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Dead heat

Why this critic is Grateful for the live 100 Year Hall

by Jonathan Dixon

If it weren't for the dubious fanaticism of their core audience, the Grateful Dead, who officially broke up a couple of weeks back, might be fully recognized as the intrepid searchers they were. Despite the endorsements from camps as edgy and dissimilar as those of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Black Flag, and Lee Ranaldo, it'll take some intense rehabilitation to disengage them from their myth. The die is cast and their legacy is likely to be forever obscured behind a thick veil of '60s revisionism and acidophilia.

Which is a drag, because it just isn't the truth. Like their famous boosters, the Dead were all about progress, denying fossilization by reinventing themselves on stage every night, show by show. In fact, their closest kith and kin is probably the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which formed around the same time, cleaved unto a highly personal aesthetic, and rode it for decades. Both engaged in improv marathons and dug deep into the topsoil of musical Americana. And the Dead, like the AEC, gave the lie to the old saw that between conception and execution, something is lost. Nothing was ever lost, because from the smallest idea seed to its full sprout, the germination was yours to experience.

100 Year Hall (Grateful Dead Productions) winningly documents an entire concert's worth of these moments on two CDs. Recorded during their '72 tour of Europe, this disk offers as much grade-A, peak-era Dead as existed in '68, '78, and '84. An augmented version of the group -- two keyboards (Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and Keith Godchaux), guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann (the sole percussion devil during Mickey Hart's sabbatical) -- rips through 15 songs, with top-drawer playing throughout. Garcia and Weir mesh like latticework (check the raw moan of Garcia's guitar over the fragile tendrils of Weir's back-up on "China Cat Sunflower"). The keyboards are understated -- often just tonal coloring or scattered, icy pellets of notes. Kreutzmann tries to play two drummers' worth of beats and largely succeeds. Lesh is like a third lead, the bass carrying as much melodic weight as rhythmic.

Just as Coltrane played sheets of sound, so do the Dead work on planes of rhythm. The effect is one of a multi-tiered swirl of free-thinking action, each player constructing complex figures that mutate in response to another's input. Within a single song, say the 36-minute version of "Cryptical Envelopment" (a/k/a "The Other One"), the band spin out enough variations on the five-note theme for a double album's worth of different tunes, picking them up and discarding them the way John Rockefeller doled out dimes. The same principles apply to "Turn On Your Lovelight" and "Truckin' " (superior to the Europe '72 version), which boast extrapolations rich enough to defy belief: they make this up as they go?

In fact, the Dead's very insularity allowed them their neuron-quick reflexes. Their keyboard chair was warmed by numerous asses, but the core stayed solid. Their outward-bound aesthetic served as a straight spine onto which the muscles and sinew of their individual obsessions were attached. The overriding consistency to their oeuvre is a long and deep draw on folk and blues tradition, which gave a touchstone to their improvisations (especially on 100 Year Hall, a perfect balance between gut-bucket clatter and trippy otherness).

That bedrock traditionalism proved them to be musicologists of good taste; it also revealed a dark streak not otherwise apparent in interviews. As documented on The Music Never Stopped (Shanachie), an album of songs the Dead perennially covered, the numbers that resonated for the band concerned some pretty dire stuff. As the 17 songs progress (all in their original recordings), the body count rises, long prison terms are endured, and sexual pathology is loosed, with the world coming to an irradiated end. There's a continuum between these songs and the Dead's: the same archetypal situations in Merle Haggard's "Me and My Uncle" resurface in the Dead's "Jack Straw." The pathos behind end-of-the-world/end-of-life threnodies like Obray Ramsay's "Cold Rain and Snow" and Bonnie Dobson's "Morning Dew" fuels later Dead tunes like "New Speedway Boogie" and "Wharf Rat" (the most existentially blasted of all Dead songs).

It was perhaps inevitable that the band's outer trappings should be absorbed by lesser-abled h.o.r.d.e.s. But on Eternity Blue (Shanachie) -- an album's worth of Dead covers and one original -- West Coast exploratory guitarist Henry Kaiser tries to expand on the legacy itself. Kaiser's guitar work often sounds like a backward masked track, which gives an appropriate spaciness to his somewhat dull take on "Blues for Allah" (with pianist Marilyn Crispell) and a much more mind-spinning version of "Dark Star." The playing doesn't work too well on the ballads ("High Time," "Brokedown Palace") but otherwise proves that extensive Dead listening can bear fruit. May Kaiser not be the last to reap the harvest.


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