The verdict on the Grateful Dead has been in for years, and it's one that makes any argument pertaining to the cultural or artistic merits of the band, its music and its fans a moot point. The verdict is this: You get it, or you don't.
Sure, fan conversions happen, but they are a product of latent tendencies and sudden discovery than a gradual shift in taste or musical clime.
In a 30-year career that could justifiably be described as one long transition, there were several periods that are notable in their lasting development. 1975 (the hiatus year) was one; 1979 (new keyboard player) was one; 1989 (another new keyboard player, plus the addition of MIDI technology) was one; and certainly 1971 was one. Some serious growth had occurred in the previous couple of years before '71. While 1969 was a year of deeply twisting compositions and acid-drenched improvisations, 1970 was a year (for the Dead, the rock 'n' roll community and the world at large) to take a step back a breather, so to speak and wrap one's head around the previous decade. Or at least to forget about it and breathe in some country air. The infusion of the Workingman's Dead and American Beauty material to the canon gave rise to the short-lived practice of opening their shows with an acoustic set. But it wasn't long before they were working that material into the electric sets, although even this was regarded as less a dramatic shift than a fine-tuning. From beginning to end, the Dead pranksters at heart were modeling their shows on a compressed acid-trip experience.
So, it's 1971 that's captured on this third installment of the From the Vault series. In typical fashion, this one comes a full 15 years after the first two (not that they haven't kept the releases coming, in other forms – see the "Dick's Picks" series, for example). As a document of live Dead, this is really about as straightforward as it gets. Many of these songs are being played here for the first or second time ever, while songs which would later become vehicles for far-out psychedelic excursions ("Playin' in the Band," "Birdsong") are represented in somewhat tentative incarnations. The sole stretching-out points don't come until the second disc during the "That's it For the Other One" suite and the set-closing Ron "Pigpen" McKernan shouter (and Olympics/Rascals cover), "Good Lovin'".
One wonders if Rhino, which has "leased" the Vault for 10 years now, is attempting to shift the Grateful Dead paradigm and expose the band to newer fans who might want something a little less, um, weird (see also: the recent Starbucks comp). Is this one of the best shows the Dead ever played? Certainly not. It's not even one of the best of 1971. This is the Dead playing it relatively safe with a batch of new material. But because they are the Dead, they still manage to turn in an inspired, if workmanlike, set.
Mike Ross writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].