Grateful Dead - Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer '71

Grateful Dead
Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer '71

(Grateful Dead)

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2008, Volume 15, #9

Written by John Metzger

Tue September 9, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT

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By 1971, the Grateful Dead already had undergone several metamorphoses without missing a beat, but it soon found itself in the midst of the first real test of its ability to endure. As if Lenny Hart’s financial shenanigans hadn’t placed enough stress upon the ensemble, which, in turn, caused his son Mickey to take an extended sabbatical from the outfit, Pigpen’s health also had begun to show signs of failing. After a busy spring, the group maintained a considerably lighter schedule over the course of the summer months, but as the music on Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 attests, even periods of transition have their moments of utter brilliance.

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Those folks who are seeking the release of complete shows from the Grateful Dead likely will continue to complain about the compilation-style approach that the Road Trips series has taken. Nevertheless, its third chapter attempts to find a happy, middle ground. In fact, in some ways, Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 achieved its goal better than either of its predecessors did. The main portion of the program is split evenly between two concerts that stood at opposite ends of the Grateful Dead’s summer tour. The first disc rearranges material from the group’s performance at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut on July 31, 1971, while the latter half of the collection is devoted to its appearance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on August 31, 1971. Even the bonus disc — which provides condensed glimpses of three other moments from the Grateful Dead’s summer trek — obtains its own realistic cadence. In other words, each album in the package essentially is designed to present a cohesive, standalone set. Whether they are taken alone or together, Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 — much like its predecessor Ladies & Gentlemen — puts a remarkably good spin upon what undeniably was a rather uneven year in the band’s history.

In 1971, the Grateful Dead stood poised at a musical crossroads. Over the course of the preceding six years, the group had wrapped its acid-drenched blues- and soul-infused arms around its jug band roots, which resulted in a pair of Americana classics (Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty). On numerous occasions throughout 1970, the Grateful Dead had assimilated acoustic sets into the framework of its performances, and these provided the band with an opportunity to explore the folk-oriented styles in which it had reinvested itself. Consequently, flush with an abundance of new material, the ensemble’s concerts had begun to assume a more variegated tonality. At the same time, though, it also continued to struggle with binding everything together into something that formed a cohesive, flowing statement.

As 1970 drew to a close, the Grateful Dead jettisoned the acoustic portion of its shows and embarked upon a year-long sojourn during which it sought ways of intertwining its past and present as a means of laying a path for its future. The challenges to this process were compounded further by issues surrounding Pigpen’s health, but as Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 clearly demonstrates, the group was well on its way before he had to step aside and cede his slot, at least temporarily, to Keith Godchaux in the fall.

In a sense, Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 offers a little something for everyone. Assuming a barn-burning ferocity, the Grateful Dead filled Big Railroad Blues with Chuck Berry-style guitars and ragged country textures, and Jerry Garcia sang it like an old bluesman. Via two versions of Hard to Handle, the band pushed Otis Redding’s hard-driving funk through the eye of its lysergic needle, and the relaxed, bucolic resignation of Me & Bobby McGee as well as the mournful beauty of Merle Haggard’s Sing Me Back Home highlighted its embrace of the era’s burgeoning singer/songwriter movement.

The Grateful Dead also was still capable of pushing its fans into the vortex of its unpredictably tumultuous, mind-bending improvisational grooves. Although Dark Star made fewer appearances in the band’s set lists in 1971, the 22-minute rendition featured on Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 provides a glimpse at yet another miraculous moment in the Grateful Dead’s history. The song’s initial relaxed cadence conjured a fragile, meditative space, and the joyous jam that subsequently erupted continues to extend the dialogue that was highlighted on the second and eighth installments of the Dick’s Picks series. By contrast, on its other opus That’s It for the Other One, the Grateful Dead bound the jagged edges of the tune’s violent centerpiece within the tribal spirituality of its opening and concluding segments. At times, the ensemble sounded like a cosmic orchestra in full bloom, especially as the sonic flashes of lightning that sprang from Garcia’s guitar gave way to a softer, less structured environment. Both tunes also allowed the outfit to place a spotlight on the newer directions it was exploring, as Dark Star mutated into a gorgeous rendition of Bird Song, and That’s It for the Other One suitably enveloped the murderous Me & My Uncle.

For a group that has been chronicled so heavily, in both official and unofficial capacities, particularly over the past 15 years, it’s amazing that an outing like Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer ’71 can be as engaging and illuminating as it is. What made the Grateful Dead such a powerful enterprise? Sit back and listen. starstarstarstar

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Of Further Interest...

Grateful Dead - Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 1: Fall '79

Grateful Dead - Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 2: October '77

Grateful Dead - Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 4: From Egypt with Love

Grateful Dead - Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 1: MSG, September '90

Grateful Dead - Three from the Vault: February 19, 1971

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Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer '71 is available from the Grateful Dead Site!

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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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