Grateful Dead—

Released 1969 on Warner Brothers
The Seth Man, March 2001ce
Unfortunately, The Grateful Dead were never this raw and avant-garde ever again. Never.

This double live album capped off The Dead’s initial phase of their career, characterised by their electric acid jugband blues as it curled at the corners into freaky experimentation. And at this point, the band’s live performances began to mutate into sinewy effortlessness incarnate. And on a good night such as this, their vibing skills were honed to such a point it enabled them to subsume themselves into ‘group brain’ telepathy: producing music that would roll on powered only by the highest, reflective and ever-striving improvisation they ever got down on record. The first three-quarters of the album was a single, massive, run-on jam of four songs’ duration, interrupted only by fade outs and fade ins as dictated by the strictures of album length while knocking all further continuity on its head with the irritating DJ programmatic device of pairing side 1 with side 4 and side 2 with 3 although once reissued on CD, the heavy flow of “Live/Dead” was reinstated and enabled to run on unfettered.

“Dark Star” takes up side one in its entirety with a slow fade-in into its quiet paces. It’s an interplanetary, interplaying synaptic ZAP; one that doesn’t meander so much as ebb and flow within the locked multi-tiered levels of consciousness of the players -- who all improvise responsibly as an ensemble giving each other tremendous tracts of open space to demarcate their individual rhythms while absorbing the always becoming-ness of where they were, and where they were going. The lyrics enter sung sweetly and strongly by Jerry Garcia, his yearning inflections casting through the nether reaches of emotional shadow-land as he reigns and regroups the piece time and time again, but it’s by no means his exploration alone. The kicking of Bill Kreutzmann’s bass drums (remarkably picked up by the expert ambient miking of Bob and Betty Matthews) and hand held percussion devices are shaken, stirred and struck as snatches of keyboards, bass extrapolations and skinny Bob Weir rhythm guitar are all constantly manifesting into what the song already is -- a deep and wordless joy that reawakens shades of existence that go passing by in a mindscape where nothing is preordained and flow is all. The drums cease completely at one point, but it’s not noticeable in the least as the group extends a track originally cut as a single A-side into an album side’s worth of consciousness mapping penetrations. You can listen to this track a thousand times and still hear something previously unrevealed. It’s beautiful.

The side ends into a fade, catching the first chords of “St. Stephen” which gently awakens side 2; a place where things start to get far more raucous and complex. The lyrics are cryptic as hell, yet evoke a “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”-type life and death cycle, as hints of the strictest gnosis blossom and start to fragment into mythic imagery and suggestion in a waking dream that soon gets even more raucous and complex for, oh about eight minutes, and it’s about as precariously balanced as an overloaded chicken truck you see in old-tymey movies about to collide at a train crossing. The collision never occurs, but it’s running over everything: a stop sign, a cop, upsets a grocery-carrying grandmother, straddles half the sidewalk but it never, ever slows for any twist or turn. Before anyone can feel it, they’re already home free and well into “The Eleven” as they only brake lightly for Bob Weir’s out of tune vocals singing more oblique lyrics. But the rolling double drumming re-ensues and Lesh’s bass parts are busy distilling an intuitive beaker of alchemical rhythms as the music sallies through life as the group consciousness gets poured through into eternal grokking and bopping through life with a grinning soul, thumbing a ride on the great cosmic wheel. They realign rhythms to the less complex and far more traditional and loose as hell R&B framework of “Turn On Your Love Light” where Pigpen steps up to the mike with hollering, badgering and generally hell-bent-for-mojo pleading. The Spartan latticework of Kreutzmann and Hart’s double drumming breaks down to expertly handled snare rattlings from Kreutzmann as the stomping continues to rapturous psychedelic ballroom audience response. Pigpen starts rapping up a storm, cajoling everybody and yet the music continues all bouncy and teasing, with many stops and starts along the way -- for an entire album’s side, no less. They bring it on home with all guitarists backing on vocals and Weir’s shrieking background vocals are plain hair curling cracking. But since they’re going whole hog tearing the lid off the whole boiling thing, it’s as forgivable as it is funny.

The final side sees The Reverend Gary Davis honoured with a cover of his blues, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Garcia regains the spotlight vocal while all other lights are down for this mournful, subdued and heartfelt rendition, turning in a pure Sam Andrews/Quicksilver solo accented with soaring feedback controls, but instilled with the eccentric lyricism of Celtic arabesques that could only emanate from his nine-fingered dexterity in the prime of his fabulous Gibson SG phase. “Feedback” sees the Grateful Dead re-emerge as the seven-headed feedback monster of improvised noise and overall gong abuse, but in a far more refined manner than their deafening live ’67 freak-outs from “Anthem Of The Sun”: Which is not to say it doesn’t get discordant as hell with the volume pedal fucking around but Tom Constanten’s near-invisible spookoid organ lightly sweetens it all with graceful hovering. The piece treads many times into ultimate fried-out freeform when tones start to sway and undulate and threaten to swoop and collect both band and audience and banish them to bad trip land forever until it simmers to a halt until all falls away but soft and lyrical passages. It finally hushes and spills directly into an excerpt of the traditional vocal, “And We Bid You Goodnight,” a sweetened lullaby in the dark as the final lingering wisps of smoldering hash vanish.

After this period (1970 and beyond) they’d dally with elements of bluegrass, country and then low-grade funk with the occasional jazzy touch here and there, but it only served to dilute their albums year by year until it all became a potpourri of easy feelin’/good time/fake old tymey toons that made them sound like a punch drunk Allman Brothers or a more fashionable version of The Doobie Brothers, albeit with better album cover art constantly graced with roses.

Which was poetic justice, as the rose is a highly symbolic flower: not only of beauty in its ultimate perfection, but also corruption at its ultimate nadir. And “Live/Dead” was where their rose was fully innocent and in bloom -- just prior to Altamont, the dissipation of the Woodstock Nation, several crooked managers, the death of Pigpen, ingesting mountains of soul-deadening opiates and a messianic following comprised of rich, American suburban hippies.