About a year-and-a-half ago, this is what did it, the DVD that started my upward spiral into unrepentant Deadheadedness. On that fateful day, various surplus capitalism runoffs combined to put in my hands a free copy of a three-DVD set by the Grateful Dead called View From The Vault
. It was all 1990s stuff but I figured I'd try it anyway, and right when I got home I whimsically put in the first DVD, this one, a 1990 show from Pittsburgh. It started up while we were getting dinner ready, thinking we would check out a few songs, maybe even scoff a little, but whaddayaknow, we kept it on throughout dinner and well past it, deep into the second set, and it made for a lovely evening. My wife lived with a bunch of Deadheads about 15 years ago, and it turned out she knew all the songs and was actually dancing around with little Zacko who then wasn't even two years old. I did a little dancing too and had a mild epiphany over it being the first time I'd really sat and watched them play, and I couldn't help but love how casual they were as they rolled through one song after the next -- catchy, soulful, always instrumentally interesting, yes, but always supremely casual about it. Even when sloppy and out-of-tune they just casually play right through it. They aren't always personally casual -- they all scowl a lot and worry at their knobs and all that stuff -- but they are always musically
casual, and they were playing some pretty good deep-well-of-music action. That was the ephiphany: That it was good, and if (gasp) 1990s Dead was good, maybe it was ALL good. Even Bob Weir's unconscionably short shorts couldn't dissuade me.
Put it this way: I'd always liked second-set Dead, but this DVD was the first time I enjoyed FIRST-SET Dead. And as you can read below, I've been listening to the Dead almost constantly since then, and in fact it's really picked up in the last 6 months, and now I'm finally watching this DVD again, the first time since it started the whole thing off a year-and-a-half ago. And whaddayaknow, now that I've really gotten used to all kinds of high-quality soundboard recordings, it SUCKS. Their first set was always notorious as being a kind of onstage soundcheck/warmup, but this has got to be one of the worst-sounding first sets I've ever heard. The vocals sound faint, some instruments are too loud and others too faint, and they seem to be suffering some phase cancellation. It sounds like the actual notes the band is playing are way off, not in their usual choogling out-of-tune way, but in a more "I can't hear shit right now, this really sucks" way. Who knows, they must've thought it was okay if they released it. "Touch of Grey" is a classic and an acceptably ragged opener (seeing him play it, I flash on what a great loved-'round-the-world hook Brent Mydland's organ part was/is), but from there it's a truly awful run of "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Jack-A-Roe," and "New Minglewood Blues." Things improve when the band downshifts and does "Row Jimmy," one of my favorites. It's still mistake-filled and the sound is totally weird, but "Row Jimmy" is always pretty, and usually beautiful, especially during the Brent era. The way he sang the backup vocal on the chorus -- the "girl part" -- was something else. Ah, but after "Jimmy" we're back into awkward-first-set-land with a so-so Cowboy Bob medley of "Mama Tried" into "Mexicali Blues." Still a lot of mistakes going on. The next song I don't recognize, but it sounds pretty lame, until Phil starts singing and I realize that it's Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Not too bad, things are looking up, Phil's got a good wistful style on this one and he's even changing the lyrics a little bit, with nerdy acid-head sci-fi playfulness, "Now my best friend, my drummer, won't even tell what it was that I dropped." Not bad, not bad, and then a pretty good "Let It Grow" finally gets us out of this mess as the sun goes down and the band takes their break. It's very funny to me that this is the set that really got me into ALL ERAS of the Dead, because since then, after listening to countless superb soundboard recordings, I've grown accustomed to a much higher standard of playing, sound, song selection, everything. But again, that's the magic of the Dead -- sometimes when they suck, they're great, and vice versa.
And it's in the second set that they finally cool out and find their feet. Opener "Samson and Delilah" isn't too promising (but never a fave tune of mine so personal bias admitted), but then comes "Eyes of the World," serving as a bridge as it so often does into mellow times, good sound, and a marked increase in blown-out polyphonic star-cluster music. (I thought it played the same role in the middle of The Grateful Dead Movie
-- on this DVD it just takes much longer for it to come along and save the day.) Though it does segue into a bit of a pace-change, a real fine take on "Estimated Prophet." Real fine, I would even say crucial
(jah mon), with Weir ruling on the vocals. You can tell he's listened to some real island music here, and absorbed it, and it definitely takes him to some testifying levels. I'm sure you all know how Weir can go crazy on a song's rideout, with the high-end soul-music shrieks, and he really does it here, but much more controlled and pointed than usual, one of the best performances I've ever seen him give. Meanwhile, Mydland is constantly threatening to take the whole thing down with ridiculously dated "solar whoosh" synth effects. And right there I flash on it again, the Grateful Dead interplay of brilliance and bullshit that you can sometimes hear in their music so specifically that different instruments can be assigned to different factions. With this "Estimated" brilliance comes out ahead. The sun has fallen, the night is dark, and whaddayknow, the sound problems have completely gone away. Must've been some true solar interference, and come to think of it the sun did finally set during one of those many long long "Eyes of the World" rideouts.....
They ride the "Estimated" momentum into a wonderful version of "Terrapin Station." Jerry's now singing with his ragged broken voice instead of against it, a technique he often used to great effect on this "Lady With A Fan" section of "Terrapin" throughout the 90s. "Let my inspiration flow / in token lines suggesting rhythm / that will not forsake me / till my tale is told and done."
The band gets loud as hell as they build and then tear into the "Terrapin Station" section of the song, but there are still plenty of clams ("the Grateful Dead with zits" to use a Phil Lesh phrase), like totally missing the "Terrapin!" harmonies every single time, and there are a lot of them. Of course, they more than make up for it with a punishing, thunderous run through the apocalyptic descendent Terrapin riff, repeating it seemingly a hundred times, every one of them completely different, whether divided into radical polymeters by the drummers, led into contrapuntally by Lesh, or multi-voiced by the guitarists. This leads naturally into "Drums" and another frankly mind-blowing Mickey Hart solo on the Beam -- he was basically playing huge table-top electric guitar drone with this thing, using FX pedals on it to boot -- which leads naturally into another frankly cosmically cuddly "Space" section, which leads into, well, "I Need A Miracle" -- back to the so-so boogie, maybe -- point is I do need to take a break -- I can't just write all night about a so-so 1990s Dead show, even if it does have a truly awesome Eyes > Estimated > Terrapin > Drums > Space run in the middle of it right as the sun goes down......