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Published: 2005/07/09
by Benjy Eisen

Grateful Dead- Truckin' Up To Buffalo

Twenty years after the Summer of Love, the Grateful Dead had risen from its own ashes so many times that the idea of "change" had itself disintegrated into a more accurate concept of "evolution." Yes, and in 1989, like all living things, the Grateful Dead was still evolving.
On a musical level, the band was experimenting more and more with electronics, which obviously added new colors to their ever-kinetic sonic tapestry. On the business end, the band had finally achieved some level of commercial success including album sales and radio play to complement their always-growing live demand. Yes, and by the summertime, when every touring band sees a spike in attendance, there was no place left for the Grateful Dead to play but stadiums.
A video crew captured the Summer Tour ’89 both for projection and prosperity. Good thinking. Joining_ Downhill From Here_, which documents two nights at Alpine Valley, Truckin’ Up to Buffalo is the complete Fourth of July show from Rich Stadium in Buffalo, NY. Being that synchronicity has always been an added bonus of Grateful Dead cosmology, I unintentionally watched this DVD on July 4th, not realizing until afterwards that, indeed, the show had occurred 16 years earlier, to the day. And so it goes.
That Fourth of July in 1989, I was at summer camp probably watching fireworks in between glances at girls that didn’t know I existed. And I, in turn, didn’t know the Grateful Dead existed. Two years later, at a stadium in Washington DC, I’d find out. But in 1989, yeah, I was listening to the popular music of the day and watching rock stars who LOOKED like rock stars; not a bunch of grizzly old men with ponytails and sweatbands.
When I finally did get turned on, sometime in 1991 I suppose, I listened to the Grateful Dead as it existed at the time sure, I bought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty but, really, what I enjoyed more than anything was listening to the most recent shows. I’d study the setlists in the latest issue of Relix and set up trades through the listings in the classifieds. In the beginning, I wanted to hear the shows that were going on around me, not documents from some earlier time. I remember people used to say that, in the late 80s and early 90s, the Grateful Dead appealed to kids like me because we were searching for a certain 60s experience, but I disagree. I wasn’t alive for the Summer of Love so I had no desire to go back to it. I was after something real and tangible, something that was happening at that very moment. And as I became aware of the Grateful Dead’s history, I became aware that I was participating in something that was indeed much larger and older than myself. But I latched on to the moment.
So maybe that’s why, when some fans and critics claim that the Grateful Dead peaked in the 70s, I can nod and agree with them in theory but then still reach for a show from the following two decades. Something from the age in which I first discovered them, because NOW it takes me back. Kids like me who listen to the Grateful Dead now, might just be searching for a certain 80s or 90s experience.
Well, anyway, that being said, 1989 in particular has been singled out as a good year for the music, if not for the band itself. Having just watched The Grateful Dead Movie again recently, I knew to expect a different Grateful Dead on Truckin’ Up to Buffalo, but this is the band that I remember seeing live (sans keyboardist Brent Mydland).
And this is a solid show for them, all around. There are moments of genuine conquest (‘Deal’), meaningful context (‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’), and actual look-ma-no-hands transcendence (sprinkled in short bursts throughout). By the second set’s blazing ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ the band is in peak form, riding the same wavelength as it sails from a swell of proto jam-rock into the timeless crests of ‘Morning Dew.’
But this IS a remarkably different Grateful Dead than the one that we see in The Grateful Dead Movie. Evidence is presented in the band members’ gestures, interactions, and expressions as much as in the music itself. A seemingly impatient Hart motions for Weir to start ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece,’ during which Garcia appears at times heroic, at times broken, singing from the side of his mouth, playing from a view askew, yielding tortured looks as he gives himself to the song, finally wringing a sort-of-smile, sort-of-grin as he and Weir bring it home: ‘Someday everything is going to be different…’
There are enough truly poignant moments here to liven up conversation between Dead-analysts for days: Garcia singing, ‘The bottle stands as empty / as it was filled before’ as he squeezes his eyes shut as if in confirmation; Mydland looking like a burnt crust from hell’s kitchen, as he sings ‘I Will Take You Home’ juxtaposed of course with the lively and spirited interplay between him and Garcia for the show closing ‘Not Fade Away.’ And on and on.
But the flipside of these bittersweet moments exist within each song as well; on this particular night, the band repeatedly triumphs over impending darkness and it makes for captivating television. And then there’s ‘Touch of Grey.’ Always a Deadhead anthem and applicable in a number of different ways for a number of different years, here the song brings out the best in the band as they open the second set, smiling all around. Garcia visually assumes the role of Papa Bear in one of his rare superstar moments, raising an arm triumphantly, punctuating the sentiment: ‘We will survive!’
Adult viewers will be relieved to know that this footage is largely straightforward and literal. The dreaded so-called ‘psychedelic’ visual effects only make a cameo for ‘Drums -> Space’ (at which time they do kind of take over for a little while). Such special effects are forgivable only because of their placement, and they’re certainly no worse than, say, Weir’s short-shorts. But they do come off as a bit degrading. Like: ‘You guys take psychedelics, right? Take some now! This will be really FAR OUT man!’ Problem is, in a world of CGI and Flash, these backroom tricks aren’t trippy they’re tired. Shrug. Space ends. The show goes on.
In an age where new Grateful Dead products come around a whole lot more often than Santa, this is a fine mid-summer treat that is well worth the sticker price.
Set I:
Greatest Story Ever Told
Cold Rain and Snow
Walkin’ Blues
Row Jimmy
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Stagger Lee
Looks Like Rain
Set II:
Touch of Grey
Man Smart, Woman Smarter
Ship of Fools
Playin’ In The Band
Terrapin Station
I Will Take You Home
All Along the Watchtower
Morning Dew
Not Fade Away
Encore: U.S. Blues

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