May 06


By Tyler Blue (Website | Twitter)

When the Grateful Dead used to announce a new live release, its impending arrival was met with voracious anticipation. Deadheads dropped everything and ran to the store on the first day it came out or else had it waiting in the mailbox. We all remember when “One from the Vault” hit the racks in April of 1991. It was like Christmas, Channukah and a birthday all rolled into one. Soon the Dick’s Picks series came around. The declaration of a new release was akin to Apple revealing upgrades for the latest iPhone. They only came once or twice a year so it was easy to keep up and buy them all. There were no CD burners yet so everyone had to buy their own copy. What a concept.

Maybe around the time Dick’s Picks crossed into double-digits, the reality set in that I was going to have to start to pick and choose. But it was so hard to resist the sudden and instant access to a perfect copy of a show which had only been heard on crackly cassettes or maybe not at all. For a band which, at the time, was facing the reality of the erosion of its talent, this was the ultimate way to revive the genius of their past heroics to be put on a pedestal in the present and future. The quality was so consistently stellar, with eyes closed, it really felt like you were there.

Several years ago, after Dick’s Picks had already run its course, the Dead introduced the Road Trips series which could be purchased in CD format or via digital download. The floodgates were officially open as these amazing shows were released at a rate so frequent, only the deepest pocketed audiophiles could keep up. Well, and the illegal downloaders too. No one seems to hesitate anymore in “stealing” these recordings as they tend to rationalize: “I’ve given more than enough money to the Dead organization over the years.” Actually, not such an unreasonable line of logic.

Perhaps the best thing about Road Trips is that most of the releases focus on darkhorse performances which haven’t received much attention until now. Any Deadhead will smile when reflecting upon the old days when we gobbled up sixth generation cassettes drenched in hiss, and didn’t bat an ear. When these Road Trips come through, it can be revelational to hear the pure, unadulterated version of that show for the first time. Last night it was almost surreal as I pushed play on my iPod and out came the music I last heard over 15 years ago in analog format. I wore out my tape from 5/23/69 at the Big Rock Pow Wow in Hollywood, FL, putting it on again and again on my parents’ patio speakers after getting home from school. Not only was it an epic set, but, being from Miami, I thought it was so cool they had played such a transcendent show so close to my neck of the woods.

I love it all but the crux of the X-factor magic always boiled down to the “Dark Star” for me. As soon as it penetrated my ears last night, I was instantly transfixed by its otherworldly spell. For such a loose, out-there, space waltz, the precision of each instrument is more unmistakable than ever. Jerry Garcia’s soaring guitar leads are volatile as nuclear fission and pinpoint as laser surgery. The collective force of the band behind him swells with such primal intensity, I find myself elasticized through the wormholes of consciousness. Only aided by a few shots of Cinco de Mayo tequila, I imagine the effect it had on the Pow Wow crowd 42 years before. The entire set they played that first day of the festival was only five songs, culminating in a 30-minute stomp through “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Leading the band like a slightly sloshed conductor of a runaway locomotive, it’s always refreshing to reconnect with the raunchy, bluesy swagger of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.

A live release series like Road Trips appeals to such a niche market, it’s pretty safe to say that these shows aren’t being heard by many outside the most hardcore camps of Deadheads. Even for many of those folks, they surely pass right under their radar. The fact of the matter is that it’s so easy to pump these out into the market, there’s really nothing to lose. Bless their hearts, archivists and accountants continue to see the value in sharing these intimate slices of Grateful Dead history. Whenever we are reunited with these magnificent performances of yore, it ignites something deep which goes way beyond a sense of nostalgia. New life is breathing through the notes and we realize that, no matter what the present era may be, the music this band produced will always be ahead of its time