What a long strange trip…
You know what? I’m not going to throw down that hoary old quote like it’s some beatific mantra that distills the essence of life into seven simple words. It’s a petty and banal way to start a review and I won’t stand for own laziness. Especially as this is, indeed, my first review after a two-year break.
And, of course, I decide to review the Grateful Dead for some reason. And not only a Grateful Dead album: but one that has no recognizable songs and is, instead, edited together as one long continuous suite of keyboard noise, bass thumps, drum paradiddles and guitar scrapes.
What a way to reintroduce myself to the reviewing world! Indeed, what a long strange trip…
It’s been so long since I reviewed anything that my fans are likely unaware that I went and did something incredibly stupid and ill-advised: I became a Grateful Dead fan.
It started out small: just a single live album, “Live/Dead.” Then some MP3’s. Then all the studio albums… right now, as I type, I’m plotting how to afford the next massive multi-concert box set they’re sure to release soon. After all, who doesn’t need 17,000 variations of “Sugaree”?
How did this happen?
The Grateful Dead have a way of working their way into your mind and your musical sphere. Their songs are pleasant, melodic, harmonious, well-played and varied. They have pretty good lyrics. Sometimes their songs are excellent. They’re almost always good.
But then you listen to a live album. And it clicks: Jerry starts soloing, Phil starts zooming, Bob starts chicka-chicking, whichever soon-to-be-dead keyboard player they had was tinkling and the double drummers were thumping.
And off you went, on some musical adventure! Sometimes it really sucked, but it was usually listenable. Sometimes it was transcendent.
Jazz in a rock format.
Not jazz rock. Not fusion. But rock (and roots music) played as if it was jazz. Nothing quite like it.
Another reason the band is so addicting is due to what I call the “Walt Whitman” effect: so much of them, and all so luscious. Because the band was constantly up to…something. There was always some kind of music they were working on or a side band with which they were jamming.
Simply put, they released a ton of studio albums (better than most people think), recorded almost all their shows and had baffling solo careers that veered from Grateful Dead stylization straight up into funk, jazz and even mainstream AOR.
Jerry probably did the best: his literally all-solo self-titled album is a winner and one that that mixed folk songs with avant-guard noise. He also had a collection of standards with an orchestra, helped invent modern bluegrass and toured with his own band (imaginatively titled “The Jerry Garcia Band”) when the Dead wasn’t.
And Weir released a handful of solo albums (including the classic “Ace”) and was in half a dozen different bands that often released only one album before he got bored and wandered away. The best of these is probably “RatDog” which takes the Dead jam aesthetic and slams it into Weir’s surprisingly complex songwriting.
However, no record produced in the band’s camp (be it a Dead release or a solo album) was as strange as “Infrared Roses,” beyond, perhaps John Oswald’s legendary Plunderphonic “Gray Folded.” But that’s a topic for a different time.
“Infrared Roses” is a collection of the “space” and “drum” sections that started appearing in the band’s concerts in the 80’s and 90’s. These sections took the place of the standard “Dark Star” sonic explorations in the 60’s and 70’s, popped up at any time during a concert and were easily the most “out there” moments of the band’s decline.
For some reason (I’m not near my copy and am not willing to look it up for religious reasons), the band decided they would edit some of the best sections together and release it as an album. The producer (again, blanking on his name) skillfully slapped together weird jams and noise making and made it sound like…weird jams and noise making. For about an hour.
Such a description is, likely, very uninviting. In fact, this was the second Grateful Dead album I ever owned and it was quite a shock to hear what often sounded like harsh industrial synthesizers droning into a near Amon Duul II-type soundscape. Where the hell was “Uncle John’s Band”?
Probably playing to the time in a different dimension.
After the initial terror of the album wears off, it becomes surprisingly listenable and even diverse. Sometimes, it’s just Billy and Mickey locked into some interminable drum groove.
Other moments, it’s Jerry soloing dissonantly while Phil lets his bass feedback.
Occasionally, Michael McDonald look and soundalike Brett Myland runs his hands across the keyboard aimlessly while Bob Weir screws around with ridiculous midi sounds.
After awhile, the mind starts focusing in on the little details. That’s the secret of Grateful Dead jams: they go on so long that your brain starts focusing on the small things, picking apart weird little details and entertaining itself with moments it might not have noticed otherwise.
It’s very intuitive and, at its finest, something like meditation: that is, focusing your attention on something so fully that you grasp its essence intuitively.
Or maybe it’s just a bunch of noises. Could go either way. And don’t get your hopes up for a big epic solo or crescendo. After an hour, ust kind of ends after what seems like an eternity spent listening to the band make goofy noises for an hour.
But hey, it’s a journey that beats Journey, a long strange trip that beats “Strange Brew” and a noise rock experiment from a band that was square enough to regularly cover (the sublime) Marty Robbins.
So, it’s pretty epic.