To avoid any possible disappointments for those who once had visions of saving the world through the music on Anthem of the Sun and any number of live performances, it might be nice to think of this album as an interlude for the Grateful Dead, a resting place where they've stopped over to brace themselves for the next series of atmospheric excursions. Despite some heartening knew-they-could-do-it-all-along moments, it has all the earmarks of such a betwixt and between record–produced live, mostly other people's songs, filtered through with a kind of relaxed air that relies on renditions of old familiars and any number of debt-paying tributes.
But if nothing else, Grateful Dead does make me a bit nostalgic for them golden days of yore, when not much of anything could be predicted from the group except that they would inevitably try through the course of each performance to take you some place you'd never been before. They would likely miss a good percentage of the times, and you'd perhaps spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs while they'd try out and discard all combinations of musical paths, but the chances were good that they would leave you with enough massively memorable moments during the night to make the whole thing worthwhile.
The trouble is, however, that I don't hear many of those memorable moments here. Except for some extended beauty that falls at the end of "The Other One" on side two, what we get is another version of your local Dead bootleg that just happens to be recorded from the stage rather than vice-versa. This isn't entirely bad I'd much rather listen to the Dead light into "Johnny B. Goode" than virtually anyone else except when you happen to remember that the Dead used to be in the forefront of the rock avant-garde, using the basics of the earlier forms to flesh out the structures (or non-structures) of a music that might provide a stunning entrance into the cosmos of the third millennium. A.D. Free jazz folks have been aware of this relatively untapped dimension for years (you know the usual names. I'm sure), but ever since the pyrotechnics of Live Dead, our boys seem to have backed away from such experimentation and confrontation, and the result is a mixture of pleasant good-time music and solid solos. brought up and made even more attractive by the Dead's uniquely rich and majestic sound. It can't quite be called bad, since it's pretty clear that the Dead have progressed so far beyond your average garage band that there's no danger of them ever slipping back, but it still can provide a bit of a letdown for those who have come to expect only great things from the grate.
"Bertha" opens the album, faded up at the beginning so that you are literally pulled into the "live" experience, and it's a good way to start, with an irresistable rolling beat and a drive which might make Creedence sit up and take notice, superb Hunter lyrics and all. The rest of the side varies, with a nice Bob Weir rendition of "Mama Tried," a sonofabitchin' "Big Railroad Blues," and a Weir-Hunter composition called "Playing In The Band" that is noteworthy for its great series of chord progressions and little else.
The programming, which up to now has taken a wait-and-see attitude, breaks down when you hit side two and are greeted by an extended Bill Kreutzmann drum solo. It pains me to say this about a drummer who blissfully shines throughout the rest of the album, playing what amounts to perfect supportive percussion despite any quick changes that are going down in the rest of the group, but given his solo group of minutes, he don't cut it here at all. While his individual ideas are good, he never manages to give them internal coherence, any sort of organic connection, and the result is almost as if he had a list of tricks in front of him, and as he does each one he mentally crosses it off and jumps to the next.
But when Kreutzmann finally catches the beam at the end, the rest of the Dead are there to greet him with one of those supremely beautiful chord bursts that have given ample reason for their fans to become some of the truest fanatics in rock and roll, and from there until they stumble off the end of the side, there's no holding them back. On a good night, the Dead can construct a masterful weave where everything seems to swirl around the next, and they're at their finest here, spurred by the loving bite of Garcia's guitar. Weir's slap-dash rhythm, driven along by some of the finest bass playing on four planets, Mars and the asteroid belt included.
Which only then makes the rest of the album so hard to explain. If they're going to take you that high on side two, why do they give up the good fight and go back to "arranged" songs and cover versions for the remaining half of the record? With the exception of "Wharf Rat" over on side four, of which I might say that it is assuredly one of the finest examples of Garcia-Hunter's combined talents we've yet been privileged to see, there's nothing here that doesn't really amount to filler at an average Dead performance. The problem, of course, is that you don't develop a "St. Stephen" or a "Turn On Your Lovelight" overnight; but why settle for second-best? And if you argue that even second-best Dead is better than just about anything else on the market. I'd tend to agree. But again, why settle for second best?
Well, may be they'll clear that up for us on the nest outing. In the meantime, think of this album as an interlude for the Grateful Dead, a resting place where they've stopped over to brace themselves for the next series of atmospheric excursions ...