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Published: 2009/01/14
by Randy Ray

Road Trips, v. 2, n. 1, Madison Square Garden, September 1990 – Grateful Dead


Culled from a run that seems to get more mythic as the years pass, the latest Road Trips from the Grateful Dead vault deserves its legendary status. The Dead had just lost 11-year tenured keyboardist Brent Mydland in the latest litany of Spinal Tap-esque tragedies that seemed to spook that hot spot on the stage. Replaced in the band, if not in true audio spirit, by Vince Welnick on keyboards and Bruce Hornsby on piano and accordion, the Dead continued, and a European jaunt was scheduled for October 1990. What’s a hippie band to do?

September 16, 1990 has already been released in the Dick’s Picks series, but that show only scratched the surface of this spellbinding run. Specifically centered on sections of September 19th and 20th, with a massive emphasis on the latter, Road Trips, v. 2, n. 1, rides the second set rails through moments of tremendous improvisation. The Dead somehow found a way back into turning on a dime, albeit slowly and assuredly, while creating a new form of acrobatic music with the help of wonderful passages from both new members. Jerry Garcia comes to life in a big way with Hornsby on stage, but the band as a whole was reinvigorated in a manner that had not been heard since they finally juggled their entrenched setlists in early 1985, and again in the fall of 1989.

Disc one begins with "Truckin' > China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider" as the stellar set two opening on September 20th. The Dead tinker with the melody, plunge forward with arc and grace, and never once lose the breakneck momentum of the sequence. And from set two on September 19th, the "Playin' in the Band" sandwich which segues into "Let It Grow > Jam" is also quite transcendent, and equally robust.

Disc two returns to the 20th, and finds the band developing their weird textures by using the old architectural motif of "Dark Star," but continuing the new and limitless explorations of their MIDI-enabled instruments. Other than the spectacular "Dark Star" sandwich which includes the reprise of "Playin' in the Band" from the prior night, the band slowly builds the set into a crescendo that melts into a monumental "Throwin' Stones." Later, that song would produce groans, inevitably followed with "Not Fade Away." But here, the original psychedelic pioneers spin the light fantastic and roar into an inspired "Touch of Grey," before bypassing the traditional Garcia ballad to encore with a rousing show-closing version of "Lovelight," continuing the high times vibe.

Yes, it's all about the "Dark Star" for the truly refined Head, but there is something else equally apparent on these discs: the band sounds like they are having fun playing music. Bobby Weir is screaming, Phil Lesh is bouncing from beats to bombs, Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann are battering away in the engine room, the newbies are delivering color and surprise on keyboards, and Garcia… Garcia sounds like an ancient hero. Humbled, his guitar somehow leaps from the stage like Ulysses on one last journey before The Man comes to call.

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