June 20, 2018

Both Sides of The Dead

The Grateful Dead at The Warfield, San Francisco, October 1, 1980

THE GRATEFUL DEAD, AS THE BAND themselves acknowledged in the recent Long Strange Trip documentary, valued their live performances more than their studio work. Indeed, for many listeners, they were more of an experience than a recording act. To their credit, however, they did try to achieve something on their second LP that wasn’t possible in live performance, or even on a live album. For 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, they combined several live and studio performances — not just presenting some concert tracks and some studio tracks, but blending parts of multiple live and studio recordings together in each of the five songs.

As if this isn’t complicated enough, there are two different mixes of the album. The original 1968 version — often referred to as the “psychedelic” mix — was supplanted by a new, somewhat more conventional one done in 1971 by bassist Phil Lesh. For many years, the psychedelic mix was the rarer, more expensive one to acquire in the US, though this changed in the CD era. UK pressings of the LP continued to use the original mix, and CD reissues also used the psychedelic mix — but recent digital and HD releases used the 1971 mix. It’s been annoyingly hard for collectors to keep what’s where straight.

It makes sense, then, that Rhino’s two-CD fiftieth anniversary deluxe version of Anthem of the Sun presents, finally, both mixes in one package. To tempt those who already have both, there’s also a previously unreleased October 22, 1967 live show from Winterland in San Francisco. This is the first known recording of the Dead with Mickey Hart, who’d joined as their second percussionist just the previous month.

Some Deadhead literature plays up the difference between the two mixes as if they’re almost two entirely different albums, a la how some Velvet Underground fanatics hear two almost entirely different albums in the different mixes (“closet” and conventional) of their self-titled 1969 LP. In truth, however, it’s not going to strike many listeners as enormously different, particularly those that aren’t audiophiles or keeping scorecards on the minutiae of each track.

Anthem of the SunIt’s likely that more Dead fans will prefer the “psychedelic” mix, if only because it more explicitly mirrors the actual psychedelic experience. Not only aren’t there many songs—there are only five tracks, all but one between seven and twelve minutes long — but these cuts aren’t normal “songs” at all, in the usual sense of the word. They’re more like fragments that slide in and out of jams and experimental, sometimes chaotic passages that verge on the atonal. This was done long before surround sound, but there’s a sense of the elements of the tracks swirling around each other, much like elements of the mind might during altered states, or at least during drifts in and out of consciousness.

That’s admirably adventurous, but also missing memorable tunes. Parts of these songs (especially “Alligator”) draw on the frequent blues-rock base of their earliest work; parts of some, like “That’s It for the Other One,” hint at the spacier folk-rock of their next albums; and the sole short track, “Born Cross-Eyed,” is nonetheless almost defiantly weird in its nonstop shifts of tempo and melody, decorated by bursts of trumpet and odd keyboards. The Dead got into more straightforward, accessible songs on some (but by no means all) of 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, and much more so by 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. But that wasn’t high on their priority list for Anthem of the Sun.

Still the band, or at least Lesh, seemed to be making an effort to shape Anthem of the Sun into something more accessible with the early-‘70s remix. You can’t make an album like this into something as accessible as American Beauty no matter how much remixing you do, however. It remains essentially similar to the earlier version in its sprawling eclecticism, in both sonics and structure.

Specific variations aren’t blatant, with a few exceptions. Most notably, “Born Cross-Eyed” ends not with a repeated vocal phrase abruptly fading into nothingness, but a sustained booming E-chord, as kind of a mini-“A Day in the Life”-like finale. “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” is almost a minute shorter, trimming the slow fade into silence. Overall, the psychedelic mix is considerably heavier on the high end, with a harsher and tinnier timbre. The more bottom-heavy remix might make for more comfortable listening, but is missing the more anxious, brittle, and, some would say, thus more psychedelic edge of the original.

If you want somewhat more approachable, song-oriented Grateful Dead from the same era as the early Anthem of the Sun sessions, it’s on the bonus disc of October 22, 1967 live recordings. “Somewhat more” is a key phrase here, though, as some of this is plenty distended, especially by 1967 standards. On the relatively safer side are a couple reliably straightforward renditions of a couple folk covers from their debut LP, “Morning Dew and “Cold Rain and Snow.” Straight blues-rock is also here in Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It on Down the Line” (also done on their first album), the standard “It Hurts Me Too,” and a twelve-minute “Turn On Your Love Light,” showcasing Pigpen’s vocals between the lengthy instrumental breaks.

A couple cuts, however, point toward the directions the Dead would explore on their next album. “New Potato Caboose,” one of Anthem of the Sun’s songs, wasn’t done by the group much onstage, and this live version has more of a straightforward blues-rock arrangement, though at almost ten minutes, it goes on too long. At almost fifteen minutes, “That’s It For the Other One” doubles the length of its studio counterpart and has some different lyrics. It’s by some distance the most forward-looking performance of the live set, and if it goes on too long too, well, it’s not atypical of how the band would stretch out their material in concert.

While this deluxe edition offers a lot of music, it could have been more comprehensive. The short single version of “Dark Star” was recorded during the Anthem of the Sun sessions (and actually issued on 45 a few months before the album), but isn’t here, though maybe it’s being saved for use as a bonus track on a different deluxe edition. The alternate version of “Born Cross-Eyed” on “Dark Star”’s B-side with added feedback is also missing, though it shows up as a bonus track on a couple previous CD reissues.

Of course, there are also plenty of other live recordings from the time, but adding a lot of those would have submerged the album itself. This does the job of presenting the essential core — two cores, really — of Anthem of the Sun, as well as concert material that, if not wholly representative of what the band set out to achieve with the record, at least doesn’t duplicate what’s available on other official releases.


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