Warner Brothers, 1971
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/16/2010
While The Grateful Dead were most comfortable letting their legacy show on a concert stage instead of a recording studio, it’s odd that their second live disc – their second self-titled set, known among Deadheads as “Skull And Roses” and “Skullfuck” – is less like a live Dead show and more like a studio album.
Featuring a set that contained only one previously released song (“The Other One”), this release has some wonderfully brilliant moments, but in the end, the album just doesn’t have the continuity of a live show such as Live/Dead did two short years prior. If this disc did anything, it – along with Europe ’72 one year later – seemed to mark the end of the second phase of The Dead’s career that Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty illustrated.
If this belief is true, then Jerry Garcia and crew were having a great time tying up loose ends with songs such as “Bertha” and “Playing In The Band,” two numbers that became staples in The Dead’s catalog until the end of their time together. While there were longer and louder versions released over the years, I’d be hard-pressed to say that there were any versions better than these two, but I’ll concede this could be because these were the first versions I had ever heard. Other tracks that became standards for The Dead make their recorded debuts here, such as “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” (led in by their take on “Not Fade Away”) and “Wharf Rat.” (Side note: was the obscenity in this one always there, and I’ve just missed it all these years? Shows how much I payed attention.)
The Dead always were a band to pay tribute to their roots, and this is done often through covers of Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried”), Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”), and Kris Kristofferson (“Me & Bobby McGee”), among others. And while it might seem odd to the casual listener for there to be so many covers among this collection, this was pretty much par for the course for The Dead throughout their career, and they tackle the covers with love and respect as if they were their own songs. (Of the three bonus tracks tacked on when this disc was released initially as part of The Golden Road box set, the same can’t be said for their cover of “Oh Boy,” which does sound like the band is merely going through the motions.)
This set also appears to be the beginning of the band’s saying goodbye to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who would succumb to cirrhosis in two short years. McKernan is only given one track to be showcased in – “Big Boss Man” – which is a major change from the early days of the band, when Pigpen would lead the group in 20-minute jams of “Turn On Your Lovelight” or “Good Lovin’.” The fact that Garcia friend and colleague Merl Sanders was brought in afterwards to dub in organ parts on some songs further spells the change in dynamics in the band.
Still, for all this set does right, Grateful Dead doesn’t have an overall great feel to it. Even with its flaws, Live/Dead gave the listener the impression that they were sitting in the first few rows of the Fillmore West, experiencing something special. Make no mistake, there are some incredible performances on this set, but it sometimes feels like it was simply pieced together. (Europe ’72, I could understand, would have this feel, because it was more of a snapshot of moments on the legendary tour, and I do understand the material from this disc was sourced from more than one show.)
Grateful Dead is still very much worthy of space in your collection and serves as yet another disc that marked an upcoming change in the band’s musical philosophy. It’s just a tad unfortunate that it doesn’t completely feel like your typical live album.