Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 1: Fall '79
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by John Metzger
Tue January 29, 2008, 03:30 PM CST
It has been 17 years since the Grateful Dead delivered One from the Vault, the long overdue outing that finally swung open the doors to its vast archive of concert recordings. Since then, however, the group never quite has figured out how best to maximize its profits while getting its finest moments into the hands of its fans. More specifically, the Grateful Dead has struggled, at times, with finding a suitable pace for releasing its material. Between its own endeavors as well as those of its various side projects and offshoots ó both current and historical ó the rate at which its work has been issued has been either too fast or too slow. Consequently, it has been feast or famine for the bandís devotees, though the current drought, which was alleviated only slightly in 2007, undeniably has been a help to those whose budgets were stretched to the breaking point by the onslaught of albums that flooded the market in 2005.
Considering its title, Road Trips, Vol. 1, No.1 suggests that many more efforts soon will be on the way. As the first truly new product to be developed in the wake of the Grateful Deadís venture with Rhino, the collection employs a formula that surprisingly hasnít been tried more frequently. In effect, the outing creates a unique experience by piecing together the highlights from a single tour; in this case, the selections were taken from a string of six dates that the band performed in the fall of 1979. Initially, Road Tripsí construction might seem a little strange, especially considering that it breaks the so-called rules of execution that the Grateful Dead rapidly was beginning to heed, though this also is part of the albumís charm. Nearly all of the material on the endeavor was taken from latter half of the bandís performances on its sojourn, yet everything creatively is bent and twisted out of shape until it appears to follow what became the traditional framework for the ensembleís shows.
It helps, of course, that the Grateful Dead of 1979 didnít follow a blueprint that was nearly as rigid and routine as the incarnation of the outfit that evolved in the arenas of the subsequent decade. The pairing of Alabama Getaway and Promised Land that opens Road Trips, for example, was culled from the latter half of the collectiveís November 10 appearance in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At the same time, however, there were tunes that increasingly were relegated to key slots in its shows. By this point, Terrapin Station and Playing in the Band had become highly effective vehicles for improvisation that typically were tucked in sequence into the middle of its second set, though other tunes still managed to flit back and forth with surprising fluidity. The union of China Cat Sunflower and I Know You Rider that is included on Road Tripsí bonus disc actually served as the starting point for the bandís excursion on Halloween.
Still, Road Trips canít escape from its lack of cohesion and continuity. Whenever the Grateful Dead took the stage, the music that it birthed was distinctive enough to allow its shows to become living, breathing entities. There were peaks and valleys to every performance, and each song that it tackled had its place. In addition, the manner in which the band poked and prodded at its material was influenced by everything from the reaction of its audience to the weather. Essentially, each performance told its own story, and the ups, downs, hits, and misses were what gave it character. Even the worst concerts that the ensemble unleashed had identities that were entirely their own, and like the chapters in a novel, when strung together over the course of several nights, several weeks, several months, and several years, an even greater tale was told.
Therefore, taking songs out of context is a tricky proposition. Consequently, the broader the scope from which the material is plucked for a compilation such as Road Trips, the harder it is to make the tunes work together because the snapshots that are provided leave too many holes in the overarching narrative. Some editing is, of course, required to make the Grateful Deadís output commercially viable, but what is lost in the process is some of the flavor. Yet, although the transitions from one track to the next ó or more specifically from one show to the next ó are, at times, a little jarring, Road Trips does succeed in finding its groove, even if it is a tenuous one. While its bonus disc is a bit of a jumbled mess, the rest of the collection plays as if it is proffering two condensed concerts.
The other issue that tugs at Road Tripsí core, keeping it slightly off balance, however, is the composition of the Grateful Dead itself. In April 1979, the ensemble underwent another personnel change when Brent Mydland replaced the departing Keith and Donna Godchaux. Mydland was a quick study, and within just a few months, he had injected fresh energy into the group. Not only did his battalion of keyboards cause its approach to mutate, but it also spurred the construction of new material. In particular, he and Jerry Garcia almost immediately forged a solid working relationship, and when combined with Bob Weirís angular rhythm guitar accompaniments, cuts like Dancing in the Street, Franklinís Tower, and Playing in the Band were able to slip into some truly heady spaces.
Nevertheless, the chemistry of this incarnation of the Grateful Dead was still in its infancy, and the manner in which it was improvising was vastly different from its work in the early part of the 1970s. This point is, perhaps, best appreciated when one first examines the role of Phil Leshís bass playing within the framework of the songs. Although there are plenty of moments on Road Trips when he propels the material along its path, Lesh doesnít challenge Garcia the same way that he once did. Instead, he plays a more traditional style of bass, and lead melodic lines are tossed primarily from Garcia to Mydland, though even here, they arenít really shared. Instead, solos take place in sequence on top of the rhythmic patterns. Although it comes together well enough, the group doesnít attempt to embark upon the same kind of deep, cosmic sojourns that had served it so wonderfully between 1972 and 1975. By folding splashes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock into the electric piano accompaniments that skipped across the surface of Playing in the Band, Mydland proved that he had a certain knack for jazz, but more often than not, he led the collective toward placing a contemporary spin on its R&B roots.
In the end, Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 1 does precisely what it needs to do. The Grateful Dead cannot possibly issue every note of every show in its vast archive, at least not with the heightened sound quality that its physical releases have allowed. Those who are managing its affairs wisely have opted to pick and choose among the lesser concerts in its canon in order to piece the better moments together in a fashion that is as natural as possible. Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 1 might not be the best live album of the Grateful Deadís career, but it does focus upon the right songs from the right shows. In other words, the outingís occasionally disjointed textures are but a small price to pay to be able to hear some of these glorious, mind-bending jams. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 1: Fall '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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