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.
Kronomyth x.x: THE HUNTER AND THE HAUNTED. I don’t give a hang for country/bluegrass music. It’s not meant as a judgment, but my musical experiences belong at the other spectrum: punk, classical, prog. The few country albums I have encountered exist at the crossroads of rock and country, through Dylan or the Dead or (I kid you not) Elvis Costello. So my opinion on the matter of Jim Lauderdale’s music has marginal value at best. I borrowed a copy of Reason and Rhyme solely for the Dead affiliation, expecting something along the lines of latter-day New Riders. It’s better than that. Lauderdale has a good voice, an ear for minor-key melodies and harmonies, a top-notch cast of players behind him and, of course, a wordsmith of no little weight on his side. Robert Hunter and Lauderdale have collaborated on a handful of albums over the years, with Reason and Rhyme falling somewhere in the middle in terms of time. Whether it’s the best of those pairings, I couldn’t say. I can tell you that it exceeded my expectations, although I expected more from Hunter and less from Lauderdale, so take that as you will. Highlights to my mind include “Jack Dempsey’s Crown,” “Cruel Wind and Rain,” “Don’t Tempt The Devil (With Your Love)” and “Janis Jones.” I don’t know enough about modern bluegrass music to tell you where this fits in the family of blue, whether it’s navy or teal, azure or indigo. I do know that it moves at a brisk pace, the picking and playing are superb, and I like Jim Lauderdale’s voice. Missing from this are the compelling narratives of Hunter; “Love’s Voice” is a missed opportunity, “Not Let You Go” has shadows that might have been more deeply explored, “Don’t Give A Hang” is as curmudgeonly as it is clever. In other words, if you’re coming here to explore the lyrical riches of Robert Hunter’s mind, they’ve been better mined elsewhere. If you are thinking of deeply exploring the New Riders or other avenues of the ancillary dead, however, I would suggest at least a brief stop in the dells of Lauderdale, with the caveat that you might be tempted to linger there longer than you expected.
Kronomyth 4.0: COLUMBIAN GOLD. The high point of the band’s fourth album is “Panama Red,” an open ode to that potent strain of pot written by Peter Rowan (of Old And In The Way) and sung by David Nelson. The rest of the record contains country songs and a few country-rock songs that invite comparison to the Grateful Dead (including “Kick In The Head,” which was written by Robert Hunter). Produced by Nashville veteran Norbert Putnam, The Adventures of Panama Red often feels like a country album on speed. Buddy Cage’s pedal steel flies by like a fleeting pleasure, and the band moves briskly from song to song; only one track (Rowan’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”) is longer than three minutes. John Dawson contributes just two tracks this time, both of them forgettable (he also sings lead on “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”). Dave Torbert writes three songs (one of them with Tim Hovey, a former child actor who would go on to become the road manager for the Grateful Dead in the late 70s), including the Weir/Barlow-soundalike “Thank The Day.” The album closes with an original from Spencer Dryden and David Nelson, “Cement, Clay And Glass,” which feels like something that didn’t make it out of Bob Dylan and The Band’s basement. Songs about marijuana and cocaine notwithstanding, The Adventures of Panama Red is their least psychedelic record to date. Putnam’s fast, sweet and shuffling pace is the antithesis of the eight-minute “Death And Destruction” or elegiac “Gypsy Cowboy.” The Riders get in, get out and get back in the saddle for the next song. Increasingly, the band’s future looks to be as cosmic country comedians with some amazing pedal steel playing thrown in plus the occasional cameo by the Grateful Dead family to keep Deadheads engaged. The disappearance of John Dawson as a songwriter and the imminent defection of Dave Torbert hardly boded well for that future, however, and listeners should proceed with caution from here on.
Starlog 1.0: MEET THE JEFFERSONS. As the Airplane was winding down, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick went off to record solo albums that loosely collected a lot of the same players, so that you could reasonably argue their solo records were really just extensions of the Airplane’s journey. In 1974, the pair decided to create a new vehicle using the available Airplane parts–John Barbata, Papa John Creach, David Freiberg–and round it out with then 20-year-old guitarist Craig Chaquico and multi-instrumental Englishman Pete Sears, both of whom had appeared on Slick’s most recent solo album, the unfortunately titled Manhole. Co-credited to Kantner and Slick, Dragon Fly featured eight tracks of partly mystical and partly mainstream rock. The album went gold on the strength of songs like “Ride The Tiger” and “Caroline,” the latter featuring a briefly returning Marty Balin on vocals. A reader of Progrography once asked me if I thought Jefferson Starship was a progressive rock band, and I would nix the notion here. A lot of classic rock bands, many of them formed in the psychedelic ‘60s, were pushing artistic envelopes that sometimes got mailed to strange and exotic destinations: Santana, Grateful Dead, CSN, The Doors. San Francisco, nexus of the hippie stoner bands, nurtured an experimental environment where music was written to transcend the real. As Paul Kantner sings on the opening ride, “We got something to learn from the other side.” And while Dragon Fly does feature some musical flights of fancy (“Hyperdrive,” “Devils Den”), it’s felicity not alice aforethought. Put enough talented musicians together, some of whom have an artistic or mystical bent (Kantner, Slick), and you’re bound to detect the scent of prog in the air from time to time. But Jefferson Starship is just a part of the California Dream that embraced drugs, spirituality, youth, love and music. As with a lot of 70s rock bands (Santana, Eagles, Blue Oyster Cult), endless songwriting permutations exist, including collaborators outside the proper band (Robert Hunter, Tom Pacheco), which makes Dragon Fly a hard album to pin down stylistically. A magnum opus it isn’t, but so long as you don’t come after this expecting any Miracles, Dragon Fly is worth netting.
When the Grateful Dead took time off from recording in 1974, lyricist Robert Hunter used the opportunity to release a solo album, Tales of The Great Rum Runners. Hunter sings, plays guitar and pipes, writing almost all of the material and acquitting himself with a vocal style that suggests a limited amalgam of Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Johnny Cash. Given that Dead fans had few expectations for Hunter beyond clever lyrics, his first solo album is better than expected. An eclectic, folksy collection of songs reminiscent of Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes, Tales of The Great Rum Runners manages to stand up on its own musical merits, and not merely as Dead-related minutiae. Sly, lively songs like “That Train” and “Arizona Lightning” invite comparison to Dylan’s Planet Waves; “Rum Runners” suggests what the Moodies might have sounded like with Johnny Cash. Throw in the popular “It Must Have Been The Roses” (since appropriated by the Dead in a dirge-like reading) and the legend-stoking “Boys In The Barroom,” and Hunter’s first album proves to be an interesting ride. The backing arrangements are sometimes spare, occasionally rich, relying on a bevy of Bay Area backing musicians and some help from his bandmates (Garcia, Hart, Donna and Keith Godchaux). Musically, Hunter leans on stock solutions like the obligatory bagpipe number (“Children’s Lament”) or the rollicking piano tune (“Mad”), but to his credit they never feel disingenuous. True, Hunter is at best a middling warbler, but I’ve heard a lot worse (and, frankly, expected it). If the lyrical imagery isn’t up to the level I imagined, the final product is respectable (which is itself remarkable). Tales of The Great Rum Runners may not rise to the level of the Dead, Dylan or The Band, but it’s in the same ballpark. Apparently, some minor differences exist between the original 1974 Round release and the 1990 Rykodisc reissue (e.g., “That Train” seems to run a little longer on the reissue).