November 29, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
We gave it an A-

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. A-

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