Beyond Description (1973–1989)
Part Seven: Reckoning
The Music Box's #8 specialty package for 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2004, Volume 11, #12
Written by John Metzger
In celebration of its 15-year anniversary, the Grateful Dead performed a series of 23 concerts in San Francisco and New York City, each of which began with an hour-long, acoustic segment. Though the early part of the run was seriously ragged — an understandable notion, given that this was the first stripped-down string of sets that the band had delivered in a decade — the collective coalesced considerably by the time it reached the end of its journey. The resulting double-album Reckoning fused together the finest unplugged moments from these shows, and in doing so, it placed a radiant spotlight upon a long overlooked aspect of the group — that of a ragtag fleet of full-fledged, folk music aficionados. Songs by Elizabeth Cotton and Charlie Monroe stood next to a myriad of traditional selections as well as several of the ensemble’s original compositions, and with its blend of folk, country, bluegrass, and rock, the outing offered a thoroughly luminescent examination of the very essence of the Grateful Dead.
Without question, each of Reckoning’s 16 tracks was decidedly well-performed, and the warm, intimate glow in which its songs were bathed suited them perfectly. On Oh Babe It Ain’t Now Lie, for example, Jerry Garcia’s hushed vocal delivery, which was underscored by the gentle twang of guitar, transformed the tune into one of the loveliest things the Grateful Dead ever recorded — a notion that makes it inexplicable that this selection was deleted from the original pressing of the CD — while songs like Dire Wolf, Dark Hollow, and Ripple were performed with an easy-going but playful bounce. Elsewhere, China Doll, which was colored with a splatter of percussion and a tinkling harpsichord accompaniment, was eerily haunted; Been All Around This World captured as much bittersweet yearning as it did world-weary wisdom; and both Cassidy and Bird Song were significantly more exploratory, twisting and turning in a typically cosmic, Grateful Dead-like fashion. From the lyrical guitar solo that climbed out of the melancholy-laden It Must Have Been the Roses to the intricately intertwined guitar and gracefully plunked piano that poured over a sprightly rendition of Jack-A-Roe, the band demonstrated not only why it was so revered among its fans, but also what so many critics frequently have overlooked about the ensemble. Indeed, until the onslaught of archival releases in the ’90s, Reckoning stood, along with Live/Dead, as the finest concert collection available from the Grateful Dead, and even now, it’s hard to find a set that sounds much better.
A sizeable portion of the bonus material featured on the recent reissue of Reckoning is, at first glance, redundant, but upon further examination, the overlap is hardly a detriment. Complete-ists, no doubt, will cheer the inclusion and continuity of a large block of tunes taken from the Grateful Dead’s opening set on October 23, 1980, but the fact of the matter is that each of the alternate renditions — from the pristine cover of Jack-A-Roe to the aching tenderness of It Must Have Been the Roses, and from the imaginative and heady swirl of Cassidy to the saloon-style swing of Ripple — is remarkable in its own way. Also included, from a smattering of other shows on the tour, is a stirring interpretation of Iko Iko; a jaunty romp through the cowboy epic El Paso; a disjointed, but no less intriguing pilgrimage through Sage & Spirit; a hesitant, and somewhat perfunctory rendering of Little Sadie; and a brilliant, instrumental reconfiguration of Bob Weir’s Heaven Help the Fool — a tune that should have had a spot on the original album. Rounding out the slate of extras that fill an entire second disc are a pair of roughly performed tunes (Deep Elem Blues and the rarity Tom Dooley) plucked from an impromptu 1978 show in Chicago by Bob Weir & Friends (the Grateful Dead sans Bill Kreutzmann and Keith and Donna Godchaux), and a quaint, rehearsal rendition of To Lay Me Down. While it’s not an easy task to improve upon an already spectacular outing, the many avenues pursued by the recently unearthed additions to Reckoning succeed in doing just that.
This is the seventh installment of a ten-part series, which will examine Beyond Description (1973–1989) on an album by album basis. The entire set is rated:
Of Further Interest...
Beyond Description (1973-1989) is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Reckoning [REMASTERED] is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box