Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 2
Carousel Ballroom - San Francisco
[February 14, 1968]
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2009, Volume 16, #9
Written by John Metzger
Mon September 28, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
Forty years ago, bands were not granted a lot of time to plot their next move. Instead, they were expected to craft new albums, at least annually, like clockwork. Nevertheless, record label executives also made attempts, once they latched onto an outfit, to understand, nurture, and expand the talent pool. The Grateful Dead found a mentor of sorts in Joe Smith, the high-ranking official who had brought the group to Warner Bros.í attention. Although he was frustrated with the ridiculously slow progress that the Grateful Dead had been making with its sophomore set, Smith gave the ensemble the authorization it needed to follow through on an experimental plan to sculpt the affair from an array of concert and studio recordings. It is quite possible that if he had grown impatient with the Grateful Deadís anarchic tendencies and pressured it to complete Anthem of the Sun before it was ready, the collectiveís development would have been stifled, perhaps fatally. It is from within this cauldron of creativity that the music on Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 2 was culled.
Much as its subtitle suggests, the heart of Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 2 is the show that the Grateful Dead staged on its own, without help from local promoter Bill Graham, at San Franciscoís Carousel Ballroom on February 14, 1968. Even so, in touching upon four other concerts that had been held during the preceding weeks, the collectionís bonus tracks are equally important to understanding the rapid maturation of the bandís artistic process. In effect, the Grateful Dead had a wealth of ideas that it wanted to explore, ones which would allow the group to move beyond the folk and blues motifs that previously had served as the primary focal points of its output.
Working on stage and in the studio, the Grateful Dead had begun to assemble and hone a fresh batch of material during the final months of 1967. The following January, armed with a better understanding of how it wanted to present its new compositions, the group embarked upon a tour of the Pacific Northwest, the purpose of which was to create the concert recordings that would feed into the completion of Anthem of the Sun. For certain, this undertaking was an immense gamble, but the band succeeded in bringing its ambitious project to fruition.
In early 1968, for obvious reasons, the Grateful Deadís repertoire was still rather limited. As a result, there was a lot of redundancy to the shows it performed in Oregon, Washington, and northern California. On night after night, the same songs appeared, often in the same order. Each tune also followed a basic template. Dark Star, which appears three times on Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 2, eventually became a vehicle for the bandís open-ended improvisational excursions. Here, however, it adheres tightly to its rapid, rhythmic undercurrent.
Over the course of the tour, thematic concepts from Dark Star, The Other One, Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), and Viola Lee Blues were used interchangeably. Therefore, whenever the Grateful Dead embarked upon an extended instrumental interlude, it frequently fell into a blues-based routine. Despite the fact that the tunes were wholly enthralling, they typically followed familiar, repeating patterns. Through these iterations and diversions, however, the Grateful Dead developed a better sense of itself. The band learned that it didnít always need to attack its songs aggressively, and it increasingly began to show the kind of restraint that allowed it to walk the line between tension and release.
Even within its compositions, the Grateful Dead was pushing its boundaries outward as it sought to expand upon the ideas it had presented in Viola Lee Blues and Morning Dew. A jazzier subtext had infiltrated its approach. Most notably, the shifting time signatures of Dave Brubeckís Time Out shaded Phil Leshís new composition The Eleven. In a similar fashion, Leshís formal music training weighed heavily upon New Potato Cabooseís symphonic ambience.
By the time that it took the stage at the Carousel Ballroom on Valentineís Day, the Grateful Dead had turned the corner and solidified its identity. Spurred, perhaps, by the passing of its cosmic flight navigator Neal Cassady, to whom the show was dedicated, the band utilized the occasion to take Anthem of the Sun for a test drive. Although the members of the Grateful Dead probably didnít realize it at the time, they also spent the first portion of the show working through the sequence of tracks that eventually would compose its monumental concert recording Live/Dead, albeit with one difference: a rampaging rendition of China Cat Sunflower was positioned in the slot that later would be filled by St. Stephen.
Without a doubt, the Grateful Dead gave a performance that was feisty and aggressive. Yet, within the cataclysmic charge of Thatís It for the Other One as well as the militaristic cadence of Spanish Jam ó which, at times, bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson Airplaneís White Rabbit ó there also were plenty of subtler moments that revealed the intangible, unspoken communication that bound the groupís members together. Despite the equipment malfunctions that left Pigpenís vocals buried within the sonic assault of Alligator and Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), the music on Road Trips, Vol. 2, No.2 rarely falters. Blending youthful exuberance with increasing maturity, the Grateful Dead set aside its initial struggle to move forward and brushed past this critical juncture of its young career. In other words, much like Birth of the Dead, Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 2 provides an insightful glimpse at how the Grateful Dead established a firm footing for its future flights.
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 2: Carousel - 2/14/68 is available
from 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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