critic’s pick 147

How appropriate it is that Halloween weekend finds the Grateful Dead still alive and kicking.

Though defunct for over 15 years, the pioneering jam band lives on through a ceaseless string of archival live recordings detailing most every phase of its 40 year career. Two recent entries hail from concerts held a mere four months apart in 1989. Yet the intent and execution of the music they contain are markedly different.

Crimson, White and Indigo compiles a full July 4 concert from Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium. Running just shy of three hours in length (and presented here on three CDs and a DVD), the set list is amazingly comprehensive with guitarist Bob Weir very much in the driver’s seat. He lights a fuse under the opening Hell in a Bucket and never lets up until the band slides into a light and slightly tentative Turn on Your Lovelight. Though maintaining a more modest profile than usual, Jerry Garcia still manages to steal some thunder with the then-unreleased Standing on the Moon, one his last and loveliest collaborations with lyricist Robert Hunter.

Formerly the Warlocks fast forwards to early October of 1989 by offering two complete concerts that double the length (six CDs) and price (roughly $70) of Crimson. Intended as public rehearsals of sorts for a fall tour, the band booked itself into Hampton Coliseum in Virginia under its pre-Dead name of The Warlocks and charged a mere 18 bucks for admission. As such, the shows have a scrappy, loose sound. Some of that design is unavoidable, as in the weariness in Garcia’s singing during first night selections like Foolish Heart and Candyman. Some is truly exciting, like the revitalization that greets forgotten favorites like Attics in My Life (making its first stage appearance at a Dead show in 17 years) and Built to Last (which would be released three weeks after these concerts as the title tune to the Dead’s swan song studio album).

We also hear just how integral keyboardist Brent Mydland’s contributions had become. An imperfect but nonetheless vital harmony singer, he added a coarse luster to concert favorites like Franklin’s Tower and combustible lead vocals to a spiraling second night cover of Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy. But as an instrumentalist, Mydland veered the Dead ever closer to the cosmos with a keyboard vocabulary that is considerably more expansive than the rootsier, leaner sounds of his predecessors. You hear it vividly unfold during a 46 minute suite that blends Playing in the Band, Uncle John’s Band and Dark Star. It takes up the bulk of the sixth Warlocks disc.

Less than a year after the Hampton shows, Mydland would be dead of a drug overdose. But here, as in all chapters of the band’s history, the Dead boldly lives on.

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