First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2005, Volume 12, #11
Written by John Metzger
In 1980, as part of its 15th anniversary celebration, the Grateful Dead embarked upon a five-week tour that consisted of 25 shows ó 15 in San Francisco, two in New Orleans, and eight in New York City ó each of which featured an acoustic set as well as a pair of electric sets that, in total, lasted for nearly five hours. The following year, the band compiled material from these concerts in order to create the two-LP packages Reckoning and Dead Set. The former lovingly captured all of the magical resplendence of the collectiveís unplugged performances, while the latterís somewhat shaky contents provided an overview of the rest. In 1982, the group once again mined these blockbuster events to create the straight-to-home-video release Dead Ahead, its first concert film since The Grateful Dead Movie. Unfortunately, the end result wasnít nearly as successful.
Indeed, each night over the course of its career, the Grateful Dead utilized the disparate elements of its catalogue to construct a cohesive statement, and as a result, every one of its performances ó good or bad ó stood on its own as a unique snapshot of a larger work in progress. Consequently, the groupís concerts have a tendency not to fare terribly well when they are chopped into bits and pieces, and therefore, itís no surprise that Dead Aheadís problems were largely those of pacing. In an attempt to distill the ensembleís essence into a two-hour video, the organic nature of its journey was utterly lost, and the fact that the music was interrupted by the charming, but otherwise goofy, shenanigans of Al Franken and Tom Davis certainly didnít help to maintain any semblance of momentum.
Nevertheless, buried within Dead Aheadís hodgepodge of material, all of which was culled from the final two nights of the Grateful Deadís October 1980 tour, were some truly stellar moments. Little Red Rooster was dark and ominous as Jerry Garciaís searing slide cut with surgical precision through the quiet intensity of the songís slowly churning rhythms. Likewise, the ensemble whipped Saint of Circumstance into a frenzy as Garciaís guitar accompaniments darted and danced around the tuneís hard-driving, turbulent tension, and although both Franklinís Tower and Fire on the Mountain were delivered with economical precision, each was also a gratifying slice of mellifluous merriment. The highlight, however, was a stunning rendition of To Lay Me Down, which, sung before a bucolic backdrop, exuded an air of tranquil beauty.
Making its debut on DVD, Dead Ahead has been remixed for 5.1 channel surround sound, and its refurbished dimensionality is strikingly sonorous. The Rhythm Devils segment is particularly mesmerizing, while Space is cosmically haunting. As for the bonus material, which augments the original collection with an additional hour of footage, it is largely a mixed bag, simply because all five songs are, to some extent, flawed. On the one hand, both Weir and Garcia took turns in respectively botching the lyrics to Heís Gone and Truckiní; more egregiously, however, Samson and Delilah verged on chaotic rampage, while the Grateful Dead initially seemed off-kilter as it struggled for direction during Shakedown Street. Yet, even here, the band made lemonade out of its otherwise sour lemons. Just as Shakedown Street appeared as if it would derail, for example, the group forged a firmer foundation for itself and successfully rode the tuneís wickedly funky groove towards an incendiary conclusion; Heaven Help the Foolís breezy refrains splendidly showcased Garciaís shimmering lead as it glided over a gentle gallop of percussion; and the relaxed ambience of Heís Gone blossomed into an aching and mournful, gospel-hued gem. Although Dead Ahead is undoubtedly the weakest of the Grateful Deadís currently available concert videos, itís still a worthwhile addition to any Deadheadís collection, and newcomers might find its division into shorter segments to be somewhat more accessible. Ĺ
Dead Ahead [DVD] is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box