Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland
[December 28 & 30, 1979]
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2010, Volume 17, #6
Written by John Metzger
Fri June 11, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
Aided by his stint in Bob Weirís band, it took Brent Mydland very little time to assimilate himself into the framework of the Grateful Dead. In fact, his maturation process proceeded so swiftly that by the fall of 1979, just a few months after he had joined the outfit, the Grateful Dead once again was firing on all cylinders. Not surprisingly, this has become a heavily documented period in the ensembleís history.
Highlights from six shows on the Grateful Deadís fall tour of 1979 were showcased on the first installment of the Road Trips series, while Dickís Picks, Volume 5 presented the entirety of the bandís appearance at the Oakland Auditorium Arena on December 26. Dipping into the same wellspring of material, the third volume of the Road Trips collection begins by combining the complete concert that the group had staged on December 28 with a sizeable chunk of its performance on December 30.
At first glance, casual observers might be flummoxed by the amount of redundancy among the albums within the Grateful Deadís canon that focus specifically upon these final few months of 1979. Nevertheless, although there were similarities to the way in which the outfit tackled any given tune over the course of a tour, there also were so many variables at play each night that a song could undergo a seismic shift from something as simple as the context into which it was placed. At the very least, Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79 demonstrates that the Grateful Deadís renewed vitality wasnít a fluke, even if it was short-lived. It would, in fact, take another decade for the outfit to achieve the same level of consistency from one night to the next.
Like many of its concerts from late 1979, the Grateful Deadís performances on December 28 and December 30 were high-energy affairs. Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79 dutifully captures the rough-and-tumble ambience of the shows, as brawny rhythms commingled with ringing guitar chords and gruff vocals. A pairing of Merle Haggardís Mama Tried with Weirís Mexicali Blues is handled aggressively by the Grateful Dead. Likewise, the union of Alabama Getaway and Greatest Story Ever Told strikes with rapid force. Even the customarily laid-back groove of Sugaree breaks from tradition in order lead the tumultuous charge that surfaced repeatedly throughout the outfitís performance.
Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled at Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79 is that it showcases how easily the Grateful Dead was beginning to adopt a standardized routine, one that would carry it until the end of its days. Increasingly, the ensemble struggled to connect with audiences amidst the generic backdrops provided by an endless assortment of hockey arenas and football stadiums. Songs were given specialized roles, and the band took fewer risks with its material.
The brevity of tracks like One More Saturday Night, I Need a Miracle, Bertha, and Good Loviní ó as well as their placement within the structure of Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79 ó sufficiently highlight this facet of the Grateful Deadís evolutionary process. Arguably, each tune was solidly tackled. Yet, it also is possible to hear how the Grateful Dead played with the crowd, like puppets on a string, by raising and lowering the intensity of its performance while inching the show toward its inevitable climactic conclusion.
Even so, it would not be advisable to overlook Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79 ó or, for that matter, any of the albums culled from concerts held later in the Grateful Deadís career. While the groupís brilliance might have been dulled, it certainly had not been extinguished. By following the tenderly melodic Row Jimmy with the raucousness of Itís All Over Now, for example, the Grateful Dead proved that despite its operational restrictions, it hadnít lost its finesse. The Music Never Stopped brought all of these facets together by juxtaposing brawny confidence with the openness that marked the showís latter half.
With this in mind, Terrapin Station lived up to its reputation as an epic prog-rock piece. Filled with gentle twists and turns, it also served as the perfect introduction to Playing in the Band. A well-established vehicle for improvisational mayhem, the latter tune surfed across the cosmos, much as it always did, transforming music into light. Through his guitar, Jerry Garcia allowed a prismatic spray of notes to splash across a kaleidoscopic backdrop. Passing through jazzy realms, the music unexpectedly plunged into a chord sequence that had been plucked directly from Bob Dylanís All Along the Watchtower before it was torn apart by the spiraling vortex created by a combination of deep-space rumbles and rhythmic heat. There was a sense of tribal urgency to the percussion interlude that ensued. Like twinkling stars, however, the instruments reappeared, and the band sprang back, as if it were following a cue, to settle into the silvery slipstream of Uncle Johnís Band.
Amidst the extras featured on Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79, the sunny-day strut of Scarlet Begonias merged with the restless beauty of Fire on the Mountainís hypnotic dance of flames, sparks, and smoke. Without a doubt, despite the mounting internal and external pressures it was facing, the Grateful Dead still had plenty of creative fuel left in its tank, even if it had begun to use it more sparingly.
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 1: Oakland, 12/28/79 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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