After my first listen to the full 6/21/95 Grateful Dead show, an anecdote from David Gans’s joint interview with Jerry Garcia and Steve Parrish came to mind. The two of them described how a fan had given them a lizard God to take care of, which they did for a stretch of time until a roadie accidentally dispatched the lizard to the next world. When Gans asked what they learned from this experience, Parrish replied, "Don’t get stuck taking care of the lizard."
It occurred to me that listening to the latter-day Dead is not unlike accepting the assignment to take care of the lizard. Never mind those artists who routinely present good, sometimes great music; with this band, be prepared to dig through mounds of muck for moments of transcendence. A few year back, I downloaded 6/21/95 after reading a few reports which cited it as the most musically worthwhile outing of the much-maligned summer ’95 tour (whose dubious 10th anniversary is now at hand), but the "Scarlet/Fire" was, to my ears, crap, with Garcia seemingly incapable of either putting energy into his vocal delivery or delivering a coherent musical thought on guitar. The "Playin’," though, had some of that pre-drums magic they could still conjure, but it wasn’t long after that sampling that I filed the discs away.
I’d been practicing selective amnesia with the Dead lately, listening to shows from that ’72-‘77 stretch when dull stretches were uncommon and Garcia could lead the band through 20 to 40 minutes of effortlessly varied improvisation every night, but I decided to give this final tour a chance again. Breaking out 6/21/95 again, I realized that there were two Jekkyl-and-Hyde battles here at once. There was Garcia, sometimes showing flashes of his extraordinary musicianship but often (as Phil Lesh’s memoir confirms) doing an uncanny impression of already being dead. And there was the band as a whole. The 90’s Grateful Dead could be either an intriguing, though inconsistent and indulgent, jazz-rock group or a competent-at-best classic rock cover band. On 6/21/95, there is much of the latter band. At best, on this show’s "Promised Land" and "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," the Dead hit a respectable groove with comfortable vocals. Elsewhere, Weir and Welnick shamelessly shoot for applause with their strained high notes. And then there’s "Broken Arrow," with a Lesh vocal which Blair Jackson once tactfully described as containing a "Neil Diamond-like drama." On this night, at least, it’s more like your high school chemistry teacher doing a Neil Diamond impression. It was after hearing a few cuts like this that I started wondering if I’d give this music any attention if the band making it wasn’t called the Grateful Dead.
The real Dead, though, is here, if intermittently. On my new listen, the "Scarlet/Fire" sounded better than before, the "Playin’" a bit less good. It was a tad eerie that it tended to sound better the longer I kept listening, but just as there must have been something about that fan that persuaded Garcia and Parrish to take the lizard, there is something here which makes me keep at it.
One listening project I’ve had on my agenda for a while is to give more attention to Space those open, guitar-centered, usually drumless interludes which became a routine part of Dead shows around the time Brent joined. This has intrigued me ever since editor Bob Bralove made a case for it on the underrated Infrared Roses, but it’s also notable simply because the format is more open even than what they were doing in the 70’s. It’s been tough, though, to find the same coherence in the space jams on the live recordings that Bralove’s editing brought to the official CD. Space amounts to a set of instrumental voices, as many as four (or five or six when Hornsby and other guests were present), attempting to join into a statement, with both musical lines and instrumental timbres intermingling. To be fair, it’s a challenge to improvise under those circumstances, especially since I’m not sure the Dead always knew what was going to come out of their MIDIfied guitars. The 6/21/95 Space seems to be mainly Bob and Vince, which is not as bad as it might seem, mostly because Bob’s distorted guitar and Vince’s Hammond sounds have a bite which was often lacking in late Dead. If they could have put these sounds into a more effective whole package, it may have been something.
By ’95, the band seemed to be applying Space strategies to many of their jams. Jerry spends most of "Row Jimmy"‘s solo space toying with first a flute and then a steel guitar sound, while he uses an oboe patch for part of "Fire," a song which also features a long stretch of Vince using a distinctive (though out-of-tune) sound somewhere between a vibraphone and a barroom piano. "Playin’," meanwhile, has Vince taking over for a while with something like an imitation muted-Miles sound, while Bob chops away and Phil, whose bass isn’t especially assertive at this show, brings the "Supplication" theme up twice after Bob’s initial introduction. If one often wishes for Jerry to put himself more in the foreground, at least the intermeshed improv gives the Dead’s music a different flavor back in the 70’s, a broken string was seemingly the only thing which could take Jerry out of the spotlight.
Of course, the Dead were about singing as well as playing, and this subject comes to the fore as 6/21/95 ends. Jerry tries for his high notes, too, but while a cynical perspective might render them as pandering as Weir or Welnick’s efforts, his struggles color them with the same hues as late Billie Holliday: weary wisdom from a man who has seen and done it all. In the final "Morning Dew," the band has trouble finding a settled groove, but Jerry leads them through the same dynamic shifts they mastered in earlier years and hits the climactic final lines perfectly, and, with confidence in place, returns for a decent "U.S. Blues."
A few artists in my unofficial CD collection have a "deteriorating final years" corner Zappa doesn’t, and two other people well-represented in my archives, Bruce Springsteen and Pat Metheny, probably never will either, but Miles Davis does, and Led Zeppelin, and (alas) Phish, and the Dead. In a full-force Dead tour, 6/21/95 would not be the best show it might be somewhere in the middle reaches. For all of its frustrations, though, it has potential and surprise, and suggests something new in each listen. And that gives an indication of why I and many others have been willing to take care of the lizard.