Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer '71
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2008, Volume 15, #9
Written by John Metzger
Tue September 9, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
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 Hartís financial shenanigans hadnít placed enough stress upon the ensemble, which, in turn, caused his son Mickey to take an extended sabbatical from the outfit, Pigpenís 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 í71 attests, even periods of transition have their moments of utter brilliance.
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 í71 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 Deadís summer tour. The first disc rearranges material from the groupís 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 Chicagoís Auditorium Theater on August 31, 1971. Even the bonus disc ó which provides condensed glimpses of three other moments from the Grateful Deadís summer trek ó 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 í71 ó much like its predecessor Ladies & Gentlemen ó puts a remarkably good spin upon what undeniably was a rather uneven year in the bandís 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 (Workingmanís 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 ensembleís 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 Pigpenís health, but as Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer í71 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 í71 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 Reddingís 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 Haggardís Sing Me Back Home highlighted its embrace of the eraís 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 bandís set lists in 1971, the 22-minute rendition featured on Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer í71 provides a glimpse at yet another miraculous moment in the Grateful Deadís history. The songís 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 Dickís Picks series. By contrast, on its other opus Thatís It for the Other One, the Grateful Dead bound the jagged edges of the tuneís 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 Garciaís 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 Thatís 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, itís amazing that an outing like Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer í71 can be as engaging and illuminating as it is. What made the Grateful Dead such a powerful enterprise? Sit back and listen.
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 3: Summer '71 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!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box