Grateful Dead

Road Trips, Vol. 4 No. 2: April Fools '88

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For career Deadheads, the late '80s was a bittersweet time. In 1986, Jerry Garcia lapsed into a diabetic coma that nearly killed him. He was out of commission for five months, and fans were rightly concerned that they'd seen the last of their favorite traveling band. But lo and behold, in 1987 the Grateful Dead bounced back with their first-ever Top Ten album, In the Dark, and -- even more startlingly -- a Top Ten single, "Touch of Grey." For a band who had always shrugged off the recording studio in favor of their life-changing, celebratory live gigs, this was quite a development, and not surprisingly, it resulted in an exponential increase in the size of their fan base, which was already bursting at the seams. In retrospect, however, it would seem that those newbies to the scene were witnessing a band that was offering diminishing returns. From the evidence present on this three-CD compendium of tracks recorded in East Rutherford, N.J., on March 31 and April 1, 1988, the Dead had become more or less predictable and somewhat frayed. That isn't to say there aren't moments of inspiration and near-brilliance here. The medley that segues the reggae-esque "Estimated Prophet" into "Eyes of the World" on the third disc is incendiary, and scattered tracks like "Let It Grow,' "Terrapin Station," and "Jackstraw," retain the effervescence inherent in those tunes when they first emerged in the '70s. When they rocked out, as they do on "Samson and Delilah" and "Deal," the old slogan "There is Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert" is still applicable. But too often, they just seemed bored here, as if they knew they were stuck in an endless loop and no longer exploring new places. Garcia's guitar playing, while never rote, often fails to rise to the heady heights that it did at the band's peak, and while the collective jamming still occasionally clicks into that indefinable groove that made them the Grateful Dead, the band seems content to stay in a familiar place. What's most disturbing, however, is the vocal performances. Not that the Dead were ever known for their stellar singing, but Garcia's once-angelic, emotive voice had by now become a hoarse, sharp rasp; it's difficult to listen to him on tracks such as "Wharf Rat" and "To Lay Me Down" (despite that last one's relative rarity) and not feel a twinge of pain and sorrow, knowing how warm and inviting that voice once was. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir appears to be going through the motions vocally, and keyboardist Brent Mydland and bassist Phil Lesh, try as they might, couldn't pick up the pieces. This Road Trips volume is far from a disaster, and Grateful Dead loyalists who remember the era fondly are likely to overlook the flaws and enjoy it for what it is. But anyone just discovering this iconic American band would be far better off with one of the classic Dick's Picks sets dating from the early '70s.

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