillmore East in February 1970 — where it stretched three songs into a 90-minute suite — and its multiple-night engagement at the Brendan Byrne Arena in early spring 1988 — highlight the distinctiveness of each era of the band’s existence. Naturally, as it moved from Pigpen’s hardcore rhythm and blues to Brent Mydland’s polished soul, the perspective from which the Grateful Dead explored its canon shifted. Yet, the reasons for the mutations in the ensemble’s output emanated from places far beyond the flux of the person who sat behind the keyboards.
By necessity, as the Grateful Dead matured, it also learned how not only to meet the expectations of a diverse audience but also to maximize the number of connections it made to its ever-expanding base of fans. Reaching the masses in an arena is not an easy feat. Eventually, the challenge became a tremendously heavy weight that hung from the band’s neck. In 1988, however, the members of the Grateful Dead were healthy, and the group’s rejuvenation abetted its ability to embrace the larger venues in which it had to perform.
The Grateful Dead still varied its set lists from night to night, but because the group had tightened and refined its approach over the preceding decade, songs were now placed into specific positions within its shows. The script was relatively simple: Each segment within one of the group’s concerts needed to begin and end forcefully, and within the ebb and flow of its performances, material was linearly strung together to form an arc that passed through a sequence of rhythmic glory and rampant improvisation. Some people came to hear certain tunes; others came to experience the journey. Although many of the group’s longtime followers lamented the professionalism that had crept into the Grateful Dead’s delivery, the changes that the collective made to its approach allowed it to achieve similar ideals, albeit in a more efficient fashion.
Always the pranksters, the Grateful Dead was known for getting at least a little goofy on April Fools’ Day. Nevertheless, after taking the stage in 1988 with an impromptu rendition of Little Bunny Foo-Foo, the band got down to some serious business. Beautifully replicated on Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2 — where the April Fools’ Day gig is paired with material from the preceding night — the group’s performance at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena was simply spectacular. Right off the bat, the Grateful Dead unleashed a sequence of four songs — Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, Jack Straw, To Lay Me Down, and Ballad of a Thin Man — which collectively highlighted its dynamic range and left no doubt that the outfit wanted to make a major statement.
As Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2 attests, the Grateful Dead certainly was on an upswing in 1988, one which would last for several years. Whether navigating the hilly terrain that linked China Cat Sunflower with I Know You Rider; the intoxicated, funky jazz that connected Estimated Prophet to Eyes of the World; or the frenetically propulsive bluegrass of Cumberland Blues, the members of the Grateful Dead were fully in synch. Fueled by sobriety, new material, and — for the first time in its career — a hit record, the outfit almost seemed to be making amends for the time it lost during the first half of the decade. Things were certainly good in the world of the Grateful Dead. From the cheerful shuffle of When Push Comes to Shove and the gospel-imbued optimism of Wharf Rat to the relentless ferocity of Deal and the zestful bounce of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away, the joy in the group’s collective heart reflected brightly in its music.
Based upon the extra material that completes Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2, the Grateful Dead delivered a performance on March 31 at Brendan Byrne Arena that was nearly as good as its April Fools’ Day show. In fact, the preceding evening appears only to have been marred by its rushed conclusion. There was a manic intensity that pervaded the final five-song sequence of the night. Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad flew straight into I Need a Miracle, while a medley of Dear Mr. Fantasy and Hey Jude was gloriously uplifting. All Along the Watchtower, however, never quite coalesced.
Born of misshapen chords, All Along the Watchtower flirted with spooky darkness and playful blues patterns. Yet, a sense of panic pervaded this particular performance of the tune, which was, perhaps, an indication that the group knew it was running short on time. As a result, All Along the Watchtower never erupted the way it should have in order to bring the concert to a fitting conclusion. It simply collapsed. Still, the way in which the Grateful Dead navigated the textured layers of Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain, the bracing beat of Samson and Delilah, and the dusky folk of Terrapin Station offered plenty of opportunities for fans to reflect fondly upon the evening.
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 4, No. 2: April Fools '88 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!!
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