Deadheads (or fans of the erstwhile band the Grateful Dead) can be an unusual lot. They take the good with the bad in their stride. Older Deadheads, who have been fortunate enough to watch multiple shows by the itinerant band before it disbanded in 1995 after lead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death, are particularly forgiving.
The Dead played more than 2,300 live concerts in the 30 years of their existence and sometimes the gigs during their hectic schedules fell short of expectations—guitars could be out of tune; the riffs by the two guitarists, Garcia and Bob Weir, could fall out of sync; or the sound system could suck. But there were, more commonly, great nights when the gigs were so exquisitely good that they more than made up for the bad ones.
But hardcore Deadheads—the older ones as well as those who turned to the band later and probably have never seen a gig live—collect recordings of as many shows, good or bad, as they can and since the band allowed members of the audience to freely tape shows and distribute or trade them, there’s plenty to choose from. For younger collectors, born in the era of the internet, streaming and digitized recordings of the Dead’s virtually bottomless archives make things easier. And although the Dead released 13 studio albums in their lifetime, there are more than 200 live albums or compilations of recordings of their gigs. And because of the nature of their performances—unpredictable improvisations that pushed the limits of psychedelic rock—fans love collecting these.
But nearly a quarter of a century after the death of frontman Garcia and several iterations of bands formed by all or some of the surviving members of the Dead, the band released a new album late this November. Titled Ready Or Not, it’s a live album—a compilation of nine previously unreleased tracks recorded during performances from 1992-95. Those were the last years of the band, formed in 1965. But there is an interesting twist to the compilation—all nine tracks were supposed to have featured on a studio album that the Dead were working on. It would have been the 14th studio album and one that would have come eight years after the band released their last studio recording, Built To Last. But that was not to be. Plagued by addictions, diabetes and other ailments, Garcia died aged 53 in 1995, and the band never finished recording the album.
Eight of Ready Or Not’s nine songs have lyrics written by the band’s redoubtable lyricist, the poet Robert Hunter, who died in September. For Grateful Dead fans, the new album is a trove. It’s not known whether all nine songs would have featured on the unfinished studio album but the fact is that the Dead had begun introducing these at their shows in the early to mid-1990s. Nearly all of them have the trademark meandering scope of classic Grateful Dead songs, with improvisations and jams. Weir sings a few—such as Corrina and Easy Answers—while Garcia does lead vocal duties for some of the others, notably the mid-paced So Many Roads, which can appear to seamlessly (and timelessly) fit in anywhere in the band’s vast discography.
Vince Welnick, who played keyboard with the band during gigs after former keyboardist Brent Mydland died in 1990, is credited on at least three of Ready Or Not’s songs. One of them, Samba In The Rain, as all Deadheads will quickly note, has the characteristic Hunter lyrics that can be interpreted in as many ways as listeners want: Ten and ten is thirty, if you tell me it is so/ Let’s get down and dirty, baby. Let’s get sweet and low/ Any way you call the shot/ That’s how it’s gonna be/ You can serve it cold or hot, It’s all okay by me. In Eternity, the only song without Hunter’s lyrics on the album, we find Weir collaborating with a Chicago blues legend, the late Willie Dixon.
The early 1990s weren’t the legendary band’s halcyon days. The number of people around it—sound engineers, roadies, manager, technicians and so on—had burgeoned; and it had to tour incessantly to sustain the interdependent community. Drug-related problems—particularly Garcia’s intermittent addiction to heroin—were also taking their toll, as was his failing health. It was an era when many speculated the band would probably not survive for much longer. Tragically, it was Garcia’s death at a rehabilitation clinic that brought the band to its end.
Given this, it is remarkable that Ready Or Not’s compilation of songs stands out as a snapshot of how good the Dead could be when everything worked smoothly on stage. The new songs had not been played too many times at gigs but they can stake a claim beside classic tracks that are every Deadhead’s favourites. Garcia and Hunter’s compositions have always been the strongest part of the Dead’s repertoire and the new tracks written by the duo (lyrics by Hunter and music by Garcia), such as Lazy River Road, Liberty and So Many Roads, would have become classics if the band had lasted longer and played them more often at gigs.
Although the songs on Ready Or Not are live recordings, the album is a sneak peek at what a late-era Grateful Dead studio album could have sounded like. And here’s the verdict: It would have been like a peak-era Dead album.
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