Grateful Dead boxed set caters to the longtime fan

Published May 1, 2000

The Grateful Dead’s boxed set was released in Canada in March.

WHILE AT Wycliffe College in the late 1980s, I had three pivotal points of spring. Two were common for all seminarians – Lent/Holy Week/Easter and end-of-term exams. One was my own thing – a trip from Toronto to Michigan to see The Grateful Dead in concert.

Since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 and the subsequent dissolution of the band, fans have been waiting for a boxed set. It finally came out in Canada in March.

But So Many Roads is not the place for people to begin their listening to the longest-running of the jam rock bands that emerged in the 1960s. It is nothing even approaching a greatest hits collection. In fact, such signature songs as Uncle John’s Band, Truckin? and Touch of Grey are nowhere to be found.

Instead, what So Many Roads accomplishes beautifully is a five-CD synopsis of a 30-year evolution. It concentrates on songs absent from existing studio recordings and concert versions not easily available on their many live albums.

The first CD is primal Dead. It includes songs from the days when they were finding their way and ’60s rarities whose presence on an album will thrill the earnest fan.

The early ’70s were, for many fans, the ultimate era for the Dead as a jam band. That era is encapsulated on a CD that concentrates more on the swirling concert jams than on the fine song crafting that also marked that era.

The third CD goes from the mid-70s until the mid-80s, and zeroes in on live performances. The CD continues its cut through the rich swath of hundreds of shows, and ends up in the mid-’80s with a dandy Shakedown Street.

CD four concludes the ’80s with a mix of studio outtakes and extended live versions. The live selections are universally strong. The 1989 version of Rev. Gary Davis? Death Don’t Have No Mercy sees uncharacteristic fury swell up in Garcia’s elegant, poignant guitar work. The coupling of Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain is also special.

[pullquote] The final CD shows much of what might have been, and it is of special interest. Garcia died before the new songs could be readied for a studio LP, but rehearsal versions of ’90s compositions and live performances do serve to get these pieces on a CD for the first time.

A key example is Days Between. It shows a sober examination a man near the end of a life buoyed by musical and cultural innovation but wracked by a 20-year heroin addiction.

The days between are simply those between birth and death “where all we ever wanted was to learn and love and grow.” At this stage of his life and career, Garcia is ruminating. “Gave the best we had to give, how much we’ll never know,” he concludes.

The fifth CD ends with it all coming full circle. Garcia leads his bandmates Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzman, Mickey Hart, and Vince Welnick through the traditional nugget Whiskey in the Jar in a 1993 rehearsal, hearkening to the days when his career began as a roots artist. The final track is So Many Roads from the last Grateful Dead concert ever. The playing is fragile, especially when compared with Garcia’s stellar work on the bulk of the release, but there is a heart-tugging vitality to his reading of Robert Hunter’s soul-baring lyric.

While this soulful ballad was a show-stopper during the band’s last four years in concert, this final version is unique.

Tenderly, he sings a spontaneous postlude: Lord, so many roads to ease my soul / So many roads / Lord, I’ve been walkin’ that road / So many, so many roads.

We might not agree with every personal choice Garcia made during the “long strange trip,” but one cannot deny his role as a beacon for many disenfranchised youth looking for authentic peace, love, tolerance, and unabashed joy of life.

“Leave me alone; I’ll find my own way home,” he sang in the 1993-unveiled Liberty. I trust that he did.

Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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