Road Trips, Vol. 2., No. 3: Wall of Sound – Grateful Dead
The irony of the latest volume of the Grateful Dead’s Road Trips series, Vol. 2, No. 3: Wall of Sound, is that—despite its implication of MASSIVE VOLUME—it’s basically ambient music. By the spring of 1974, Vietnam was already lost, Richard Nixon was almost gone, and an oil crisis was at hand, but the Dead had already won, at least in the sense that they were consistently playing venues big enough to hold something called the Wall of Sound, and probably could have made a comfortable living doing so had they not had said Wall. Instead, they worked themselves into the ground, trying to pay for technology that would, in a sense, create immediacy at a large level. Loudness as intimacy, actual intimacy itself being in very scarce quantity.
It is instructive that historian (and once/future Dead publicist) Dennis McNally says nothing about the music on Vol. 2, No. 3’ in his vivid liner notes. Despite the power—McNally points out that the stage volume was only three decibels quieter than the sound of a Navy jet taking off—the Dead themselves play very quietly. And really not very tightly. Their core instrumental lineup had been stable for almost three years, the longest band they’d managed to sustain at any point in their career up to that point. Perhaps, to the audiences in question—at the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines and Freedom Hall in Louisville—the band sounded like Thor’s polyphonic hammer stomping rainbows of love. But, on this double-disc-plus-preorder-internet-bonus-thingee, they sound like a five-piece rock band with occasional backing vocalist.
Indeed, musically speaking, the Dead had always been loud, especially during the years as double-drummer psychedelic specialists. But, as the band got bigger, the music they made seemed to get smaller. The stuff they favored in 1974—each disc here contains a version the quiet, jazzy "Eyes of the World"—was lying further and further back. As were the Dead themselves. Sloppiness abounds, even on some of the band’s most played songs. On the first "Eyes," they nearly fall apart during the weirdly timed instrumental breaks at the end. On "I Know You Rider," their vocal breakdown is pretty much just that. It is music that begins to edge into the background, in the best possible way. In places, like the "Loose Lucy" that opens disc two (from the middle of June 22nd’s first set), there is almost no urgency, just music to soundtrack the experience of being a head, of going about one’s business in an unheady world. And that’s a good function for it.
When the band does delve into music that is difficult, either for length or sonority, it is delightful. And—in the case of the June 26th ‘Eyes’—some would argue canonical, as well. The band, especially Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, dodge each other playfully through it’s nearly 15-minute duration. It is artful dodging, though, the sense of the unknown all but eliminated except for a few moments on each disc — a deep space freak-out on ‘The Other One’ (is that Ned Lagin in there?), a ‘Mind Left Body’ prelude to ‘Wharf Rat.’ Mostly, they know exactly the destination: the next show, the Oroboros’ next lunge, and the music is soundtrack for that, too.