Archive for August, 2013

critic’s picks 291: chick corea, ‘the vigil’ and the new gary burton quartet, ‘guided tour’

chick coreaThe partnership of Chick Corea and Gary Burton extends back to 1972, when the two jazz veterans (now in their 70s) teamed for the brilliant and beautifully spacious piano/vibraphone duet album Crystal Silence. While the alliance has been rekindled numerous times since then, most recently on 2012’s Hot House, both players return this summer with separate projects that are very much reflections of the stylistic paths they have followed apart from one another.

Pianist/keyboardist Corea quickly became one of the leading voices of the ‘70s jazz fusion movement after Crystal Silence and has since juggled myriad ensemble sounds that have shifted from strong post bop tradition to a continuance of his electric adventures. His new album The Vigil explores a bit of both.

The music abounds with Corea’s trademarks – an affinity for rapid and playful melodies (especially in the bass lines), Spanish-inspired accents and a vocabulary that dances between bop and fusion. But as electric exercises go for Corea, The Vigil is a relaxed affair. He dabbles with synths at times but favors far more a mix of grand piano and the   Rhodes-style keyboard sound that has long been a trademark since the early Return to Forever records that came on the heels of Crystal Silence.

There are attractive cameos by longtime RTF bassist Stanley Clarke and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane during Prayer for Peace, a fine tribute to the latter’s legendary father, John Coltrane. But the interplay between Corea (on acoustic piano) and the expert New York drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of Roy Haynes, who Corea first recorded with in the ‘60s) propels the tune as well as the album’s more traditionalist angles. Similarly resourceful is saxophonist Tim Garland (a holdover from Corea’s ‘90s band Origin) who confidently takes the reins during the boppish turns from the album closing Legacy, the tune that offers the most savory mix of Corea’s contemporary and traditional visions.

gary burtonBurton left go of fusion long ago (take a listen to the reissued edition of 1970’s Good Vibes for a glimpse of him rocking out). Since Crystal Silence, he has served as an educator and bandleader with a keen ear for new talent (among his discoveries is Pat Metheny) and a glowing, growing sense of the cool he pioneered for the ECM label in the wake of Crystal Silence.

Guided Tour is actually the second album credited to the vibraphonist’s “new quartet.” What results is the fluid, alert communication that is the product of solid band spirit. You hear it in the crisp dialogue Burton and guitarist Julian Lage engage in during Jane Fonda Called Again and the rugged change-ups from drummer Antonio Sanchez (a Metheny protégé) that keeps Guided Tour moving continually forward.

in performance: howard levy and chris siebold

howard levy and chris siebold

chris siebold (on guitar) and howard levy.

It was easy to be astounded by the technique, speed, playfulness and stylistic dexterity set in motion last night by pianist/harmonica ace Howard Levy and steel guitarist Chris Siebold at Natasha’s. But at the end of the two set, two hour-plus performance it was the sheer sense of invention that ignited all of those attributes.

The most dominate innovations came within Levy’s turns on diatonic harmonica. They included extending the instrument’s range, widening its stylistic scope and, in a particularly adventuresome solo sequence, creating harmony through two simultaneously played melodies.

But the better portion of the program employed a grand rethink of the duo configuration. Having one player tackle a lead or solo while the other offers rhythmic accompaniment is fairly routine. Switching those roles at regular intervals is far trickier. But here is what Levy and Siebold did. Levy often established a melody, reversed lead and rhythm roles with Siebold, then switched from harmonica to piano and started the whole process again. It didn’t stop there. In several instances, Levy played piano with his right hand while blowing through a harmonica with his left. And during the Eastern flavored Jovano Jovanke, he threw percussion into the mix. No wonder the performance possessed a large ensemble feel.

Now let’s talk style. The repertoire touched upon jazz, swing, blues, tango, flamenco, Macedonian folk music and contemporary works that shifted from Gershwin to Dylan. And it wasn’t Levy that was doing all the talking, either. Aside from serving as a highly instinctive accompanist, Siebold displayed a dizzying speed and precision on resophonic steel guitar that brought to mind the skills of such jazz fusion pros as Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin. But during the Spanish flavored lyricism of Fade to Black, the cyclical, repetitive lines Siebold offered under Levy’s solo echoed the prog-flavored playing of Robert Fripp. That’s how far the duo’s stylistic reach went.

In the end, though, Levy won out. His solo segments that juggled piano and keyboard, together with all the harmonic ingenuity the instruments triggered, proved the concert’s unrivaled high water marks.

“I can’t do that,” Siebold said after one such segment. An audience patron, in turn, shouted out the most appropriate follow-up remark.

“Neither can anybody else.”

giving voice to “a real instrument”

howard levy

howard levy.

Howard Levy has heard it all before.He’s heard the jokes, sifted through the stereotypes and dealt with the stigmas that view the harmonica as an unscholarly instrument, a lowbrow artistic device that is great to pal around with but is unworthy of placement in even the remotest regions of musical sophistication.

Of course, if you have ever heard the reach and expression Levy creates from the harmonica, you will realize how decisively the last laugh falls on him. Yes, Levy has heard it all. But audiences that haven’t heard Levy really haven’t heard anything.

“Those remarks… that’s all any good harmonica player runs into,” said Levy, who performs a duo concert with guitarist Chris Siebold tonight at Natasha’s Bistro. “People think of the harmonica as this little toy they can pick up and toot through. But if they hear somebody really play music on it, they’re kind of shocked. They think, ‘How do you do that on that instrument?’ I go, ‘Well, it’s a real instrument.’ It’s just that it looks so simple.

“The thing about the harmonica is that it’s invisible to the player and to the person watching it because there are no fingers involved. You can’t see anybody pushing keys or moving their fingers or anything. That’s the hardest thing about learning how to play it, too. You can’t see it. You have to spend a lot of time getting a mental picture of the instrument so that when you pick it up you don’t have to look for where the fourth hole is. It’s different from any other instrument in that respect.”

The stylistic regions Levy has taken the harmonica to have varied just as much as the type of band settings he chooses to perform in. An equally versed pianist, he has explored jazz, Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music, blues, swing and more. Onstage, has collaborated with everything from duos, quartets and combos to full orchestras.

“People are always surprised at all the different styles and textures that I can get out of the harmonica because they are used to hearing it playing blues or a Bob Dylan kind of thing. Most people are just not aware of all the other types of music that can be played on a diatonic harmonica.

“The more I play piano, though, the more I can see how piano transfers directly to my harmonica playing, because I visualize the harmonica as a piano keyboard as I play. There is a definite carry over from the one to the other.”

That Levy has discovered so many stylistic avenues for the harmonica stems partially from the variety of music he was exposed to in his youth and the element of risk that surrounded the artists that created it.

“As a kid, I listened to a lot of classical music. That was a very big inspiration for me. When I was first studying classical piano, every time I would hear a great piece or a great pianist, I would just want to practice and get better. I started improvising when I was eight, so music was always something I did very naturally. My own music was influenced by everything that was going on around me. The next big thing was hearing Chicago blues artists playing live – people like Paul Butterfield and James Cotton. Then, when

I was about 17, I heard a John Coltrane album, Crescent. That was almost a religious experience. A lot of people reacted that way to his playing.”

The outlet that served as a springboard for Levy’s revolutionary playing was the banjo-based fusion and funk of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Levy was a co-founding member, but left after three albums fearing his entire musical life would eventually be routed around the band’s work. He rejoined on temporary basis in 2011 for a new album, Rocket Science, and 130-show tour. Last year, Levy and Fleck won Grammy Awards for their joint Rocket Science composition Life in Eleven.

“The whole experience with the Flecktones this last time was very positive. One of the reasons why was that I knew it had an end. I was just trying to enjoy it as much as I could and not feel like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do this the rest of my life,’ like I did the first time, like there was no way out.  This time it had a beginning and an end, so it was great.”

Howard Levy with Chris Siebold perform at 7:30 tonight at Natasha’s Bistro,112 Esplanade. The Osland/Dailey Jazztet will open. Tickets are $22. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to www.beetnik.com.

In performance: Randy Newman

randy newman

randy newman.

“I’m playing a lot of songs nobody likes tonight,” Randy Newman remarked after completing a stark and sobering reading of Bad News from Home Friday night at the Opera House.

Well, that assessment might be a touch harsh. Truth to tell, the audience was particularly attentive and appreciative of the two set, 34-song program the veteran songsmith and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee delivered. But even those well versed in Newman’s music were probably unprepared for the thematic and emotive severity that powered many of his best (though not always best-known) songs. Such jolts, however, were the high points of this consistently involving solo piano concert.

One of the many fascinating aspects to Newman as a performer and composer last night was how unsuspecting he seemed to be. His most immediate charm was as a master wisecracker, capable of songs that mocked affluence and privilege as much as they did personal insecurities and general criminal mischief. Last night, he proved to be a first-class humorist who spun song intros into wry personal yarns, such as the one about bearing his teenage daughter’s belittlements (“You’re not that famous”) in public. That provided a preface to The World Isn’t Fair, a song that turned a narrative about sitting through his child’s school orientation into a social discourse with Karl Marx. Yeah, buddy. That’s rock ’n’ roll.

Just as engaging were My Life is Good and I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It), two savage glimpses of celebrity lifestyle sung from the perspective of a pair of very different high-life deadbeats.

Then there were tunes that were vastly darker, such as Shame, that left you almost a little queasy in singing along (Newman instructed the crowd on the one-word chorus). When a verse called for the song’s central narcissistic sleazeball character to shout “shut up,” a few patrons thought  Newman himself was losing his cool. That’s how involving his tunes became and how fully he inhabited the morbid characters that drove them.

Contrasting all of that were the songs that simply stopped you cold – quiet and unsettling sagas like Real Emotional Girl, Baltimore and especially In Germany Before the War. Newman served them all straight-faced with the same low, gloriously unschooled moan of a voice that has remained unblemished through the years.

It was tough keeping score of all the high points that fell between these extremes, but there were many, from the dusty hope of Lover’s Prayer (an underappreciated gem from Newman’s second album, 1970’s 12 Songs, that opened the concert) to the more weathered but redemptive Feels Like Home (from his most recent non-soundtrack recording, 2008’s Harps and Angels, which capped the evening). All were components of a gloriously distinctive pop songbook  brought to life  with the unassuming and unforced insight of a true American music original.

Rainman: a few minutes with Randy Newman

randy newman

Randy Newman

When you have had a career as extensive and celebrated as the one Randy Newman has maintained over the past 45 years, time can be a curious companion.

On one hand, Newman has long been heralded as one the country’s most resourceful songsmiths. Such a reputation was initially forged by pop-oriented songs that revealed lyrics rich with powerfully emotive ruminations on human nature. In recent decades, Newman has been far more visible as an Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer of film scores. But with a career so vast comes another unavoidable product of time – age. Newman will turn 70 on Thanksgiving Day.

Such a milestone is not lost on the songwriter. When recounting the events of his last Lexington appearance (a February 2011 concert at the Opera House) – specifically, when a bat flew about the stage for the majority of the performance – Newman was typically self-deprecating.

“There will probably be a vulture out there this time now that I’m getting so old,” he said by phone last week from Los Angeles.

But Newman hasn’t exactly slowed down since his last local visit. A matter of days after the 2011 concert, he won a Grammy for his soundtrack to Toy Story 3. He followed that with an Oscar for We Belong Together (a song from Toy Story 3). This summer, his music is again on movie screens, with his score to Monsters University. And last spring, there was a hearty reminder of the role that Newman’s music plays outside of Hollywood when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing was unexpectedly nice for me,” he said. “It was really quite moving. I thought when I didn’t get in 25 or 30 years ago, I wouldn’t get in until I was gone. And Henley’s speech was so nice.”

Newman was inducted into the Hall of Fame by Don Henley of the Eagles, who cited a recent Newman performance in Texas of Rednecks (from 1974’s groundbreaking Good Old Boys album) as an example of the fearless social slant of his songs.

“When you can get 2,000 people to applaud a song like Rednecks in a state that’s elected Rick Perry three times,” Henley said at the induction, “you are a hell of an artist.”

“With the pictures I’ve done, I’ve always been writing for an orchestra,” Newman said. “Songs are radically different because I’ve always written by sitting at the piano without an idea. I’ll play. Just ramble around. That will usually spark something. But I’m often sparked by the things I want to avoid.”

“There are certainly things that I’ve written over and over on, though – like things about race in this country. I’ve written maybe three or four songs about money and its excessive importance to people.

“But I don’t add any love songs to the repertoire. I was just sort of bored with them. I couldn’t ever do it as well as Rodgers & Hart did or King & Goffin did or Paul Simon. When I do try a love song, it winds up like I Miss You, which is for the second wife when you’re married to the third or Losing You, which, again, is about an older person who is not going to get over something, where there is no time to get over a loss. Or it could be Marie, where the guy singing is a little drunk, or even Feels Like Home. That one is a lot of people’s favorite song of mine. But those kinds of things are very difficult for me.”

While Newman said he is currently working his first album of new non-soundtrack songs since 2008’s Harps and Angels, many of his older songs continue to attract attention from a variety of artists. Among them is I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, a stark meditation on loneliness that Newman cut for his self-titled debut album in 1968. The song has been covered by dozens of artists since then, but two recent recordings underscore its lasting appeal.

Peter Gabriel cut an ultra low-key version for his 2010 orchestral covers album Scratch My Back. In September, Gabriel will release an aptly-titled follow-up titled And I’ll Scratch Yours, where he invited the composers of songs he covered on the earlier record to submit interpretations of his songs. The album will feature Newman singing Gabriel’s 1986 hit Big Time.

The other is a real surprise. In 1970, Barbara Streisand recorded I Think It’s Going to Rain Today for her Stoney End album with Newman on piano as her only accompaniment. The recording was scrapped and forgotten. But it resurfaced last year on a Streisand album of previously unissued music titled Release Me.

“Your opinions can change as time goes by,” Newman said. “I was glad she didn’t put it out at first because I didn’t think it was any good. But I heard it again recently and I really liked it. She sang the bridge, which some people don’t do. The notes are there. And you hear that voice singing it, and it’s a remarkable voice.

“Maybe I really have gotten old and just became a fan or something, but she really did a good job on it. I don’t know why I’m surprised. Everybody knows what a great singer Streisand is. If it isn’t the best version, it’s close to it. But I certainly didn’t think so at the time.”

Randy Newman performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $45.50-$65.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 to go to www.ticketmaster.com.

Critic’s pick 291: The Allman Brothers Band, ‘Brothers and Sisters’ (40th anniversary editions)

brothers and sistersFew rock star ensembles rose from the ashes with more determination and purpose than the Allman Brothers Band did in 1973. Already reeling from the motorcycle crash that claimed the life of guitarist and de-facto band chieftain Duane Allman in fall 1971 (just as the band achieved national notoriety with its classic album The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East), the group reshuffled its ranks by making Dickey Betts the primary guitarist and enlisting a 20-year-old wunderkind on piano by the name of Chuck Leavell. The lineup cut two new tunes in 1972. One was Ramblin’ Man, the song that would come to define Betts’ new role as co-frontman with organist Gregg Allman and would be the Allmans’ signature radio hit.

But no sooner did the band find its feet than tragedy hit again, with bassist Berry Oakley dying in a motorcycle wreck three blocks from where Duane Allman perished a year earlier. Enter Lamar Williams, a bassist with a more jazz-savvy sound to complete the recording that came to be known as Brothers and Sisters.

In the last of our three-part series on summer box set releases, we examine the 30th-anniversary packaging of a remastered Brothers and Sisters. It comes in two versions – a deluxe edition packed with a disc full of outtakes from the recording sessions (including several Oakley tracks), and a four-disc “super deluxe” edition that piles on a full-length concert from September 1973 recorded at the Winterland in San Francisco.

You’ll want to go super on this one, folks. The larger set is costlier – about $65 – but the edition’s two live discs chronicle the Chuck Leavell/Lamar Williams-era Allmans as exquisitely as Fillmore East did the groundbreaking Duane Allman/Berry Oakley lineup.

The Winterland show capitalizes on the two key elements of the then-new Allmans. The first, and clearly most dominate, is Leavell. An almost incomprehensibly mature player for his age, Leavell sounds fluent in blues and boogie woogie, which turns the Betts tune Southbound into a barrelhouse shakedown. But another Betts classic, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, with Leavell on electric piano, is reinvented almost completely as a jazz piece that luxuriates in its melodic longing but delivers the dramatic goods once Betts gets fired up on guitar.

The other star, not surprisingly, is Betts, who takes to the slide (Duane Allman’s weapon of choice) with reluctant confidence as part of a clean but powerfully soulful guitar vocabulary. When he and Leavell use the gospel bliss of Amazing Grace to bridge the boogie charge of You Don’t Love Me and the dark, urgent jam of Les Brers in A Minor on the second Winterland disc, we experience a whole new level of brotherly love from the Allmans.

George Duke, 1946-2013

george duke 2

George Duke

The depth of George Duke’s influence on popular music largely depends on which generation you talk to.

To fans of contemporary funk and jazz-laced R&B, the keyboardist — who died Monday at age 67 from leukemia — is best remembered for a mountain of commercially rich recordings from the ’80s onward that drew on his expansive talents as a composer, singer, producer and especially an instrumentalist. The client list went from pop-soul titans Michael Jackson and Jill Scott to band projects with fusion forefathers Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham. And that doesn’t even count the decades upon decades of pop-soul albums that Duke put out under his own name.

But go back to the early ’70s, when a younger Duke was a mainstay of Frank Zappa’s band and you heard an artist very much in the thick of rock experimentation that was as progressive as it was playful.

Duke’s hit albums from the ’80s and ’90s, frankly, never spoke to me much. But I was happy nonetheless that a player who had so obviously paid his musical dues in the previous decades was getting some spotlight time. Without conditions, he deserved every iota of fame that came his way.

The Duke I knew and championed was the virtuostic, quick-thinking and remarkably animated player who was, in many ways, the co-pilot on six consecutive Zappa classics: Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Over Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy and Elsewhere (a 1974 live album that generously featured Duke’s playing), and perhaps my favorite Zappa disc of all, 1975’s brilliant prog-infested fusion romp One Size Fits All. A wonderful archival DVD of Duke with Zappa, A Token of his Extreme, was released earlier this year.

The ideal introduction to Duke’s solo music? That’s easy. Take a listen to 1975’s I Love the Blues, She Heard Me Cry, an electric party piece that balances the inviting warmth of Duke’s singing and arranging with the kind of nasty, simmering funk that rivaled Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking fusion records of the day.

The keyboardist wasn’t a star in those days. But get into the ultra-persuasive groove of those early records and you will discover that, even then, Duke was king.

Lyle Lovett to play the Opera House

lyle lovett

Lyle Lovett

This just in: it looks as if Lyle Lovett will have one less night off this summer. The famed Texas song stylist has just been confirmed for an Aug. 27 performance at the Opera House with his long running Large Band. Tickets will go on sale Friday.

Lovett hasn’t performed in Lexington since the closing ceremonies of the World Equestrian Games in 2010. His first local concert, also with the Large Band, was at the long-since defunct Rhinestone’s on St. Patrick’s Day of 1987.

Essentially a country artist, Lovett’s music is seldom genre-specific. His love of Long Star songwriting tradition is considerable. He devoted one of his finest albums, 1998’s Step Inside This House, exclusively to the songs of fellow Texas scribes Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen and others. But in certain performance situations, especially Large Band concerts, his music steers into swing, soul and jazz.

Lovett’s newest album is 2012’s Release Me, a record split evenly between original tunes and more Lone Star covers.

One of Lovett’s more notable radio hits was the 1995 Toy Story favorite You’ve Got a Friend in Me. He recorded it as a duet with the song’s composer, Randy Newman, who performs at the Opera House on Friday. The Newman and Lovett shows are being presented by the Troubadour Concert Series.

Tickets for Lovett’s 7:30 p.m. performance on Aug. 27 will be $55.50. They will go on sale at 10 a.m. Aug. 9 through TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000, and the Lexington Center ticket office at (859) 233-3535.

Life is a carnival

nora jane struthers

Nora Jane Struthers

A suitable sense of wonder emerges in the title tune to Nora Jane Struthers’ new Carnival album.

The song is fittingly set among the sights of bearded ladies, high-wire acts and fire breathers. True to the occasion, the New York-turned-Nashville songsmith conjures a sense of adventure that is rich with wide-eyed excitement. But Struthers also is out to take her time under the big top. No one is going to rush this lady along.

“I don’t care how long we stay,” Struthers sings in a voice full of light but pronounced confidence, “as long as we can see everything there is to see.”

There is a working philosophy at play in the song that speaks to all of the music on Carnival and, to an extent, to Struthers’ entire career. It’s a notion of embracing the inspirations that have figured prominently in her musical upbringing but also of keeping eyes and ears open to all of the music around her – and especially to the people creating it. There might just be a place for some of those sounds in her songs, too

“I think we prefer to make our own opportunities,” said Struthers, who performs tonight at Natasha’s Bistro and Saturday as part of the Stonebridge Summer Saturday Night Concert Series in Wilmore. “For this last album, those opportunities started with the songs. Once I realized I had a group of songs that were ready to be recorded and that they sort of belonged together, I began looking into who the best people would be to make the recording with me. It really became more a question of ‘Who are these people that I want to be traveling around the country with?’ and not so much ‘What instruments do I need?’ You know?”

Carnival reveals an often antique accent that sounds as if it was fashioned somewhere between the front parlor and the back porch. The album-opening The Baker’s Boy, for instance, revolves mother-daughter girl talk expressed in vocals that initially sound steeped in adult confidence. But Struthers’ singing also opens up itself up to flights of folkish fancy.

Similarly, the accompanying music works off of quilt-like textures of banjo and mandolin, giving the tune a heavily traditional air. But then drums enter to take the tune briskly across county lines.

“The themes of these songs basically established themselves,” Struthers said. “These were story-songs from the female perspective that, historically and geographically, were kind of based in the American South. So once I realized that I had this common theme and this common perspective, I was able home in on it a little bit more and write more purposely with that in mind.

“I think the people make the music. Each song is really crafted by each musician that’s playing on it. That’s what makes them so special. Three of my four band members are really well rooted and grounded in traditional American music styles, including old-time, bluegrass, folk, country, swing, etc. My drummer does not come from that background at all. He comes from a more contemporary blues and r&b-based scene. So what he brings really changes the flavor in a way that I think makes the songs and the recordings more accessible.”

Not surprisingly, Struthers was surrounded by music in her youth. At the forefront were the songs and styles she was introduced to by her father.

“He was a musician, but not a professional musician. Music was his hobby — his whole life, really — but he always had other means of making money. Still, music was a huge part of my childhood and my whole life because of my dad.

“There was always music playing at the house, if not from a record then by my dad playing an instrument. He plays the banjo and the guitar. We also went to a lot of concerts and festivals, which was really important in showing me the importance of a shared musical experience.”

A Virginia native, Struthers ventured to New York University’s Steinhart School of Education and eventually taught English at a charter school in Brooklyn. The first primary outlets for her vintage favored story-songs weren’t bluegrass festivals or country dance halls but moonlighting gigs at famed New York clubs including CBGBs and The Cutting Room.

So what settled the career crossroads decision of continuing a life in New York classrooms or pursuing a professional career with her songs?

“The easiest answer is that I simply have a very real understanding of what it would be like to feel regret.

“There is still a long road ahead of me. But every place that I return to play, I have a larger audience, even if it’s only five or ten people more. To me, that’s a huge deal. Name recognition is the name of the game when it comes to anything that you’re trying to pursue. So I feel like the ball is rolling. Now, it’s just about staying on the road and playing more shows.”

Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line perform at 8 pm Aug.2 at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Cover charge is $10. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to Beetnik.com. She plays again at 7 pm Aug. 3 at Downtown Green on Rice St. in Wilmore as part of the free Stonebridge Summer Saturday Night Concert Series Free. For info, go to Wilmore.org.

Critic’s pick 290: Grateful Dead, ‘May 1977’

grateful deadThe title says it all. For its newest archival release, the Grateful Dead has set the way-back machine for spring 1977.  What has emerged is quite a bounty: five complete concerts (all from consecutive dates performed over a six night period) spread out over 14 discs that come bound in a cigar box. It looks splendid, sounds like a dream (everything is mastered in HDCD) and costs … well, it’s pricey. May 1977 sells, by mail order only, for about $140. But fewer springtime sounds possess a more overtly summery feel than this vacation trek with the Dead.

First, the rough spots. May 1977 offers us the Dead in a period of considerable artistic transition. After scrapping the indie status (including its own label) that it had maintained during the previous four years, the band signed to Arista Records and took on producer Keith Olson (then a pop golden boy, having overseen Fleetwood Mac’s first album with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks two years earlier). By the time of these concerts, the Dead’s resulting studio album, Terrapin Station, had been completed but was three months from release.

Two Terrapin works are featured during each of the five concerts represented on May 1977. Samson and Delilah placed the often clumsy harmonies of Bob Weir and Donna Godchaux out in front of neo-funk grooves that, by Dead standards, sound uncomfortably poppish. But Weir shines on the other then-new entry, Estimated Prophet, which employs wah-wah atmospherics as a springboard for a typically sunny guitar run from Jerry Garcia.

Overall, the sound of May 1997 is light and unhurried. Only occasionally does that rob the music of any vigor. The disco-fied arrangement of the Motown classic Dancing in the Street from the set’s Chicago discs (a version the Dead introduced on this tour) is a case in point. But even then, there is a promiscuous attitude in Garcia’s playing, especially when he is working off the tune’s static groove, that excites.

But there are triumphs aplenty here. The final set of discs (pulled from a concert in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) spotlight many of them, including the dramatic band pacing within the medley of Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain (a pairing, cemented on this tour, that became a highlight of Dead shows until the band dissolved in 1995), the remarkable clarity of Garcia’s soloing during Terrapin Station’s suite-like title tune, and a deliciously rootsy reading of Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo that more than holds its own against the country cover of El Paso that follows.

It’s a feast, to be sure. It took me more than a month to sufficiently take in all of this music. So for those looking for a generous dose of musical sunshine that will last well into the fall, this box of seasonal cheer has you covered and then some.

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