The parties responsible for releasing music from the Grateful Dead's vault may have changed over the years, but one thing remains consistent: they all love 1989. Crimson, White & Indigo: Philadelphia, July 7, 1989 presents a show that took place only three days after the previously released CD/DVD Truckin' Up to Buffalo, and other official Dead releases -- Without a Net, Nightfall of Diamonds, and the video/DVD Downhill from Here -- also zero in on shows from that period in the band's 30-year existence, the latter also stemming from July of 1989. So what is it about 1989? Dead lore suggests that the band was experiencing a brief resurgence of glory between bummer times, a notion borne out by the facts that Jerry Garcia, the band's worshiped lead guitarist and nominal figurehead, had emerged rejuvenated from a July 1986 diabetic coma that gave the Dead world quite a scare, and that Brent Mydland, would, in July 1990 (what is with July and these guys?), become the third Grateful Dead keyboardist to die at a young age, in his case from a drug overdose. But in the end it's the music that must sell the product, and while there's no denying that sparks flew on several occasions at this Philly show, there is also plenty of tedium and forgettable, draggy moments. The first set starts out with a vengeance, with the Bob Weir co-written (with John Perry Barlow) and sung "Hell in a Bucket," a key song from the Dead's hit 1987 In the Dark album, which elevated them from massive cult band to massive band in general for the rest of their lifespan. Weir's voice proves strong and flexible on the track, as it is again on the stunning "Let It Grow," which arrives later in that first set and proves one of highlights of the entire show. Weir also takes the reins for a churning interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" that rivals the power of the Blonde on Blonde original. Garcia, too, is ripping as the show gets underway, his guitar playing fluid, creative, and lyrical, his vocals assured, and his attitude spirited. Leading the way on the New Orleans classic "Iko Iko" and his own "Ramble on Rose," Garcia seems fully reinvigorated after his near brush with death. Things don't really begin to flag, in fact, till the end of the first set, when Mydland takes over on vocals for his composition (also with Barlow) "Blow Away," a track that would be released a few months after this show on the Built to Last album, their final studio release. Mydland's preening and improvising quickly goes from awkward to annoying over the course of the song's dozen minutes, and makes one wish for one of the band's principal vocalist/writers to wrest the microphone away and implore him to stick to backup vocals.
Traditionally, Grateful Dead second sets are when they shift into high gear, so to speak, but too much of the Philadelphia show drags along without ever going anywhere special. Opening the set with Phil Lesh's "Box of Rain," a gorgeous song that originally appeared on 1970's American Beauty, the band seems oddly lost, Lesh's lead vocal cracked and meandering. Garcia reclaims the momentum with a fine "Scarlet Begonias," and there are other noteworthy peaks, including Weir's delivery of the reggae-esque "Estimated Prophet," but the second set never quite gets off the ground. At this stage the Dead were making ample use of the new MIDI technology that allowed them to broaden their sonic range, and while it's sometimes interesting to hear how they apply it to music they've been playing for years, too often the performances themselves simply lag -- the already interminable "Rhythm Devils/Space" free-form drum duet/improv section had long ago become recast by many Deadheads as "time to get a beer and hit the rest room," and even the usually dramatic/exquisite "Wharf Rat" shoots few sparks here. By the time the show winds down with an anemic "Turn on Your Lovelight," an R&B classic that had served as the quintessential Dead rave-up back when original member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan sang it (he died in 1973), it serves instead only to confirm that Weir never should have attempted to reintroduce the jam into the repertoire. And the encore, the night's second Dylan tune, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," although one that Garcia loved to sing and play and often rendered with great emotion, is just too much of a downer ending for a huge outdoor stadium concert like this. In addition to the three CDs, the package also includes the entire performance on a DVD.