Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Defending the Dead

There is an unwritten rule amongst Deadheads that true aficionados of the band must only listen to the live albums.  This makes sense in theory since after all, the Dead were at their core, a live band.  Even the band themselves had reservations about spending too much time in the studio and probably only did so in order to honor "corporate obligations" and to help bankroll their endless tours.  And while I, too, am guilty for subscribing to this "dead-code" of sorts, the myth that these albums lack the improvisation, the spontaneity, or even the soul that helped shaped their touring legacy, is unfair at best.  In fact, the Dead’s studio catalog is quite impressive, and taken as a whole, is a rather breathtaking series of accomplishments.  In response to those who snub the studio recordings as flat or emotionless, I think this is an ignorant statement.  I challenge you to listen to American Beauty or Wake of the Flood in their entirety and not feel moved by the pristine musicianship and ethereal vocal harmonies. Nor is there any merit to the claim that these albums are devoid of improvisation.   Listen to "Help->Slip->Franklin's" from Blues for Allah, which is the epitome of modern jazz improvisation; or "Weather Report Suite" from Wake of the Flood, an instrumental masterpiece few mainstream rock bands could pull off.  Indeed, I'd venture to guess that each session varied considerably in terms of the solos, the riffs and the grooves and that no two takes sounded the same -- as opposed to say, the repetitive perfection sought by bands like U2, Metallica, or Sting, for example. Really, the only things missing from these albums are the band’s notorious lyric flubs, bum notes, and intensive, space-out jam sessions, which admittedly are some of the great moments of the live Dead experience.  So despite only owning a handful of their  studio material (as opposed to nearly 75+ live recordings), I refuse to be a hater.  I proudly stand behind the Dead's studio albums and think they deserve greater recognition as being some of the archetypal examples of modern jazz, folk/blues and improvisational rock.

Some of my favorite album standouts include:

"Attics of my Life" - American Beauty
"Stella Blue" - Wake of the Flood
"Ship of Fools" - Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel
"Help->Slip->Franklin’s" - Blues for Allah
"Terrapin Part One" - Terrapin Station

Judge for yourself.

"Stella Blue" - Wake of the Flood (includes backing vocals not typically heard live)

 "Ship of Fools" - Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel

"Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" -Wake of the Flood (great fiddle part that I don't believe was ever played live)


Anonymous said...

total straw-man.

nobody ever criticizes the studio recordings.

the only reason people talk about the live recordings so much is because they were so hard to get for decades. So it was a way to demonstrate how deadhead-y you were. A value system if you will.

there are fantastic live dead albums floating around, but after listening to GDnet.org for the past few weeks...i can attest, there are also a ton of lack luster performances floating around. which is fine too, wheat and the chaff, they cant all be winners.

WeightStaff said...

"the only reason people talk about the live recordings so much is because they were so hard to get for decades." -- Anonymous

really?? I think you've got your bands mixed up, bud. fact: more than 90% of their 2,300+ shows were taped, which makes their live material probably the most accessible in music history. trading tapes was well underway dating back to the mid-70's.

and one last thing, don't be a critic just be a critic; can you honestly tell me the last time you, or anyone you know who listens to the Dead, actually put on a studio album and listened to it with a straight face? the whole gist of my post was to "call-out," if you will, those who snicker at the studio albums as being for "beginners;" I merely attempted to point out that standing alone, most of these albums are brilliant works which most bands could never hope to achieve. but despite this, they have naturally, and maybe even unfairly, been overshadowed by the live material -- and this coming from a guy who almost exclusively listens to the live recordings. American Beauty was one of those albums that changed my life. i still get chills every time I hear that celestial pedal steel segue from Ripple into Brokedown -- which of course, one would never hear on a live recording -- the pedal steel & mandolin parts that is.


theoldmancunian said...

Writing, as I do, from the UK, the studio albums are perhaps seen differently.

Other than the official live albums - and I well remember the impact they had on my 18-year-old self when I came across them in the early '70s - the studio albums WERE the Dead ... Of course we had our rare opportunities to see them, particularly the fantastic Europe '72 tour, and I will always remember standing in a muddy field outside Wigan, Lancashire (the Bickershaw Festival) as the Dead exploded in a ray of post-deluge bliss. But those opportunities were all too rare and so we had to assume that what we heard on the studio albums was what the Dead now were. Unfortunately post-American Beauty the output became all too inconsistent, with songs of true grace/beauty/'out-there-ness' sitting uncomfortably close to, dare I say it, banality .. the Doobie Dead years, as a Dead Head friend of mine has put it. And they felt too structured, controlled, crafted. Without the regular shot of live performance to show us otherwise, it felt to many that they had lost their way. For me it wasn't until the late '90s with the explosion into the public domain of the live material that it became clearer that something else had been happening all along ...
But to go back to your orginal thesis, I agree that these albums are over-looked and under-rated ... how can one ignore the daring craft and novelty of Anthem of the Sun (with its unique and innovative blend of live and studio mixes) or Aoxomoxoa as epitomes of the psychedlic era, the proto-Americana of Workingman's or the ultimate country-folk-rock of American Beauty? I find it strange that in these days when so many young bands are - often to great effect - drawing on their parents' record collections for inspiration, so little reference is made to these albums. Perhaps the sheer volume of the live output and the aura/mystique of the Dead as a live band has pushed them unfairly to one side. (And I would also agree that the live output is itself far from excellent ... though it woudl be brave man to separate me from my collection (nowhere near your 75+ but growing - and I wouldn't mind a separate conversation about those! With so many to select from it sometimes feels a bit overwhelming!)