As professional bootleggers and a legion of tie-dyed concert tapers have demonstrated, there's no satisfying the hunger for live recordings by the Grateful Dead and their spiritual heir, Phish. So it's not surprising to find major labels eager to fill the void with sprawling box sets aimed at fans who believe anything short of everything isn't enough.
"So Many Roads: 1965-1995" (Arista), a five-CD anthology, will certainly make holiday shopping for your family Deadhead easier this year. Focusing primarily on previously unissued concert tracks, the compilation illuminates the group's long, strange trip--from ragtag beginnings to stardom to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.
One of the things the journey reveals, perhaps more fully than anything else, is the kaleidoscopic range of influences that shaped and ultimately personalized the Dead's sound. A swirl of jug band, country, rock, psychedelia, jazz, gospel, blues and worldbeat perspectives informs the music, constantly broadening the group's repertoire and fueling its improvisatory spirit.
Even die-hard Deadheads will find some revelations here. Highlights include the rarely heard Garcia composition "Cream Puff War," one of several seminal tracks recorded in San Francisco in mid-'60s; an emotionally taut version of the Merle Haggard prison ballad "Sing Me Back Home," recorded in 1972; the contrasting blues and soul tunes associated with Gary Davis, Willie Dixon and the Neville Brothers; the transitional jam that finds Garcia and guest keyboardist Bruce Hornsby reveling in each other's company during a 1990 performance in New York City; and a 1993 rehearsal tape of a decidedly untraditional arrangement of the Celtic classic "Whiskey in the Jar."
There are some constants, of course--Robert Hunter's mystical lyrics, Garcia's shimmering guitar work, the rhythm section's gentle prodding and bold ambitions. But overall, it's impossible to listen to this compilation straight through without realizing how willing the Dead were to keep experimenting with their music without regard to passing pop trends. Those experiments weren't always successful, as some of the more erratic performances here illustrate, but for 30 years they kept the Dead's music alive in more ways than one.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8173.)
While Phish's new six-CD set, "Hampton Comes Alive" (Elektra), could be viewed as a career retrospective--featured are such longtime concert staples as "Wilson," "Mike's Song," "Bathtub Gin" and "Guyute"--it's basically a celebration of a specific point in time. All 45 tracks were recorded last fall during a thoroughly loose and loopy two-night stand at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia.
The ties to the Dead's legacy are apparent in the quartet's free-wheeling approach to rock and pop and are sometimes underscored by guitarist Trey Anastasio's jazz-inflected guitar work. Unlike the Dead, though, Phish likes to spend a lot of its time onstage playing songs strictly for laughs, which is one of the reasons this collection doesn't seem nearly as long as it is. Comic relief generally comes in the form of surprising or goofy arrangements of familiar tunes, including the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It," and, best of all, Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping," which serves as the anthology's irrepressible coda. Other cover tunes, including Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo" and Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman," reveal the band's whimsical charm in more subdued fashion, while the Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry," another concert favorite, produces an unabashedly sentimental interlude.
Although this is the third live set released by the band, the length and scope of "Hampton Comes Alive" allows Phish to freely improvise in ways that help compensate for the lulls created by the band's frequently inscrutable lyrics and sometimes stunted melodies. A good thing, too, given the set's nearly $70 price. Phish performs tonight at MCI Center.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8174.)
CAPTION: "New" music from the Grateful Dead, above, and Phish, spiritual heir to the Dead. Phish is composed of, from left, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, Trey Anastasio and Jon Fishman.