This review is by Brendan Foreman.
So often dismissed as a anachronistic hippie band that would somehow never die, the Grateful Dead actually formed a keystone of sorts between the traditional forms of American roots music and the rock music of the 60s. Looking past the psychedelic trappings and bizarre skeleton images, one can easily see that foundations of the Dead’s music consist mainly of the American Musical Triumvirate: jazz, blues, and country, with of course a healthy dose of rock and roll to keep things interesting.
At first glance, So Many Roads seems like any other “best of” CD set that the Dead have been churning out since the late 70s. But there is a great deal here that recommends it well above any of the other compilations. Most of the tracks here are live recordings, and those that aren’t, are outtakes and practice sessions.
In terms of musical selection, the most surprising aspect of this set is the lack of so many of the Dead “standards” that many GD fans are familiar with. There’s no “St. Stephen” or “Trucking” or even “Friend of the Devil.” This set is definitely not meant as any sort of “greatest hits” collection (which would of course be a rather record in this case) so much as a record of the musicianship and exuberance that characterized the Grateful Dead ethos.
One can view the Grateful Dead as exemplars of finely-honed songwriting ability and top-notch musical skill, but this perspective entirely misses the experience of the performing Grateful Dead. Live performances by the Dead were another affair altogether: improvisational, wild, community-minded, and just damn fun. This is the Grateful Dead that So Many Roadsseeks to record. And, beginning with its original conception as a ’60s-style white-man’s R&B band and ending with its very last concert in 1995, it definitely succeeds.
Although all of the members of the Dead (and most notably Jerry Garcia) were well versed in the many traditions of American roots music — blues, bluegrass, jazz, it seems that it took some time for them to view their band as anything more than a typical R&B/pop band, as shown by Disc One, which chronicles live selections from late 1965 to sometime in 1970. From the hard-driving pop sounds of “Can’t Come Down” and “You Don’t Have to Ask” to the heavy blues of “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” and “On the Road Again,” we get a Dead who played catchy tunes and who stayed remarkably close to the melody during their relatively short solos. There is an indication of Things To Come with “Cream Puff War”: a more swinging rhythm, vaguely trippy subject matter, and much longer and looser soloing.
It’s with the “Dark Star/China Cat Syndrome/The Eleven” track from 1968 that we finally arrive at the Grateful Dead that most of us are familiar with. Like most of the upcoming tracks, it’s long — well over 10 minutes. “Dark Star” is an ethereal song that seems to congeal suddenly out of a morass of notes. The heavy lyrics and spacy chords are suddenly interrupted by the upbeat but hard-rocking sounds of “China Cat Syndrome,” which in turn are replaced by the jamming of “The Eleven.”
The first disc ends with a triplet of rareties, early song-writing attempts that didn’t see much usage past the ’70s: the jazzy “Clementine,” which almost made it onto their Aoxomoxoaalbum, “Mason’s Children,” an outtake from Workingman’s Deadand the first here to feature the Dead’s excellent harmony-singing, and the old-timey “To Lay Me Down,” an outtake from American Beauty.
Disc Two begins with “That’s It for the Other One,” a 1969 example of the trademark Grateful Dead open jam. Combining Garcia’s “Cryptical Envelopment” and Weir’s “The Other One,” this one quickly trails off into some wild frontier of improvisation. As Garcia comments in the beginning of the track, the Dead are now truly “beyond the pale.” This particular song apparently became a live standard for the Dead, giving them a chance to collectively and singly show their chops.
The open jams continue on Disc Two with “Beautiful Jam” from 1971, a on-the-spot musical bridge that connected “Wharf Rat” and “Dark Star.” As the title says, it’s a very beautiful tune, starting off-the-cuff but acquiring a rich life of its own during the ensuing improvisation (a typical live Dead trick). Following is the forthright ragtime/country sounds of “Chinatown Shuffle” and the wistful desperation of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” both from 1972.
Finally, from 1973 and 1974, respectively, we encounter a space-filling, unnamed jam from a Watkins Glen concert, and a “Dark Star Jam/Spanish Jam/U.S. Blues” track. The Dead were revealing a great deal of their broad musical tastes on this last track as the “Spanish” part is actually a surprisingly melodic improvisation of “Solea” from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
Disc Three spans concert excerpts from 1974 to 1984. By this time, the Grateful Dead had settled into its trademark sound: country-tinged pop melodies and themes, a swinging rock rhythm, and a penchant for jazz-like improvisation with an abstract, almost-bebop sense of harmony. Most of the tracks here also follow a similar format: a relatively straight-forward rendition of the song, a meandering into soloing, a return to the song, more solos, and finally one last rendition — often peppered now with the standard Grateful Dead weirdness.
“Eyes of the World” from 1974 and “The Wheel” from 1976 both have easy-going pop styles, whereas “Stella Blue” from 1978 derives its strength from a slow-burning soul/blues sensibility. “Estimated Prophet” is a reggae-influenced slice of late 70s rock. Wide-eyed and optimistic in its depiction of someone caught in the throes of inspiration, this song has always seemed to run counter to the cynicism and commercialism of the music from that time. The disc ends with two more examples of late 70′s Grateful Dead: the Fleetwood Mac-esque “The Music Never Stopped” and the funky “Shakedown Street.” Rather than feeling forced, the contemporary influences evident here — disco, country rock, etc. — don’t feel forced, rather they seem more indicative of the Dead’s ability to appreciate and utilize as many musical forms as they could get a hold of.
With Disc Four, we witness the Grateful Dead rediscovery of the mid 1980s. Although the band had certainly not disappeared before then, it suddenly was a top-selling concert band again. In fact, all of the writers in the accompanying booklet mention their renewed interest in the Dead at this time as well as a sudden reappreciation for what the Dead were accomplishing musically.
Covering concerts from 1985 to 1990, there is fine variety of music here from the country rock-turned-jam session of “Cassidy” and New Orleans-style rock-and-roll of the Neville Brothers’ “Hey Pocky Way” to “Believe It Or Not,” a soulful outtake from the Built to Lastsessions, and the good-timey fan-favorite, “Playing in the Band.” There is an innate sense of contentment and confidence in these renditions, that belie the emotional and physical distresses that the band was apparently going through at the time and which would haunt them until Garcia’s death.
“Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” from 1988 is vicious cut of roadside country rock, whereas “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” from the following year is an old blues ballad played with all of the humility and terror that anyone looking honestly towards their end would have. To brighten things up, a “Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain” comes next, in which we find Garcia fully experimenting with amount of sounds he could generate through a MIDI-connected guitar. Branford Marsalis shows up to give “Bird Song” a distinct adult contemporary air to it. The disc ends with “Jam out of Terrapin,” an improvisation on “Terrapin Station.”
The final disc chronicles the last five years of the Grateful Dead’s existence, ending in 1995, a time that seemed determined to kill off as many of rock’s shining stars as possible. Nevertheless, during these last times, the Dead had moved from a freakish hold-over from the 60s to a venerable American musical institution. The disc opens with a 1991 “Terrapin Station,” a song well rooted in American traditions. This track and the next, “Jam out of Foolish Heart,” both feature the piano talent of Nick Hornsby. “Jam” in particular shows the often playful aura of a Dead concert as Hornsby and Garcia goad each other instrumentally.
The compilers of this set could have easily just filled this last disc with 1990-1995 versions of the old tried-and-true Dead basics. Instead they have focused on the new compositions that the Dead were still generating up to the point of Garcia’s demise. “Way To Go Home” is a bluesy pop song by Vince Welnick. “Liberty” from Robert Hunter’s 1993 solo album is given a syncopated country-blues styling. Also, from 1993, is the easy-going, Beatles-ish “Lazy River Road” and Bob Weir’s haunting blues “Eternity.”
A relaxed jam session acts a prelude to the nostalgic “Days Between,” the last song that Hunter and Garcia wrote together. Next comes a studio version “Whiskey in the Jar,” that old Irish chestnut, that apparently Garcia began out of the blue, and in which everyone just joined. The CD ends with “So Many Roads” from the last concert given by the Grateful Dead. Although some doctoring was done on the track to hide some of Garcia’s mistakes, it is clear from this and the other selections here that the Dead still had plenty of musical energy and imagination left. It is no wonder then that the band in spirit and the individual surviving band members in practice have both kept going.
This set also comes in a very well-constructed canvas box and a small booklet of essays by regarding the Dead and their music. Particularly interesting is Eric Pooley’s “Red and White, Blue Shoes,” which attempts to trace the many influences of the Dead’s music. He fails, of course, as anyone would, but I’ve ever read so far. The booklet ends with a complete list of everyone who has been in the Grateful Dead at one time or another. Any fan of the band would want a copy of this, but I daresay that it is easily accessible enough for even the Grateful Dead novice to get plenty out of it.
(Grateful Dead Records, 1999)