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Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks

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Grateful Dead

Formerly The Warlocks

Rhino

2010

Formerly The Warlocks is an ingeniously packaged set of six CDs and assorted memorabilia that documents two "stealth" shows by the Grateful Dead in the autumn of 1989 at the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. Due to the increasing difficulty in managing the group's live appearances in the wake of its 1987 entry into the mainstream with "Touch Of Grey"—from In the Dark (Arista, 1987)—the Dead had been banned from appearing at the Virginia venue. Hence the tongue-in-cheek "rebranding."

The billing, however, did not indicate any undue levity in the Dead organization's administration of the shows or their preparation and execution by the band itself. Quite the contrary, as ticket sales were announced and handled outside the usual channels, the group took pains to reach back into its history for rarely played selections, knowing full well this particular year had been a high-water mark for them as a musical unit—see Truckin' Up to Buffalo (Rhino, 2005) and Crimson, White & Indigo (Rhino, 2010).

Truth be told, the Grateful Dead at the end of the 1980s was arguably in as good or better a space as it had ever been during a career stretching back to 1965. Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jerry Garcia had survived the near-terminal diabetic coma of 1986 and committed himself to a healthy lifestyle as a means of regaining and elevating his musical skills, and it was a process that had in turn ignited the spirit of the group as a whole.

It was perhaps not coincidental that the Dead had seemingly conquered the bugaboo of studio recording with In The Dark, but its attendant success had brought challenges that the Dead confronted with a handful of guerrilla shows like Hampton's. In doing so, the band made a concerted effort to bring the best kind of novelty to the concerts.

That very novelty aspect threatens, however, to overshadow more memorable aspects of the first show, on October 8th. Welcome as it is to hear "Help On the Way" / "Slipknot" / Franklin's Tower" after a four-year absence, the confident means by which the septet navigates the tricky changes and transitions doesn't allow for much extensive improvisation, there or elsewhere during the gig. The sole exception occurs in "Birdsong," a 13-plus minute performance that, at another time in the Dead's career, might well have been merely the harbinger of greater and more extended improvisations later in the evening.

Such explorations are instead compartmentalized. The de rigueur "Rhythm Devils" interval consists of drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart performing for close to 11 minutes on a massive array of traditional and high-tech percussion devices dubbed The Beast. The instrumental interlude that follows, titled "Space," is far less focused, though there's no denying the sensation that comes when the Dead slam into "I Need A Miracle." Both the performers and the audience get charged.

The second set of the two and a half-hour total playing time comes to a close with an impassioned reading of "Morning Dew." Garcia sounds somewhat wan, but no less resolute, as he displays the energy he'd been conserving all evening. A similar sensation arises from the a capella encore of "We Bid You Goodnight," itself reappearing after an extended time on the proverbial shelf. The Dead was never known for its vocal expertise, but it hit all the right notes here, thanks in part to keyboard player Brent Mydland's gusto and the obvious effort Garcia is expending.

The second of the two night runs is as heavy as the first in its inclusion of rare songs, but the nature of the selections affords a more expansive approach to the Dead's improvising. Perhaps the daunting prospect of nailing the long-lost songs generated a case of nerves on the first night, and thus preempted the band's natural inclination toward improvisation. Not so on October 9th.

The group sounds like it can't wait to get going right from the first notes, hitting its stride with "Jack A Roe" and Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
's "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again," then scaling some redoubtable peaks in the second part of the evening. "Uncle John's Band," is sandwiched beween two segments of "Playing In The Band," which is followed by a dangerous "Dark Star." The "Rhythm Devils" segment that proceeds directly from that early classic is of a piece with "Space," and is equally mysterious as it sets the stage for "Death Don't Have No Mercy." Here Garcia shares the lead vocals with Bob Weir and Mydland, each transition upping the sense of foreboding.

While it's undeniable that "Throwing Stones" defuses the radiant atmosphere that continued through Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and the Beatles' "Hey Jude," "Good Lovin'" works to conjure a party atmosphere and, simultaneously, offer homage to the late Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (the Dead's original keyboardist and vocalist). "Attics of My Life" sounds like nothing so much as a benediction to the audience, a bit tentatively rendered, perhaps, but no less of a heartfelt gesture for it. Talk about hitting the right notes: it isn't just the voices but the intent of the lyric images, shared in reciprocity between performer and audience, that conjures a tangible example of the Dead community.

Recorded by the group's soundman, John Cutler, with an eye toward a live album release in 1990—which eventually became Without A Net (Arista, 1990)—the sound on the discs in this box set doesn't quite match the care the band took in preparing for the shows, formally rehearsing for the first time in years. As with the aforementioned releases of this same year, there's a noticeable lack of bottom in the low registers below the undeniable clarity of bassist Phil Lesh's instrument—the double drumming is there, yet uncomfortably indistinct. In contrast, Mydland's electric keyboards sound shrill, though that may be simply the nature of the instruments.

Still, as a musician, Mydland is key to the way the Dead push the limits of their more structured material. The opener, "Foolish Heart," is obviously meant as the follow-up to "Touch Of Grey," but the group doesn't simply play it to get it out of the way, but rather to explore its compositional contours.

Unique as are the setlists, not to mention the performances themselves (at least in selected segments), so is the packaging of Formerly The Warlocks. The contents come in a replica of a wooden cigar box, with artwork burned into the top cover and inside bottom as well. Postcards of the "mothership" venue and the Hampton locality are enclosed, as is a replica of the guidelines for the shows handed out to the attending faithful. There is also a reprint from the local newspaper covering the shows and exploring the Dead phenomenon.

Blair Jackson's accompanying essay is one of his best, a personalized and stylish recounting of this period in Dead history as well as these specific concerts. On top of which, it is printed on the back of a foldout series of great action shots of the band. Replicas of the tickets are included as well as a button (worth wearing!) sporting a Halloween motif, which ties in with the theme for the shows: Grateful Dead in masquerade. It's a great irony that the music within sounds as much or more distinctly its own as at any other time in its career.

Tracks: CD1: Foolish Heart; Walkin' Blues; Candyman; Me And My Uncle; Big River; Stagger Lee; Queen Jane Approximately; Bird Song; Promised Land. CD 2: Help On The Way / Slipknot / Franklin's Tower; Victim Or The Crime; Eyes Of The World; Rhythm Devils. CD3: Space / I Need A Miracle; The Wheel; Gimme Some Lovin'; Morning Dew; We Bid You Goodnight. CD4: Feel Like A Stranger; Built To Last; Little Red Rooster; Ramble On Rose; We Can Run; Jack-A- Roe; Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; Row Jimmy; The Music Never Stopped. CD5: Playing In The Band; Uncle John's Band; Playing In The Band; Dark Star; Rhythm Devils. CD6: Space; Death Don't Have No Mercy; Dear Mr. Fantasy; Hey Jude; Throwing Stones; Good Lovin'; Attics Of My Life.

Personnel: Jerry Garcia: vocals, lead guitar; Bob Weir: vocals, rhythm guitar; Phil Lesh: bass, vocals; Brent Mydland: vocals, keyboards; Mickey Hart: drums, percussion; Bill Kreutzmann: drums, percussion.

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