Recordings of September 1992: Two from the Vault/Infrared Roses
Grateful Dead Records GDCD40162 (2 CDs only). Dan Healy, prod.; Jeffrey Norman, Don Pearson, engs. ADD. TT: 109:12
GRATEFUL DEAD: Infrared Roses
Grateful Dead Records GDCD40142 (CD only). Bob Bralove, prod.; Jeffrey Norman, John Cutler, Dan Healy, Bob Bralove, engs. ADD. TT: 58:30
What I've always liked about the Dead is their willingness to take chances, to screw up in public and on record. To paraphrase Miles Davis, if you're not making mistakes, you're not making music.
Live Dead, the classic 1960s Grateful Dead concert album, was so good it became a bit of a problem for the band. In an interview years later, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia griped good-naturedly about how the version of "Dark Star" on that album became, for a while, the version for record-oriented Deadheads nonplussed by the Dead's wildly varying performances of the tune. That concert was one moment in time, Garcia said (and I paraphrase), never to be repeated. After all, if the Dead are about anything, they're about improvisation.
Well, yes and no. Two from the Vault, recorded on two August nights in 1968, roughly the same era as Live Dead and the same songlist (with additions from Anthem of the Sun), proves at once how much mileage the Dead could get out of the same handful of tunes, and just how much variety they could come up with without changing the arrangements a bit.
Reading between the lines of producer Dan Healy's lengthy technical notes, I get the strong hunch that a number of Vault 2's versions of the '68 set list—particularly of "The Eleven," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and "Turn On Your Lovelight"—would have made it on to Live Dead had the technology then been available to salvage tapes which have only recently been rendered usable.
Healy tells a fascinating story of conservative engineers from Warner Bros. (the Dead's label at the time) not trusting Healy, et al, with Warner's fancy new 8-track recording equipment. "The engineers they sent to us were accustomed to recording Big Band style and were not familiar with Rock & Roll close microphone techniques." Warners used a small number of mikes placed at considerable distances: vocal and audience mikes combined, each drumkit premixed to a single track, etc. Healy's challenges were those of "severe phase cancellation and time smear that reduced the time image to nothing." Using a B&K 2032 FFT analyzer and TC1280 delay units, Healy and Don Pearson were able to individually delay each of the tracks to compensate for their different mike distances, the result being a convincing semblance of "a nearly perfect stereo image." Think of that: the term "stereo image" discussed by a rock engineer. Amazing.
After all that, Two from the Vault sounds a lot like Live Dead, but with a less digitally friendly high end. Besides, two of the things I always enjoyed about early Dead albums were the natural dynamics and that distant drum miking; the drums sounded like real, homemade, wooden instruments, even if kickdrum went missing. Call me nostalgic. Call me—
Yeah yeah yeah, RL—so what about the music, you anal-retentive fortysomething boomoid pseudo-audionerd you?
It's great, CG. Phil Lesh (whose bass was used as the "time center" in Healy & Co.'s remastering), with McCartney and Bruce, is still one of my favorite rock bassists: always melodic, always supportive, always inventive. And if the highs here are hard, the bottom is great. Garcia's thin-toned leads are stronger, if less lyrical—but no less fluid—than on Live Dead, and Pigpen delivers over half an hour's worth of his inimitably seedy horny-biker R&B vocals on "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl" and "Lovelight." In fact, Vault Two's "Lovelight" is quite a bit better than Live Dead's: the band simply does not want to let this song go.
The Dead propel themselves from "Saint Stephen" through "The Eleven" to "Death Don't Have No Mercy" without a break; the segue between the last two is one of the most striking I've ever heard from them. "Death" is a tough, bitter blues from a band seldom associated with such adjectives, and Garcia's singing—and playing—are nothing less than impassioned. And that other Dead standard, "Morning Dew," is far more dramatic here than I've heard them do it elsewhere—until the management of L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium pulls the plug seven minutes into the song, something that used to happen a lot more often back in those days of hippie glory. Otherwise, the vocals and, ah, "harmonies" are even more endearingly awful than on Live Dead—remember, this is before singing lessons from CS&N, before Workingman's Dead. You can forgive family a lot. And Two from the Vault is at a family price, too: $20 for two CDs.
Infrared Roses was released last year to vast critical apathy, but I find the album almost consistently interesting. A very different gumbo from Vault Two, Roses is a collection of 12 recently recorded, relatively brief in-concert segues without the songs they linked: free playing, Dead style. A few sections sound aimless, but most are more musically adventurous than anything I've ever heard from the Dead; and in "Apollo at the Ritz," the closing jam with tenor player Branford Marsalis, the band actually plays some pretty lively hard-bop changes behind a not-slumming Marsalis. At the other extreme, "Silver Apples of the Moon" was MIDI'd in concert, then pumped out in the studio with entirely different voicings.
Roses, as you might expect, sounds a good bit different from Vault Two as well: the revenge of close miking. Everything is muy up-front, and what's gained in timbral richness is lost in terms of soundstaging and dynamics. Truth to tell, there's little of the latter here. And "soundstaging"? Who am I kidding? This stuff is panpotted, 1967-style, all over the place—if you listen on headphones, prepare to drop Dramamine.
This review isn't for Deadheads, who will already have scarfed these CDs up and lasered 'em down to the aluminum backing. It's for all you other greying ex-hippies out there whose last Dead purchase was In the Wake of the Flood. For very different reasons, these are both worth your while.—Richard Lehnert