Sharps and Flats

The first serious Grateful Dead retrospective is riddled with confounding decisions, stupid mistakes and beautiful music -- just like the band.

Topics: Music,

Sharps and Flats

Love ‘em or hate ‘em — and most folks fall pretty squarely into one camp or the other — the Grateful Dead are undeniably one of the most influential and iconic bands in rock. From the Dead’s early days as the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests to their later incarnation as a multimillion-dollar touring juggernaut, the band carved a singular niche in American music, one with its own rhythms and vernacular, a place where the acid is always mellow, the girls all have bells on their shoes and the music never stops.

Now, four years after the death of Jerry Garcia and 34 years after the Dead’s inception in San Francisco as the Warlocks, comes a five-disc set that purports to be the first “in-depth musical retrospective of the Grateful Dead.” Like so much about the Dead, “So Many Roads” succeeds gloriously and fails miserably, with moments of painful beauty laid atop mind-numbing exercises of ineptitude. It might not be the best six hours of music the Dead ever created, but it sure is a representative collection.

“So Many Roads” is made up entirely of unreleased material. With dozens of official releases — there are already 69 sanctioned CDs of live Dead material in circulation — creating a fresh collection was undoubtedly a challenge. Perhaps that explains the host of perplexing (and that’s being kind) song choices. Obviously, arguments are to be expected — the Dead performed hundreds of songs in the thousands of concerts they played — but some of the selections here are painful. What, for instance, justifies the inclusion of two tracks sung by ’80s keyboardist Brent Mydland, who, whatever his talents, was hardly a gifted songwriter? And why is late-inning replacement Vince Welnick given a track (“Way to Go Home”) while original bassist and crowd favorite Phil Lesh doesn’t get any love?

The choices of specific performances are confounding as well. A hybrid rendition of “Eyes of the World” and “Estimated Prophet” became one of the Dead’s showcases in later years; here, the two songs come from performances five years apart. The breezy Bob Weir number “The Music Never Stopped” was a lighthearted delight in the ’70s, when backup vocalist Donna Godchaux would shout her way through the choruses; here, a plodding version from 1980, only about a year after Godchaux had left the band, is featured.

And how to explain the truncated and amputated jams that populate “So Many Roads”? While Deadheads accepted DAT machines with a near-religious embrace — tapers no longer lost precious seconds when they flipped their Maxell SA-90s in mid-song — “So Many Roads” is filled with songs and jams that fade in and out, removing some brilliant moments from their necessary context. For this reason, a pair of 1990 tracks — “Jam out of Terrapin” and “Jam out of Foolish Heart” — fall flat. While both feature some haunting moments (notably the interplay between Garcia and pianist Bruce Hornsby on “Foolish Heart”), when set apart, they seem ungrounded and aimless.

Finally, the set itself is poorly organized and rife with errors. Packaged in a handsome, cloth-covered box, “So Many Roads” comes with two booklets, one of which holds the discs along with a track-by-track description, the other featuring a series of essays. While most of the essays are perfectly adequate, there is no overarching history of the band. Even worse, there is not even a listing of which musicians played on which cuts. While Deadheads know, and very careful readers can discern, that drummer Mickey Hart left the band from February 1971 to October 1974, this shouldn’t take an investigation for anyone else to figure out.

The confusion doesn’t end there. Listeners who want to know both how long a song is and when it was performed need to look in different books: The track times are listed after the essays, while the date and place of performance are in the packet with the CDs. (Not that the time listings help much. More than a half-dozen of the listed times are off by 30 seconds or more, and some, like the “Foolish Heart” jam, are wrong by more than three minutes: That track is listed at 8:57, and clocks in at just under 5:30.)

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Despite these flaws, “So Many Roads” is filled with just enough moments of heartbreaking beauty and mind-blowing musical excursion to be worthwhile to a Dead fan — although maybe not $80 worthwhile. The first disc includes a number of rare early gems, including two 1965 songs the Dead recorded under the moniker Emergency Crew. (At least, it appears
that only two tracks were Emergency Crew tunes: The liner notes never say when the Dead began using the name that would make them famous.) A 1972 cover of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” with Godchaux roaring through Garcia’s lilting choruses, is genuinely moving.

Another highlight is a 1990 performance of “Bird Song” that features Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone. While much has been made of Garcia and Bob Weir’s interplay on guitar, Marsalis’ improvisation pushes Garcia to new depths. Indeed, there is ample evidence of the Dead’s musical prowess on this set, including a legendary nimble-fingered soundcheck at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1973, and a mid-1980s shuffle of the retro-funk delight “Shakedown Street.”

But the heart of this set is not the freeform jams, which have long been available as bootlegs, but the handful of rehearsal and live tracks recorded between 1993 and 1995. During these years, the Dead were at the height of their popularity and, by most accounts, Garcia was once again falling rapidly into the drug addiction that would kill him. A yearning, cavernous version of “Days Between” and an impromptu run-through of “Whiskey in the Jar,” an old folk tune, aptly demonstrate how the Dead never lost their love of making music; these songs also hint toward new, gentler directions the Dead could have explored had Garcia lived.

The song “So Many Roads,” taken from the last concert the Dead ever played, on July 9, 1995, ends this set and serves as both an emotional cornerstone and an apt metaphor for the entire collection. The song, written as a fairly standard folk-blues, recalls some of Dylan’s more straight-ahead efforts, notably “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Run through with slightly tweaked imagery from American and musical iconography — KC whistle, blackbird singing, mountain high, river high, land of the midnight sun, howlin’ wide, moanin’ low — the song is emblematic of the formula lyricist Robert Hunter used to such great effect: archetypal descriptions of longing and loneliness, mixed with hints of personal and spiritual exploration. When Garcia, his voice cracking but strong, shouts, “So many roads I know/
So many roads to ease to my soul” over the end of the song, it’s tough not to get chills.

But even this seemingly definitive homage is marred by poor decision-making. It turns out that this “So Many Roads” is not, in fact, taken directly from the Dead’s last performance: “A better-recorded guitar intro from a few days before has been pasted onto the beginning, and Garcia’s first attempt at the final verse (which he sang twice) and a second solo have been eliminated.” Cutting and splicing the Dead, a band whose audience appreciated an honest, genuine effort above everything else, amounts to nothing less than sacrilege, especially when dealing with some of the last music Uncle Jerry ever made in public.

For years, converts have insisted you need to go to a Dead show to experience the magic. That’s no longer an option. This collection, with its vagaries and confusions, is unlikely to make any new converts. And maybe that’s for the best: The Dead, despite constant efforts to corral their magic, were always as fleeting as a sunshine daydream.

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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