By 1980, The Grateful Dead were having an identity crisis. The psychedelic ‘60s were long gone, and with it went the security of knowing their music would fit into any musical scene. Add into this the departure of Keith and Donna Godchaux in early 1979, and you had a band on the ropes.
Enter Brent Mydland, a keyboardist who had worked with guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir. The first effort with Mydland at the keys and vocals, Go To Heaven, is by no means a great album, but was a step better than their previous effort.
Right off the bat, Mydland proved that his presence was one that was going to be reckoned with. Not only was he not afraid to use all types of keyboards (Keith Godchaux had limited himself to the acoustic piano, for the most part), but he was a good songwriter in his own right and had a unique vocal style of his own. The fact that on his debut with The Dead he sang two songs, “Far From Me” and “Easy To Love You,” doubled his predecessor’s output.
This isn’t to say that he immediately righted the ship of The Dead. “Easy To Love You” is a bit of a throwaway song, and while “Far From Me” is a good effort, Mydland still was learning the ropes with The Dead and coming into his own voice, something that he wouldn’t reach until the band’s final two studio albums.
But his contributions to the keys and backing vocals were one of the reasons that Go To Heaven was a small step in the right direction for The Dead. “Feel Like A Stranger” is possibly one of the more underrated songs from this period in their history (despite being a fan favorite live), and showed the doubters that The Grateful Dead still could make relevant music at the dawn of a new decade and 15 years into their own career.
Likewise, while I’ll admit that “Alabama Getaway” is a lesser single in The Dead’s catalog, it isn’t the 20-megaton bomb that some might make it out to be. It’s an upbeat number featuring some solid guitar and vocal work by Jerry Garcia that, in retrospect, turns out to be somewhat enjoyable.
If only the remainder of Go To Heaven continued with this promise. Garcia’s reliance on slow, plodding ballads continues with “Althea,” one of the sleepiest songs he had done in a while (which is saying something). And I can’t say I’ve ever discovered what was so magical about “Lost Sailor” and “Saint Of Circumstance,” two Weir-penned songs that became interlaced in live shows much like “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” They’re not terrible, mind you…they’re just nothing special. Throw in another interlude from drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (“Antwerp’s Placebo,” a whole 38 seconds’ worth) and another nod to their early days with a modern-day take on “Don’t Ease Me In,” and you have the last studio material The Dead would bring out for seven years.
The reissue of this disc – originally part of the Beyond Description box set – doesn’t add anything special to the mix. Another slow Garcia-vocal ballad of “Peggy-O,” another track that got a lot of mileage live, is featured, as are an early studio version of “Jack-A-Roe” (which was much livelier when played live) and the previously unreleased “What’ll You Raise”…which leaves a lot to be desired. Throw in a handful of live tracks (“Althea,” “Lost Sailor,” and “Saint Of Circumstance”) for good measure, and there’s your finished product.
Like Shakedown Street before it, Go To Heaven is not a very cohesive effort from The Grateful Dead, but it did suggest that the band was moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Pity that it would be near the other side of the decade before the band graced listeners with new studio material.