Monday, May 27, 2019

Grateful Dead: “Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 4: Penn State – Cornell ‘80” (2010/2019) CD Review

Real Gone Music continues to re-issue the Grateful Dead Road Trips series of concert recordings, releasing them in reverse order of their original release. The most recent release is Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 4: Penn State – Cornell ’80, which contains the bulk of the shows the Grateful Dead played on May 6 and May 7, 1980. Like most Grateful Dead fans, I prefer full shows, with the tuning and everything, but that wasn’t what the Road Trips series was really about, at least not for most of its existence. It was about tours. So what this three-disc set contains is most of the first set from May 6th, the entire second set from May 6th, three songs from the first set from May 7th, and the entire second set from May 7th. Neither night’s encore is included. It’s almost more interesting to see what was cut than what was included. For example, the Grateful Dead played “Alabama Getaway” at both shows, and neither performance is included here. (It opened the first set on the 6th and was the encore on the 7th.) Also, Brent’s songs are cut, “Far From Me” from the Penn State show and “Easy To Love You” from the Cornell show. All three of those songs were from their new album, Go To Heaven, which – as is mentioned in this set’s liner notes – the band was promoting with that tour. In fact, Blair Jackson says in the liner notes, “The months in the studio perfecting arrangements gave the new tunes a little extra zip.” So why are they cut?

The first disc is about the first sets of both shows. It begins with “Jack Straw,” the first set opener from May 7th at Cornell University. “Jack Straw” feels a bit tentative at first, but features some nice playing by both Jerry and Bob during the jam. And that’s when the energy kicks in. Their vocals after that jam have a wonderful power. That’s followed by everyone’s favorite game, “Take a step back.” The disc then goes to the Penn State show for the third song of the first set, “Peggy-O” (skipping “Alabama Getaway” and “Greatest Story Ever Told”). And it’s immediately clear that this is a sweet rendition, the audience responding right away. It has a mellow, cheerful vibe that feels just exactly right, and Jerry’s vocals sound great. Bob follows that with a good version of “Me And My Uncle” that seems to have quite a bit of pep to it. That leads straight into “Big River,” which also has a good groove and features Brent’s keys prominently in the mix for his lead. Following these Country Bob slots, Jerry eases into a passionate and beautiful rendition of “Loser.” Then, rather than give us “Far From Me,” the disc returns to the Cornell show for “Cassidy” and “Row Jimmy,” the third and fourth songs of the first set. I’m always happy to hear “Cassidy,” one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, and this is a good version, though without any kind of extended jam. “Row Jimmy” is a really good, sweet version.

The first disc then returns to the Penn State show for the rest of the first set. So we’re missing a total of three songs from that set. “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication” are songs that Bob Weir first recorded with Kingfish during the Dead’s break. The Dead played this combination in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those songs always seemed a bit odd to me (not that that is a bad thing, of course). Later the band played “Supplication” without “Lazy Lightning” (I saw them do it at Shoreline in the 1990s). Anyway, they deliver good versions of both here, particularly “Supplication.” Then Jerry leads the band into “Althea,” a song that was less than a year old at that point and included on Go To Heaven. I’m always struck by the Hamlet reference in this song. I should have asked Robert Hunter about his choice there that one time I met him. The first disc wraps up with the pairing of “Lost Sailor” and “Saint Of Circumstance,” two more songs from Go To Heaven. I never got to see the Dead play “Lost Sailor” (they’d stopped playing it two years before my first show), but I did see them do “Saint” several times. I had a Calvin And Hobbes “Saint Of Circumstance” T-shirt back in the day (“Just a tiger in a trance”). Bob delivers an energetic and powerful version here.

The second disc contains the entire second set from the Penn State show. It begins with Bob Weir leading the crowd in “Take a step back” to help the folks in the front keep from getting squashed. And the little accompanying jam leads directly into “China Cat Sunflower,” a tune that always pleases the crowd, and which of course leads straight into “I Know You Rider.” This is a fantastic version of “Rider.” Just listen to Jerry belt out the “headlight” verse. The band is cooking now, the jam having a tremendous amount of energy. Oh yes! Bob then delivers a powerful and cool rendition of “Feel Like A Stranger.” I especially like that vocal jam with Bob and Brent riffing. “It’s going to be a long, long, crazy, crazy night.” A promise we always liked to hear. And then Jerry delivers some wonderful stuff on guitar. The jam has a delicious groove. It gets just a bit messy toward the end, but no matter, as “He’s Gone” emerges from it. And you can’t help but agree as Jerry sings “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.” On this one too, it is that vocal jam toward the end that stands out. I also love the pretty work on guitar that follows that vocal section. The transition into “The Other One” isn’t as forceful as it often was, but instead offers little teases of the song before finally exploding. I love that moment when Phil takes charge and leads the band into that burst. Then the jam becomes more powerful and eventually leads to the song’s first verse. And then just look out, for this train has no fucking brakes. There is a moment when Brent’s playing reminds me of Tom Constanten’s earlier work. This is a seriously good version, and it’s not long after the second verse that Bill and Mickey take over for the “Drums” segment. I’m digging this “Drums,” as it goes through several different sections, and this is before all the electronic sounds that dominated a lot of the later 1980s drum solos. The “Space” that follows it is pretty cool, and it includes some drumming, which I like. That leads into “Wharf Rat,” with an excellent segue. Check out Jerry’s guitar work there. This is a moving rendition of “Wharf Rat,” featuring some excellent vocals. The second set then wraps up with a couple of Chuck Berry rock and roll tunes – “Around And Around” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Bob whispers some of the early lines of “Around And Around,” allowing then for more room to rise when the song starts rocking. And of course “Johnny B. Goode” has a whole lot of energy.

The third disc contains the entire second set from the Cornell show. They get things moving with a “Shakedown Street” opener, always a great way to start a set. Here is another one with a delicious vocal jam. And then the song has a wonderfully funky vibe, and is just a lot of fun. It leads into another fun song, “Bertha,” to keep everybody dancing. This is an energetic rendition of “Bertha,” and they maintain a high level of energy with “Playing In The Band,” with Bob at one point changing the line to “Playing in the barn,” because of the venue’s barn-like qualities. As you might expect, this is where we get some really good jamming, and the energy never lags. Toward the end, there are little hints of where they might be going. And then Jerry leads the guys into “Terrapin Station.” The jam to this one is absolutely wonderful, at times sweet and beautiful, particularly Jerry’s playing. It is not the most powerful rendition I’ve ever heard, but it is among the most beautiful, no question. A good, rolling “Drums” follows, and settles into a really cool “Space.” From there, “Saint Of Circumstance” emerges and begins to build into something excellent. “I’m still walking, so I’m sure that I can dance.” Jerry then mellows things out with a heartfelt rendition of “Black Peter,” delivering a truly moving vocal performance, certainly a highlight of the set. Is it just me, or does there seem to be a lot of hiss to the sound, noticeable in the quiet moments of this song? “Black Peter” leads back into “Playing In The Band,” with Bob once again substituting “barn” for “band.” And then they wrap up the second set with a rousing “Good Lovin’” to send folks out into the night feeling good.

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Jack Straw
  2. Peggy-O
  3. Me And My Uncle >
  4. Big River
  5. Loser
  6. Cassidy
  7. Row Jimmy
  8. Lazy Lightning >
  9. Supplication
  10. Althea
  11. Lost Sailor >
  12. Saint Of Circumstance
Disc 2
  1. China Cat Sunflower >
  2. I Know You Rider
  3. Feel Like A Stranger >
  4. He’s Gone >
  5. The Other One >
  6. Rhythm Devils >
  7. Space >
  8. Wharf Rat >
  9. Around And Around >
  10. Johnny B. Goode
Disc 3
  1. Shakedown Street >
  2. Bertha >
  3. Playing In The Band >
  4. Terrapin Station >
  5. Rhythm Devils >
  6. Space >
  7. Saint Of Circumstance >
  8. Black Peter >
  9. Playing In The Band >
  10. Good Lovin’
Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 4: Penn State – Cornell ’80 was released on January 25, 2019.

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