We gave it a B
Pity the poor bootlegger. The best music by jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish used to be available almost exclusively on illicit live tapes—freely traded documents where humdrum studio performances blossomed via extended improvisation into epic travelogues of sound. Now, with the phenomena of MP3 and home CD burners upping the ante, marketing departments have gotten smart, and the underground economy now has major-label competition hawking lavish multi-disc live sets just in time for boomer holiday gift-giving.
Yet for fans and neophytes, the commercialization of bootleg culture is actually a good thing. In the case of the Grateful Dead, the From the Vault and Dick’s Picks series (the latter up to volume 15 at last count) have released classic bootlegs of unprecedented sound quality. And with the five-CD So Many Roads (1965-1995), a comprehensive attempt has finally been made to chronicle the Dead’s history in the language they spoke best: live performance.
There’s plenty of revelation. For those who thought they always sounded like a red-eyed country-rock merry-go-round, gonzo ’60s rave-ups like ”Cream Puff War” and ”That’s It for the Other One” show the band bravely straddling the psychedelic line between bliss and freak-out. For those who wrote the band off after the mid-’70s, the end-stage material with ace piano temp Bruce Hornsby shows guitar mystic Jerry Garcia invigorated, still reinventing his style while struggling with the demons that would kill him in 1995. The completists will appreciate choice early demos and latter-day rehearsal tapes (including an oddly heartbreaking version of the traditional Irish song ”Whiskey in the Jar”), and the baffled will be grateful for a book with some of the brightest writing ever on the band’s music and fans.
So Many Roads falls short of definitive—perhaps appropriate for a band that rejected the idea of perfection in its art, remaking songs with every show. Because it features only unreleased tracks, classic takes were omitted; because it details the Dead’s total life span, it includes performances of the band at decidedly low ebb. But in tracing their move from drug-fueled rock firebrands to jazz-minded collective improvisers to wistful elders locking eyes with death, it tells a story greater than the sum of its parts.
Phish, who use many of the same musical strategies as the Dead, have become something of their subcultural heirs, with fans following tours gypsy-style and collecting tapes of their every note. Yet the groups’ differences are significant, and begin with their names: one a grim toast to man’s mortality, the other a linguistic prank. The six-CD Hampton Comes Alive, which documents a two-night stand at Virginia’s Hampton Coliseum in 1998, is Phish’s third live album in four years, and, per usual, it shows them as smart, playful, technically accomplished tricksters with a deep affection for their fans. It also shows a band whose goofball virtuosity limits its emotional range. If a typical Dead show is, as one critic put it, half baseball game and half church, Phish shows mostly play out like half baseball game, half Comedy Central. Their music is long on entertainment but short on full-spectrum empathy.
That said, Hampton is a detailed, satisfying portrait. Alongside the trademark wit (welding Argent’s proto-metal anthem ”Hold Your Head Up” into ”Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”) are moments of delicacy (the spiraling jazz-fusion coda of ”Stash”) and poignancy (a sweet take on the Beatles’ ”Cry Baby Cry”). As a band whose lyrics are populated by kleptomaniacal pets, space monsters, winking drug references, and Psych 101 queries into the nature of consciousness, Phish speak most articulately through their jams and cover versions, which are well represented. In fact, disc No. 6—which begins with the Beastie Boys’ ”Sabotage,” adventures through the band’s own ”Simple” and ”Weekapaug Groove,” and finishes with a hilariously triumphant ”Tubthumping”—may be the best single Phish CD ever.
For layfolk, five- and six-CD boxed sets may seem like overkill, and admittedly, these both sag at points. But for bands whose art is about live improvisation and stylistic breadth, the scale makes sense. And trust me: When the Internet eventually makes every show that every jam band has ever played downloadable, these boxes will read as masterpieces of concision. Dead: A- Phish: B