Soggy singing, spineless drum-ming, clunky cover versions, noodling jams that go out of their way to avoid intensity: Everything Deadheads love (and non- converts loathe) is laid out in all its tie-dyed glory on the Grateful Dead’s seventh live album. Recorded at various performances between October 1989 and April 1990, Without a Net is essentially a souvenir for diehards, much like the band’s other concert albums. Who else will appreciate the Dead’s sluggish version of Traffic’s ”Dear Mr. Fantasy” or its lame take on Robert Johnson’s blues standard ”Walkin’ Blues”? The album also serves as a memorial of sorts for keyboardist Brent Mydland, who overdosed from cocaine and morphine in July.
Still, Without a Net has a certain beatific sparkle. The record plays up the band’s charming unpredictability onstage by omitting the perennials (”Touch of Grey,” for instance) in favor of more obscure songs, among them three from the band’s cultish album Wake of the Flood. Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, an unexpected though inspired choice for a cameo appearance, adds wiggly soprano horn parts to ”Eyes of the World.” And the amorphous-as-always jams, featuring Jerry Garcia’s snaky lead guitar, make for pleasant accompaniment while you’re watering plants in the privacy of your home. Then as now, you probably had to be there, but Without a Net demonstrates that a ticket to a Dead concert still brings its own minor musical rewards. B-