critic’s picks 255: gov’t mule, ‘the dark side of the mule,’ and grateful dead, ‘houston, texas 11-18-1972’

govtBrevity has never been in the best interest of jam bands. From the ’60s dawn of the Grateful Dead to the present day adventures of Gov’t Mule, jam-savvy live shows have essentially been lab experiments where grooves are extended, mutated and often restructured with little concern for economy. If it took 10, 20, even 30 minutes to accomplish that within the confines of a single song, so be it. It’s just that the Dead and the Mule usually kept such an exercise from disintegrating into pure indulgence.

Of late, such a philosophy has extended to live albums as well, from lavishly packaged compendiums of entire Dead tours that carry price tags in the hundreds of dollars to more modestly priced three-to-six disc sets of Mule engagements.

So it is refreshing to have new live recordings of varying vintages by both bands that keep the onstage exploration to a single disc.

Admittedly, Gov’t Mule’s Dark Side of the Mule also comes in a massive 3 CD/1 DVD package that presents you literally everything from a Halloween concert in 2008. But the single disc version, which is reviewed here, gets directly to the performance’s point of distinction – specifically, a set where the band musically masqueraded as Pink Floyd.

The title suggests a straight tribute to the 1973 Floydian classic The Dark Side of the Moon. Instead, guitarist Warren Haynes and company go tripping through all of Pink Floyd’s more storied ‘70s albums, from the obscure country-esque psychedelia of Fearless (off of 1971’s Meddle) to warhorse staples like Comfortably Numb (the crescendo tune from 1979’s The Wall).

In between, though, are some stunners that really stretch the Mule’s sound, as on the nine-part Shine on You Crazy Diamond. It augments the band’s quartet makeup with a trio of back-up vocalists, a saxophonist and considerable reliance on keyboardist Danny Louis. But Haynes still has plenty of room to roam, making Dark Side an altogether enlightening Mule escapade.

deadThe Dead’s Houston, Texas 11-18-1972 is a limited edition CD version of an even more limited edition vinyl recording released exclusively for Black Friday sales. Available only through the band’s website, the CD gives a brief second life to what had been an instant collector’s item.

It’s a grand a performance, too, providing you can make it past Donna Jean Godchaux’s pitch-deficient singing. With bassist Phil Lesh propelling the performance as much or more than guitar chieftain Jerry Garcia, the recording strolls through a jovial Bertha, tightens for a dramatic Jack Straw and then explodes during a 25 minute reading of Playing in the Band that becomes an instrumental playground for Garcia.

There you have it – two single discs packed with nearly 80 minutes of music each. That’s a lot of playing in the band for your buck.

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