Playing today in the "rock room" is a Grateful Dead Productions official release from the "Road Trips" archive series. Released in late 2009 "Road Trips" Vol. 3.1 features the Dead in the middle of their New Years run of concerts at the Oakland Auditorium on December 28, 1979. This era finds the the band rejuvenated and with a fiery sense of purpose. Since the arrival of keyboardist extraordinaire Brent Mydland in April, the group had been gaining momentum, with all of their performances improving steadily throughout the fall, and eventually peaking during the aforementioned New years run.
Since Brent's addition early in the year, the band's penchant for improvisation had returned updated and focused; with the Fall 1979 tour being filled with particularly noteworthy concerts. The December 28th concert is the second of five performances to be featured from this New Years Run. "Dick's Pick's 5", which spotlights the 12-26-79 performance is also highly recommended. It is of my humble opinion that this concert, 12-28 is the strongest of the run. Garcia's brand new custom "Tiger" guitar is loud and proud during this era, displaying a growling intensity. The drummers chase one another around the kits, playing as one, and keeping the tempos relevant and popping. Lesh is his usual bipolar self, playing with great restraint and shading, as well as detonating explosive bass charges from the stage. Weir has stepped into his rock and roll front man spot with great confidence, and is playing some of the best guitar of his career, despite learning to play slide guitar on stage without a net, with varying degrees of success. The usual minor missteps associated with this era do occur throughout the performance( missed ques, flat vocals), but these minor misses are surpassed by the power and grace of the peak moments.
The first set of this show is way laid back, with the band taking their time with every number, and showing great detail and care with each instrumental passage. Garcia in particular peppers the first set with extended renditions of his slower songs (Sugaree, Row Jimmy, High Time),all played with great emotion and intent. The show opens with a sensual west coast "Sugaree" that erotically swings her hips to the swaying groove enticingly. The warm and rich soundboard recording features all instruments in a perfect harmonious mix. Immediately exciting the first verse Garcia takes off in a flurry of on target chicken pecks. The second Garcia solo collaborates with Weir's "tasteful" slide playing and reaches a swirling musical climax. For this era, this is a wonderfully played opener and version of "Sugaree". While maybe not as definitive as the 1977 versions, this "Sugaree" has a lilting charm all its own, showing the band is ready to play, and is the perfect introduction to the rest of the set.
Following the jam extravaganza that was "Sugaree", it becomes "cowboy polka" time with Weir's selection of "Mama Tried/Mexicalli". Kudo's to the performance of Mexicali Blues" which I can honestly say with a straight face is an "all time" version. Garcia plays with a huge "trumpet" tone that brings to mind a dusty street musician blowing for change in front of a Mexican bistro. The entire band rolls to a boil like a hot cauldron of chili, almost boiling over the edge of the pot.
Just as Bobby ups the tempo, Jerry follows with a "Row Jimmy" that floats boyantly across the San Fransisco Bay. Drenched in dreamy slide guitar "Jimmy" is another top notch version played expertly. Adept at controlling emotive quality, flow, and vibe of the show, the Dead dial up another 'up" tempo tune when Weir signals "All Over Now". Ornamented with Lesh explosives, and containing a big fat groove, All Over Now" is another version pulled off of the top shelf. Garcia bends and pulls strings in multiple twangy directions as the drummers continuously chase each others tails. Bobby is full of spit and fire vocally, and Mydland's swooping Hammond licks are icing on top the ganja tinged pastry.
A relative rarity at the time with only six versions played throughout the year, the "High Time" that follows is a tender version full of silence and measured accents. A beautiful highlight of one of my favorite first sets of the year. Jerry vocals are of storyteller quality, and the instrumentation is poignant. Closing the set is a loose as a goose "Music Never Stopped" that reaches kaleidoscopic heights and prepares the assembled crowd for the second set. Introduced with a stomping beat, and bit of feedback and some goofy arpeggios, "Music" broadly paints a rainbow of sound across the winter night. The landing back into the framework of the song is a bit bumpy, but Garcia's liquid riffing more than makes up for any mistakes with a glorious climax. Bobby lets the assembled crowd know the band will be back momentarily, and we reach set break.
The second set roars to life with the combo of "Alabama Getaway" segued into the "Greatest Story Ever Told". I'm trying to not sound redundant,but this is another "exactly perfect" series of songs. "Alabama Getaway's" during this era are high octane screams, and this version is no different with fast and on the mark playing by the entire band. The quick transition into "Greatest" is like clockwork, and Garcia "Wah-Wah's" his way through the unique changes, dripping gooey melodies on top of the churning rhythm section. Lesh means business for the second set as a distinct increase in his bass volume is discernible. I feel out of breath all ready, and we have just started the musical journey.
Following the stomping thrash that was the second half opener the Dead settle in for the series of songs that will make up the core of the second set. "Terrapin Station" starts the extended suite of tunes, and is a version that stands among the all time best. "Terrapin" is a floating majestic version where the power of the song elicits visual images, and goose pimple melodies. The "Lady With a Fan" section sparkles with revolving Garcia statements that appear, then disappear among the dancing filigrees of sound. Everything someone would hope a "Terrapin" to be, is contained within this version, a graceful performance, containing both lightning and thunder, light and shade.
"Terrapin Station" rolls to a brief pause and launches into "Playin In the Band", the improvisational center piece placed among the crown jewels of the second set. The jam starts slightly meandering, but soon begins to pick up tempo with Garcia's plump envelope filtered shots across the fret board increasing the intensity. At around six minutes Weir starts to punctuate Garcia's statements with lush strums, and Mydland colors between the lines. Lesh, Mydland, Garcia, and Weir start to blend into one universal instrument tumbling across the poly rhythmic base built by the drummers. The band is starting to build a foundation which their glorious improvisational prowess can rest. At a bit past seven minutes a descending figure develops that sounds like "All Along the Watchtower" and is passed back and forth between Lesh and Mydland until is disappears, buried under the waves caused by Garcia's increasingly speedy riffing. Garica's semiautomatic licks are for the most part on target, his scatter shot notes striking the drummers on the rump, encouraging them to increase the tempo and direction. The jam begins to direct itself, like a car with no driver, facing a downhill route. Almost out of control but somehow gripping to the curves and corners. From ten to twelve minutes the band starts to achieve levitation, just above the stage they float. Lesh acts as the mortar that binds the instrumentalists as they take off together scattering in multiple directions. There is a change in the source from soundboard to audience for a brief period during this segment, but in no way is it disturbing to the listener. As "Playin" reaches fourteen minutes, the beast starts to show its fangs, and exhale weighty shady breathes. Lesh opens the gates to the underworld, groaning elephant notes as he pushes back the large moss covered doors revealing an unknown dimension saturated in hallucinatory images, scents, and emotons. Over this shifting guttural landscape Mydland fires off unusual flashes of spacecraft landings, shooting stars, and passing celestial bodies from his multitude of electronic and keyboard toys. Garcia blends into the cosmic stew tastefully playing phased licks that don't put him in the spotlight completely, but help to develop the picture being created by the group. The drummers thrash around the kit, eager to enter their drums spotlight, but still providing a landing pad for the instrumentalists floating in orbit. "Playin" languidly deconstructs itself and falls apart into drums which are very tasty indeed on this night. Acting in its usual role as the band's improvisational vehicle to outer space. this Playing surpasses expectations, and is one of the best of the year.
The drums contain a variety of rhythmic variations that are consistent for the era, as they are very diverse and enjoyable. The following space in contrast, is very short and acts as a quick prelude to the "Uncle John's Band" that develops. Premiered during the December 26 show after a two year absence, "Uncle John" makes its second appearance during the run. Both versions are fantastic, but this version out of space has an ethereal and celebratory vibe. Garcia's first solo makes me break out in a toothy smile because of the delectable melodic ideas expressed. The closing jam, similar to the "Playin" is overflowing with stunning playing by the guitarists, locked together in a musical embrace and listening to one another intently. The "Terrapin" through "Uncle John's" section of this show is an amazing journey, and one of the summits of the New Years run, as well as the entire Fall 1979 tour.
The rest of the concert in my opinion pails in comparison to the music that proceeded it, not that it is played poorly, just that it is a usual rock and roll race toward the finish line, as opposed to the carefully constructed suite of songs that proceeded it. The "Miracle", "Bertha", "Good Lovin" suite is energetic, well played, and I'm sure if I was one of the attendees of the concert I would feel an apt and special ending to the show. In hindsight, history shows the songs were slightly overplayed during the era, and a usual conclusion to a concert. The post drums "Bertha" is a smouldering version, that must be mentioned for its speed, strength, and crisp playing, and also for its well executed segue out of "Miracle". The band screams through the trifecta of songs leaving the crowd exhausted and satisfied. The dual encore features a somewhat rare for the time performance of "Casey Jones" which translates well to the recording as a snorting, and stomping good time. The natural conclusion of "One More Saturday Night" fits well as there would be no Saturday performance during this run, and concludes the show on a "high" note.
"Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 1" is a definitive glimpse at the Grateful Dead during a period of reinvention and new horizons featuring a new band member. The New Years 1979 run spotlights the Dead playing well and experimenting with new colors and developing songs in their contemporary setting. The moments of improvisation are unique and the performance features many "best of" and choice selections from their repertoire. 1979 is a year in the Grateful Dead's history brimming with special performances. unique jams, and showing a band back to hitting their stride. The New Years 1979 series of shows hold many extraordinary moments that open the door to the next decade of Grateful Dead concerts. For fans of Brent era Dead, as well as for Deadheads who have not delved into the year 1979, "Road Trips 3.1" is a portrait that needs to be hung, contemplated and admired next to other classic Grateful Dead shows.
Grateful Dead 12-28-1979 Terrapin Station