In this ongoing look at the Road Trips series, we come to the first of Vol. 2‘s releases. This is another review by Doug Collette, this time back at the All About Jazz website and dated Jan. 17, 2009…
Even before listening to the music, owners of the latest instalment of the Grateful Dead’s archive series Road Trips, now inaugurating its second volume with a September 1990 show from Madison Square Garden, might do well to read Dan Levy’s endearing recollections of his attendance at the shows.
The author of the liner notes spends much of his space detailing the contributions of newly-enlisted keyboardist Vince Welnick, who was designated as the official replacement for Brent Mydland, who had died suddenly barely a few weeks before these high-profile shows. The former member of the Tubes, however, gets less attention than Bruce Hornsby who, by all accounts including Levy’s, did yeoman’s work in reigniting the chemistry of the entire band, but particularly Jerry Garcia, its titular leader, composer of its best known material and vocalist and lead guitarist.
Levy is discreet in his mention of how the new pinnacles the Grateful Dead reached, inspired largely by the symbiosis of Garcia and Hornsby, gave way to the downward slide which ended in Garcia’s death five years hence. As on “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo ,” the Dead’s titular leader sounds smooth and focused when he plays, and valiant but tired when he sings (augmented by group vocals as if in a gesture of fraternal support).
Levy begins, however, by describing the sonic aspects of the famed New York venue, likening it, when the Grateful Dead were playing there, to a mammoth speaker driven to glorious reverberation by the sound of the band. His depiction of the fine-tuning of the group’s sound system (in the wake of the gigantic wall of sound of the mid-1970s) is in keeping with the band’s own long-standing attention to high-fidelity—which continues to this day in the impeccable HDCD clarity of Jeffrey Norman’s work on all Grateful Dead titles including Road Trips Volume 2 Number 1.
Just shy of a full 80 minutes, the bonus disc (available only with on-line preorders through http://www.dead.net), contains performances from the initial night of three at MSG in September 1990, none of which are less than seven and a half minutes in duration. Say what anyone will about the Grateful Dead, nowhere in their history did they abandon their forte for improvisation and, at this juncture in their career, the band was exploring the sonic possibilities of electronics both through the melody and rhythm instruments. As a result they imbue near 18 minutes of “Eyes of the World,” with all its intrinsic summery air, which Welnick and Hornsby in turn embellish to a full-fledged Caribbean lilt.
A 17 year old tune from Wake of the Flood (Grateful Dead, 1973), “Eyes of the World” confirms the durability and evocative quality of the material as much as the Dead’s collective courage. Then there’s ten and a half-minutes of the “Jam Out of Foolish Heart,” an extended coda built upon on this latter day gem of Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter’s. Like a bulk of the 9/16 show previously released on the Dick’s Picks series, this free piece was previously included in the five-CD box So Many Roads(Arista, 1999), and as delectable as it was to hear this idiosyncratic instrumental there, the piece gains impact in its proper context.
Whether Road Trips Volume 2, Number 1 suffers from repetition of material from the previous archive series is moot. Hornsby’s presence in the Dead zeitgeist is profound but altogether brief, and so deserves due attention. Levy astutely points out how Hornsby’s presence marked a return to prominence of piano in the sound of the Grateful Dead: Keith Godchaux, a member of the band from 1972 through 1979, had all the jazz chops to act as a foil to Garcia’s guitar, but Hornsby possesses a more fluent touch plus the detailed formalism of a classical player. And that’s not to mention the unmitigated pleasure he took in his participation with the group and in particular his relationship with Garcia: the accompaniment of the ivories on “To Lay Me Down” might well have been composed as an integral part of the composition.
Given the selective nature of the Road Trips archive series—rather than complete shows, each installment is comprised of concert excerpts focused on periods of note in the band’s history—the exemplary job that’s he’s done with each previous package. In recreating the sense of the Grateful Dead live experience, Volume 2 Number 1mirrors, like so many of the band’s concerts, an almost imperceptible growth of intensity which occurs through the course of the two sets. An affecting rendition of “Ship of Fools” serves as the fulcrum for extended segues of vintage material such as “Truckin,’” “Playing in the Band” and “China Cat Sunflower” into the familiar strains of “Uncle John’s Band,” before, appropriately enough, “Let It Grow” (from Weir’s ambitious “Weather Report Suite”) leads into the jam that connects to disc two.
The band don’t find their way so effortlessly into the space of “Dark Star,” but the obvious exertion pays off as, with Hornsby not just in tow but setting the pace, the group gallops through their single mainstream hit, the ostensibly autobiographical “Touch of Grey.” On a jubilant “Turn on Your Lovelight,” Weir does proud original member Ron McKernan (aka Pigpen, who died in 1973, and for whom the R&B chestnut was a showpiece), but the capper is an elegiac rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The dramatic effect of the forlorn denouement is palpable, the very kind of atmospheric magic that gave birth to the saying “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.”