A month long tribute to Jerry Garcia. This review of the initial release in the Road Trips series comes from the All About Jazz website, written by Doug Collette, Jan. 12, 2008…
Road Trips is a new series of Grateful Dead archive releases only available through the band’s merchandise web site. The first such project since the merchandising agreement with Rhino Records, though not directly affiliated with the label, it differs from most previous archival work in that instead of presenting complete shows—as on the now discontinued Dick’s Picks—each release will collate highlights from a particular Grateful Dead period.
Fall 1979 is the focus of the debut edition, and it’s a well-conceived choice since it brings some welcome attention to the time keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Brent Mydland was part of the band. During his eleven year tenure, before an untimely demise, Mydland, migrating from guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir’s solo band, brought an infectious, fresh level of enthusiasm to the Dead.
Mydland acted as catalyst for a new sense of musicianly chemistry in the Grateful Dead and Road Trips Vol., 1 No. 1 illustrates this with clarity. The band never forgot their sources of original inspiration fourteen years earlier, however: they continued to perform Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” as if to illustrate the roots of “Alabama Getaway,” and the two songs are here tellingly juxtaposed by compilers/producers Dave Lemieux and Blair Jackson.
Brent Mydland’s high-level of enthusiasm—especially in the way he renewed guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia’s interest in later years—contributed to a level of internal excitement, one that translated directly into Grateful Dead improvisation as well as they way they began consciously to structure their sets as mini-suites of songs. Here that adventuresome spirit manifests itself in some unlikely segues, such as the warhorse “Dancing in the Streets” coupled with a pinnacle of early 1970s writing, recording and performing, “Franklin’s Tower.”
Material from all Dead epochs also found new life at the end of the 1970s. Older material like “Deal” displayed a panache that comes only with being sufficiently familiar with the material to sound positively nonchalant. This can’t be all due to Mydland’s presence since he had just joined, but note the way his Hammond organ lines flow in, out and around the other instruments.
The response Garcia would get when beginning “Wharf Rat” was an indication of the way the audience responded to the affecting vulnerability of his singing as much as the Grateful Dead’s renewed vigor. There may not be more dynamic versions of this song or of “Bertha” thanks in no small part to Mydland prodding the band and its titular leader: the hirsute musician not only fit in, he made a place for himself in the group, not always the same thing.
The breadth of recordings, not to mention song choices, represented an advantage for the band throughout their career. Today’s archivists, Lemieux and Jackson, also benefit because there are any number of tunes, from a variety of Dead epochs, from which to pick: the rarely played “Passenger” for instance, by bassist/vocalist Phil Lesh, is novel for its very inclusion and also for the means by which this muscular rocker affords drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart to flex outside their solo percussion spots.
The exceptional sound quality of these discs, rendered through the original recording by Dan Healy and the remastering expertise of Jeffrey Norman, belies the disclaimer on the cover. The band was keenly conscious of this aspect of their music practically from its inception, so it’s no surprise the audio is so fully resonant on titles like this.
Likewise, the meticulous archiving of their work was in process early on. The packaging of Road Trips, in earth-colored faux bootleg style, is an updated version of the generic aesthetic that graced the aforementioned Dick’s Picks, but rises above that by dint of the detail in the credits, not to mention Jackson’s knowledgeable essay affording accurate historical perspective on the set. Particularly noteworthy is Jackson’s reference to the comparatively limited breadth of the Dead’s audience at this point, some years before their entry into the mainstream via their hit “Touch of Grey.”
There is a third, bonus disc available with the package proper that distinguishes itself by the inclusion of instrumental interludes titled “jams.” The first is located in the middle of seven performances take from the same autumn tour and works as a smooth segue. Its counterpart near the end of the CD finds the Dead teasing “Gloria” for some time without ever crystallizing the theme. Consequently, the individual listener may want to impose his own circular logic by reprogramming the sequence of tracks: to begin in the middle enacts a fluid progression centered on “China Cat Sunflower.”
Perhaps a logical step for this series next time out might be to focus on that period in which Bruce Hornsby stepped in to substitute on keyboards for a protracted period after Brent Mydland’s death in 1990. The beauty of Road Trips, however, is similar to that of the best Grateful Dead improvisations such as those on Vol. 1, No. 1 during “Playing in the Band” and “Not Fade Away:” you never know where the band is going to go.