[13 February 2013]
PopMatters Features Editor
Aside from the fascinating (and to my mind, indispensable) Jerry Garcia-directed Grateful Dead Movie (1977), this general rule applies to all of the Dead films presently available on DVD: the music is good (if not always great), but the production is simply adequate. And so, with the re-release of Dead Ahead (a cobble of some of the best music played on Halloween, 1980 at Radio City Music Hall in New York) and Ticket To New Year’s (most of the pretty good show from Oakland as 1987 became 1988) by Shout Factory, many dead completists will rejoice. But, I dunno.
Given that the Grateful Dead’s fans seem to have voracious and apparently insatiable appetites for collecting their concerts on CD, it’s surprising how few of their meticulously documented shows have been made available on video. But, then again, maybe the reason is that, despite the fabulous music that is often found on the available videos, it turns out that watching them is not always that rewarding.
The Grateful Dead was easily one of the most exciting live bands in rock history, but they were some lousy showmen. Divorced from the energy of the room, the careening tidal wave of dancing heads surrounding you while the band plunged into another extended jam, the visual experience of the band onstage is remarkably flat. Mostly unexpressive. There’s not much to look at, onstage. Throughout much of his career, for example, the band’s musical centerpiece, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, remained generally passive up there. Sure, he’d let slip the occasional Cheshire cat grin, but otherwise he’d stand virtually immobile even as his fingers flew around his fretboard. I have no complaint about this as a performance technique since, at the end of the day, it’s the music that matters – but when experienced in long framed shots of Garcia simply standing there moving his fingers, this can be quite a bore.
The alternative, watching an overheated Bob Weir on rhythm guitar, strutting and grimacing, isn’t much better, visuals-wise. But, what they looked like was never the point, was it?
And so, aside from the occasional cutaways to spinning, beaming heads in the audience – most of which provide great eye-candy, a compelling glimpse into the scene at a certain moment in the band’s history – the majority of the footage feels inessential. Go ahead, do your laundry while the DVD plays in the other room. As long as you can still hear the music.
The best of Dead Ahead is available (along with much more material) on the expanded CD re-releases of Reckoning and Dead Set (superior double-albums chronicling this show as well as others from that month). These were fascinating and significant concerts since they incorporated acoustic first sets (and thus many new and worthy arrangements of typically electric numbers) into the flow of the shows. There are some really lovely musical moments here, but the overall effect of the visual presentation is decidedly flat through much of the film. The DVD does boast many extra songs not included on the original VHS release, including a terrific “He’s Gone” and the under-heard “Heaven Help The Fool”.
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that Ticket To New Year’s, while boasting some great performances (especially on “Terrapin Station”, “Throwing Stones” and “Bertha”), isn’t always a barnburner until the second half. That’s when, as the New Year’s countdown carries the crowd into a frenzy, balloons drop by the hundreds, and the place gets really lathered to “Hell in a Bucket”, among the best of the post-1970s Dead compositions. Things get ever more fun from there, as a truly trippy Drums/Space section heads into a well-played “Wharf Rat” and culminates in a rocking “Not Fade Away”. The bluesy “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (here presented as an encore, though that’s not quite what happened at the actual show) provides a fitting cap to the proceedings.
The most memorable thing here is that the DVD includes a truly weird and funny section in the middle in which we see Garcia teach us how to cook his favourite hors d’oeuvre, the band take random questions from concert-goers, and Mickey Hart (dressed up as Spock) berates Jerry Garcia (dressed up as Santa Claus). It’s nuts, but great fun to see the sometimes reticent band members with their guards way, way down.
It’s also worth pointing out that some of the most interesting things about the NYE show were actually edited out of the original VHS release of the film – the extended guest appearance by the Neville Brothers was almost completely cut, as was a rousing cover of the Chuck Berry number “The Promised Land” – and have not been added here as extras. Guess you’ll still have to sniff out the bootleg. (Indeed, the only extra here worth noting is a trivia game which I did not do very well at.)