With Mickey Hart in Harrodsburg on Friday for a headlining performance at the Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival, the time seems appropriate for a look back at the ensemble that brought the global music stylist to global attention in the first place. One never has to glance too far in the rear view mirror to catch a glimpse of the Grateful Dead.
The band effectively ceased operations after the death of guitar guru Jerry Garcia in 1995, but the legacy of the Dead remains alive through what seems to be a bottomless supply of exceptionally well-recorded concert recordings. This summer adds two more gems to the collection.
The irony, at least for those awaiting Hart's performance, is that the drummer is removed completely from the mail-order-only Dave's Picks, Volume 3. But there are two reasons way his absence isn't more keenly felt than it is during these loose-limbed performances from October 1971, a time that came near the beginning of Hart's three-year split from the Dead.
The first is the wonderfully complete drumming of Bill Kreutzmann, from the boozy stroll of Black Peter to the rock-steady groove supplied to Garcia's punctuated guitar lead on Cold Rain and Snow to the mix of aggressive jams and free-style improvisations that propel an outrageous 28-minute version of That's It for the Other One.
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But the other is that there was an additional, more immediate absence. Longtime Dead keyboardist and R&B revivalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was, at the time, out of the band and in failing health (he died in 1973). Pianist Keith Godchaux had been in the band for only a month when these performances were staged, giving this third Dick's Picks set a markedly leaner sound that its closest companion piece, the Dead's untitled 1971 live album, referred to by fans and critics as the "Skull and Roses" record. This is a marvelous snapshot, though, of a band in a marked period of transition.
Spring 1990: So Glad You Made It, due out Sept. 18, is a distillation of a massive, limited-edition box set that chronicles six complete performances.
Godchaux left the band in 1979 and died the next year. The playing of his successor, Brent Mydland, was more orchestral. But the synth/electronic-heavy sound he favored also makes him sound dated on these recordings. Mydland is a soulful fellow, though, throughout So Glad You Made It. Among the highlights is Blow Away, a fanciful original of Mydland's that the keyboardist sings the daylights out of.
Three months after these shows, Mydland would be dead of a drug overdose and the Dead would commence the final leg of its "long strange journey." As such, these recordings are notable not only for those absent from the Dead's ranks, but for those who are about to be.