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Grateful Dead: Live/Dead

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if you like this you'll like: Sonic Youth, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Storm & Stress, U.S. Maple, Do Make Say Think, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

REVIEW: Grateful Dead: Live/Dead
5.4.2003 by Kevin

Grateful Dead: Live/Dead [reissue] [Warner 1969/Rhino 2003]

Three words? sweet 'n sour?

A good friend often describes my personality as "sweet 'n sour." It usually elicits laughter from whoever hears it because it is a pretty apt description of who I am. My likes and dislikes are fairly strong. With the San Francisco-freak-out-hippie-hacky-sack cult image that precedes them, I was expecting a full hate on for the Grateful Dead. It took almost a twenty minutes of the newly reissued "Live/Dead" before I could get any kind of grasp on it, but I have to admit – I didn’t hate it.

Still, let’s get one thing out of the way: there is a good reason that it took nearly twenty minutes before I could even attempt to approach Live/Dead. The first track, "Dark Star," is an incomprehensible mess. The band noodles, abandoning any sort of structure - it's like they've arranged a rendezvous but keep missing one-another. This isn’t free jazz or even avant – it really does sound like the musicians don't know what they are doing, and it's an awful introduction to the CD. The next track, "St. Stephen," starts nicely - nothing too shocking, a folk rocker with an emphasis on 'rocker' - but it's not until the Bobby Bland cover, "Turn On Your Love Light," that Grateful Dead had me hooked for the first and last time. Passionately sung by Pigpen (almost as terrible a name as Buckethead) and Bob Weir, this song really does rip, though - typically - it runs too long. The band is again almost successful on the Doors-like "Death Don’t Have No Mercy," but their power is inevitably liquidated by time.

And that is where the problem lies. The Dead certainly have the talent, and can deliver moments of raw power, but their incessant need to jam, solo and otherwise experiment – with results that vary greatly – removes the intensity hiding in the music. I have no doubt that the Grateful Dead were one of the premier live acts for those who enjoy jam music and the journey from song to song. But for those of us who would rather skip the trip and get right to the heart of the music, the Grateful Dead can be a trying experience.

Like almost any live album (except for a rare few, like Stop Making Sense by the Talking Heads), Live/Dead is a fan-only affair. This album, The Grateful Dead’s first official live album release, has been lovingly restored and sounds great – even better than some of the recordings that pass as "live" recordings now. The ample sized booklet that accompanies the CD is a nice touch, too. It has also been produced in HDCD, a new format that the major labels are touting as superior than regular CD quality. Of course, the people up in the corporate offices don’t realize the following: 1) Unless you have an insanely expensive stereo you are not going to notice the difference – especially if it’s a live album; 2) Most people are listening to music on their computers or on their fancy iPods now so, again, this new format will go unrecognized. I’m not even going to get into albums being presented in 5.1 Dolby.

Ultimately, this album may be understood in the same way as the last of its two hidden tracks. The first, the studio single for "Dark Star," is light-years ahead of the live version that appears elsewhere on the album. The second, an interesting radio promo spot for the original Live/Dead, serves - if nothing else - as an interesting historical document. And so it is for the record as a whole.

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