There are a million bands that can rock but can't roll (just listen to DC-101 any afternoon), but the Grateful Dead is one of the few that can roll without rocking. Like a Nigerian juju band lost in a state of reverie, the Grateful Dead wash over the listener in a rippling flow of drum rolls and endless guitar lines.
The Grateful Dead can't knock you out with the first punch the way rockers like Bruce Springsteen or Prince can. Instead the Dead sneak up on you and slowly envelop you in their music. This is why their music works so much better in their marathon concerts -- where they have the time and volume to seduce the listener gradually -- than it does on the radio or on record, where they're usually cut off before completing their task.
As a result, the Dead haven't bothered to release a studio album in seven years. In direct defiance of the usual laws of pop music, their following has increased dramatically during that time. A whole new generation of Deadheads now follows the group from sold-out arena to sold-out arena. The record industry is eager to take another crack at this audience, and thus there is a new Grateful Dead album, "In the Dark" (Arista AL-8542).
Inevitably, it must be reported that the record does not capture the magic of the band performing live, but it comes a lot closer than any studio recording since the 1970 double punch of "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty." The new record doesn't sound like the spare country-rock of those albums, but it does share the same respect for the craftsmanship of songwriting and arrangement.
The seven songs come from three different songwriting teams, but the tunes all revolve around the theme of having traveled a long, hard road and still looking forward to whatever's around the next bend. "I may be going to hell in a bucket," sings Bob Weir, "but at least I'm enjoying the ride." Brent Mydland sings about "900,000 tons of steel out of control/ She's more a roller coaster than the train I used to know." "I will walk alone by the black, muddy river," Jerry Garcia sings, "and listen to the ripples as they moan."
These journey metaphors enable the band to address the issue of aging. For years, the band has projected a kind of timeless congeniality, but after Garcia's two brushes with death -- first by drugs then diabetes -- the band is ready to acknowledge that it's not 1967 anymore. The Dead face up to the fact that loss always comes with time, and their music is more substantial as a result.
The album's first single is "Touch of Grey," which refers not only to Garcia's hair but also to the new touch of realism in the band's perennial optimism. The verses allude to private and public tensions affecting the band; the song concludes: "Every silver lining's got a touch of grey." The music too reflects the tension between realism and optimism as a pretty but precise music-box figure on piano and guitar strains against the free-flowing drums, bass and organ.
The Dead's two nonperforming lyricists, Robert Hunter (who writes with Garcia) and John Barlow (who writes with Weir), both avoid the usual songwriting methods of confession and narrative. Instead they string together series of related aphorisms, as if they were bohemian Ben Franklins: "Roll on, black, muddy river," writes Hunter, "I don't care how deep or wide, if you have another side." "There may come a day when I will dance on your grave," writes Barlow, "or if unable to dance, I will crawl."
The aphorisms jump with excitable glee to Weir's choppy rhythm guitar on "Hell in a Bucket" and to Mydland's boogie-woogie piano on "When Push Comes to Shove." They tumble out in reassuring harmonies on the country-folk ballad "Black, Muddy River." By far the best vocal on the album is Mydland's bluesy growl on "Tons of Steel," a song that describes a runaway locomotive as much with its driving R&B as with its allegorical lyrics.
These four songs are sure to be standards in the Dead's live shows for years to come. In those concerts, these songs will continue to grow, as the band explores the musical implications of the themes of age and resilience. In the meantime, "In the Dark," produced by Garcia and John Cutler, offers a remarkably clear snapshot of the Dead's best songs in years.
Relics from Relix For 14 years Relix Magazine (P.O. Box 94, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11229) has been the best source of information about the Grateful Dead. In recent years, the magazine has also been releasing new and old albums related to the Dead -- for example, two new albums from old tapes by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, which began in 1969 as a vehicle for Garcia's interest in pedal steel guitar. "Before Time Began" (Relix RRLP 2024) contains the New Riders' first-ever studio sessions, with Dead members Garcia, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart backing singer-guitarists John Dawson and David Nelson. The country-rock songs are sparsely arranged and gorgeously sung, and Garcia's pedal-steel work is just as eloquent. More ordinary is "Vintage NRPS" (Relix RRLP 2025), a live set from 1971 with Garcia guesting on pedal steel.
Nelson helps out on "Rock Columbia" (Relix RRLP 2019), an all-new collection of rock 'n' roll songs by the Dead's longtime lyricist Hunter. His singing has improved dramatically, to the point where it's actually tolerable. These songs, written without Garcia, are a punchier, more mainstream form of rock 'n' roll than Hunter's compositions for the Dead. His hippie-cowboy aphorisms are more often amusing than tiresome, and the lively bar-band arrangements make this his best solo album yet.
Starship, Then and Now If the Grateful Dead have remained true to their original musical vision and idealism, the primary members of Jefferson Airplane have betrayed theirs so many times that an accurate tally is near impossible. Jefferson Airplane began in San Francisco at the same time as the Dead, with the same mix of folk music and experimental rock and the same utopian community ideals. There's nothing the least bit experimental or idealistic about the new Starship album, "No Protection" (RCA/Grunt 6413-1-G), which is as crass an example of corporate rock as one could find.
Starship, which performs at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Aug. 26, is the hollow remains of the band that was once Jefferson Airplane and then Jefferson Starship. Of the three singer-songwriters who held those two bands together, Paul Kantner and Marty Balin are long gone; only Grace Slick remains, and she has to share vocal duties with Mickey Thomas, perhaps the most soulless singer of the decade.
Of course, it helps to be soulless when you change with the winds of AOR radio as easily as the Starship does. At the end of the '70s it was a pop-harmony band; in the early '80s it was a heavy-metal band; now it's a streamlined dance-rock band. The new album is typified by the No. 1 hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," which originally appeared on the sound track for the movie "Mannequin."
Likely to be just as successful is the new single "It's Not Over ('Til It's Over)." Like the rest of the album, these two songs are expertly crafted pop commodities, with soaring melodies linked up to a computerized dance beat. Three hit-proven producers, Narada Michael Walden, Keith Olsen and Peter Wolf, did the thoroughly professional crafting, and the four remaining Starship members happily oblige the formulas without allowing their personalities to get in the way.
To understand just how far this band has fallen, one has only to listen to the new double-record anthology "2400 Fulton Street" (RCA 5724-1-R), which collects 25 of the best Jefferson Airplane songs from 1966 to 1971 (the CD has an extra six cuts). Though the Airplane was often silly and self-indulgent, it did have a strong singer in Slick, a most melodic composer in Balin, a real blues guitarist in Jorma Kaukonen (now back home in Montgomery County) and a real jazz drummer in Spencer Dryden (who also plays on "Vintage NRPS").
Jefferson Airplane was wildly inconsistent, but this anthology collects all the best songs in one place -- not only the hits ("Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit"), but also the counterculture anthems ("Volunteers" and "We Can Be Together") and the artistic experiments ("Rejoyce" and "The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil"). The liner notes include a fawning essay but also invaluable details about the original recording sessions.