30 Trips Around The Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965-1995

Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead, 2015

http://www.dead.net

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/21/2018

Most people have heard the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, naturally, is: one bite at a time.

That's kind of how I looked at 30 Trips Around The Sun, an 80-CD – let me repeat that: eighty CDs – compilation of the 30-year history of The Grateful Dead. This, naturally, is not a set that one would try to knock out in one sitting, much like many of the recent box sets that have come out from the Dead, featuring specific periods of their touring history.

If you didn’t pick this one up when it was released in 2015…well, good luck. As of June 2018, the already limited-edition set was completely sold out (even in its USB format), and copies of the box set were selling on eBay for anywhere from $1,500 to over $2,000. Not bad for a set that retailed initially for $700. The more budget conscious will note that some sellers on eBay have individual shows available, usually for around $60 each (though some are upwards of $100 or more).

So, 80 CDs, 30 concerts, 73 hours of music. There really is only one way to cover this particular collection: concert by concert. Just to explain how this review is being written: I listen to each show in chronological order, then before I even start the following year’s show, I write my opinions on what I have just heard. That way, I don’t potentially confuse a song from one year with the review I’m writing for the previous.

Pass the ketchup, please, ’cause I’m about to eat this musical elephant.

SET ONE: 07/03/1966, San Francisco, CA

I guess expecting a complete concert from their early days was asking a lot, and we should be happy with anything from Jerry Garcia and crew from the birth of their career. Still, I have to admit opening with a snippet of “Nobody's Fault But Mine” was an initial letdown, especially as the band seemed to have locked on a fairly solid groove in the song.

Even with the occasional fade-in to a currently playing song, this particular show which comprises the first two CDs of the set is of amazing audio quality, and captures the band young and hungry to make a name for themselves. While there is still a looseness to their playing, the Dead were becoming a musically tight unit, even about a year before the release of their self-titled debut album. To hear these songs coming together into the forms Deadheads have known and loved for decades is, indeed, something magical to behold.

It is interesting to hear rare nuggets like “Keep Rolling By” and “Tastebud,” so even the diehard Deadhead should find something interesting in this particular concert. While the performance is good, it's not as exciting as other performances from the late '60s / early '70s were. Still, this is the only real complaint about this show (and a minor one at that). Also, the listener had better like Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, as his organ is mixed very high in this show.

SHOW RATING: B+
CUMULATIVE RATING: B+

SET TWO: 11/10/1967, Los Angeles, CA

One of the few shows that has been released separately (albeit as a record), this is the first show in the set to feature the Dead as a sextet, with the addition of Mickey Hart as second drummer/percussionist. (Tom Constanten did not officially join the band as a live performer until November 1968.) While there are no unreleased songs on this particular two-CD set, there is an early version of “That's It For The Other One” that features some different lyrics, which is of some historical interest.

It was around this time that the Dead began to truly explore their psychedelic side, stretching out from just blues-based jams into newer levels of musical consciousness. This early snapshot shows that they were in the process of getting there, but hadn't quite made the full jump just yet. “New Potato Caboose,” while a pleasure to hear live, is a prime example of this. Is it bad? Hardly; it's simply a picture of a band growing into their own skin, and making the transition into the iteration they would best become known for.

The listener essentially gets an early version of Anthem Of The Sun (less “Born Cross-Eyed”), so historically, it is interesting hearing these versions in their own natural settings, rather than the pastiche that became the album versions.

I'd hesitate to call this particular show “essential” listening, but it is by no means bad, and does add an interesting view to the growth of the band at this early stage in their career. (Interesting to note that, long after I wrote this part of the review, I discovered on one fan forum that most people consider this show to be the highlight of the set. To each their own.)

SHOW RATING: B
CUMULATIVE RATING: B+

SET THREE: 10/20/1968, Berkeley, CA

The entry for 1968 is surprisingly short, coming in on just one CD. It also is the first weak selection.

If anything, the newer material – “Dark Star,” “Saint Stephen” and “The Eleven” – proves to be the most exciting of the whole set. But the more standard material found on the opening two numbers, “Good Morning, Little School Girl” and “Turn On Your Love Light,” almost feels like the Dead is performing the songs by rote. There is just no excitement found in either of these performances – unlike the version of “Turn On Your Love Light” that would later be featured on Live/Dead, where the energy sometimes felt like it was going to explode.

This early version of “Saint Stephen” shows a song still in development, as the midsection is almost sped through, as is the bridge leading to the final verse. Yet it is exciting to hear the song as it was coming into its own, and the lead-in to “The Eleven” is always a welcome presence.

Again, this one can't be called “essential” listening, and I'm certain there were other shows the band could have selected from this period of their history that they haven't already marketed somehow. As it is, this one is a flawed, but interesting nonetheless, portrait of the band.

SHOW RATING: C
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET FOUR: 2/22/1969, Vallejo, CA

The only show in the set to feature keyboardist Tom Constanten, this quite possibly was the period of the Dead's career where they were at their trippiest. The extended jams out of songs like “Dark Star” and “The Eleven” were what gave this incarnation of the band their mojo, and established a niche for themselves.

Pity that this set doesn't crackle with the energy like the selections that eventually became Live/Dead did. Sure, there are moments to get excited, particularly with the previously named tracks (the former complete with an early Garcia lyrical flub). But the opening two tracks, “Dupree's Diamond Blues” and “Mountains Of The Moon,” just don't have the kind of excitement I would have hoped for, especially when we're talking about the start of their show.

The second of the two discs making up this show – and comprising the second set – is the one that really pulls things out of the fire. “Doin' That Rag” is, admittedly, a little sloppy, but it segues perfectly into “Saint Stephen.” And from then on, the band was on auto-pilot (in a good way, though) as they allowed the songs to unfold on their own terms, not those of the individual musicians.

For example: I've never been a huge fan of the drawn-out versions of “Turn On Your Lovelight,” but this time McKernan seems to be locked into the perfect groove vocally, while the other instruments seem to know just how far to push things without sending the whole confounded mess right over the cliff.

If I had to choose between Live/Dead and this set, I'd honestly choose the previously released live album. But, warts and all, this set has enough to keep things interesting.

SHOW RATING: C+
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET FIVE: 4/15/1970, San Francisco, CA

The last set to feature Mickey Hart on drums for several years, this most likely captures a typical Dead show, complete with technical glitches. I’m actually glad the difficulties were left in, as it was at those times that the band actually interacted with their audiences the most, and it was refreshing to hear.

As for the overall concert, one could say it was a standard Dead show of the period – which in and of itself was not a bad thing. Nearing the end of McKernan’s time with the band, it shows off a group moving away from the pure spaciness of their early shows (though those improvisational moments have not been – and never were totally – abandoned).

You could take this as a bad thing, as only the “Drums” leading into a “Jam” really captures the improv moments of the group (“Space” doesn’t appear in this set for another 10 years – but we’re jumping ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?). Instead, you hear how musically tight the group had gotten to that point.

Still, it’s not the most exciting set that’s offered up – not in terms of song selection, at least. Granted, the Dead were about to enter their classic period à la Europe ‘72, so there was still a lot of dependency on songs like “Cryptical Envelopment / The Other One” and “Turn On Your Lovelight” to keep the machine chugging along. But it was hearing songs like “Cumberland Blues” and an early take on “Candyman” (which had previously been featured on the reissue of American Beauty) that let the listener know that the Dead were heading into new, exciting territory musically.

Interesting note: there are several patches from different shows used on certain tracks. And while I tried to listen for those minor changes, I couldn’t hear any of them, so kudos must be offered for these seamless transitions.

SHOW RATING: B-
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET SIX: 3/18/1971, St. Louis, MO

I’ll make no bones about it: this is the era of the Dead that in terms of live performances I happen to love. Once I finally understood what the Dead were all about, I could appreciate an album like Europe ‘72 or Grateful Dead (aka “Skullfuck”) and really get into the music.

Yes, this sound has been captured ad nauseam for some Deadheads, as evidenced by the Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings box set from a few years prior. (This is another one which is on my “to do” list – hey, I can only attack one insane project at a time.) But it was the classic period for Garcia and crew, even if they were once again experiencing line-up fluctuations. With Hart’s departure, the Dead were down to a one-drummer, five-piece outfit, and McKernan’s health was extremely precarious at this stage; this set is the last to feature him onstage with the band (and is the first in this collection not to feature the band performing in California).

To this point in the collection, this is the most exciting of the series of concerts that are offered to the listener. From the opening notes of “Casey Jones,” this particular set just feels right. The “comfort” songs of the ‘70s-era Dead are here: “Me And My Uncle,” “Bertha,” “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia”…it just features the band firing on all cylinders for the whole show. I didn’t like the sudden cut on “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” which seemed like it cut out half of the song to get to the final instrumental performance of the chorus.

There is still even some of the improvisational moments that shaped who the Dead were. Granted, the two-drummer attack of Bill Kreutzmann and Hart was missed on “Drums” (though Kreutzmann does his best to fill the role solo), and “Feedback” is fairly interesting, if all too brief.

SHOW RATING: A-
CUMULATIVE RATING: B

SET SEVEN: 9/24/72, Waterbury, CT

The Dead opening with “Big Railroad Blues”?!? A strange choice to my ears, as it just doesn’t seem like a traditional show opener a la “Bertha,” but after doing some online research, it wasn’t completely unheard of for Garcia and crew. (Guess I’d better get used to it, especially considering the next set in this collection…but I’m jumping ahead in the story.)

It had been another year of upheaval for the band, with the addition of Keith Godchaux as keyboardist (along with his wife Donna as background vocalist), and the final departure of McKernan. Add into the mix an exhaustive tour of Europe, and you could expect the Dead to not be firing on all cylinders on this particular show.

In actuality, this is a fairly strong set, even if there are the occasional lyric flubs here and there (not all of which are committed by Garcia), if not the best example of what the Grateful Dead were capable of circa 1972.

I get a feeling of deja vu when I listen to this set, as many of the tracks were also highlighted on Europe ‘72, though these have slightly different vibes to them. It’s also nice to have tracks such as “Sugaree” and “El Paso” make the cut this time around, as they just seem to give the overall show a more rounded feel.

It is interesting to note that the Dead seem to embrace their experimental-slash-jam mode more this time around than they had on the past few years’ worth of shows highlighted in this box set. Maybe it was the introduction of Keith Godchaux, maybe it was the band finally feeling comfortable after a few years of lineup changes, I don’t know. And while it’s great to hear “Dark Star” for the first time since the 1969 show, this version doesn’t quite have the magical qualities that at least I would have hoped for.

And I’m sorry, but I have never, ever been a fan of Donna Godchaux’s caterwauling during “Playing In The Band.” I don’t mind the song being stretched out into an extended jam – in fact, sometimes that’s kind of fun to listen to, as you wonder how they’ll ever return to “home base” again. But she adds absolutely nothing to the mix here, and her solo vocals are just abrasive. It’s almost as if the Dead were trying to tap into the spirit of the late Janis Joplin with Donna Godchaux’s contribution to the song; if so, it’s a weak effort.

Still, this particular set is enjoyable (if just a tad less fun than the previous year’s effort).

SHOW RATING: B+
CUMULATIVE RATING: B

SET EIGHT: 11/14/1973, San Diego, CA

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: yes, this set list is scrambled. After the first set closer of “Around And Around” on the second disc, they jump to…the end of the second set and the encore?!?

Yes, kiddies… and while I admit it’s confusing, I understand that they did it because of the length of the second set openers, and to make sure they could fit the whole show onto three CDs. (Cripes, this set was big and expensive enough already, why throw in an additional CD or three just to make sure the show plays in the correct running order.)

In comparison to the two prior shows, this one is a bit sloppier. From the opener “Big Railroad Blues” (Hey, look! It’s back, just like I teased about!), it sounds like Garcia totally flubs the lyrics. From then on, the overall feel of the show just seems a bit more ragtag. Note that I don’t mean it’s a bad show, but it’s just not as satisfying. It’s not that there are loads of miscues or mistakes, it’s just not as tight of a show.

Also of note is the obvious source cut during the first portion of “The Other One.” There is a significant quality drop for about 90 seconds, and it doesn’t quite sound like they got the syncing perfectly when it does come back to a better quality source. How they could get patching done perfectly on the 1970 set but not achieve something even close this time around is a little confusing. (There is a similar quality drop on “Wharf Rat,” but the syncing on this one is perfect, even if the sudden shift is a little off-putting.)

Now, what I do like about a box set such as this is hearing not only the way the songs themselves grow and mature, but also how the overall selection of music expands. As they were touring behind Wake Of The Flood at this time, “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Eyes Of The World” are nice additions to the mix, while “Row Jimmy”…look, I’m not going to pretend this was a favorite Dead song of mine, nor will I pretend that I liked that Garcia seemed to prefer the more lugubrious songs as he got older. But this one is a fan favorite, and it’s not a terrible performance, so I can live with it.

Missing from this particular show is the absolute trippiness of its predecessor. Yes, I’m well aware that “The Other One” clocks in at nearly 30 minutes, albeit broken up into three distinct sections. But whereas the previous show featured a two-part “Dark Star,” broken up only by a brief “Drums,” there is no such groove here. Okay, the 19-minute first slice of “The Other One” could be construed as that, but each time they break from this song, they didn’t go into something like “Drums” or “Space” (the latter is coming… eventually, trust me), they went right into full-length songs like “Big River” or “Eyes Of The World.” Nice, I’ll grant you…but not necessarily trippy.

It’s a slight step down for the Dead, but a step down nonetheless. Still, there’s enough in this show to make it enjoyable.

SHOW RATING: B-
CUMULATIVE RATING: B

SET NINE: 9/18/1974, Dijon, France

Coming in just over a month before the band’s “retirement,” one would have expected Garcia and crew to sound like they were just completely worn out. (It’s a feeling I had gotten from at least one other 1974 show I’ve heard in my life, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if this had been the case this time around.)

Instead, the band sounds fairly energetic, though this is an odd choice of shows for any number of reasons. The most notable reason is the loss of vocal microphones to open the second set – no, you are not losing your mind if you suddenly hear Garcia and Weir in the background on “Loose Lucy” and “Big River,” and your stereo’s speakers have not malfunctioned. There was a glitch during the concert which essentially knocked out the vocals.

Second is the inclusion of “Seastones,” a Phil Lesh collaboration with electronic musician Ned Lagin. Honestly, I had been looking forward to hearing this, as I had never heard “Seastones” before in all my years of reviewing music. What I heard was, to put it bluntly, painful. Look, I get that the Dead can usually work their way into almost any kind of music; they did so a few years later with Hamza El-Din when they performed at the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and it was an ideal fit. This is like nails on a chalkboard in comparison.

Garcia’s choices for this show are almost sleep-inducing at times. I admit I’ve never liked “Row Jimmy,” but when I consider that to be the highlight of a series of songs which include “To Lay Me Down,” “Peggy-O” (another song I simply despise) and “China Doll,” that’s saying something. (In Garcia’s defense, though, including “China Doll” is appropriate, as From The Mars Hotel was their current album at the time, and is one of five songs from the album featured in this show.)

What is interesting is that, coming out of “Drums,” I hear the first inklings (for this set, anyway) of what would eventually become “Space,” and it almost sounds like it could have been recorded at one of their latter-day shows at certain moments. It then kicks into a killer jam of “Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks),” which is one of the tastiest versions of this particular song I’ve heard in all time. On paper, going from this to “Ship Of Fools” doesn’t sound like the wisest choice, but somehow Garcia and crew are able to wind the jam down to a more moderate tempo, and while I still question leading out from a jam like that to a song such as this, it works surprisingly well.

The overall vibe from this show – the first in the box set from outside the States – is not as strong as a few of the previous concerts, and it does have its moments where the listener questions why it was chosen over other previously unreleased shows from this time period. Still, it’s one of the cleaner “Wall Of Sound” shows I’ve heard, and has enough moments to make it worth the while.

SHOW RATING: B-
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET TEN: 9/28/1975, San Francisco, CA

Fun fact: In the year 1975, the Grateful Dead only played four concerts, one of which was released in its entirety on One From The Vault. If you were lucky enough to get the bonus disc for the box set Beyond Description, you have their entire Kezar Stadium set from March 23 (less the “Johnny B. Goode” encore).

That doesn’t leave a whole lot of previously unreleased shows for the folks in the Grateful Dead Archives to choose from for this set – so while this isn’t the greatest show from this period in their history, it could be understood if you wanted to cut them a little slack (though, honestly, I wouldn’t have complained had the Great American Music Hall show from August been re-released – I love that show).

This particular show can be described in one word: sloppy. Entire verses are forgotten, bridges are missed, especially in “King Solomon’s Marbles” (a new song, I’ll grant you, but they played it almost flawlessly at their previous show). Yeah, a little bit of this was expected in a typical Dead concert, but the level on this show borders on unforgivable. This is, after all, a band that had been together for nearly ten years, and their level of interaction and being able to change musical flow on almost unspoken cues was legendary, even in their early days. It just ain’t there on this one. (Perhaps the band was distracted by the fact that someone was giving birth at this show? Whether it was actually in the crowd or backstage, it’s never fully clarified – maybe two births?)

Compared to shows from the previous few years, this one is shorter, clocking in at just two discs, but it does have its moments. For one thing, it’s great to hear the two-drummer attack of Kreutzmann and Hart again during “Drums,” and while it’s weird hearing harmonica that’s not being provided by McKernan (who had died two years prior), Matt Kelly from Kingfish does add some unique texture to songs like “Beat It On Down The Line.” (I’d hesitate, though, on calling one track “The Eleven,” as it maintains basic 4/4 time, not 11/8 time like the versions I’ve grown to love do.)

Also interesting, but not uncommon: I’m so used to hearing “Help On The Way / Slipknot!” paired with “Franklin’s Tower,” just like it is on Blues For Allah (which would shortly see the light of release after this show). Hearing “Franklin’s Tower” separated from its musical partner is a bit off-putting, to be honest, but it wasn’t very strange to have “The Music Never Stopped” become the lead-out from “Slipknot!” during this show.

If I had my choice between this set and their Great American Music Hall show, I still would select the latter every time, as it’s just a better show overall, both in terms of quantity and quality (though it’s probably the same in terms of length). This particular show, despite some moments of brilliance, is a letdown.

Oh – if you’ve been listening to the set in chronological order, we’re now 23 discs down. 57 to go.

SHOW RATING: C-
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET ELEVEN: 10/3/1976, Detroit, MI

Kicking off their second decade as a touring band, this particular show is interesting, to say the least. In terms of cohesiveness, it’s a better show than the previous entry in the set, but one would be hard-pressed to call this show a barn-burner.

That’s strange, because the energy level in the performances is noticeably increased. The tempos are slightly higher, the lyrical flubs lessened (to the point that when Garcia misses a verse in “Scarlet Begonias,” it’s turned into a brief instrumental…but it works!), thus it should be a decent show. On paper, that’s how I’d describe it.

Yet there is still something intangible missing from this show – it doesn’t make it bad, mind you. But it lacks the crispness that earlier shows had, a crispness that the Dead would recapture from time to time with some inspired performances over the remainder of their career.

Indeed, there are some fine moments during this show. The interaction between Weir and Garcia during “Mama Tried” is particularly inspiring, and it’s always nice to hear “The Wheel” make an appearance – this show being its first (and, thankfully, not its last, though we’re going to have to wait a long while to hear it again).

I’ll admit that “Looks Like Rain” has never been a favorite Dead song of mine, but Weir and crew do a nice job with it as it, too, makes its debut on this set. One other debut, “Comes A Time,” is not as praise-worthy, and is more plodding than many Garcia selections. (We’re going to see this song pop its head up a few more times; here’s hoping it was just this particular version that was nearly sleep-inducing.)

I know that camps are divided regarding this particular era of the Dead, in that you either like these shows or you don’t. (Their magical run in 1977 is excepted from this…yet another multiple CD set I have to get to. Patience, Jason, patience.) I still think this one is worth checking out, and it does have enough material to make it worth the listener’s time (though I still question why the second disc is only four songs. I mean, I know it was to keep the bulk of the second set as a cohesive unit, and breaking at the end of “Drums” does make some sense).

Is this show essential listening? Honestly, no… but I hesitate calling it one for diehard fans only.

SHOW RATING: C+
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET TWELVE: 4/25/1977, Passaic, NJ

1977 was known to be a magical year for the Dead, but this particular show – while enjoyable to listen to – doesn’t seem to capture that genie in a bottle moment.

Part of it, I guess, depends on the listener’s view of certain songs. I, for one, never particularly cared for “New Minglewood Blues,” so opening the show with it was a bit of a letdown, though Garcia does try to bring the vibe back up with a fairly good rendition of “Deal.” But it then becomes an issue of Garcia’s love of slow, dragging ballads which bring the first set to an absolute crawl – “They Love Each Other” (a song, admittedly, I’ve never liked), “Peggy-O” (ditto) and “Ship Of Fools” all threaten to drag the first set completely under.

I do, however, have to give some props to the “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” one-two punch – while I wouldn’t count these either among my favorite Dead songs, this particular performance has just the right mixture to keep the listener interested and grooving.

It is the second set which turns out to be the saving grace. Opening with “Scarlet Begonias” and easing into “Fire On The Mountain” almost always is a great decision, and the version here is no exception. An early “Terrapin Station” (fresh off the album’s release around that time) and a smokin’ “Drums” makes for happy Deadheads (though I was surprised to hear “Drums” segue directly into “Wharf Rat,” and not “Space” – strange, methinks.)

It is interesting (to me, at least) that their encore of “U.S. Blues” is one of the most energetic takes I’ve heard in a long time, almost as if the band was pouring everything they had into this particular performance. In a way, it’s strange to hear cymbals crashing everywhere and Garcia singing with such passion on this one – not that I’m complaining, of course. I just wonder why they couldn’t have used some of that energy earlier in the show, especially in the first set.

This particular show is the second which was released separately from the box set on vinyl – an interesting choice, to be sure, but not a bad one. Even with a fairly sleepy first set, the second set and encore power this one into a potentially powerful show which lives up to the mythology of the ’77-era Dead.

SHOW RATING: B-
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET THIRTEEN: 5/14/1978, Providence, Rhode Island

The “Keith & Donna” era of the Grateful Dead comes to a close in this box set with this particular show (though their actual last performance with the band would be on February 17, 1979). And, while I admit I never was a fan of this particular era of the band (despite it producing the “Help/Slip/Franklin” pastiche that I consider to be a masterpiece), this particular show has its moments.

Energy-wise, it does feel to be a little more ramped up than other shows from this era. Even on some of the ever-present Garcia ballads, the tempo seems just a step or two higher – and, believe it or not, that makes a world of difference. “Ship Of Fools” in the second set has a healthy energy to it, making this one of the more interesting versions I’ve heard in a while, while “They Love Each Other” actually sounds interesting for the first time I can remember.

The energy carries over to the uptempo numbers as well. “Eyes Of The World” absolutely crackles with life, and Garcia’s staccato guitar work seems to burst forth from the speakers. Likewise, “Let It Grow” has a heretofore unheard power, thanks to a little added speed.

Donna Godchaux’s backing vocals seem to be the strongest I’ve heard them, but the keyboard work of Keith Godchaux sometimes feels like it’s pushed down in the mix a bit too much. Again, while I wasn’t particularly enamored with Keith Godchaux’s approach to the keyboards in his time with the Dead (particularly what seemed to be an over-reliance on piano and eschewing synthesizers), there are times when his keyboard work cried out to be noticed, but to no avail on this particular night.

Of particular attention is the version of “Drums” at this show, which almost has a jungle-like feel with the addition of what sound like animal snarls intermixed in with the percussion. It’s daring… and it works.

Dead aficionados have claimed that 1978 was not a particularly strong period for the Grateful Dead, but I’d dare to argue that this show may suggest otherwise.

SHOW RATING: B
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET FOURTEEN: 10/27/1979, South Yarmouth, MA

Full disclosure: If I had to declare myself a fan of a certain era of the Dead, it would be the time Brent Mydland was behind the keyboards and microphone. He just seemed to add that special something to both the performances and the songwriting (though he wasn’t given as much of an opportunity for the latter).

That said, if this was the first thing I ever heard with Mydland being a member of the Grateful Dead, my response would have been: Meh.

Granted, his vocals and keyboard work do add a new level to the music. However, the vast portion of this particular concert just seems to drag, as if the band is exhausted. There’s very little excitement, especially in the first set; “Candyman” and “Stagger Lee” do not help matters much, nor does the tandem “Lost Sailor”/”Saint Of Circumstance,” two songs I just never really warmed up to. And it doesn’t help that, at least in the beginning, the vocals are poorly mixed so that Mydland’s harmonies are lost.

Another issue is “Easy To Love You,” the first Mydland-penned song in the Dead’s repertoire (co-written with John Barlow). Simply put, I don’t like it. It’s too scattered with its rhythm, and just never connects with the listener (or, at the least, this listener).

I will admit this: I was skeptical about leading out from “Dancing In The Street” directly into “Franklin’s Tower,” but, somehow, it worked. Honestly, of the three CDs making up this particular show, these two songs comprising the entire second disc would be in my player on repeat (even though “Dancing In The Street” is not my all-time favorite Dead cover). Yes, the disc clocks in at a measly 31 minutes, but one can understand that they didn’t want to break up the non-stop jams that followed it.

This particular show features yet another cut from the soundboard to what has to be an audience recording; I’ll let you find it yourself. Look, I understand that we should be grateful – no pun intended – for the release of such a treasure trove of material. But I also can’t help but think that there had to be full shows in their vaults which didn’t necessitate the need to intersperse lower-quality (note I’m not saying “bad”) audience recordings with pristine soundboards.

Even with the cut, the third disc (along with the previous disc) does finally start to show the potential this lineup of the Dead had, but it sometimes feels like it’s a little too late to save this particular show after the plodding first set. All in all, not one of my favorite inclusions in this collection.

SHOW RATING: C-
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET FIFTEEN: 11/28/1980, Lakeland, FL

The halfway point – at least in terms of years – arrives with this set, and while it’s an improvement over the prior year’s selection, it still doesn’t necessarily catch the Dead at their strongest.

One head-scratching moment for me is the inclusion of “Passenger” – in which Donna Godchaux’s part is ably covered by Mydland. But it just doesn’t feel like the song completely jells for the band, and it has a bit of a tentative groove, almost as if they weren’t 100 percent certain with how to perform the song post-Godchaux. (Don’t worry, they’d try again next year…but I’m spilling secrets again. Bad reviewer!)

However, this show features the first appearance of “Space” in these sets to date – and while it’s a bit shorter, it has a pretty good vibe to it. Yes, this experimental portion of Dead shows could be very hit or miss, but this time, I’d label it as a hit.

Performance-wise, this show captures the Dead at what would have to be seen as a stagnation point. (I am overlooking the acoustic run of shows performed in San Francisco which would become the Reckoning album and Dead Ahead home video – which, admittedly, did seem to inject some life into their performances.) In terms of new material, it seemed as if there was not a whole lot to get excited about; “Feel Like A Stranger” is the only song from Go To Heaven which makes the cut at this show, and is ironically a high point.

For the most part, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say this particular show was bad, it does often feel like the Dead were merely going through the motions. For every high point like “Terrapin Station” or the rarity “Deep Elem Blues,” there are songs like “Little Red Rooster” and “Peggy-O” which threaten to derail the whole train.

The resurgence of popular fame was still several years away for Garcia and crew, although you can hear (and sometimes feel) the loyal fanbase supporting them. Still, this is an average show which has a few moments worth the listener’s time, but otherwise is fairly uneventful.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

SHOW RATING: C
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET SIXTEEN: 5/16/1981, Ithaca, NY

I’m not going to deny it: this show is kinda hard to simply pin down. Running from complete re-energization to almost overdoing it at times, then dipping back into the slow, plodding songs, this particular show is a complete rollercoaster ride.

Maybe it was the way Dan Healy mixed this particular show – a little heavy on Mydland (not that this is bad, but when it overlaid Garcia’s guitar it could get a bit too much), a little low on the treble side. Maybe it was the fact that this was around the time that Garcia’s drug use was becoming a huge issue. Maybe it was just that it was an off night with some admittedly superb performances.

When I can find a post-Donna version of “Passenger” that makes me smile (as well as the last one this set will feature), that’s worth noting. When I can find a version of “Lost Sailor”/”Saint Of Circumstance” that I actually liked listening to, that’s worth setting off fireworks. And a hot “Spanish Jam” leading into a “Drums” where you can hear Bill Kreutzmann absolutely enjoying himself…well, that says volumes.

But there are moments that aren’t as sparkly. I never understood why, with their vast catalog of songs, the Grateful Dead felt like they had to rely on old chestnuts like “C.C. Rider” (and, unfortunately, we’re not done with that song yet). And Garcia really does threaten to take down the energy levels in the first set with “Friend Of The Devil” (as the second song, no less) and “Althea” – sorry, but I still hate that song.

Yet at times, it feels like the band is too amped up, energy-wise. They absolutely fly through a version of “Bertha” which almost begged them to spend more time developing it. Likewise, Weir and crew almost turn “One More Saturday Night” into a speed-metal version, as if they just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge and end the show.

Yet they chose an interesting encore: a nine-minute take on “Uncle John’s Band,” almost as if they didn’t want the party to end. It was admittedly a confusing selection, but worthwhile nonetheless.

I can’t say that this particular show is essential listening, but it does seem to capture the Dead at a musical crossroads, which is how some Deadheads have described this particular portion of their career.

SHOW RATING: C+
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET SEVENTEEN: 7/31/82, Austin, TX

This show can be summed up in one word: sloppy.

It starts with Garcia fucking up the first verse on the opening song, “Alabama Getaway,” and it just seems to go downhill from there. The entire first set feels like it’s on autopilot, despite Mydland’s attempt to kick-start it with a mildly profane verse of “Little Red Rooster.” But another Garcia lyric flub – this time on the chorus of “Brown Eyed Women,” which throws almost the whole band off – really made me wish that intermission was coming soon.

The second set…well, I honestly don’t know if it was equipment problems, continued sloppiness or just a piss-poor mix by Dan Healy, but at times you can’t hear Garcia’s guitar, most notably at the beginning of “Estimated Prophet,” when the guitar effects should be wailing out the recognizable first notes of the track. Phil Lesh’s bass is almost non-existent, which leads me to think the problems, at least the bulk of them, are due to the mix.

However, leave it to the Dead to finally find their groove in the second set, albeit very late. By the time “Eyes Of The World” kicks off, Garcia still sounds a bit shaky in the vocal department, but the band is finally on fire, which continues into an explosive “Drums” (though “Space” seems a tad rough).

A rare Weir lyrical mess-up does threaten to derail “Truckin’,” but they were able to get back into the song fairly quickly… only to lead into “Morning Dew,” another usually plodding Garcia-led track which threatens to drag down the energy that had finally built up. However, this particular version is a little livelier, and especially due to the interchange between Garcia’s leads and Mydland’s keyboard work, it proves to be enjoyable.

The first half of the ‘80s were known as a dark period for the Grateful Dead; unfortunately, this show doesn’t do much to break that image. So far, this one is easily the worst show in the whole batch.

SHOW RATING: D+
CUMULATIVE RATING: C

SET EIGHTEEN: 10/21/1983, Worcester, MA

After the near train-wreck that was the 1982 show on this collection, this set from 1983 is an absolute breath of fresh air. Featuring a much tighter-sounding band (as well as introducing a few songs heretofore not featured in this box set), it shows that even in their “dark” period there were times the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead could still be found happily trippin’ down that golden road.

Although still a little shaky at times, Garcia’s vocals sound stronger than they had in several years (at least in terms of this collection), and at times he seems to recapture the power he had as a singer in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Garcia only seems a little uncertain with the lyrics on “Touch Of Grey,” which closes out the second set (leading to the “Johnny B. Goode” encore), but as this was a fairly new song in their repertoire, I can understand a little fumbling this time.

“Touch Of Grey”…if you go into this show expecting to hear the song that essentially catapulted the band to superstardom in the ‘80s, you’re going to be disappointed. The early versions of this song – that is, prior to In The Dark – feature a much faster, looser interpretation of the song, and one would be hard-pressed to listen to it and predict that it would become the only top 10 hit the band would ever have. Still, from a historical perspective, its first appearance on this collection is interesting.

One other debut (again, only in terms of this collection), “My Brother Esau,” actually sounds like it had been part of the lineup for years, it’s that tight musically. It sometimes is a pity that it didn’t become a core part of the Dead’s lineup – up until the re-release of In The Dark, it had only been a cassette B-side, and it was sparingly played live. (There is one more version upcoming in this collection, but we’ll talk about that when we get to it.)

It is interesting that there are only a smidgen of the plodding numbers that Garcia seemed to rely on in this set, and even there, one of them (“Loser”) actually has some nice energy behind it. Later on, “Wharf Rat” seems to try to adapt a slightly different tempo, which is a little off-putting to this listener, but doesn’t destroy the song itself.

If this particular show proves anything, it’s that even closing in on 20 years together, the Dead could still find magic in their live performances and make the show absolutely electric for their fans. Coming off a disappointing experience with the 1982 set, this one is an absolute breath of fresh air.

SHOW RATING: B+
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET NINETEEN: 10/12/1984, Augusta, ME

In the song “New Speedway Boogie,” Robert Hunter wrote, “One way or another the darkness got to give.” Just about two months before Garcia’s first intervention (and subsequent arrest for drug possession), this show captures a band which is most definitely under that dark cloud. The funny thing is, with the exception of trying to cover it up with all sorts of vocal effects (which are annoying as hell), this actually isn’t that bad of a show in terms of energy and execution.

In a sense, it seems like Garcia pours all the pain he was experiencing into his guitar playing and his singing – and, as a result, it actually is surprisingly good. Granted, we don’t have the visual of an isolated Garcia, his chin all but glued to his chest as he plays. But, if you were to base an opinion on the music alone, you may be hard-pressed to know that anything was wrong.

Oh, sure, there is a weird audio glitch just as Mydland starts off “I Don’t Need Love,” Garcia seems like he’s miles away from his microphone to start “Jack-A Roe,” and Garcia does go down a very strange path with his guitar line right near the end of “Morning Dew.” And, there is most definitely a tone or speed change during “Uncle John’s Band,” which suggests another change of sourcing for the music.

The only real misstep, to me, is the inclusion of “On The Road Again,” solely because it’s lacking the magic that the all-acoustic version had. Even “Lost Sailor / Saint Of Circumstance” again seems like it’s the right song at the right time – good gravy, could this one actually be growing on me as a result of listening to this box set monstrosity?

The whole show just seems to be crackling with energy. Listen to “It’s All Over Now” or “Morning Dew,” and you can hear the intensity oozing from the loudspeakers. Breaking up “Uncle John’s Band” to fit in “Drums,” “Space” and a partial “Playing In The Band” (which is more like a nice, informal jam) took skill to pull off, but it worked well.

Deadheads are very much passionate about their favorite eras of the band, often divided up among who was keyboardist at the time, and many consider the mid-‘80s to be some of the hardest shows to listen to. More shows like this one, though, could get some people to change their minds – if only the frickin’ echo effects were turned off on the vocals.

SHOW RATING: B
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET TWENTY: 6/24/1985, Cincinnati, OH

If the previous show in this set was a picture of how things could be when all (well, most) cylinders were firing, this show is the complete antithesis of that. Sloppy performances and a complete over-reliance on echo vocal effects sink this show almost from the get-go.

It sometimes feels like the Dead never got “Alabama Getaway” right when they performed it live, and the version on this show opener – the last appearance of the song in this box set – is no exception, though it is the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, this seems to be the high point of the show.

Throughout these three CDs, it seems like Garcia shouts his vocals rather than croons them, almost as if he’s lost control of his vocal power. And even though he sometimes is best left to his own devices when he’s solely the guitar player on some songs, it often sounds like his leads belong in a different number than the one the group is currently playing.

It goes like this through the bulk of the show – half-assed leads, missed vocal cues (I mean, how do you fuck up “Iko Iko”?!?), and one of the strangest “Space” renditions I’ve ever heard, to the point I was wondering if the electronics in my house had gone awry. All in all, it’s not a comfortable show to listen to.

And then, there’s the goddamned echo on the vocals. At best, it’s just annoying. But this happened to be a show where Bob Weir was a little more talkative (that is, he actually said something more than that the band was taking a short break), so each time he spoke, the echo effect followed. Reading some message boards about this set, I know the echo was a bane of many listeners; I myself can’t wait until I hit the point where they stop using it during the shows (or at least severely dial it back).

The thing is, this should have been a show to celebrate. It was the 20th anniversary year for the Dead, and this particular outing featured some songs which didn’t get much play. I mean, “Smokestack Lightnin’”! “Cryptical Envelopment”! (Also, making a return appearance is “My Brother Esau,” though this version is nowhere near as strong as the version played on the 1983 show, and is the final appearance of the song in this set.)

It is bound to happen with live shows from the Dead that the listener gravitates back to certain ones, while other shows leave a less than pleasant taste in their mouths. This particular show makes me crave the aural version of mouthwash, and easily tops 1982 for the title of the worst set (to date) in the whole collection.

SHOW RATING: D
CUMULATIVE RATING: C

SET TWENTY-ONE: 5/3/1986, Sacramento, CA

Listening to this particular show, it almost seems impossible to believe that just two months after they left the stage on this particular night, Jerry Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma and almost died.

This show really is a renaissance for the Dead; the energy levels are increased, the playing and singing are significantly improved, and the vocal effects… well, they’re still there, but they are used more sparingly (thank God).

A particularly short show, the band eschewed their usual encore due to equipment issues Weir and Garcia were having. So, we’re left with two hours of tunes… and not a single note seems to be wasted. Old chestnuts like “The Race Is On” and “Beat It On Down The Line” return to the set, while songs I admit are not my favorites like “C.C. Rider” actually take on a life of their own this time around.

Yeah, maybe Garcia doesn’t really stretch things out on tracks like “Scarlet Begonias” or “Fire On The Mountain,” and retrospect suggests that physically he was most likely struggling, so we should be happy with what we are offered.

If anything, this show – or, for that matter, any show in 1986 – could be seen as the end of one era for the Dead, as they were on the cusp of “superstardom” with the pending release of In The Dark. For this particular audience, there wasn’t the constant expectation of them playing “Touch Of Grey,” so there was more of a free spirit to this particular set. It could well be seen as one of the last examples of the Dead, unencumbered by the industry they had thumbed their noses at for so long.

It does have to be noted, though, that the dreaded echo effect returns in full force right at the end of “Sugar Magnolia,” which not only kinda wrecks this performance but also destroys both Weir and Phil Lesh’s attempts to explain why there would be no encore.

This show still is a nice recovery after the previous selection, and is one I could see myself going back to repeatedly.

SHOW RATING: B
CUMULATIVE RATING: C

SET TWENTY-TWO: 9/18/1987, New York, NY

If the Grateful Dead needed a miracle, 1987 was the year. Garcia had survived his diabetic coma from the previous year, the band was celebrating their biggest success with In The Dark, and – at least judging from this particular concert – the whole band was re-energized. When Weir opens the show before a single note of “Hell In A Bucket” is played by doing a Bullwinkle joke featuring Garcia, you just know you’re in for a great time.

I’ve always found myself being critical of Garcia post-coma; it seemed like his guitar playing was never as strong afterwards as it had been prior to 1986. However, this show – along with the discovery separate from this set that, near the end of his life, Garcia was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome – proved to me that he still knew how to make a guitar sing. Just listen to “Sugaree” from this set, and hear the fire that bursts from the strings, along with the crowd’s recognition that they’ve just heard something very, very special.

In fact, Garcia seems to be set on making sure he puts on the best show he could, almost as if to say if this were his last one, he’d be able to go out on a high note. Prior to hearing his vocal acrobatics on “Morning Dew,” the last time I heard Garcia stretch like that was at their final show, when he sang a rendition of “So Many Roads” that left many Deadheads in tears. Some of his performances in this show are just as powerful.

It even seems to push Weir into ranges he normally wasn’t ready to explore; he goes a little wild with the vocals on “Good Lovin’” (complete with a brief “La Bamba” interlude, which is a lot of fun), and even daring to do some Pigpen-like rapping with the crowd.

It is interesting to note – but not surprising – that “Touch Of Grey” is not in this particular show. Naturally, they didn’t play the song every night, and as much as the song brought them significantly more fame, it also was a bit of an albatross around their necks. So, it can actually be refreshing to know they had more than that one bullet in their gun.

The final two-disc show in this set, it indeed is a show that has the listener begging for more, and was a pleasant return to form for the Grateful Dead.

SHOW RATING: A-
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET TWENTY-THREE: 7/3/1988, Oxford, ME

After the intense power of the previous show, I guess it was to be expected that the energy level would drop a bit with this particular concert. However, it is notable in that it highlights the vocal work of Brent Mydland like no other concert from his run in the band that is featured in this set.

Yes, the Dead were mostly the “Jerry and Bob Show” when it came to vocals. But Mydland was perhaps a more powerful singer than Garcia and Weir combined, and it just felt like his skills were underutilized far too often. This show corrects that oversight.

Of particular note are the only appearances of two Mydland-fronted songs – “Hey Pocky Way” and “I Will Take You Home”. I honestly regret that the latter only makes one appearance, as it is one of my favorite songs from the Grateful Dead – though I wish that Garcia had kept his guitar noodlings to a bare minimum, as this song doesn’t really call for them. As for “Hey Pocky Way” – not a bad track, and I do have to wonder why it wasn’t featured often during live Dead shows.

Also interesting to note that “Touch Of Grey” is featured for the final time in this box set. I understand that the band wanted to be known for more than this song, so one can forgive the powers that be for not featuring it on every show post-1987. That said, it does kind of feel like it’s getting short-shifted in the collection (though its absence does leave the door open for other pseudo-rarities to poke their heads out).

In terms of the overall show, the vibe isn’t quite as exciting as the featured 1987 concert, though the “Drums” portion is especially trippy. Both “Estimated Prophet” and “Eyes Of The World” feel like rote performances, and could have been far more powerful. Perhaps it was just an off day for Garcia and Weir.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good show, and had I listened to it separate from the others in this collection, I’d probably be all over it with praise. It has some great moments, but one has to wonder if it could have even been better.

SHOW RATING: B
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET TWENTY-FOUR: 10/26/1989, Miami, FL

After several great years of rebirth and energy, this show – more correctly, this period – might be seen as the beginning of the true decline of the Grateful Dead. And it boils down to one factor: Garcia’s vocals.

Simply put, his vocals sound totally shot throughout this show, like he’s straining to even sing the most basic of his lines. Make no mistake, his guitar work was still good (though I’m now asking myself more and more why Garcia felt like he had to provide noodling solos as background even when people were singing).

One could have argued that this should have been the time for Mydland to have been given more of a chance to provide lead vocals. However, I question whether this was also the beginning of the time when he was fighting the demons that would lead to his fatal drug overdose in July 1990. As it is, he shines when he is given the chance to be the lead singer, even if he tended to get a little more vulgar with his lines at times (see: “Little Red Rooster”). Maybe that’s why the curators of this box set chose 1989 to be the farewell appearance of Mydland, not the actual year of his death.

Overall, this show is not the greatest in the bunch. Most of the selections culled from Built To Last aren’t the greatest live – hell, I never liked “Victim Or The Crime” – though “Blow Away” is performed well. And while any inclusion of “Dark Star” should be cause for celebration, this particular version sinks due to some questionable tangents they take following the second verse, as well as Garcia’s strained vocals. Simply put, it’s changed from the spacey days of the late ‘60s, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what it’s become.

SHOW RATING: C
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET TWENTY-FIVE: 10/27/1990, Paris, France

The final era of the Grateful Dead – namely, the Vince Welnick-era – kicks off with this particular concert. Also joining the band is Bruce Hornsby, whose presence isn’t as forefront as one might have expected. If anything, it seemed like the Dead were trying to meld the Keith Godchaux era with the Brent Mydland by featuring acoustic piano and electric keyboards, respectively. If anything, Hornsby and Welnick meld together very well, with neither one trying to steal the limelight from the other.

While Garcia’s vocal decline continues with this show, he admittedly does sound better than he did the previous year, and his guitar skills are still fairly sharp. If anything, perhaps the worst thing one could say about Garcia’s role in this show is that he doesn’t seem to be pushing himself like he used to. From the song selection to his actual performance, it just has the feel that he’s going through the motions (though, following Mydland’s death, one couldn’t blame Garcia if he was).

For all the grief that Welnick seemed to have taken during his time with the band, one has to admit that his keyboard work was a natural fit for the Dead, and vocally he fit in well (even if he didn’t quite have the earthy grittiness that Mydland possessed). I questioned previously why the curators chose not to feature a final Mydland show as their 1990 selection; this concert actually answers the question for me adequately.

That said, it’s not a particular show that would be one I’d keep returning to. There are some weird technical issues going on at the start of the show with the drums, but these get resolved fairly quickly. Overall, it’s not as exciting of a show as one might have hoped for. Perhaps it’s because the Mydland-led songs were now mothballed, perhaps the band was just tired. Truth is, I can’t pinpoint the exact reason.

Does this mean it’s not a good show? Not in the slightest. It’s interesting hearing “Saint Of Circumstance” without the “Lost Sailor” lead-in, and this particular rendition of “Playing In The Band” (with “Drums” and “Space” sandwiched between the two halves of the song) is one of the better latter-day versions.

If anything, this could be considered a transition show, as the group learned how to live without Mydland’s presence and was learning how Welnick and Hornsby fit in with the group. It’s not a terrible show by any means, but it’s also not one which instantly leaps out at the listener as one to go back to regularly.

SHOW RATING: C+
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET TWENTY-SIX: 9/10/1991, New York, NY

When I first saw the listing for this show, I immediately thought, “Oh, no… not Branford.”

Branford Marsalis was a more frequent guest with the Grateful Dead in the Mydland and Welnick eras. While he is a very talented musician, I just never thought his saxophone work added anything to the Dead’s sound overall. Such is the case with this show; while not a bad concert, Marsalis either seems to just blend into the background, or he seems to contribute at times when his horn was really not needed.

A notable exception to this, though, is his work on “Estimated Prophet,” a song whose studio version did feature saxophone work (albeit not by Marsalis). But on other songs, such as the “Help/Slip!/Franklin’s” triumvirate which I love so much in general, Marsalis often feels like a sixth wheel on a bus which already is travelling with a spare in the form of Hornsby.

Vocally, Garcia still sounds shaky, but he does seem to be a little stronger than he was on the show featured for the previous year. Anyone expecting Garcia to sound like he did in the ‘60s/’70s will be fooling themselves, to be sure, but the damage done to his voice as a result of smoking and drugs is painfully evident, as he sounds older than a man in his late ‘40s. His guitar work is still fairly crisp, though, which helps the overall sound of the band a lot.

I still question, though, what the Dead was trying to prove with the inclusion of “Dark Star” - a comment for which I will eat my words in my review of the next show. It often seems like they are trying to reach for psychedelic just for the ability to say they did so, but the end result sometimes sounds very disconnected.

The tag-team of Welnick and Hornsby on keyboards continues to work very well, though one almost wishes that Hornsby had been given the opportunity to take over lead vocals on at least one song. (A few songs from Hornsby’s days with The Range were highlighted when he started sitting in with the band in 1990.)

I guess if you’re a fan of the times when Marsalis sat in with the Dead, your view of this show will be rosier than my own. For myself, it’s not a terrible show – hell, it actually got Garcia to talk to the crowd, if only to acknowledge Marsalis’s sitting in with the band – but I honestly can’t say it’s one I’d find myself going back to regularly.

SHOW RATING: C+
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET TWENTY-SEVEN: 3/20/1992, Hamilton, Ontario

This particular show is an ending point in many ways (again, speaking only about the confines of this box set). It is the final time that Hornsby is an unofficial member of the Dead, it is the final show not performed in the United States, and it is the final time that “Dark Star” makes an appearance.

That said, it’s also surprisingly strong for the time, with the entire band (save for Kreutzmann and Hart) taking vocals at some point in the show. Hearing everyone contributing to “Maggie’s Farm” is actually a lot of fun, and made me wish there were more moments like this throughout the set (or at least during Hornsby’s run).

This particular version of “Dark Star” is noteworthy because of many aspects. For one, only the first verse is sung, while the second verse becomes its own instrumental (which proves to be quite powerful). Why the band chose to do that, I don’t know, but it worked. It also isn’t nearly as “cosmic” as more recent versions featured on this set… but, again, that works to its advantage. By becoming more constrained, it actually becomes more powerful.

One other surprise for me is that I’ve found myself liking “Standing On The Moon” more and more, especially as I’ve moved deeper into the band’s recorded history. I can’t say which version I like more, last year’s offering or this version, but it makes me wonder what this could have become had it been released on a studio album.

The closer, “U.S. Blues,” is a little shakier to my ears, and it makes me wonder whether this one should have been retired for its own good. Granted, it wouldn’t have made the diehard fans happy had they done so, but it just seems like it’s lost a lot of the power and magic it had in the ‘70s.

I do recommend listening to this particular show with headphones, especially during “Drums” and “Space.” This is where the cosmic stuff always belonged, and the offering presented here is a hell of a trip.

I’m not knocking this particular show selection, but I do question why they didn’t pick a show which featured the Welnick-led encore of “Baba O’Riley”/”Tomorrow Never Comes.” The version from their RFK show particularly stands out in my mind. (Of course, I’m probably now doing what every single Deadhead worth their weight in salt will do at some point in listening to this monstrosity; we all seem to know what would have fit better.)

SHOW RATING: B
CUMULATIVE RATING: B-

SET TWENTY-EIGHT: 3/27/1993, Albany, NY

I’m torn when it comes to this particular concert, the first in this set featuring only Welnick on keyboards. On one hand, the band itself sounds lackadaisical. There just isn’t any real energy overall to their performances or singing. However, Garcia still is sounding okay, though you can begin to hear his voice and his playing decline.

It is noteworthy that Phil Lesh is given a chance at lead vocals on “Broken Arrow,” and it would be noteworthy if not for the fact I’ve heard other versions which sound much more powerful than this one. Likewise, “Corinna” might not have been one of my favorite latter-day Dead songs, but this one just doesn’t grab me at all like other versions.

Then, there is “Days Between,” a song which just has the feel that it wasn’t fully complete, especially at the end. It almost begs for more development in the chorus as well, and sadly sits as a reminder that Garcia was on the slippery slope that would lead to the ill-fated summer 1995 tour.

This isn’t to say there aren’t memorable moments in the show. “Casey Jones” as a first-set closer is an absolutely cracking idea, and it fits perfectly. Likewise, “Bertha” (making its final appearance on this set) is one of the better later versions of the song.

One could argue that my opinion is clouded by the events of the band’s final years (including Garcia’s second major health crisis and slide back into drug abuse). While I know how poorly Garcia sounded right at the end, I actually have not been very familiar with shows from this time period, so they have been approached with a clean slate. But, as they say in the business, facts is facts.

Again, I can’t say that this is a terrible show, but it just lacks the excitement of Dead shows from even a few years prior. If anything, this features a band who really sounded like they needed a break, but the machine would not let them stop.

SHOW RATING: C
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET TWENTY-NINE: 10/1/1994, Boston, MA

The next to last show in this box set begins to show Garcia’s decline in a significant manner. There are more lyrical mumbles and more questionable guitar riffs – and this is all in the opening song “Help On The Way.” I honestly began to dread listening to this show based on this extremely rocky start.

Here’s the thing, though: while this show doesn’t feature the Dead at their peak, it does turn out to be surprisingly good. Garcia seems to get stronger as the show progresses in both his singing and his playing, leading up to “So Many Roads.”

Quick side note: I was at the final Grateful Dead show on July 9, 1995, when Garcia brought many in the audience to tears with his impassioned singing of this song, as well as lyrical ad-libs he was throwing in. At the time, I thought that this was Garcia pouring the remainder of his soul into this one performance – and perhaps he was. But the version of “So Many Roads” at this concert is also filled with the same raw emotion (if not as much as the famous Chicago version), making me believe that, had this been included on a Dead studio album, it might have eclipsed “Touch Of Grey” as their signature song.

Also worthy of note is a slightly sped-up version of “Stella Blue.” Now, I don’t know if this was an accident of the tape transfer (as many Deadheads noted about other shows) or if it actually was played a little faster. The thing is, it worked, and it gave amazing life to this song.

Welnick is finally given a chance to showcase his singing and songwriting skills with “Way To Go Home,” a song which strongly suggests that he could have become a powerful force in the band had they continued past 1995. It becomes a pleasant surprise among this show.

In fact, once you get past the extremely weak start, the whole show is a pleasant surprise. From hearing Lesh (who, admittedly, was not the strongest lead vocalist of the band) singing “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to the debut (again, on this set only) of “Liberty” as the encore, this particular concert does a lot to dispel the myth that the Dead post-Mydland (and especially the last two years of Garcia’s life) had very little output to celebrate.

SHOW RATING: B-
CUMULATIVE RATING: C+

SET THIRTY: 2/21/1995, Salt Lake City, UT

It is no secret that the Grateful Dead essentially limped across the finish line of their career – and I am not counting any of the post-1995 bands as actually being the Grateful Dead. While this particular show proves to be one of the better of this year, it is impossible to ignore the gaping holes.

For one thing, while he still shows moments of brilliance in vocals and guitar work, Garcia really sounds tired at this point. There are moments throughout this concert where it seems like his vocal mic was put on mute, as he can barely mumble through the words just one more time. Other times, it is either like his guitar is eliminated from the mix, or that he’s just not capable of playing like he once could. (Again, the knowledge after the fact that he was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome would explain this at times.)

Even this rendition of “So Many Roads” doesn’t have the guitar or vocal magic that even the version one year prior showcased. I know an edited version appeared on the box set So Many Roads many years ago; even so, and understanding how sloppy of a concert it was, that would have been a solid argument for using the July 9, 1995 show as the highlighted version. (Side note: the 45 that accompanies this set does feature the final song performed by the Garcia-led Dead, “Box Of Rain,” from the July 9 show.)

Another argument for that show (or any handful of other shows): why not include the long-awaited live debut of “Unbroken Chain”? Granted, it was never as solidly performed like its studio brethren, but seeing what a major addition it was to their ensemble, I’d have found a way to have included it here.

Welnick gets the short end of the stick here (as, frankly, he seemed to get during his entire time with the band) as he’s only given “Samba In The Rain” for his turn as lead vocalist. I can understand why some Deadheads don’t like this song; although I have a bit of a fondness for the version from Chicago, this rendition just doesn’t do anything for me.

It would have been a travesty to try and cover up the final year of the Grateful Dead’s existence by not including the warts that plagued shows at this point in their career. Sure, they could have taken the easy way out and found superb performances from the entire year and compiled them into a “super show”; the fact they didn’t deserves respect. Still, this is one of the more difficult shows to listen to.

SHOW RATING: C

FINAL THOUGHTS:

In case anyone questions…yes, I listened to the entire box set. Every single note. This particular review has taken me approximately three months to cumulatively write (and, seeing it’s currently the longest review we’ve published, it could take you that long to read it).

This is, naturally, not a set for the casual fan who knows the Dead from “Touch Of Grey” or “Truckin’,” and not many other songs. On the other hand, the diehard Deadhead more than likely has some, if not most, of these shows in some other fashion, and probably welcomed the opportunity to have legitimate versions in their collection.

Listening to this set in chronological order, in its entirety, requires a hell of a lot of dedication, and is something even diehard Deadheads will more than likely only do once. After that, you’ll find yourself gravitating back to certain shows or songs. In that regard, this set is an interesting history lesson about one of the most revered and beloved bands in music, and it captures it well, even among its flaws.

Rating: C+

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