The Dead Keep On: Truckin' Up to Buffalo

Doug Collette By

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Grateful Dead
Truckin' Up to Buffalo
Grateful Dead Prod/Monterey Media

A plethora of books have been published since the death of Grateful Dead founder/ leader Jerry Garcia ten years ago (in August). Written by insiders and bandmembers, factual and observed histories and journals, none capture the essence of this band like their music does and this new DVD recorded on the Fourth of July 1989 in Rich Stadium in Orchard Park NY, just outside of Buffalo, presents the latter-day Dead in concert without extraneous material of any kind. Like the packaging itself, a clamshell case with a single color sheet inside containing credits and cover graphics, it is strictly no frills. (The music is also available on its own from GDP/Rhino in a two-cd set)

Varying camera angles give the viewer the sense of perspective of the various bandmembers, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann perhaps the most interesting because their view captures the rest of the group as well as the audience and the venue, one of the gargantuan sports sites the band could fill in the aftermath of their mainstream popularity boost of "Touch of Grey. The latter tune carries its personal resonance when played here, with no chance to mistake it as self-promotion now two years after it 'hit', but betraying an uncanny resemblance to the show opening "Bertha, in its light stepping gait. Len Dell'Amico, who worked with the Dead beginning in the early Eighties, is clearly familiar enough with the band to focus on what the average attendee (if here is such a thing at a Dead show) would focus on.

Much to the delight of videoheads far and wide (kudos to archivist David Lemieux), there's not a trace of animation, save for that simple sort included in the disc menu, to distract from the continuity of a performance running close to three hours total, from one of the best years in the band's later years of existence. There are, however, some fairly hackneyed effects superimposed upon the footage during the "Drums/Space interlude, intrusive enough to make you want to skip over it; while it's arguable these were part of the light show spectacle at the concert itself, in contrast to the rest of the footage, and how illuminating it is to watch the musicians therein, this contrivance prevents the same insight into the work of Kreutzmann and Hart during their spotlight.

For his part, Jerry Garcia, with his grey beard and ponytail positing him as some kind of benevolent pirate by dint of his frequent smiles, displays energy and commitment to a range of selections from the vast Dead repertoire. Both in singing and playing, the venerable guitarist and singer contributes to the direction of the band, but, it's important to note, as an integral individual of six. Full-throated and vigorous in his singing, the portly figure also plays his custom electric guitar with the quick, pointed precision that distinguished him among his contemporaries, whether it's the sprightly likes of the aforementioned "Bertha or the slow-motion tempo of "Row Jimmy. On such material as the latter Garcia's kindred spirit Phil Lesh distinguishes himself as the true navigator of the Dead as a band, prodding, pushing and pulling to avoid what might to some ears sound like lugubrious monotony. The fulsome sonic quality of the recording, originally captured by John Cutler and mixed by Jeffrey Norman, ensures the bassist's contribution is suitably prominent.

Yet that does not in any way discount the color keyboardist Bent Mydland imparts to the sound of this lineup. Playing organ and piano, lending spirited lead vocals (on his original tune "I Will Take You Home" plus "Man Smart Woman Smarter ) and background singing, the hirsute enthusiastic Mydland both looks and plays the part of a lynchpin in the Grateful Dead. Little wonder the band's community took him to heart and mourned his premature passing.

Whether purveying the rootsy likes of "Walkin' Blues or the peer-to-peer imagery of Bob Dylan (with whom the Dead had toured to less than resounding success a few years prior)as on "When I Paint My Masterpiece, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir keeps his occasionally overwrought tendencies in check to infuse his singing and overall stage presence with a youthful ardor that was his role with this band from his enlistment (the ever-present shorts and tennis shoes only a superficial sign of same.)

Just as the Dead saw themselves as merely participants in the cultural gestalt of the Sixties, so did they view single songs as merely pieces of their overall performances. Accordingly, this show begins to gain intensity with the first-set closer, "Deal, and ends up being one of a series of crescendos that might still escape the notice of listeners and viewers too impatient to notice the imperceptible flow at work here. Those naysayers might even argue against the existence of such flow, even with virtually no interruption of the footage, a format which may bore some viewers and delight others for whom the interaction of musicians is the ultimate theatre.

Likewise, there is no interview footage included in an attempt to explain or analyze what's just happened or just about to: as only a single disc, it may be true that this is one DVD with a notable lack of special features—apart from its Dolby 5.1 audio mix, a setlist and an option for visible lyrics i— but it's also true that if there is one band whose performances stand (or fall as the case may be) on their own merits, it's the Grateful Dead.

Visit the Grateful Dead on the web

Tracks: Set One: Bertha; Greatest Story Ever Told; Cold Rain and Snow; Walkin' Blues; Row Jimmy; When I Paint My Masterpiece; Stagger Lee; Looks Like Rain; Deal.

Set Two: Touch of Grey; Man Smart, Woman Smarter; Ship Of Fools; Playing In The Band; Terrapin Station; Drums; Space; I Will Take You Home; All Along The Watchtower; Morning Dew; Not Fade Away. Encore: U.S. Blues.

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

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