‘Grateful Dead View from the Vault I and II’ Reveals Some Early ’90s Treats

Grateful Dead
Shout! Factory

The Grateful Dead’s magic lies not in its consistency but arguably in its inconsistency. There are moments in many a Dead set that juxtapose sublime with struggle, when keyboards crash but guitars soar, when vocals turn sour but bass remains sweet. When the whole band reaches those magic moments together, it’s one of the most unstoppable forces the music world has ever known. Witness these first two volumes in the View from the Vault series, wherein two lineups of the storied San Francisco act are captured in the act.

Volume I finds the group at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just after a successful spring run, some of which was captured on the recent limited edition Spring 1990 box. Of the two sets on this newly reissued DVD, the first is the less remarkable, opening with the “Touch of Grey” and wrapping with “Let It Grow”. But less remarkable in this instance does not mean without its high points. “Tom Thumb’s Blues” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” are wheeled out with great fervor and “Greatest Story Ever Told” sees the band finding its footing rather quickly.

There are chaotic moments among this, of course, moments when not everyone’s quite on the same page musical (“Let It Grow”), but the second set, which takes place after nightfall, is virtually flawless. It begins with “Samson and Delilah” and ends with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, which inspires a dose or two of chills. (Let’s not forget that the Dead had spent a long time touring with Dylan and often delivered magical versions of his songs.) There’s barely a pause throughout this turn as Bob Weir and Co. weave through “Eyes of the World”, “Estimated Prophet”, “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Throwing Stones” (like “Touch of Grey” it comes from 1987’s In the Dark).

Although Weir takes on a great deal of the singing Jerry Garcia wows, as usual, with his solos, each one fluid, magical, lyrical, often flawless. Bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann also work their magic on “Terrapin Station” and a triumphant version of “Turn on Your Lovelight”, where keyboardist Brent Mydland really hits his stride. The group’s summer tour would end with a three-night stand in Chicago at the end of July. Just days after that another era of the Dead would close with the Mydland’s death.

His playing on the Pittsburgh date is not that remarkable but his work from the 6 July gig in Louisville, Kentucky is especially inspired, perhaps most notably the way he and Garcia play off each other during “Standing on the Moon”. That song, “He’s Gone”, and an especially fun jam are included as bonus material here, along with venue information and a videography.

There’s been some suggestion that Garcia didn’t feel confident that there could be a Dead without Mydland and that he wasn’t hesitant to carry on into that fall with a series of European dates. Recordings from that autumn’s European leg have their moments but it’s certainly not one of the most memorable treks. There was barely a moment to relax though between the December 1990 dates and the tour that began in February 1991 and eventually led the Dead to RFK Stadium in Washington, DC in June 1991.

Armed with both Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick, the legendary San Francisco collective struggles in the early moments of its first set on this date. “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Wang Dang Doodle” show the band struggling to find their footing. The Welnick/Hornsby mix doesn’t seem to jibe at first but by three songs in, “Jack-a-Roe”, things even out, making way for magical versions of “Tennessee Jed” and “The Music Never Stopped”.

Garcia looks much worse for the wear on this date. His hair’s grown out from the previous summer and it’s an eerie white that gives him a ghostly presence. (He’d be gone in a little over four years and his health would see continuing decline in the seasons to come.) No matter, he still kicks out some remarkable solos in the first set but, somewhat predictably, soars in the second, in particular with a gorgeous reading of “Stella Blue” that lands between the “Space” jam and an equally powerful take on “Turn on Your Lovelight”.

Hart and Kreutzmann are once more in fine form and Hornsby contributes nicely to a wild ride on “Big River” and “Maggie’s Farm” (with some good singing from Welnick). In fact, by the second set this seemingly tentative date turns into a smoker with “Help on the Way/Slipknot!”, “Franklin’s Tower” and, of course, “Dark Star”. The Welnick/Hornsby partnership lends added grit and shine to the night and with Welnick the group had doubtless found its best keyboardist since founding member Pigpen passed in 1973.

This gig is augmented by a healthy helping from the June 12 date at the same venue. Included is a run that begins with “Box of Rain” and ends with “Dark Star”. Other bonus features include the “Liberty” video, directed by Justin Kreutzmann, a visible lyrics option, venue information, and a band bio.

Best of all, you can just close your eyes and listen to this, and feel yourself drift back to one of the Dead’s last great moments.

RATING 8 / 10