Heres a tip for whoever ends up looking over my music collection when Im gone. A fair amount of stuff got there because Lester Bangs, or Down Beat, or someone on the Internet made me think I ought to hear it.
Rec.music.gdead is a habit I picked up around 1994, around the same time I picked up the habit of listening to Dead concert tapes. Both habits have been intense at some points and have waned for weeks (perhaps months or years) at a time but remain present. Recently a lot of people on there have been talking about early 80s Dead, with a few even suggesting that their concerts in those years were as good or better than those of other celebrated times (72-74, 77, 89-91).
I havent completely bought this bill of goods, but it must be said that this suggestion is well-timed. Back in the 90s, it seemed like there was one great 70s Dead recording surfacing after another, and there was still new Garcia-related music to track. With the Deads touring existence snuffed out, though, there are fewer advocates of their late music, and by around 2000 or so there was getting to be so many crystalline Godchaux-era stuff around that the thrill was wearing off a bit. Enter the Archive, and the SBD-pulling debacle, and whats left is a chance to catch up on many of the audience recordings from the 80s (around the time the Deads shows became more-accurately represented in that format than on soundboard tapes).
A month or so ago, the Usenet folks were discussing 10/20/84, the last night of the annual fall East Coast trip, in Syracuse, so I grabbed it. As with so many Dead shows from about 1978 onward, I must say that hearing some of it makes it clear why some people cant stand the Dead. It opens with a respectable Bertha, but after that there is a fair amount of forgotten lyrics, instruments scrambling for position in a jumbled mix, drummers trailing the beat like restless toddlers trying to stick with their parents, and attempts (with little apparent success) to get the audience to move back. There is the Weir blues, a feature of almost every latter-day Dead first set and a constant impetus for me to rethink the wisdom of listening to full shows. There is the aggressive 80s style of Garcia guitar in Jack Straw, a different flavoring than his 70s work, but in this case all speed and fury with little melody, sizzle with no steak.
And yetby set two it starts clicking, as the Dead usually will if youre as patient as they were. Shakedown Street is the jamband experience caught on disc, a funky, energetic celebration. Then there is Hes Gone, one of those long, lazy songs Garcia evidently liked a lot (considering that it was rarely absent from 72 to the end). Those who find the Dead simplistic might consider the paradox of the band offering this bitter farewell as a stadium gospel anthem.
This set is firmly in the second-set format. It placed limits, but they were well-intentioned limits, more or less guaranteeing that the band would hit several of its specialties each night. After Hes Gone there are a couple verses of Smokestack Lightning, and then the great moment (here lasting about five minutes) where the band throws everything up for spontaneous consideration as the guitarists begin making their way off the stage. For a few minutes the band enters the same space as the Truckin Europe 72 performance, triplet-based, considering various scales and chords between E and A, winding down the highway for the last series of exits prior to a rest stop.
On the first listen to the end of the show, though, what hit home most was not the jams but the songs. Specifically, Black Peter, the Garcia ballad fitting its place in the format. Few sets of chord changes have ever conveyed resignation as thoroughly. Although Garcias voice is ragged, he can still tune into the emotion he and Hunter caught 14 years earlier. This sad experience allows us the payoff of Lovelight, capturing some of its 1969 wildness.
Based on the internet recommendation I ended up with another Dead listening experience, with some filler and some gems. I dont know if Ill end up agreeing that it was one of their best eras, but it has kept alive the interest in checking the archive for other examples of these musicians at work.