For years, when jazz and rock musicians would gripe about the Grateful Dead, it went something like this: They make aimless acid-trip stuff; they can't really play their instruments; the vocals wander off-key; the jams go on and on.
The five-CD set So Many Roads, a roughly chronological trove of previously unissued Dead highlights, decimates these criticisms. Consider "Cream Puff War," one of guitarist Jerry Garcia's early songwriting efforts, recorded in 1966. It's got a touch of the boho-jazz-blues thing that marked his old band, the Warlocks, but something else besides. In its sharp turns and agitated syncopations is the sound of an endlessly curious ensemble reaching just beyond its comfort zone, informed by the disciplines of the jazz tradition but not wedded to them.
So Many Roads is full of visionary, hallucinatory recastings of old music, as well as originals that twist traditional American themes (jug-band two-steps, country waltzes) just beyond the realm of the ordinary. Among its treasures: the gospel blues "Sing Me Back Home," from 1972, which uses Merle Haggard's death-row drama as an occasion for introspection; the "Jam Out of Foolish Heart," from 1990, which evolves into a pointillistic keyboard fantasia featuring Bruce Hornsby; the extended "Dark Star Jam"- "Spanish Jam"-"U.S. Blues" medley, from a 1974 Miami show, which links enduring warhorses into a modal, mystical reverie; the whimsical and spontaneous 1993 rehearsal take of the Irish folk tune "Whiskey in the Jar."
And then there are the guitar solos. The band's telepathic communication reached its peaks behind Garcia — whether he was lashing through a rock stomp or finessing more-subtle shades, the Dead rhythm section followed him with a kind of paranormal alertness, seizing on his repetitions, reinforcing the snarled clumps of his deceptively lyrical phrases. The sparks flew far more regularly than the Dead's detractors ever admitted, and while it would be impossible to capture in a box set of reasonable length all the different hues of the band's magic, So Many Roads reminds us just how delicate and precious that magic was.