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Published: 2005/05/08
by Randy Ray

Rare Cuts and Oddities 1966 – The Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead Records 282

When a writer is confronted by an analysis of any Grateful Dead material — studio, live recordings, literary efforts — the sheer weight of their legacy can be both daunting and annoying. This CD eliminates that problem by offering an alternate-universe look at the development of the Dead's early material. 1966 was an era in Grateful Dead music that was led by the ample skills of Ron McKernan's ageless white hipster with a mojo supernaturally linked to black blues harp and vocals. Sure, Jerry Garcia would become the focal point all the way to the band's demise in 1995; but — in 1966 — the Dead were wedded to McKernan's vision of what five white dudes could do with the devil's music. Rare Cuts is 18 tracks of raw, energetic, sloppy and deliriously passionate rock — no psychedelia, no old miner’s tales, no jazz fusion, no post-Cage dissonant space ruminations.

Yeah, I'm calling him Ron McKernan. If the reader is checking out this review, odds are that the Dead have been part of the audio DNA for decades. We all know McKernan's moniker; yet this CD seems to eliminate its silly importance. And that's what a good alternate universe does makes irrelevant concepts like history,' facts,' legacy,' LSD-25', "Dark Star." Rare Cuts is, indeed, cast as The Other One — camera obscura of pre-Summer of Love 66.

If I also have to tell you that this is pre-Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten Dead, then stop reading and pick up one of the, oh, hundred or so volumes documenting the great San Francisco Acid Band's 30-year hammerlock on improvised music. Lesh's new autobiography, Searching for the Sound, is an excellent place to start. I’m not being biker-smug, ya understand. I’m just saying if you’re into the Dead, do the homework — hence, the aggravating historical baggage that can curse the ears with such knowledge.

The CD is divided into two halves of mostly covers each section nine songs long. The Dead roar on killer speed throughout their first extended rave up which then drops into a exquisite reading of "Betty and Dupree" — a ballad for the ages which foreshadows the many soft moment of silence' songs that Garcia would conjure up with lyricist Robert Hunter. Elsewhere on this first half, we have the very young Bobby Weir digging his way through "Walking the Dog" and "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." McKernan shines throughout on vocals and keyboards — especially some transcendent Highway 61 Revisited-era shadings on "Betty and Dupree": Al Kooper meets dark Southern blues. "Good Lovin’" punches holes into future embellishments. Yes, it is fast but filled with boozy lust — McKernan on top of his game. A rare lead vocal from Garcia on Chuck Berry’s "Promised Land" is also quite a find; yet another what if?’ from this collection.

The remaining nine numbers lay down the goods with echoes of gloriously eccentric chaos. Primitive takes on "Not Fade Away" — pure Cajun nastiness — followed by smoking versions of "Big Railroad Blues," "Sick and Tired" and the Rolling Stones' chestnut, "Empty Heart." With the exception of the rehearsal run-through of "NFA," the remaining eight songs are all live and catch the parallel development of the Dead's sound sans acid with rough brilliance.

Especially noteworthy is the gigantic "I'm A King Bee > Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)" CD closer which clocks in at a riotously fiery 15 minutes. It's a great way to finish a mirror image: smoky hints of tasty jams to come in '67 and beyond? This tandem is from Los Angeles' Danish Center on March 12, 1966. The Group Mind has begun to develop as the band slams into jive colorings that ricochet back-and-forth between the young quintet. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann is playing so fast on "Caution" that he forces the whole group to maintain pace while McKernan delivers one of his great harp-filled vocal performances. Lesh is all over the place, wickedly smart and original. Weir is trying to keep his hands locked onto the great beast. Meanwhile, Garcia's notes are heavy, quick and evocative of a knife-in-the-teeth band more than ready to pounce on its audience and attack. Bill Graham comes in following "Caution" with one of his legendary stage pronouncements. A hidden track with a truncated "Cream Puff War" adds final flavor to the proceedings.

Is this CD for Dead completists? Of course. Rare Cuts is also for Nuggets fans. That incomparable multi-volume collection extracted scores of gems from the Black Hole of 60s Psychedelic Rock that would have been lost to the dark, cigarette-filled LP shops in New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and, yes, San Francisco — the birthplace of the Dead and the home to all possible alternate universes from whence Garcia, Kreutzmann, Lesh, and good ole Ron McKernan sprang.

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