Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Grateful Dead: “Road Trips Vol. 2 No. 2: Carousel 2-14-68” (2009/2021) CD Review

Real Gone Music is continuing to re-issue the Grateful Dead’s Road Trips series, putting them out in the reverse order of their original release. Road Trips Vol. 2 No. 2 is a two-disc set containing the complete show the Dead performed at the Carousel Ballroom on February 14, 1968, along with four bonus tracks. Yeah, it wasn’t a long show, but it contains some fantastic stuff, and it was one of the shows recorded for use on Anthem Of The Sun.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the short first set, along with the bonus material, which comes from a few shows from early 1968. The show opens with “Morning Dew.” It might feel a bit faster than later versions, and the style of the keyboard work is quite a bit different too, yet this is a powerful version. The band at this time was less than three years old and still had that raw, unbridled power. This version might not bring tears to your eyes as this song was sometimes capable of doing, but it does pack a punch. They follow that with “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” with a great bluesy vibe and some nice work from Pigpen on harmonica right at the beginning. They always said Pigpen was the band’s leader at this time, and a track like this is certainly evidence of that being true. He delivers a great vocal performance, with a bit of that riffing he was known for. But it’s his harmonica playing that is the draw here, and I especially love that section where the harmonica is interacting with the guitar.

There is a bit of stage banter before the band goes into “Dark Star.” Yes, a first set “Dark Star.” The song was new at that point, but it was already something special, as we can tell by Bob Weir saying they were going to blow it on the first set instead of saving it for the second set, which was to be broadcast on the radio. This too feels a bit fast, a bit rushed, particularly the first verse, but is of course interesting. I’ve never heard a dull “Dark Star.” And though this version is short, it still contains some exploration. Hell, every moment of this song feels like exploration, doesn’t it? It leads straight into a wild “China Cat Sunflower.” Wow, the boys are really rocking this one between verses, with Jerry Garcia’s guitar seeming able to shoot through concrete walls and moons and whatever else might be nearby. This is a fantastic, unhinged rendition, and it segues perfectly into, not “I Know You Rider,” but “The Eleven.” This is phenomenal. Why didn’t they do this more often? The energy is tremendous. This is the first set? It must have been something to see the Dead at that time. “The Eleven” leads straight into “Turn On Your Lovelight” to conclude the first set, Pigpen getting another opportunity to show what he could do. The band is cooking, determined to push this fireball right through the gates of heaven and beyond, taking the angels and whoever along with them, a dancing, pulsing, swirling mass of legs and arms and smiles.

The bonus material begins with an excellent version of “Viola Lee Blues” from January 20, 1968. The vocals are a bit muddy at the beginning, but the energy is high right from the start. This one becomes an incredible jam, and Phil Lesh in particular is really delivering here. Then we get a couple of songs from January 23, 1968. The first is “Beat It On Down The Line,” and there is some banter about how many beats will start the song. They decide on seventeen. This track also has a lot of energy, and is one of the most fiery renditions I’ve heard. The second song from that Seattle show is a cover of “Hurts Me Too,” with Pigpen delivering the blues. The last of the bonus tracks is “Dark Star,” recorded February 2, 1968 in Portland, Oregon. And, again, there just are no dull versions of “Dark Star.” Throughout this entire disc, you can hear how excited the band was at this time to be making music. This version of “Dark Star” has a surprisingly gentle conclusion.

Disc 2

As the second set starts, there is some stage banter, including Jerry’s dedication of the set “to the memory of Neal Cassady.” They kick off the set with “That’s It For The Other One,” which includes “Cryptical Envelopment,” which was dropped in later years. This was the first show the Dead played after Neal Cassady’s death, and so the line “There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land” carried a lot of weight that night. If you’ve never seen footage of Neal Cassady, I highly recommend checking out some of the Merry Pranksters’ footage. He was a character like no other, and was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. “That’s It For The Other One” leads straight into “New Potato Caboose,” an interesting song that the Dead kept in rotation only in the late 1960s. And here the band jams on it. That’s followed by “Born Cross-Eyed,” another cool song that was played only briefly in the Dead’s career (only in 1968), but a song I’ve always loved. It’s a short tune, just a couple of minutes, and it leads into a jam, where the band really starts to reach out into the strange, venturing into “Space” territory where they know intuitively how to thrive. Here darkness is shaped into people who march out of the void carrying spears of light. Soon they are separated, each on its own, just as we are, reaching out for scraps of light and spinning away from a center that may just be illusion after all. But if we all concentrate on the illusion, it will become solid form and draw us all toward it.

There is a bit of goofing around before the band launches into “Alligator,” the vocals at first seemingly swallowed up by the instruments. This version seems a bit chaotic at first, but that great drum section seems to pull things together. And the band just jams after that, clearly everything working right. And then they call out, “Alligator, alligator!” But that doesn’t mean the jamming is over. It leads into “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks),” which is a great jam in itself. Again, Pigpen’s vocals seem low in the mix at first, overpowered by the instruments. Things get a little out of hand as the band segues into “Feedback,” different parts of the engine seemingly at odds, but soon that becomes the norm, and the machine itself has dissolved, or morphed into something else entirely, its original goals and functions lost in the ether. And now it just Is, you know? It breathes and desires and inquires and investigates, growing with each bit of information it acquires, until, really, what else is there? The band then returns us to earth with the encore, a cover of “In The Midnight Hour,” to get us all dancing.

CD Track List

Disc 1

  1. Morning Dew
  2. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
  3. Dark Star >
  4. China Cat Sunflower >
  5. The Eleven >
  6. Turn On Your Lovelight
  7. Viola Lee Blues
  8. Beat It On Down The Line
  9. Hurts Me Too
  10. Dark Star

Disc 2

  1. That’s It For The Other One >
  2. New Potato Caboose >
  3. Born Cross-Eyed >
  4. Spanish Jam
  5. Alligator >
  6. Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks) >
  7. Feedback
  8. In The Midnight Hour

Road Trips Vol. 2 No. 2: Carousel 2-14-68 was released on August 13, 2021 through Real Gone Music.

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