Beyond Description (1973–1989)
Part One: Wake of the Flood
The Music Box's #8 specialty package for 2004
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2004, Volume 11, #11
Written by John Metzger
Resuming where The Golden Road (1965–1973) concluded, the new, 12-disc box set Beyond Description (1973–1989) stunningly re-polishes the Grateful Dead’s 8 final studio albums as well as a pair of its concert outings, and each is padded with a plethora of previously unreleased material that includes an array of studio out-takes, B-sides, alternate versions, demos, and live cuts. In fact, the total running time of the bonus tracks amounts to more than 7 hours of music, and in addition, the compilation comes with a pair of booklets that feature an assortment of vintage photographs; an overview of the band by historian Dennis McNally; a summary by archivist David Lemieux on how Beyond Description was assembled; a series of essays about each of the albums written by Peter Coyote, Joel Selvin, David Fricke, and others; and an extensive discography. Granted, there are moments that are likely to appeal only to the most band’s most avid fans, but like the group’s other repackaged collections, Beyond Description was compiled with the utmost attention to detail and perfection. Here is a closer look at each segment of this astounding set.
Wake of the Flood
Wake of the Flood officially ushered in a new era for the Grateful Dead. Coming three years after the issuance of American Beauty, the album was the first to be released on the band’s own label, and it also marked the recorded debut of Keith and Donna Godchaux. Not surprisingly, the ensemble had grown considerably in the intervening years, and just as its psychedelic blues had been transformed into earthy folk music, its Americana-colored foundation had begun to mutate into a more jazz-oriented framework.
Far from being a mere transitional effort, however, six of Wake of the Flood’s seven tracks became veritable staples of the Grateful Dead’s set lists for the duration of its career, and although only one of the tunes featured on the album — Godchaux’s jaunty, Junior Walker-meets-The Who concoction Let Me Sing Your Blues Away — exceeded its concert counterpart, the rest of the material undeniably was graced with its own special brand of magic. In fact, there’s a common misconception among the general populace that the Grateful Dead wasn’t very good in the studio. The truth of the matter, however, may be that many have placed too much emphasis upon the ensemble’s improvisational tendencies and, as a result, simply haven’t examined the band’s early and mid-period albums from the proper perspective.
Fortunately, Wake of the Flood offers many terrific examples for becoming reacquainted. From Phil Lesh’s magnificent performance on bass to the elegant beauty of the horn-drenched Weather Report Suite, and from the easy-going breeziness of Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo to the Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals on Stella Blue — not to mention, Jerry Garcia’s own impassioned delivery, which certainly ranks as one of his finest articulations in a studio environment — the crystalline sonic overhaul of Wake of the Flood offers a fresh glimpse at a long overlooked gem within the Grateful Dead’s catalogue. There are three bonus tracks tacked onto the conclusion of the refurbished album: an early rendition of China Doll that is dark, fragile, and plaintive; a solo, acoustic variation of Weather Report Suite that highlights Bob Weir’s exquisite technique; and a monstrous, jazz-fusion exploration of Eyes of the World that was culled from a concert held just a few weeks after the completion of Wake of the Flood.
This is the first installment of a ten-part
series, which will examine Beyond Description (1973–1989) on
an album by album basis. The entire set is rated:
Beyond Description (1973-1989)
Beyond Description (1973-1989) is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Wake of the Flood [REMASTERED CD] 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