Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Grateful Dead: “Dead Ahead” DVD Review

If asked to pick my favorite song, I’d have to say “Ripple.” It’s from one of the best albums of all time, the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. The year of that album’s release, 1970, the Grateful Dead did a series of concerts with acoustic opening sets. Then a decade later they did it again, performing at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Songs from those sets were released on a double album titled Reckoning (an alternate cover bore the title For The Faithful...). Those sets and that album featured my favorite song, “Ripple.”

The shows at Radio City Music Hall also gave us Dead Ahead, an excellent film capturing the warmth and humor of those acoustic sets, as well as the fantastic energy of the electric sets. Originally released on VHS, and then on DVD in 2005, Dead Ahead is being re-issued by Shout! Factory with Grateful Dead Productions, Inc.

Dead Ahead opens with some photos of the band, poster artwork and album artwork. There is then some joking with Al Franken, Tom Davis and Brent Mydland (Brent had joined the band just the year before). Franken and Davis take the stage, joking that they’re going to do an hour of comedy, that the longer they’re on stage, the less the Dead will play. The audience responds appropriately, and Franken and Davis then introduce the band.

We’re treated to an acoustic rendition of the beautiful “Bird Song.” The footage is wonderful, and the sound is really good.  And man, those extreme close-up shots of Jerry Garcia during the song’s jam are incredible.

Bob Weir says, “Well, we’re really having fun now,” and you can hear and see it in the crowd, as well as on stage – the pure joy of the moment. They go into “On The Road Again,” and it is a fun version. Jerry then slows it down with “To Lay Me Down.” I have a memory of a glider over a show, dipping its wings in time to this song.

And then, yes, we get “Ripple.” The crowd is thrilled. So am I. It’s a truly sweet rendition, and reason enough to want to own this DVD. “Let there be songs to fill the air.” This is what music is all about. This is what keeps us going.

A short comedy break features a cameo by Bill Kreutzmann, and then the band goes electric, with “Me & My Uncle” into “Mexicali Blues,” two songs where the narrator shoots and kills someone. What is Phil Lesh laughing about at the beginning of “Ramble On Rose”? And of course at the line “Just like New York City,” the crowd erupts. That song features more great extreme close-ups of Jerry. Hey, look, Mickey Hart is wearing a Skull & Roses T-shirt with Blues For Allah on the back. Things get bluesy with “Little Red Rooster,” a song that features some cool work by Brent Mydland on keys.

There is a bit more silliness with Franken and Davis, this time joking with Jerry and Phil. And then the band does “Don’t Ease Me In,” with more fun stuff from Brent. During “Lost Sailor,” the audience mishears “Where’s the dog star” as “Where’s the Dark Star” and cheers. “Lost Sailor” goes right into an absolutely fantastic version of “Saint Of Circumstance.” (Both of those songs are from Go To Heaven, which came out earlier that year.)

The band does a groovy version of “Franklin’s Tower,” and it’s during that song that the post-production guys start doing a few trippy things with the footage. And just in time for “Drums/Space” (though this was in that brief period when “Drums” was titled “Rhythm Devils”). The camera crew got some excellent footage of the Drums segment, and it’s not until the later part that the trippy effects come into play again. Mickey stays on stage to join in on “Space,” which of course features more trippy effects.

A somewhat short “Fire On The Mountain” leads into a cool “Not Fade Away,” and then the band concludes with a high-energy version of “Good Lovin.’"

Bonus Material

The DVD features approximately fifty minutes of bonus material, include some great footage of the band goofing before going into a pretty instrumental rendition of “Heaven Help The Fool” (from the acoustic set). There is also a fun “Shakedown Street,” always a good song to dance to, and a really good “Samson And Delilah.”

During “He’s Gone,” does Jerry sing “like a steam locomotion”? It sure sounds like it. Let me know what you think. I always love the end of this song. This version is particularly interesting, for Jerry keeps it going after that really pretty section. He just goes off, and it’s great. That leads into “Truckin,’” which is always a crowd favorite.

By the way, the liner notes have some good photos of the band.

Dead Ahead is scheduled to be released on February 12, 2013.

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