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 8.1: ‘S EUROPE. This is the token single from the triple-disc Europe ’72 package, here trimmed down to a meagre four minutes. “Sugar Magnolia” has always been one of my favorites from Bob Weir, painting the picture (through Robert Hunter’s lyrics) of the ideal, down-to-earth woman: in tune with nature, supportive of her man (I didn’t say it was your ideal). The natural imagery from Hunter is really beautiful, focusing primarily on water, flowers and light. Although the song is purportedly about Weir’s girlfriend at the time (Frankie Azzarra/Hart/Weir), it appears Hunter may have taken some poetic license in casting the former go-go dancer as a woodland nymph. The B side on the original single is the live version of “Mr. Charlie” that appeared on Europe ’72 (right after “Sugar Magnolia,” in fact).
Kronomyth 9.0: A BEAR’S HITS (IN THE WOODS). The third live Dead album released in a row, this one features primarily Pigpen (who had recently passed away) at a handful of shows in February 1970 at the Fillmores East and West. Bear’s Choice is otherwise notable for being the first Dead live disc to focus on their acoustic show; the amps aren’t turned on at all until the second side. Now, you don’t really give a crap about my Grateful Dead reviews and I’m not a Deadhead, so let’s not lie to one another: this is not the first Dead live disc you need to own. And the death of Pigpen, while tragic on a personal level, didn’t represent a crippling blow to the Grateful living. You don’t need to be a Deadhead, however, to appreciate the history lesson. The original elpee is light on material, but the 2001 remaster adds four more tracks and contains some smokin’ playing, now anchored by two weighty versions of “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Pigpen, apologetic on guitar and unapologetic in his howlin’ delivery, is the bluesiest of the bunch, a point underscored on the twin smokestacks and the classic “Hard to Handle.” There’s plenty of amazing picking and drumming behind it all, from the early version of “Good Lovin’” to the electric solo on the second Smokestack. Since I find the electric Dead more interesting, I wouldn’t bother much with the original elpee version, which is half acoustic curios and half Pigpen tribute. The expanded remaster has a better balance and gives a more accurate impression of the Dead’s live show around 1970. If you’re looking for classic Dead tunes, though, you won’t find them here; only “Black Peter” will be familiar to the casual fan. Otherwise, this is part of the great, revolving American songbook that the Dead hauled with them from place to place, which on a given night could range from Bill Monroe to the Everly Brothers. Bear’s Choice is better than I expected, but in the wake of so many archival live releases it’s really your choice.
Kronomyth 11.0: BONER. What’s so great about Grateful Dead? Well, for starters, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion).” Oh, and let’s not forget “Rosemary,” “Mexicali Blues” (which isn’t even a Grateful Dead song) and the six-minute live version of “Turn On Your Love Light” that Warner Brothers lazily tacked on to the end of The Big Ball (a budget-priced, double-elpee sampler from the 70s). No wonder Deadheads don’t like this album. Skeletons’ shortcomings still didn’t stop three million Americans from buying it, although I’m guessing it stopped most of them from buying any Grateful Dead album after that. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 80 and own (or have access to) a radio, you’ve already heard the best that Skeletons has to offer. Better to spend your time/money/salable organs on Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty (which, together, form the better half of this Best Of). You can even buy Aoxomoxoa if you want, with my personal assurance that “Rosemary” is one of the worst songs on it. The thing about the Dead is that you can’t distill them down to 10 songs or one album or one show. And if you were going to try to distill them down to 10 songs anyway, you’d probably want to make sure that five of them didn’t suck. Which would make you a more careful caretaker of their legacy than Warner Brothers, who were simply looking to cash out now that the band was managing their own affairs with Grateful Dead Records. I would tell you this is the worst “best of” albums I own, but then I’d have to burn, bury or sell both Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie, which is more effort than they’re worth.
Kronomyth 1.0: THE ADVENTURES OF PANAMA RUM. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter took advantage of the band’s mid-70s hiatus to launch his own solo career with the release of Tales of the Great Rum Runners. With a few of the Dead (Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, the Godchauxes) and some ancillary figures (Buddy Cage, David Freiberg) along for the ride, Hunter does a passable Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan impression for forty minutes while playing guitar and pipes in a style that leans decidedly more toward pirate than cowboy. Highlights include “It Must Have Been The Roses” (which the Dead quickly shanghaied in a dirge-like reading for their own shows) and the legend-stoking “Boys In The Barroom.” The remaining material is interesting, although not up to the standards of Hunter’s work with the Dead, let alone Dylan or Cash. Honestly, I expected better lyrics, worse singing and more songwriting support from outside collaborators, so Tales is both a surprise and a disappointment. It’s not an album you’ll play once and put away; you’ll come back periodically to hear songs like “That Train” and “Arizona Lightning” again. But there’s little on here that will get under your skin the way those Garcia/Hunter songs do. Despite the Dead connections, this sounds more like the New Sailors of the Purple Waves. Tales is interesting enough to warrant further discoveries in the fields of Hunter, since he’s built up the same cachet that makes me buy Bob Weir albums. In isn’t a lost Beauty, though, just a box of rain unlocked in the middle of a Dead dry spell.
If you’re only going to buy one Robert Hunter album, you’re looking at it. Hunter never seemed to get his sea legs on his first, and wisely chooses a Western setting for some of the best songs on his second album, including “Wild Bill” (a fine riding companion to “Panama Red”) and “Cruel White Water.” The lyrics are up to Hunter’s high standards this time, really some of the best stuff this side of Bob Dylan, and the arrangements from Jerry Garcia are lively and muscular. The album’s only weakness is Hunter’s voice, which remains a pale imitation of Dylan and Johnny Cash. (Tellingly, Hunter re-recorded the vocals for the 1988 re-release.) The presence of Dead and Starship members notwithstanding, Tiger Rose aligns more closely with the music of New Riders, whose David Torbert appears on a few tracks. It doesn’t appear that any of the songs from Tiger Rose slipped into the Deadshow, so if you’re looking for another “It Must Have Been The Roses,” you won’t find it here. That’s a shame, since the Dead could have done wonderful things with “Ariel” and I would have loved to hear Jerry Garcia sing “Wild Bill.” Although Hunter’s albums inhabit the same world as the Dead, they’re not imitative of the Dead. Hunter is more overtly influenced by Dylan (“Rose of Sharon,” “Dance A Hole”) and drawn to the traditional songs of sea and land, not psychedelia. He does branch into rock and roll on this album as well (“Over The Hills,” “Last Flash of Rock’N’Roll”), but doesn’t have the voice to support it. Look, neither did Ringo Starr, and some of those albums were a lot of fun. Tiger Rose is a lot of fun to listen to, and once you remember that Hunter is a writer not a singer, you’ll appreciate the effort and might actually find yourself enjoying this album from beginning to end.
Kronomyth 13.0: ALLAHLUJAH. In one of life’s little ironies, the Dead’s temporary retirement from touring resulted in a studio album that finally sounded like a Dead concert, Blues For Allah. Then again, maybe it wasn’t ironic at all, since (like lightning) that energy had to go somewhere. The first half of the album is constructed as a seamless performance of new songs connected by instrumentals like “King Solomon’s Marbles” and “Stronger Than Dirt Or Milkin’ The Turkey.” These are simply names given to the nameless, organic interplay that arose during the band’s musical communion on stage (e.g., Drums, Space). The first three tracks also constitute a kind of musical tangram, where “Help On The Way” introduces a musical problem that gets extrapolated and a bit complicated on “Slipknot!,” only to find its perfect resolution in “Franklin’s Tower.” After the drum/space interlude, Bob Weir steps up to the mic for one of the strongest Weir/Barlow songs this side of In The Dark, “The Music Never Stopped.” The second side unravels a bit, as Garcia and Weir present what are essentially solo songs (albeit very good ones) before the band closes with a tripped-out tribute to the late King Faisal that calls for peace between the Arabs and the Jews. In a sense, Blues For Allah is a perfect miniature Dead concert: the harmonies are flawless and the intricately articulated guitar of Garcia (who was now playing in a distinctively piquant style on what I believe was a Travis Bean electric guitar at this point) supports his standing as one of rock’s truly great guitarists (Rolling Stone recently ranked him #46 behind Stephen Stills and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, which is why I don’t number anything.) This album is also notable for its pronounced jazz fusion influence. Keith Godchaux, who rarely gets much recognition for his musical contributions to the Dead, rises to the challenge with a variety of keyboards, including the Fender Rhodes and, on “Crazy Fingers,” what sounds to be an organ. A perennial favorite among Deadheads (and rightly so), Blues For Allah and the subsequent Terrapin Station best capture the band’s live lightning in a bottle, and may also be the two Dead albums that most appeal to progressive rock/fusion fans.
Kronomyth 5.0: MIRROR MORTALS. In my temporal distraction, I’ve taken to playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning lately. It’s a good RPG composed of endless multi-part quests. You talk to a gnome to find a key that unlocks a chest that contains a crystal that opens a gate to—well, you get the point. It’s ironic that I would use something like this as an escape from reality, since my reality these days is little more than a series of mundane quests. I visit an appliance store, pick out a stove, battle with the installation department to have it delivered, fend off early and unscheduled delivery of said stove, pursue the installation department again over mountains of red tape, ad nauseum. In the end, I’ll complete the quest, the beneficiary of more experience points, and move on to the next quest. All of which would seem to have little to do with Jerry Garcia’s fifth solo album, except that we’ve been down this road before, and I find myself musing whether I pursue his solo works as a Dead distraction or a redaction. For me, the best parts of the Dead are the Garcia/Hunter compositions, for their minor-key melodies, pearls of wisdom and Garcia’s kind and craggy voice. And so, for me anyway, a Garcia solo album promises a distillation of what’s best about the Dead. Only distilleries aren’t an exact science, and I often feel as though Garcia should filter his product a little better. When Garcia sings “I’ll take a melody and see what I can do about it / I’ll take a simple C to G and feel brand new about it” (from Allen Toussaint’s “I’ll Take A Melody”), you wonder whether the head Dead might be revealing his hand on Reflections. Garcia and Hunter could probably write these songs in their sleep, yet they’re still the stuff of dreams. I could listen to “Mission In The Rain” for hours, invariably perk up when I hear “Might As Well” or “They Love Each Other,” grow quiet when I hear “Comes A Time” and feel a lump in my throat at every blooming of “It Must Have Been The Roses.” The Dead albums around it (Blues For Allah, Terrapin Station) are better, but the whole gang is here, making Reflections something of a hybrid Garcia/Grateful Dead record. It’s not as essential a purchase as The Wheel, not as fun as Compliments, but a better bet to please Deadheads than the Jerry Garcia Band albums that followed (which otherwise take a similar approach in their mix of covers and originals).
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 6.0: GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD FELINE BAND. Somewhere between Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street, Jerry Garcia and the Godchauxes found time to release a new album of material as the Jerry Garcia Band. Rounded out by some of Jerry’s regular sidemen (John Kahn, Merl Saunders, Ron Tutt) and featuring lyrics by Robert Hunter, Cats Under The Stars sounds a lot like those two Dead albums distilled down to their Garcia/Hunter and Godchaux songs. It’s not on a par with the last Dead album, and may be at least partly responsible for the subpar Shakedown (to which Garcia contributed only three new tracks), but it’s still a solid addition to the Dead’s Arista output (a period not synonymous with the band’s best work, lest you take that as a hearty endorsement). As for me, my heart tends to light up a little when I see the words Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter together, since the pair have been the source of much joy. “Rubin And Cherise,” “Gomorrah” and “Cats Under The Stars,” I’m happy to say, are right in line with what you’d expect from the Dead’s most enduring songwriting partnership. Although the album is a little light at eight tracks (including the short instrumental piece, “Down Home”), it makes up for it some with variety. The Kahn/Hunter reggae song, “Love In The Afternoon,” is one such surprise, Donna’s pretty pop song, “Rain,” another, and the airy “Palm Sunday” reveals that even Garcia and Hunter can still surprise us after all these years. Without a proper producer, the arrangements occasionally unravel (Run For The Roses, by contrast, felt overproduced), and you won’t find the same piquant instrumental interplay on Stars that you do with the Dead. On your way from the station to the street, however, there’s no harm done if you look this one up.