Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 3: Wall of Sound
Des Moines - Louisville
[June 16 & 18, 1974]
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2009, Volume 16, #11
Written by John Metzger
Wed November 18, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
The problem with pursuing a path of perfectionism is that it sometimes leads to impractical solutions. The Beatles had the wherewithal to know when to call it quits as a touring outfit. By contrast, the Grateful Dead had a tendency to plow ahead without any regard for the consequences of its actions. To make matters worse, the outfitís fiercely independent streak often was at odds with any semblance of fiscal responsibility. While, for example, it was in the midst of forming its own record label in an attempt to maintain complete control over its studio output, the Grateful Dead also was sinking huge piles of cash into the development of the Wall of Sound. The imposing mountain of speakers made its debut in 1974, and although it was a state-of-the-art production, it also ultimately proved to be costly to operate and challenging to move. Not surprisingly, it didnít survive the year, though it at least helped to spark the next stage of the ensembleís development.
The seventh installment of the Road Trips series takes aim at the heart of the Grateful Deadís sonic experiments beneath the towering, industrial structure of its Wall of Sound. Drawing material from a pair of concerts held on June 16 and 18 in Des Moines, Iowa and Louisville, Kentucky, respectively, the collection emphasizes the tightly knit instrumental interplay of the bandís increasingly jazz-centered explorations. On song after song, the Grateful Dead embraced the relaxed, easy-going swing of Bill Kreutzmannís steady cadences. Riding upon the waves formed from each trackís script of notes and chord progressions, the collective allowed itself to be carried away by the music.
One of the most intriguing facets about the Grateful Deadís concerts in 1974 is that although some patterns had begun to emerge within its work, these repetitions and reiterations had not yet become solidified into routine templates for its shows. In addition, any song could still appear at any time within a given performance, and this further enhanced the riskiness of the outfitís nightly gambits. Sometimes, its shows were surprisingly seamless. At other moments, though, such as those featured on Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 3, the Grateful Dead employed juxtapositions that ventured to such surprising locales that it had no choice but to stop, take a deep breath, and regroup.
In Des Moines, for example, the Grateful Dead put some serious distance between Eyes of the World and the songís studio counterpart. Although the tune opened with its familiar passages, all light and breezy, it soon spiraled outward. Every time Phil Lesh unleashed a writhing, wriggling bass figure, Jerry Garcia would counter the motion by painting serpentine ellipses in the air. Eventually, Eyes of the World descended into a jam that served as a precursor to the Grateful Deadís work on Blues for Allah. By the time that it concluded with the surprising eruption of Johnny Cashís Big River, the composition bore little resemblance to where it had begun. These boundary-less diversions leant a bit of a herky-jerky ambience to the Grateful Deadís sets, but in the end, it always seemed to come out all right. What the shows lacked in cohesion, they gained in intensity.
The members of the Grateful Dead had always shared an admiration for the exploits of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. In 1974, as jazz-fusion began to attract an ever-widening audience, the outfit fully embraced the genre, using it as a foundation for its often open-ended explorations. Davisí work in particular ó from Bitches Brew to On the Corner ó plays a huge role in the music birthed by the Grateful Dead. Many of the songs on Road Trips, Vol. 2, No. 3 ó including Loose Lucy, U.S. Blues, and Deal ó boast the burbling, rhythmic grooves that Davis conjured as he crossed jazz with R&B. Within minutes, the Grateful Dead turned Playing in the Band inside-out. Once the tuneís melodic tethers were severed, the collective proceeded to rotate the broken components in a kaleidoscopic fashion, occasionally revealing its origins and sometimes foreshadowing its future.
In the process of leaning more heavily upon jazz-oriented concepts, the Grateful Dead obtained a stronger grasp of its output. The band not only learned how to shift the mood of a song, but it also mastered the art of nuance. Morning Dew, for example, evolved from something hushed and somber into a prayer of optimism before it fell into a period of melancholy reflection. Elsewhere, the furious assault of Truckiní pushed so hard that it seemed like an unstoppable force, and sure enough, during its final jam, the band blew apart the structure of the tune. The sounds of keyboards, drums, bass, and rhythm guitar combined to create a funky undercurrent that swelled to envelop Garciaís screaming lead. When the mayhem finally faded into a slow, blues-inflected groove ó which in turn soon mutated into the weather-beaten, gospel-soul refrains of Wharf Rat ó the music echoed the sighs of relief that likely erupted as thousands of tie-dye-clad fans received a respite from their fits of spastic dancing.
A similar sensation flowed through The Other One. After Lesh punched cosmic craters into the songís crusty exterior, the strands of time came apart. The essence of the universe poured through the gaping holes, and shards of the song ó a smattering of fractured chords and molten notes ó whizzed past the raging inferno of psychic mischief that was conjured the band. Eventually, these pieces reconstituted to form a funky, blues-baked strut that drifted into an instrumental rendition of Itís a Sin. There is no doubt that the Grateful Dead made its most flexible music beneath the Wall of Sound. Inevitably, though, it wasnít built to last. After disassembling the behemoth, the Grateful Dead was forced to alter its approach and become a leaner, meaner outfit. Although there was more good music to come from the group, things were never quite this loose and free ever again. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
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