YOU COULD fly almost from here to Haight-Ashbury in the time it takes to listen to the live recordings The Grateful Dead have released recently. The Dead, who will appear at the Capital Centre tonight, have compressed nearly three hours of music on two double-record sets: the four-month-old acoustic collection, "Reckoning," and the new electric session, "Dead Set" (Arista A2L 8606). This is an unprecedented windfall for legions of "Deadheads," but more discriminating fans are likely to view these records a mixed blessing.
The aptly titled "Dead Set"-- the pace is almost zombie-like at times -- is far less enjoyable than "Reckoning." Dead concerts are well known for fostering endless jams and interminable noodling on stage, but the band achieves something altogether different on the first two sides of "Dead Set." They actually lull their fans into submission with a series of sleepy blues.
It's time the band faced up to the fact that even John Belushi can mimic bluesmen better than Bob Weir. Weir's halfhearted vocal on "Samson and Delilah" is barely adequate. Moreover, the forced affectation he resorts to on "Little Red Rooster," a feeble attempt to duplicate Howlin' Wolf, is embarrassing.
Fortunately, some of the tunes are partially redeemed by Brent Mydland and Jerry Garcia. Mydland's various keyboards bring much needed flexibility to the band's instrumental lineup. On "New Minglewood Blues," for example, an organ lends a haunting aura to the melody. Mydland then reinforces the 12-bar pattern with a sturdy chorus.
Throughout the first two sides of "Dead Set," Garcia's playing is subdued and precise. The stinging slide he uses on "Minglewood" is in sharp contrast to the shimmering stillness he creates on "Candy Man." Only his frayed voice detracts from the placid beauty of this blues.
The balance of "Dead Set" occasionally suffers from the usual excesses. The most obvious and irritating one is "Rhythm Devils," a crowdpleasing contrivance designed to justify the band's dependence on two drummers. A close runner-up is "Space," where Phil Lesh tries to break through an electronic barrier of spacey effects -- sort of Atari meets the Dead. Atari wins.
Lesh does manage, however, to break the album's lethargic spell with "Passenger," and finally the entire band is heard as one. Other rockers such as the funky "Feel Like a Stranger" and "Fire on a Mountain" and Robert Hunger's typically enigmatic "Greatest Story Ever Told" also bring the band into sharper focus. But if one song seems to sum up "Dead Set," it's "Brokedown Palace" and the lyric: "Sing me sweet and sleepy all the way home."
The reflections of another San Francisco stalwart, the Jefferson Starship, are found on new releases by vocalists Marty Balin and Mickey Thomas. Balin, who will appear at the Bayou Tuesday, is clearly better off working alone at this point.
His solo album, "Balin" (EMI 17054) is by no means an exciting record, but it does capitalize on his talent, which is more than can be said for some of his sessions with the Starship. Here Balin's marvelous, crooning tenor weaves its way through a half dozen or so love songs. The production is translucent, the course seldom veers from middle-of-the-road pop, and the backup band is as proficient as it is anonymous.
Oddly enough, Balin contributes only one song to the album. In fact, "I Do Believe in You" sounds as if it were written as a follow-up to the Starship's mid-'70s smash, "Miracles." As for Balin's "Lydia!," it's hardly a lyric for the ages. Yet, like so many of the lightweight songs included on this record, Balin sings it as if each word mattered.
Mickey Thomas sounds no more distinctive on "Alive Alone" (Elektra 5E-530) than he does on the current Starship album. The record doesn't fail for want of talent, however. Among others, Thomas is assisted by Don Felder, Joe Vitale, Craig Chaquico, Steve Porcaro, Norton Buffalo and Eagles' producer Bill Szymczyk. The result: an elaborate production of forgettable rock.
At least with the Starship, Thomas' journeyman delivery was enlivened somewhat by contributions from Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. Diversions on this record are a lot harder to come by. There are those cross-channel sweeps on "She's Got You Running," Norton Buffalo's folksy harmonica detour on "You're Good With Your Love," and the Waters Family's full-blooded harmonies.