Grateful Dead

Ready or Not

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A perennial live experience, the Grateful Dead's studio output was usually overshadowed by their legendary endless touring and the multitudes of live recordings it produced. After a prolific '70s, their studio output slowed dramatically during the '80s. The band focused on touring, with their final studio album, Built to Last, coming out seven years before Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. The Dead hadn't completely disavowed the studio, however, and were introducing new songs into their live repertoire throughout the early '90s. Ready or Not collects select concert performances of nine songs the group were workshopping for what would have been their 14th studio album. Played only a handful of times in 1992 and 1993, the material falls into the classic, drifting sway of live Grateful Dead meandering but holds glimpses of the core songwriting strengths the band built their empire on. The reflective mid-tempo composition "So Many Roads" is perhaps the best example of this. The dusty and nostalgic tune could fit in almost anywhere in the group's discography, with this seven-plus-minute version making plenty of space for Garcia's signature guitar soloing. "Eternity" is a more boogie-oriented number, but the wiggly and mystical Bob Weir-led song could also fit in as a bonus cut on Wake of the Flood or Terrapin Station. Some of the material suffers from the band's cornier early-'90s tendencies. "Way to Go Home" is a tedious would-be rave-up that never really gets off the ground, and the faux horns and late-night talk show groove of "Easy Answers" didn't age well. The good coming hand in hand with the bad is just part of the unspoken contract fans make with the Grateful Dead, however. Around the corner from every dud is a beautiful moment like "Days Between." Ready or Not indeed offers a glimpse of what another studio album from what turned out to be the group's later phase would have sounded like, only with the buffer of comfort that comes from them working out the songs on-stage. It's a document not quite like any of the Dead's hundreds of other archival releases, zeroing in on unfamiliar and exciting material. There's a bittersweetness in knowing that this is as much of an idea as we'll ever get for what was next on the agenda for the band when their time ran out.