The next release in the Road Trips series, I cannot find a review by Doug Collette this time out, so this review comes from The Music Box website. Written by John Metzger from July 23, 2010…
Arguably, throughout its existence, the Grateful Dead was almost always in a continuous state of evolution. At the very least, however, one would have to admit that the shows the band performed in 1971 were its most transitional affairs. In fact, where its concerts in 1977 projected a unified perspective, the Grateful Dead’s sojourns six years earlier stood in sharp contrast, exhibiting a persona that was as variegated and unsettled as its musical roots. The show featured on Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 2: Austin 11-15-71 is a prime example of how deliriously scattered the Grateful Dead’s performances were during this era.
Of course, in November 1971, there were a lot of internal and external pressures weighing upon the Grateful Dead. Most notably, the relatively young outfit was faced with the prospect of having to find a replacement for founding keyboard player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, whose health had begun to fade. Considering how much of the Grateful Dead’s sets had been devoted to his uproariously blues-y antics, this surely was not an easy task. No matter who was hired — in the end, it was Keith Godchaux — a seismic shift in the ensemble’s approach was bound to take place.
By the time the outfit had settled into Municipal Auditorium in Austin, Texas on November 15, 1971 for the concert that is captured on Road Trips, Vol. 3, No. 2, the Grateful Dead had successfully extended the Americana-imbued essence that it had put forth with remarkable perfection on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Over the course of the preceding nine months, an astounding collection of new compositions — “Bertha,” “Loser,” “Playing in the Band,” “Wharf Rat,” “Sugaree,” “Jack Straw,” “Mexicali Blues,” and “Ramble on Rose,” among them — had become indoctrinated into the outfit’s repertoire. These songs would be further developed in the coming weeks, months, and years, but already it was apparent that this material had been fully digested by the band.
At the same time, the exhilarating and edgy jams that had filled the Grateful Dead’s sets during the late 1960s hadn’t yet faded from its arsenal. “Truckin’,” for example, wasn’t simply a heated blast of rock ’n‘ roll fury. Rather, it evoked the writhing intensity of the Grateful Dead’s countless afternoons in Golden Gate Park. Consequently, it served its purposes equally well as a rousing opening number and as a launch pad for the previous night’s atom-smashing, brain-frying, acid-test revival of “The Other One.” Elsewhere, the Grateful Dead didn’t just dip its toe into the cosmic tidal pool of “Dark Star.” Instead, it enveloped “El Paso” within the cataclysmic forces of creation and destruction before plunging into the ominous, electric chug of “Casey Jones.”
Of course, the Grateful Dead’s appetite for embracing new sounds and styles was immense, and based upon the music featured on Road Trips Vol. 3, No. 2: Austin 11-15-71, there is no doubt that the outfit was already en route to its next phase. Its journey would come to fruition during its magnificent tour of Europe in the spring of 1972. Nevertheless, within songs like the rolling, barroom shuffle of “Ramble on Rose” as well as the wildly whipping ride of “Cumberland Blues,” the band highlighted how well the pieces were beginning to fall into place. The Grateful Dead could still increase the intensity whenever it wanted, but its looser, laid-back approach provided it with plenty of room to roam.
Herein lies the problem with Road Trips Vol. 3, No. 2: Austin 11-15-71 as well as most of the shows from the era: Although it was flush with new material that emphasized song structures rather than freewheeling jams, The Grateful Dead still wasn’t very good at tying everything together in a fashion that felt cohesive and coherent. The band jumped from one place to another, almost randomly, and its anything-goes mentality sometimes led unintentionally to an anticlimactic outcome. Most egregiously, the group placed “Dark Star” into its opening set in Austin, which proved to be a challenging act to follow. The Grateful Dead’s undeveloped sense of pacing reared its ugly head again later in the show when the band followed a riotous rendition of “Sugar Magnolia” with a laid-back stroll through “You Win Again.”
In spite of its deficiencies, though, Road Trips Vol. 3, No. 2: Austin 11-15-71 is a tremendously strong endeavor. Featuring a hodgepodge of selections that crosses Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty with Live/Dead, Europe ’72 and the Grateful Dead’s self-titled concert recording from 1971, its track listing reads like a collection of the band’s greatest hits. All of the songs were well-played, too — though, perhaps, none of them were better, at least during this particular show, than the pairing of “Not Fade Away” with “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” The Grateful Dead had a habit of repeatedly finding new perspectives from which to perform material that had become ingrained within the consciousness of its fans. Walking a line between its youthful exuberance and its rapid maturation, Road Trips Vol. 3, No. 2: Austin 11-15-71 pushes this facet of the Grateful Dead’s approach into plain view.