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Six Years After Jerry, Grateful Dead Music Never Stops

The Grateful Dead played their final show more than six years ago. And thanks to a career-retrospective box set, an endless stream of live CDs, a documentary film featuring late guitarist Jerry Garcia and steady touring by the group’s surviving members and their new ensembles, the Dead’s legacy isn’t close to fading away.

A 12-CD box set, The Golden Road (1965-1973), out October 16, chronicles the Dead’s six-year stint on the Warner Bros. label with remastered versions of each album – from Grateful Dead (1967) to History of the Grateful Dead Vol. I (Bear’s Choice) (1973) – along with studio outtakes and/or live cuts from the same time period.

“It’s probably some of the best studio material the Dead ever did,” tape archivist David Lemieux said of three studio jams – “Clementine Jam,” “The Eleven Jam” and “Nobody’s Spoonful Jam” – on the expanded Aoxomoxoa (1969). “It’s like the Dead playing for their lives in front of a crowd, but it’s not. It’s in a studio.”

The box also includes The Birth of the Dead, a compilation of the group’s earliest sessions, from 1965-66, some of which were recorded under their original name, the Warlocks. Ranging from raw blues to folksy, Beatles-esque pop, the proto-Dead was sound very much a part of the mid-1960s musical milieu from which they sprang – unlike their later years, when the band’s distinct voice rarely echoed pop fashion. Birth includes a wide array of covers, including Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” (also covered by Nirvana, who called it “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on their Unplugged in New York).”

Another live treat, on Europe ’72, is late singer/organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s final composition, “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion),” a soul ballad about a lonesome man asking lovers about love. “You have found it/ Please help me along,” the gruff-voiced Pigpen moans. “I’m a man, I’m a man/ I’m not made out of stone.”

The Golden Road is not so much a band effort as a collaboration between Rhino Records, the band’s familial organization and the Dead scholars who wrote historical essays for each disc. Dead publicist/historian Dennis McNally’s extended essay, “The Dead on Warner Bros.,” is an abridged chunk of his upcoming authorized band biography.

Drummer Mickey Hart said that although he helped with the box for “quality control” purposes, he is more concerned with his own pet projects: remixing American Beauty (due October 30) and Workingman’s Dead (due mid-November) into 5.1 SurroundSound. Hart is an outspoken advocate of 5.1 technology, which separates recordings into six channels (and six speakers) to create a powerful three-dimensional soundscape.

Hart hits the road in November with his new combo, Bembé Orisha, which features percussionist Humberto “Nengue” Hernandez, vocalist Gladys “Bobi” Cespedes, bassist Rahsaan Fredericks, guitarist Barney Doyle, percussionist Greg Ellis and vocalist Azam Ali. The band’s West African name, roughly translated, means “a party for the spirits.”

Hart said the band’s “new world music fusion” of West African, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, American and Persian influences could play an important healing role for a world in crisis after the September 11 tragedies.

“This band is even more important now, because it’s a conversation of so many of the world’s cultures,” Hart said. “That’s the one great thing about music. You can have all these different cultures talking peacefully – and conversing about very deep emotional issues. Not only the sorrow but also the joy of things, soul talk. The world’s got to get together and talk to each other and understand each other.”

Guitarist Bob Weir is close to wrapping up a tour with his post-Dead band, Ratdog, which recently released Live at Roseland, two discs of Dead tunes and Ratdog originals recorded in Portland, Oregon, in April.

Former Dead bassist Phil Lesh hits the road in November with guitarists Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, drummer John Molo and keyboardist Rob Barracco. Lesh has been busy writing new songs with longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and continues to offer many of his shows for free downloading at www.thephilzone.com.

Founding drummer Bill Kreutzmann debuts his new combo the Trichromes – his new combo with Bay Area bluesman Sy Klopps, Journey guitarist Neal Schon, guitarist Ralph Woodson and bassist Ira Walker – on October 26 at San Francisco’s Fillmore following a rare screening of “Sunshine Daydream,” the cinematic souvenir of a legendary 1972 Oregon show the Dead played.

“Grateful Dawg,” which hits theaters October 15, documents the deep musical friendship and collaboration of Garcia and mandolin virtuoso David Grisman. Directed by daughter Gillian Grisman, the film weaves video footage of intimate living-room jam sessions with still photos, interviews and live concert footage to recount a relationship that began with a parking-lot jam outside a 1964 Bill Monroe show.

Grisman contributed mandolin tracks to “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil” in 1970. In 1973, the duo formed bluegrass supergroup Old and in the Way with singer/guitarist Peter Rowan, fiddler Vassar Clements and bassist John Kahn (Garcia played banjo).

In the 1990s, the duo acoustically fused Garcia’s “Dead” music and Grisman’s so-called “Dawg” music, recording 44 loose sessions of originals and folk, jazz and old-timey standards. Their tapes have yielded six albums so far, including the film’s soundtrack album, which is highlighted by the 16-minute live opus, “Arabia.”

The Dead recently released Nightfall of Diamonds,, a high-energy live 1989 set recorded at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena. (The now-eerie cover art depicts a twinkling Manhattan skyline still graced by the twin towers.)

Lemieux said that Weir, inspired by Nightfall cuts he heard in the studio, has already incorporated several Grateful Dead tunes from the album in Ratdog setlists. Both Lesh and Weir lean heavily on Dead material in their live shows. Ratdog focuses on the group’s blues, country and rock facets, while Lesh’s band plumbs the psychedelic chasms the group created between the songs themselves.

With the band’s former members reinterpreting the Dead canon, and continual vault releases feeding music-hungry Deadheads (Dick’s Picks 23 is due in coming weeks), Hart may best reflect his one-time bandmates’ collective take on the Grateful Dead six years after Jerry.

“I like playing Grateful Dead music, and that’s good from time to time, but I didn’t want to be 90 years old playing ‘Uncle John’s Band,'” Hart said. “Nothing wrong with that, but there are other things in this world.”

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