If you ever wondered why the Dead needed two drummers, hear is your answer. Billy Kreutzmann played the straight man, jazz schooled, capable of thrills and fills but never far from the backbeat (for reference, listen to his performance on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album). Mickey Hart is a very different drummer; his is a cosmic journey to explore rhythm in all its various guises, from the natural to the supernatural. Rolling Thunder reveals that journey in its early going, although Dead fans will find plenty of familiar stops along the way, from jam sessions with Jerry Garcia (“The Chase,” “Deep, Wide And Frequent”) to actual rock songs (“Playing In The Band,” “Blind John”). If you have any expectations of what a Mickey Hart album would sound like, of course, you’ll need to leave those antiquated notions at the door. You weren’t expecting it to start with a howl and an Indian invocation. You weren’t expecting the Tower of Power horn section or the demented psychedelic pop of “Fletcher Carnaby.” While there is no such animal as a typical Mickey Hart album, his subsequent efforts have focused mostly on rhythms rather than traditional song structures. Thus, Rolling Thunder is, if not atypical of his later work, not representative of it either. It would seem that Hart was initially double minded as to whether he should make a proper solo album or use the opportunity to explore new musical realms, so he chose both paths. “Playing In The Band” and “Pump Song” will remind listeners of Bob Weir’s Ace, “Blind John” suggests a hippy-trippy Traffic featuring vocals from several key members of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship axis, and “The Chase (Progress)” points forward to future works such as Diga and Yamantaka. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is a mixed bag featuring some famous buds, a few good songs and some interesting experiments interspersed.
Kronomyth 1.0: WHEEL GOOD. If you enjoy the Garcia/Hunter compositions from this period, you’re in for a wheel treat. His first album (casually called The Wheel to distinguish it from his other eponymous album) features a handful of classic songs that have comfortably insinuated themselves into the Deadshow over the years: “Deal,” “Loser,” “Sugaree,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Bird Song.” Together with the complete contents of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they rank with some of the best songs to come from the Dead. Despite its strong resemblance to the Dead, this is a true solo project: Garcia plays everything but drums (provided by the brilliant, underrated Billy Kreutzmann). The Wheel is also notable for the extended sound collage on side two, which suggests a psychedelic amalgam of The Beatles (“Revolution No. 9”), Hooteroll? and Pink Floyd. The brief instrumental, “An Odd Little Place,” is just a postlude to the previous song, while the mellow, tuneful title track showcases Jerry’s pedal steel to good effect. Fans of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which I’m pretty sure is everyone) will find plenty of the same magic here. As songwriting partners, Garcia and Hunter had few peers. “Deal” and “Loser” use cards as a metaphor for life, “Bird Song” finds Hunter again beguiled by beauty, “To Lay Me Down” is a worthy candidate for the last-song-before-I-die list. Playing everything himself, Garcia doesn’t strike upon the same clever interplay as his bandmates (e.g., the bass guitar is pretty basic), but he does a remarkable job of approximating the feel of the Dead on his lonesome. In fact, The Wheel makes a compelling case that Garcia’s most sympathetic collaborator is himself.
During the Dead’s second 70’s hiatus, Mickey Hart joined Zakir Hussain in a newly formed “percussion orchestra” (Hart’s words, not mine) dubbed Diga Rhythm Band. It may not have been the groundbreaking cultural crossover it should have been—the world still wasn’t ready for an entire album of panethnic percussion—but Diga certainly succeeded at stretching some skins and expanding a few minds. The album in its original form starts with a pair of short pieces augmented by Jerry Garcia’s guitar, the second of which (“Happiness Is Drumming”) went on to serve as the inspiration for Shakedown Street’s “Fire on The Mountain.” Both opening shorts introduce the idea of wisps of melody (via marimba, vibes and sparing guitar) enveloped in a thick swarm of eastern and western percussion (tabla, drumk kit, tympani, bongos and so on). The three longer pieces feature less melody and more percussion, shifting the sound in a rich kaleidoscope of trills, rolls, beats, bumps and assorted onomatopoeia. It’s an amazing album both in its revelation of the musical potentialities of percussion and its cross-cultural mission to blend east and west into something new and exciting. Of course, appreciating this album presumes that you’re open to forty-two minutes of sonic sensory exploration. If you found the drum solos during the Dead concerts a bore, you’re not going to dig Diga. But if you did enjoy them, Diga is in many ways their logical culmination: an entire album consisting of almost nothing but drums. I’d tell you this is one of the most fascinating side chambers in the catacombs of the Dead, but I’m an incurable navel-gazer at heart. Note that, for some reason, the subsequent CD reissues changed the track order and edited a few minutes from “Tal Mala.” I prefer the elpee version, since the shorter tracks with Garcia ease you into Diga’s unique soundscape.
Kronomyth 1.0: DAWN OF THE DEAD. Half-baked and occasionally brilliant, the maiden voyage of the Dead consisted of cut-up, sped-up and screwed-up songs which have since gone on to broader fame (“New, New Minglewood Blues,” “Cold Rain And Snow”) or infamy (“Cream Puff War,” “The Golden Road”). A good half of these songs have since been played more than one hundred times on stage, but none of the versions recorded here could be called definitive. This is the Dead in the dawning of full consciousness, posable figures with discardable nicknames who were mistakenly molded into pop stars by a label (Warner Bros.) eager to launch the next Jefferson Airplane. The Dead playing two-minute songs is obviously unsatisfying, even if they sound pretty good (and they do). The five-minute “Morning Dew,” six-minute “Good Morning Little School Girl” and ten-minute “Viola Lee Blues” make plain that the Dead are best served long and live. (A 23- minute “Viola Lee Blues,” recorded live in the fall of 1967 and appended to the 21st century remaster, is the stuff of legend.) It’s a long way between here and the Oz of American Beauty, but the Dead were clearly headed down the right road. The band would grow more confident with time, their lyrical acuity grow sharper with the eyes of Robert Hunter, their interplay more intricate. Their music would be refined in the crucible of time and explore deeper mysteries with more profundity. It would not, however, depart from the path marked here, which sets into motion one of the greatest musical quests of the 20th century. Enjoy the trip.
Kronomyth 23.0: FLYING TRIP EASE. If you’ve heard Dylan & The Dead or Nightfall of Diamonds, you don’t have any illusions about the state of the Dead’s live performances in the late 80s. Here it’s all illusion: Jerry doesn’t miss a note, the vocals are strong and balanced, Brent Mydland’s sparkling touches always arrive on cue. That’s not the way it really went down on these dates, drawn from a healthy stretch of the band’s Built To Last tour, but it’s the difference between a lovely swan song and a lame duck live album. In a real sense, it’s like hearing these songs for the first time, a comment I’ve heard made before by Dead fans but never fully understood. Granted, I don’t own any of the band’s avowed wonders (Live Dead, Europe ’72), which I’ve read are equally fearless in their reinterpretation of the originals. The selection from this show is predictably eclectic; albums as seemingly disconnected as Wake of the Flood, Go To Heaven and Bob Weir’s Ace constitute the bulk of the material, swirled together into the Dead’s magnificent memory blender. The performance is all over the place, and sometimes so is the mix, but in exchange for accuracy is a vitality that I haven’t heard from their recorded output in years. This is how the Dead should be remembered in their waning years, easy in their confidence, their curiosity undaunted by age, proud lions possessed of a gentle touch. As with any great performance, the best song is the one playing at the moment, though the Bob Weir tracks seem to shine (“Cassidy,” “Looks Like Rain”) and “Eyes of the World” (featuring Branford Marsalis on sax) is sixteen minutes of bliss. And if Brent Mydland seems to be a little higher in the mix than usual, it’s only fitting of an angel.
Kronomyth 16.0: DEAD IS DISCO. This is the band’s infamous disco album, only it really isn’t. There’s just the one disco song on here (“Shakedown Street”), and it’s not so different from the disco-informed experiments of Terrapin Station (“Dancin’ In The Streets”) or Go To Heaven (“Feel Like A Stranger”). Honestly, other than the new digs and the white ghost (Lowell George) in the producer’s chair, this is their last album all over again without the suite terrapin. Mind you, that’s not exactly an endorsement; Shakedown Street is in many ways one of their worst studio albums. The songs that sounded great in the studio (“France,” “Shakedown Street”) didn’t work on stage, and the songs that sounded great on the stage (“All New Minglewood Blues,” “Fire On The Mountain,” “I Need A Miracle”) didn’t work in the studio. The album also marks the departure of Donna and Keith Godchaux, and at least Donna gets the classy exit she deserves on “France” and “From The Heart of Me.” (Keith, I suspect, had checked out a while ago.) It’s not a case of Shakedown Street being a bad album, since the songs are individually good, but therein lies the problem. This feels like the work of individual artists (Weir, Garcia, Mickey Hart and Donna Jean) collectively packaged. Both Cats Under The Stars and Heaven Help The Fool had a few good ideas, and Shakedown has its handful. In 2006, Rhino issued an HDCD remaster that featured much-improved sound and several bonus tracks, including a version of “Good Lovin’” with a surprisingly lucid Lowell George on lead vocals and four songs from their 1978 Egyptian concert that features a cool Drums segment recorded with Hamza El Din titled “Ollin Arageed” in which I’m pretty sure I can hear the word “marijuana” being chanted. Or maybe it’s “Beware Obama,” since chanting affects impressionable minds differently.
Kronomyth 20.0: THE RETURN OF THE GREY WIZARDS. After six years, the Dead returned with a vengeance. In The Dark became their highest-charting US album, “Touch of Grey” their highest-charting single, and suddenly the Dead seemed ageless. Sure, it was their best studio album since the 70s, backed by two terrific tracks from Bob Weir (“Hell In A Bucket,” “Throwing Stones”) and the kind of smooth and pungent playing the Dead usually reserved for the stage, but I suspect the band’s absence had a lot to do with the warm reception. Waiting in the wings were new acts like Edie Brickell and Phish, who demonstrated that the Dead’s influence had never disappeared, instead tunneling underground. So when the grey wizards came riding back tall in the saddle at the head of a new army, you couldn’t help but throw roses at their feet. In a rare role switch, it’s Weir who emerges as the stronger songwriter, while the Garcia/Hunter compositions are a little listless by comparison (although the funky “West L.A. Fadeaway” is a winner). Brent Mydland, who kicked into Bucket, also takes a cameo on “Tons of Steel,” and may actually be the band’s best natural vocalist at this stage (provided the sound of Bryan Adams singing doesn’t make you want to barf or punch somebody or barf on someone and then punch them right where you barfed on them). Unlike the last few studio albums, which found the Dead eking out their legend in a creative holding pattern, In The Dark builds up the legend once more, as though the world needed to be reminded (and they did). Of course, it was right back to the bargain bins with Built To Last, but none of it diminished the achievement of Dark. If someone had told me in the 1970s that Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia would be singing Top 10 songs in 1987, I would have thought that Someone was smoking something. A couple of obit notes for the curious (since this is the Dead after all): the album is dedicated to Paul Roehlk, a truck driver for the Dead’s tour equipment, who passed away in March 1987; the album credits also feature a “farewell to Otis,” Bob Weir’s dog, who died in January 1987.
On paper, it looked like Kingfish had collided with a jazz fusion band: Bob Weir, Matthew Kelly, Billy Cobham, Alponso Johnson plus Bobby Cochran and Brent Mydland (who had been on board the Bob Weir Band since 1978) as the passengers. On vinyl, well, it’s a car crash alright. Weir and his benighted Midnites can’t seem to decide whether they want to be The James Gang (“Haze”), the E Street Band (“Too Many Losers”), Foreigner (“Me, Without You”) or the Bob Weir Band Mk. II (all of side two). I had honestly expected this album to be a lot jazzier, given the presence of Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Johnson (Weather Report) coupled with the fact that Weir’s work on Go To Heaven (which was also produced by Gary Lyons) was clearly moving in that direction. Bobby & The Midnites, it turns out, is just a wrong turn. I’m not sure Arista ever knew what to do with Bob Weir in the first place; he inherited whatever producer the label had signed for the Dead, and his records seemed to make too many commercial concessions. Gary Lyons has a heavier production hand on the first Bobby & The Midnites album than he did with the Dead, which results in a more contemporary studio rock sound that overshadows (and effectively cancels out) the contributions of Cobham and Johnson. The second side of music, written almost exclusively by Weir, is closer to what Dead fans might have reasonably expected: blues (“Josephine”), ballads (“Carry Me”) and a song tailor-made for concerts (“Festival”), as well as the unexpected “(I Want To) Fly Away,” which incorporates reggae music into a highly original rock arrangement. That track and a cover of The Heptones’ “Book of Rules” suggest that maybe the band should have made an album of reggae music instead of trying to cover rock and roll from every angle. It’s not the Dead, it’s not disco, and it’s not the fusion of jazz and rock that its parts would indicate. I haven’t heard the band play live, so I couldn’t call it a failed experiment, but the first Bobby & The Midnites album does seem like missed opportunity to me.
Kronomyth 17.0: FAIR TO MYDLAND. This is the most disappointing Grateful Dead studio album to date and it’s still not half bad. Produced by Gary Lyons (Wet Willie, Aerosmith), Go To Heaven featured an actual hit single in “Alabama Getaway,” which became their highest charting single since “Truckin’.” The album is also notable for the introduction of keyboardist Brent Mydland into the band, who effectively replaced both Donna Jean and Keith Godchaux. Mydland contributes two songs to Heaven, “Far From Me” and “Easy To Love You,” and sings them with a pleasant voice suggestive of Eagles and other West Coast Top 40 bands. The most interesting aspect of Heaven, in my opinion, is Bob Weir’s continued exploration into minor-key jazz-pop. Like “Shade of Grey” (from Weir’s Heaven Help The Fool), both “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” are the kind of songs you expect to encounter on a Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan album rather than the Dead. Mydland adjusts to the change well, but the rest of Dead sound a little lost in Bob Weir’s blue ocean. Over the years, a little slice of Heaven has made it into the wider live Dead repertoire, including “Saint of Circumstance,” “Althea” (one of my favorites on this record) and “Feel Like A Stranger” (which appears here as a herky-jerky disco song). As with their last two albums, the Dead also dredge up an old concert favorite, “Don’t Ease Me In,” and manage to suck all the fun out of it in the studio. Despite a few bright moments, Heaven is the Dead album I go to least often. The songs themselves are fine as individual achievements for Garcia, Weir and Mydland, but the collective energy isn’t there and Garcia’s new Tiger is far too tame on this album.
Kronomyth 1.0: ZANE GREYFULL DEAD. This record is the vinyl consummation of a relationship that began almost a decade ago in the San Francisco folk scene, where David Nelson, John Dawson, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter first met. The four reunited during the Dead’s psychedelic country-rock phase (1969 to 1970), and a mixture of Dawson, Nelson and the Dead became the band’s opening act in 1970. Soon after, NRPS added full-time members David Torbert and Spencer Dryden (of Jefferson Airplane), retained the services of Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, and released this album of John Dawson originals. The songs on the first NRPS album are typical of the West Coast psychedelic country-rock sound, inviting comparison to Buffalo Springfield (e.g., “Garden of Eden”), The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Dawson, Nelson and Torbert achieve nice harmonies, Garcia’s pedal steel playing is decent enough and Dryden makes for a surprisingly credible country-rock drummer. This album has always struck me as a simple, countrified cousin to Workingman’s Dead, especially on songs like “I Don’t Know You,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Last Lonely Eagle.” The Riders dig even deeper into American folk myths than the Dead, with songs about outlaws (“Henry,” “Glendale Train”), miners (“Dirty Business”) and girls from the country (“Portland Woman,” “Louisiana Lady”). If you enjoy country-rock music with a psychedelic twist, you’ll find plenty to admire here among the purple sage. It’s not as pretty as American Beauty or as dazzling as The Gilded Palace of Sin, but it’s a pleasant ride from sun-up to sundown and, as an added bonus, one of the best of the ancillary Dead albums.