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Published: 2003/09/28
by Brian Ferdman

Dick’s Picks XXIX – Grateful DeadThunder and Lightnin’ – Dark Star Orchestra

Grateful Dead Records 4049
self-released

May of 1977 was surely a high water mark for the Grateful Dead. Some
legendary shows exist from this month, and many feel as though May 1977 was
the last peak the band ever reached. Probably the most famous show from
this period is May 8 at Cornell University. Deadhead scholars may squabble
over whether or not 5/8/77 deserves its unending praise, but surely the
heavy circulation of high quality "Betty boards" of the show has added to
its legend. Deadheads have long waited for 5/8/77 to be released as part of
the Dick’s Picks series, but the widespread availability of the show
has long been an obstacle to a possible commercial release. On the mammoth
six-disc Dick’s Picks 29 archivist David Lemieux has once again
returned to the treasure trove of May 1977, and once again, 5/8/77 has been
ignored. However, the selected May 19th and May 21st are anything but
second-rate and certainly deserve their release.

The May 19th performance from Atlanta's Fox Theatre includes some noteworthy
versions of classic Dead songs. For instance, "Sugaree" makes its
appearance as the second song of the evening, but it doesn't take the group
very long to warm into this adventurous track. Clocking in at over sixteen
minutes, Jerry Garcia leads the band through a wild series of changes and
vibrant solos that are sandwiched between his passionate deliveries of the
verses. The jam section of what is probably the most exploratory "Sugaree"
ever finally ends with a thunderous cascade of notes from pianist Keith
Godchaux, and the audience erupts into applause. Later in the set,
drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart drop some seriously funky disco
into "Dancing In The Streets." It's a version that is tight, thick, and
dripping with funk, and as the band plays off of Garcia's effects-laden
staccato soloing, this "Dancing In The Streets" showcases a cohesiveness
that rivals any other rendition from this time period.

The real money shot of any Dead show can usually be found on the third disc,
and that's no exception here. A sandwich of "Terrapin Station > Playing In
The Band > Uncle John's Band > Drums > The Wheel > China Doll > Playing In
The Band" is all one could ask for, but there is more than meets the eye.
Towards the end of the interesting jam on "Playing In The Band," Garcia
impulsively begins playing the theme of the coda from "Uncle John's Band."
Gradually, the rest of the band picks up on it, and everyone begins to join
in on the riff. A short jam around the theme ensues until Garcia leads to
group in singing the final "Whoa-oh what I want to know go?" Then the band suddenly moves into the beginning of the song. It's an
amazing incidence of spontaneous inversion and a perfect example of the
improvisational prowess of the Grateful Dead at its peak.

The May 21st show from Lakeland, Florida's Lakeland Civic Arena is probably
the better of the two shows, despite a "Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The
Mountain" that appears tame compared to other stellar versions from this
period. Regardless, the piece dresistance is the third disc medley of
"Estimated Prophet > He's Gone > Drums > The Other One > Comes a Time > St.
Stephen > Not Fade Away > St. Stephen > One More Saturday Night." Following
a sultry vocal jam out of "He's Gone," a bluesy instrumental improvisation
develops. After a series of Garcia arpeggios, a tease of "The Other One"
emerges before yielding to a frenetic "Drums." The ferocious "The Other
One" that ensues eventually dissolves into a gentle space before
transforming into the all-too-rare "Comes a Time." It's puzzling why this
beautiful song stayed buried in the Dead's canon, but this is a
fantastically beautiful performance that dwarfs the well-known rockers in
the remainder of the set. Releasing two shows over six discs gives the
listener a lot of music to digest. Dick’s Pick’s 29 is a lot of music
to swallow, but with such high quality entrees, it's certainly a meal worth
eating.

Dark Star Orchestra is the jamband world's answer to improvisational
theatre. They study a specific Grateful Dead show in history and then
assemble the correct personnel, instruments, and effects to recreate that
moment in time. The setlists are closely followed, but the band has the
freedom to improvise within those constraints. The result is an uncanny
imitation of the Grateful Dead, but often the setlists prove to establish
barriers that limit potentially freewheeling improvisational jams. At the
conclusion of a show, the band typically plays a few bonus songs" that
enable them to break out of their shell and jam without limits. Personally,
this is when I find Dark Star Orchestra to be the most interesting.

On July 12, 2002, the band visited the Olde Renaissance Fairgrounds in
Veneta, Oregon, the site of several legendary Dead shows. After playing an
afternoon set with Dead alum Bill Kreutzmann, the group came back for an
evening set. Instead of trying to recreate another famous moment in
Grateful Dead history, they wisely ventured off into open territory.
Utilizing a setlist, personnel, and instrumentation that spanned decades,
Dark Star Orchestra are able to find their own space to shine within the
Grateful Dead's music. A spirited rendition of "St. Stephen" holds its own
against the Dead's rendition from May 21st, and the nice jam following "Not
Fade Away" gives the group time to explore the nether reaches of space
before smoothly gliding into a "Playin' In The Band (reprise)."

Audio engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson is the tie that binds both of these
albums, as she recorded each one, albeit 25 years apart. Her stellar
recordings from 1977 are superbly mixed, crisp documents of history, not to
mention one of the main reasons that 1977 is so highly regarded amongst tape
traders. However, it seems as though she may have lost a step over the last
25 years. Thunder and Lightnin’ suffers slightly from a very odd
mix, especially in the opening tracks. Some vocals are a tad muffled, and
John Kadlecik's lead guitar is somewhat swallowed up by the other
instruments. On the other hand, there are plenty of thunderous drums, and
Scott Larned's keyboards are featured way up front, showcasing his
energetically ambidextrous talents. However, a much smoother mix is in
place for the raucous "The Music Never Stopped" that closes the spirited
performance by a band who seems happy to be freed from the theatrical chains
that typically bind them.

Regardless of the performances on Thunder and Lightnin’, one has to
wonder why people would choose a cover band's take on Grateful Dead music
over the genuine article. Dark Star Orchestra has the unfortunate liability
of releasing their live album at the same time as that of The Grateful Dead,
and the comparisons may be unfair but also inevitable. Musically, the Dark
Star Orchestra's impassioned performances just can't stack up to the Dead in
their prime. The Dead may now have 30 odd years of bias on their side, but
they've certainly earned it. On Dick’s Picks XXIX, they sound like a
band that had been working closely together for twelve years. Spontaneous
brilliant improvisations, such as the inverted May 19th "Uncle John's Band"
only occur because the band knew each other and this music like the back of
their hand. No matter how studious they may be, Dark Star Orchestra are
still novices in a foreign land.

There is a minute possibility that the Dark Star Orchestra will eventually
release Grateful Dead music that is objectively superior the to original.
It's a long shot, but it might happen over time because there are some
talented musicians on board. However, like the subject of their imitation,
the Dark Star Orchestra will have to gel and develop a collective
consciousness when performing this music. More over, the band will have to
start following the Dead's lead and take some major chances while making
these songs their own. No one needs to look to a cover band for a
historical document, but a cover band's original spin on some legendary
music would make for an interesting album.

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