Road Trips, vol. 1, no. 1: Fall 1979 – Grateful Dead
Since I doubt that my freelance writer/photographer income will result in purchasing the kind of audio equipment that would put me in the league of super-stereophiles with a system akin to sitting at the console desk at Abbey Road, I just have to make do. Besides, I find it fascinating to hear what a different system can do to a CD. My own little aural House Of Fun! The thought comes up as I’m listening to the Grateful Dead’s Road Trips, vol. 1, no.1: Fall 79 for the third time, on a third system.
In an attempt to get some work done during another drive to the Ohio State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital for a second surgery on Jack, my Newfoundland with the zen-like disposition to all the poking and prodding happening in an attempt to resurrect the first of two bad knees, I’m listening to the album. And as I’m traveling south on I-71, trying not to enjoy the beauty of snowcaked evergreen trees in favor of the need to pay attention to the road, I gotta admit that Road Trips had that “thin” AM radio sound that I associate with some late 70s shows. The warmth and strength from the band’s first decade seemed to be missing, let alone the musclebound approach that consistently matched the sound with the size of venues. At this point I’m ready to pan this album as well as that period’s production values. But, I’m a reasonable person and pop disc one into the what’s become an old trusty unit. And whatdoyaknow? The presence of Phil’s bass is felt, the clink-and-clack of Brett’s electric piano doesn’t cause me to grit my teeth. And I’m falling in love all over again.
Road Trips is the latest idea of putting out official live Grateful Dead material. Based on the first volume, it intends to act more like some master taper’s or archivist’s favorite mix tape. Discs one and two pull material from New Haven Coliseum, Philly Spectrum, Capital Center in Landover, Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium and Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (A third disc featuring another 70-plus minutes culled Nassau Coliseum, Capital Center and Memorial Auditorium is available with the set for a limited time.) “Alabama Getaway” has its familiar gallop, but lacks the rushing surge heard on later recordings. I can still do without the disco version of “Dancing in the Street” but praise the segue into “Franklin’s Tower.” Hearing Mydland’s playing during that spot reminds me of something one would hear during a present day performance by Particle. “Shakedown Street” jumps with a funky gait that makes you want it to never end, while the rest of disc two’s run from “Terrapin Station” into a lengthy ”Playing in the Band.” “Not Fade Away” sounds tentative and confused, but its historic for its oddness, and then it ends with a splendid “Morning Dew.”
Some may find splitting up shows a blasphemous act, and I can understand that. But, while I appreciate the purity of a complete selection, I’m also a glutton who’ll ingest whatever musical scraps are available. There’s no indication in the press release that these dates had incomplete recordings or that only the best performances were taken. In essence that’s what makes Road Trips a blatantly honest piece of merchandise. It’s a compilation of performances – the majority of which smoke, while the others give an indication of the band members giddily approaching the material new and old in ways that thrill them again now that its new keyboardist, Brent Mydland, is on hand.