Many readers may have heard that there are plans afoot to reinvest in our country’s infrastructure as a way of addressing the lack of jobs. Of course the bottom line for us motorcyclists is that improving road conditions increases safety and a better riding experience. If you’ve ever hit a large pothole at high speed, maybe you can relate.
Here in California, Caltrans (the folks in charge of all things highway) has a website where one can log on and report freeway conditions that require fixing. I’m here to say it actually works. I’ve used this several times in the past, and lo and behold, repairs were actually made—even if it did take several months. At least someone in government is listening.
What does this have to do with this month’s reviews? At a gathering with friends who know I write this column, one asked why in the heck I’ve never reviewed a Grateful Dead album as a reissue or even a “Flashback” feature. So here they are this month. See? At least we’re listening. And if you have a favorite band that has escaped our attention, please feel free to drop us a line or an email. We actually do listen.
Let them talk
Actors who transition from the screen to the recording studio have often been met with suspicion, indifference, and downright ridicule. Hugh Laurie’s character on the TV medical series House, speaks with a U.S. accent, walks with a cane, rides a motorcycle, and dispenses wisecracks and medical opinions at light speed. A 30-year biker in real life, on TV Laurie rides a Honda CBR Repsol Limited Edition, while he’s famously known for his Triumph Bonneville, which serves as his regular steed, and he has an English accent.
And now he’s gone and made a record—and it’s a record that will surprise many. House is occasionally shown playing records on a turntable in scenes from the show. And so his first album, Let Them Talk, is a complete old-school tribute to the music of New Orleans. The official press release quotes Laurie as saying, “New Orleans just straight hummed with music, romance, joy, despair; its rhythms got into my gawky English frame and at times made me so happy and sad …”
Well, OK. Thankfully, Laurie knows how to play several instruments—he even appeared on a Meatloaf album in 2010. More importantly, Laurie has gathered a stellar supporting cast whose collective credits include working with the likes of Greg Allman, Robert Plant, Solomon Burke, T-Bone Burnett, Alison Krause, and others. And there are guest appearances by Sir Tom Jones and, to keep it real, Irma Thomas and Dr. John. The album meanders through songs like the Louis Armstrong/Snooks Eglin classic “Saint James Infirmary,” Lean Belly’s “You Don’t Know My Mind,” and even Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina.” It all makes for a good cruise through the Bayou. Now if we could just get the man on a bagger.
Road trips vol.4 No.3
Unlike today’s corporate-controlled acts, the Dead had always invited fans to record their shows and in fact many of their very early shows were free. This begat an entire cottage industry of Grateful Dead bootleg recordings, which to this day are still traded around on the internet and many have been commercially re-released. Jerry Garcia had always stated that the Dead was more of a live performing act as opposed to a studio recording act as evidenced by the legions of Deadheads that followed them around like a massive collection of roadies. And to his point, the group’s best works have always been captured live.
By 1973 the Dead had left their longtime home at Warner Bros. Records and began to release records on their own label. Wake of the Flood was the band’s first studio album since 1970’s masterpiece American Beauty. The tracks on the three-CD set that comprises Road Trips, Vol.4, No.3 are taken from shows at the Denver Coliseum in November of 1973. Originally part of a 36-CD series entitled Dick’s Picks, we now have them broken down into more manageable and cohesive single releases and Rhino has done their usually superb packaging job. By the time of this performance, Rod “Pigpen” McKernan had passed away, but the band remained in fine form. Four songs from Wake of the Flood are included, and live, these performance take on a more fervent bent showcasing the band’s musical prowess in all their in-concert glory. It’s easy to see why the Dead was famous for cooking up extended improvisational interpolations, incorporating elements of jazz, blues, and folk into their more mainstream rock staples.
Flashback album of the month
Europe ’72: Vol. 2
Many feel the Grateful Dead are perhaps the most famous biker band ever. The band’s Bay area (Frisco) roots crossed paths with the Hells Angels on more than one occasion. The Hells Angels would often show up at Dead concerts, sometimes to party and other times to provide a sort of “people’s security force” for the the Dead’s sometimes impromptu one-off gigs with other San Francisco bands like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and others.
It was widely known that Jerry Garcia was good friends with the Angels’ Ralph “Sonny” Barger.
Together with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the Dead set the psychedelic-tinged tone for the beginnings of the counterculture movement, even giving birth to the term “hippies.” And then there was the infamous Altamont Rolling Stones concert where the Dead was originally supposed to play but backed out due to the increasing threat of violence. Many are of the opinion that this concert marked the end of rock’s innocence.
Rhino has been actively mining the entire Dead catalog and now they’ve released a companion piece to Europe ’72, the Dead’s historic foray across the pond nearly 40 years ago. This latest Volume 2 set contains 20 songs on two CDs, complete with new cover art by Stanley Mouse who created the iconic artwork for the original three-record set. If you’re given to long rides requiring extended musical accompaniment, this is your ticket.
Recorded at various locations on the band’s 22-show tour, the performances feature Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Ron (Pigpen) McKernan. Also along on the tour and included here are pianist Keith Godchaux and his wife and singer Donna Jean Godchaux.
There’s no repetition of songs from the original Europe ’72. The best moment is an hour-plus jam that has “Dark Star” segued with “The Other One.” Other standouts include “Bertha,” “Sugaree,” “Playing in the Band,” “Beat It On Down the Line,” and “Good Lovin’,” all showcasing the improvisational nature of the band at its best. The sound quality is stellar, and if you can’t get enough of these recordings there’s also a 73-CD collection (yes; that’s not a typo) of Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings. This one will be out before Thanksgiving and you’d better be ready because it’ll be available in limited quantities. That’s enough music to get you to Sturgis and back!
Road Trips Vol.4 No.4
Another three-CD set, Road Trips Vol.4, No.4 was recorded live at Philadelphia’s Spectrum in April of 1982. By then, The Dead had signed on with Clive Davis’ Arista Records, which would eventually result in the band’s first top-10 single, “Touch of Grey.” Jerry’s voice was getting a little ragged but the band was still on fire. Unlike most bands, each live Dead show was never like another; the band would usually not have set lists, rather decide on the fly, feeling the energy of the crowd and themselves. Here, disc three begins with “Truckin’” that seamlessly segues into “Morning Dew,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” When and where song changes would occur on the fly was not often contrived. It’s why guys like Toph have seen over 50 live Grateful Dead shows; and believe it or not that’s not many for older fans. It wasn’t unusual to attend multiple shows in a row; in a week you’d rarely hear many repeated songs.
In all their various incarnations and personnel changes, it’s easy to understand why The Dead stood at the pinnacle of American rock bands. It’s difficult to actually profile a fascinating band of this magnitude in a couple of reviews but thankfully they have a vast vault of works that are easily accessible. Take your time because the music only gets better when you make it your travelling companion.