Three From the Vaults: Part Three – April Fool’s with the Grateful Dead
Road Trips Volume 4, Number 2
Review by Doug Heselgrave
For the third installment of this bootleg series, I’ll take a closer look at a new release from what must be the most often recorded band of all time.
What distinguishes the Grateful Dead from other frequently bootlegged artists like Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones is that the Dead not only permitted, but encouraged and gave preferential seating to fans who wanted to record their shows. For several years beginning in the eighties, the taper section could be distinguished by the huge microphone stands that loomed somewhere near the sound booth. No show was complete without taking a quick stroll through the area to check out the weird, sophisticated and often impossibly expensive rigs concocted by obsessive archivists who wanted the best possible recording of their favourite band. I remember talking to a man at a Seattle concert in 1994 who had two DAT players – one of which he used only to record Grateful Dead concerts because he didn’t want any other frequencies from different bands to pollute the purity of his rig and affect the vibe of the recording.
As crazy and otherworldly as this may sound – and the Grateful Dead did attract a lot of ethereal freaks with very particular lifestyles – at the time I remember that this made perfect sense and when this fellow mailed me tapes of the show about a month later, I couldn’t remember ever hearing a better, more pristine recording. I was hooked, but I didn’t have a lot of time or inclination to look for tapes on my own, so I was delighted when the Dead took the bull by the horns and started to release archival shows through their website in the early nineties. Dick Latvala, the group’s late archivist released 36 sets of rough and ready live recordings (of varying sound quality) under the Dick’s Picks moniker that served as a wonderful way to experience the diversity and growth of the band over its 30 year history. By emphasing performance quality rather than pristine recording, The Dick’s Picks series is still the best way to listen to the Grateful Dead at a reasonable price. Several other box sets of runs of shows (Winterland 1977, Ladies and Gentlemen the Grateful Dead) and budget priced live DVDs serve to offer a more complete picture of the band’s history. A few years ago, the Dead signed an agreement with Rhino Records who continue to create deluxe packaged box sets and market the budget priced ‘Road Trips’ series. Initially, the Road Trips series came under some heavy criticism for featuring only the ‘best’ songs from a particular show and each set often featured sections of two or three shows rather than the complete concerts that many Deadheads prefer and demand.
I have had many conversations over the years with hardcore Grateful Dead fans who feel that the removal of a single song from a concert on a CD is equivalent to removing a chapter from a novel – the story doesn’t make sense unless it’s offered as a complete whole. As someone who owns all of the Dick’s Picks series, I can honestly say that there are often sections that I skip over when listening. For my part, I can live without a version of ‘Uncle John’s Band’ where Bob Weir’s microphone is not working or an otherwise stellar take of ‘Knockin’ on Heavens Door’ where the whole band is singing off key. Some things are better left to memory or to drift slowly off into the void.
Now, in its fourth year, there have been some changes to the Road Trips series – some of the more recent releases have featured complete shows and more of an effort has been made to improve the flow between sections when different concerts (usually from consecutive nights on a tour) are used as sources. The newest release ‘Grateful Dead Road Trips Vol. 4 No. 2 ‘April Fool’s Day ‘88’ is one of the very best of the series so far and features generous selections from concerts held at Brendan Byrne Arena in Rutherford, New Jersey on March 31 and April 1, 1988.
At this time, The Grateful Dead were at the absolute peak of their powers. The early 80’s was not a good time for the band – Jerry Garcia wallowed for years in a heroin addiction that he could not kick and not surprisingly, it effected the delicate chemistry between the band. As beautifully as the other members played, without Garcia firing on all cylinders, the cohesiveness of the unit often suffered. As Phil Lesh said in his memoir, a Grateful Dead show was an extended conversation and all of the conversations were with Jerry, so if he wasn’t ‘talking’ there wasn’t much to hear. When Garcia suffered from a diabetic coma after a concert in 1986, it frightened the shit out of the band and their community. Thankfully, the guitarist rose to the occasion, cleaned up and the band recorded ‘In the Dark’ which featured ‘A touch of Gray’ their first ever radio hit. A big stadium tour with Bob Dylan followed that summer, and by the spring of next year, the Dead were playing better than they had in years. For this reason, ‘April Fool’s ‘88’ might be the perfect introduction to the Grateful Dead for those unfamiliar with their music.
The first CD of this 3 CD set mirrors the Grateful Dead’s typical concert arc and features shorter, more folk and country oriented songs from their catalogue. There are lovely versions of ‘To Lay Me Down’, ‘Jack Straw’, ‘Minglewood Blues’ and ‘Brokedown Palace’ that showcase how well the band could sing together when they were locked into each other. The melodies are inspired and confident; there is no tension or overplaying marring these performances. Fresh from their tour with Bob Dylan, there are great renditions of ‘Ballad of A Thin Man’ and ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ on the first disc as well as a rocking ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and delicate ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ on the second.
For fans of the improvisational side of the Grateful Dead’s music, there are two full CDs of integrated songs and jams featured on ‘April Fool’s ‘88’. The second CD begins with a rhythmically complex ‘Scarlet Begonias’ that effortlessly morphs through the reggae-fied ‘Fire on the Mountain’. Things get weird when ‘Terrapin Station’ slides into an extraterrestrial percussion jam before devolving into some weird John Cagey space music. Then, knowing that their audience may not be able to go out any further without being thrown some kind of life preserver, Garcia kindly brings his audience back to earth with a truly inspired segue from the stratosphere into Woody Guthrie’s ‘Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad’ before diving through sections of Steve Winwood’s ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ and The Beatles ‘Hey Jude’ It’s hard to imagine any other band getting away with playing such a disparate set of songs and musical styles over a 30 minute stretch, but somehow when served up by the Grateful Dead, one can hear the logic that connects Hank Williams to Bob Dylan to Bob Marley to Philip Glass. Whatever preconceptions one may have of the Grateful Dead and their music, an open minded listen through this set is enough to prove that the band had their pulse and intuition hard wired to every aspect of the great American songbook.
The third CD continues in an experimental vein with long, unhurried journeys through ‘China Cat Sunflower’, ‘I know your Rider’, ‘Estimated Prophet’ and more to end with an uplifting version of ‘Not Fade Away’ to remind the audience that somehow, no matter how long and strange the trip has been, it’s all rock and roll.
At $24 for 3 CDs, ‘Road Trips Vol. 4 No. 2’ is a great bargain and offers a perfect introduction or re-introduction to the Grateful Dead’s music. But, watch out – getting into the Dead can be a real Hansel and Gretel experience. You start out full of confidence that your handful of bread crumbs will get you through any dark and windy maze, but pretty soon you’ve run out of bread and it seems like the journey has just begun. Whether you shrug your shoulders and keep going, or come running back to the comforting music of home depends on you. Wherever ‘April Fools ‘88’ takes you, I envy you the trip.
The entire Road Trips series is available only at www.dead.net
This review also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates.