Hearing Grateful Dead
's Saint of Circumstance
is a significantly different experience than seeing it. Both the audio and video recordings of Giants Stadium June 17, 1991
are part of a larger box set, appropriately subtitled Shall We Go, You and I, While We Can?
(Rhino, 2019). But the film, featured as last year's annual 'Meetup at the Movies' theatrical screenings, posits a Jerry Garcia
in marked contrast to the figure of years just prior, as captured, for instance, on Crimson White & Indigo
(Rhino, 2010) and the one heard on this triple-CD set.
Comparatively slimmed-down, graying, nimble and frequently smiling on camera during that aforementioned 1989 Philadelphia show, the titular leader of this iconic band just two years later is portly, white-haired and somber. And it is sometimes almost painful to watch the man on this Len Dell'amico film: his altogether serious demeanor reflects the proportionately greater exertion necessary for him to play and sing. The visuals are so distracting as to lessen the impact of the musicianship.
But, listening to the two and a half hour show in the East Rutherford, New Jersey sports venue reveals that effort is fully and completely worth it. Garcia's guitar playing is pointed and precise, while his navigation of the ensemble is careful, purposeful and rife with surprise in both selection of song(s) and the segues between them. The bold opening of "Eyes of the World" aside, at this juncture of its history, the Grateful Dead are not visionary improvisationalists with ideas and energy to spare, as on Pacific Northwest '73-'74: Believe It If You Need It
(3CD) (Grateful Dead Prod., 2018). But they are indeed wiser, individually and collectively, which only renders most appropriate an encore of The Band
's "The Weight"
Singing in turn around the stage about sharing the load may indeed be microcosm of how the Dead were able to function at a high level during this period of their career (especially as even bassist Phil Lesh gets to chime in on Robbie Robertson
's song) . In the wake of their mainstream success with "Touch of Grey," audiences grew to the point operational issues became preeminent for the band's tours, a point of contention, the story goes, with Garcia. In this particular show, the man's ambivalence permeates "Ship of Fools," while "Might As Well," , casual to a fault though it may sound, is a self-referential commentary on Jerry's successful solo career. More pointed still, however, is Jerry's vocal on "New Speedway Boogie:" as hoarse as his voice sounds, there's no denying his emphatic delivery of the rare-played Garcia/ Robert Hunter composition inspired by the 1969 Altamont debacle.
The tenderness is equally tangible in the vocal to "China Doll." This rendition of the moving ballad leads to a knotty interval featuring (but not limited to) "Playing in the Band," an extended segment of purposeful if not wholly open-ended jamming that culminates in a "Sugar Magnolia" that sounds all the more ebullient in contrast to the subdued passage just prior. Saint of Circumstance
is memorable for just such intervals, the progression of which essayist Jesse Jarnow fairly successfully describes in his play-by-play; the description of the "Uncle John's Band," sandwiched between two of the four teases of "Dark Star" here, is particularly vivid, even if his prose lacks the sense of wonder other authors such as Blair Jackson have communicated in their own written contributions to other archival titles. Giants Stadium 6/17/1991
is also notable for the presence of multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Bruce Hornsby
. As touring member of the Grateful Dead from September 1990 to March 1992, he possessed technical skill, an inclination to spontaneity not to mention a hearty enthusiasm altogether reminiscent of Brent Mydland; the latter spent over a decade in the group prior to his unfortunate passing in 1990 and sparked Garcia in much the same way Hornsby does. Thus, it is no coincidence the latter is aligned on stage just to the guitarist's left, while the eventual permanent designee, keyboardist/vocalist Vince Welnick of the Tubes, is positioned behind and in back of Jerry, seemingly out of view.
Bob Weir is his usual irrepressible self during Bob Dylan
's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," but Hornsby's voice and accordion are almost equally prominent there and elsewhere, as on the rhythm guitarist/vocalist's "Cassidy," where Bruce's grand piano lends clarity to its melody. Double drummers Micky Hart and Bill Kreutzmann impart a similar rhythmic virtue to the mix too, whether swinging smoothly in tandem, neatly meshing syncopated beats or alternating between acoustic and electric percussion during their "Drums" spotlight; it is during this interlude that the attributes of this forty-eight (!) track recording become most readily apparent in the use of the stereo spectrum.
But the technical expertise applied in this context, respectively, by John Cutler, Jeffrey Norman, David Glasser and the Plangent Processing team, is as direct a reflection of the logistical excellence of such massive concert events as the audio production. Or, in turn, the ultra-glossy, quasi 3D cover imagery here. Yet the digi-pak design is only slightly more appropriate to Saint of Circumstance
than an album title that might well be interpreted as direct homage to Jerry Garcia: this setlist is full of material through which the late cultural icon speaks or tenders implicit personal observation that add weight even to otherwise slight songs like "Loose Lucy."
As introduced prior to release by archivist/producer David Lemieux, discussion of the Giants Stadium set seems to focus almost as much on the scale of such events as the Grateful Dead performances therein. A close and careful perusal of this music on its own terms, however, renders that theme a red herring pure and simple.