Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Here's the Dead's troubled third album, spiffed up for its 50th birthday. At that point, the group were far from the American institution they became (well, weird America anyway) and were still trying to live up to their reputation as San Francisco's finest. Everybody else - Janis, The Airplane, even Country Joe - had found a national audience, while the Dead was on the verge of breaking up, Weir and Pigpen not agreeing on direction.

With those two taking a back seat, this became the Dead's most experimental collection by far, with everything from weirdness to baroque balladry to old-time folk blues. Ideas were flying, Robert Hunter's lyrics were inspiring, and Jerry Garcia had embraced the studio, using sound effects and overdubs galore, racking up a huge bill, reported near $180,000. The group spent tons of time trying to get it right, but this was complex music with strange arrangements, and all over the place stylistically. No wonder it didn't catch on.

It does open with a Dead classic, "St. Stephen," about as straight-forward as they would get on the album, which is to say not that much, but there was a relatively easy melody to follow. Then the thick of the album begins with "Dupree's Diamond Blues," one of the old-timey tunes, complete with circus organ to brighten the mood. While mining the same seam as The Band, the Dead were making the sounds more complicated than organic, with little filigrees embroidered on top. There is harpischord on "Mountains Of The Moon," madrigal voices elsewhere, and even the blues rock of "China Cat Sunflower" gets jazzy flourishes. Meanwhile there's a jam band somewhere in there, and for all the intricate moments, there's remarkably still some occasional sloppy vibe.

Then things get really weird. The eight-minute "What's Become Of The Baby" is the group's "Revolution #9," with its drugged out, Twilight Zone approach. Somebody thought this exercise in tape manipulation and effects was a good idea, and I'm pretty sure they were stoned when they thought it. Thankfully they had saved one of the best numbers of their early period for the end, "Cosmic Charlie." The sister to "Truckin'," it would point the way to the group's glory period, with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty about to arrive.

For the anniversary edition, there are two big bonuses. The album was actually released twice, as Garcia had been dissatisfied with the initial mix, so he went back and redid it in 1971. While clearer, it doesn't really improve anything, and we get both mixes here. The other addition is a live show from '69 at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, which features a couple of cuts from the album, including a rare outing for "Doin' That Rag." While from the same period as Live/Dead its largely different, often ragged and occasionally sparks fly. Pretty much your usual Dead show, then.

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