Book Review: So Many Roads, The Life and Times of The Grateful Dead

August 20th, 2015

I’m on record as being very critical of The Grateful Dead. Despite what some of the hardest of hardcore Dead Heads might think, I don’t hate the Dead; not at all. I own and enjoy quite a few of their studio albums, and even like a couple of the live ones, most notably, Europe ’72 and Reckoning (aka For the Faithful). And far be it from me to deny their cultural (if perhaps not so much musical) importance. So I was very interested to read David Browne‘s So Many Roads, a new history of the band that takes a unique approach to its storytelling.

That unique approach is the best thing about Browne’s book. Rather than attempt a linear narrative, Browne picks fifteen specific dates in the history of the band, and expands the story from there. Those dates are sometimes pivotal, sometimes not. But they provide anchors of a sort from which the author can weave the tale. Browne recounts the important dates in the band’s history – December 6, 1969, for example, was the date of the notorious festival at Altamont Motor Speedway – but he doesn’t build the narrative around them; Altamont is discussed in the first chapter, one that ostensibly centers on a date some two months later.

As the author explains in the book’s acknowledgments, So Many Roads draws upon extensive interviews with many people in and around the group: musicians, friends and ex-friends, lovers and ex-lovers, business associates and ex-associates, fans. In general, such an approach can provide the opportunity to create a nuanced, balanced portrait of its subject. And to an extent, that’s what happens with Browne’s book. But although most key members of the group cooperated with the author, So Many Roads seems to draw remarkably little from their input. Perhaps the information Browne gleaned from those interviews formed a narrative rather than direct quotes; but that’s merely a guess.

Browne is a clear and insightful writer, and although So Many Roads is a long book (nearly 500 pages), its most striking quality is its lack of surprises. There are no real revelations within its pages. Instead readers get relatively cursory accountants of how Lenny Hart (Mickey Hart‘s father) ripped the band off of substantial sums of money; how they were caught off guard by the tragic events of Altamont; and so on. None of that will be news to even the most casual fan of the Grateful Dead.

Neither is it news that the band approached album recording sessions with a the sort of dismissive, let’s-get-it-over-with attitude most people bring to a dentist appointment (and it often showed on the albums). It’s not a surprise that (on one hand) the Grateful Dead were totally out of their depth running a record label of their own, or any business, for that matter, and (on the other hand) that they strongly resisted “interference” from outsiders (“suits”) who might have been able to do a better job. And it will surprise absolutely no one that they took a whole lot of drugs, only instituting a “no piles of cocaine on the performing stage” policy in the 1990s. Yes, the nineteen-nineties. (Apparently the nitrous oxide tanks stayed.)

Browne makes the point that there really is not a “keyboard player curse” upon the band, pointing out that Tom Constanten and Bruce Hornsby remain among the living (Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick, however, all did die prematurely). The band members’ laissez-faire approach to each others’ private lives – even when said behavior had serious effects upon the band – is shown to be a primary cause of many of the problems they’d endure.

Though the band seemed to operate in a way that encouraged a sort of leaderless democracy by consent, So Many Roads illustrates that in practice Jerry Garcia was the leader of the band. Any number of meetings are described in which the various members and auxiliary staff would chew on a topic for some time, unable to reach agreement. Garcia would utter a few words – “let’s do it” or some such – and that would be that. This approach may have served them well in their earlier days, but as Garcia’s health problems (drug-induced and otherwise) worsened, it seems pretty clear that having him in a so-called leadership role was, in practice, a pretty awful idea.

In fact, the band’s method of dealing  with Garcia — seemingly as a sort of cash cow that they’d need to prop up so they could keep the machine running — made me think of him as a sort of corollary to The Beach Boys‘ pimping of Brian Wilson (witness the endless “Brian’s back!” efforts of the 70s and 80s).

I suppose one cannot understand the mindset of a Dead Head unless one is a Dead Head. For me, the group’s hardcore appeal is dubious: if one wants exploratory music, any number of jazz artists did it far better than the Grateful Dead. And if one desires musicality within the “jam band” idiom, The Allman Brothers – live and studio – make for a much more fulfilling listen. Sloppy and listless are two words that come to mind when discussing the onstage musicianship of the Dead. And their hardcore fan base seems inexplicably uncritical when it comes to the Dead’s legacy: they love it all, seeming to make little discernment between the dross and the relatively fleeting flights of creativity.

And with that kind of mindset, they’ll probably want to read So Many Roads regardless of whether a reviewer eviscerates it or holds it up as the greatest book ever written. Truth be told, it’s quite good; it’s simply not anything like a definitive biography of the band.

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Preview: Led Zeppelin 2

August 19th, 2015

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. My dad was transferred there in February 1972 when I was in grade school, and I lived in and around Atlanta until 2000. Although the American south has never really been a major concert destination for rock acts, Atlanta was – even then – big enough to rate inclusion on megatours. I remember when Wings came to The Omni (“don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore”) in 1976. A mere lad of twelve, I called the TICKETS hotline in hopes of spending $7 on a seat. The only tickets remaining were behind the stage, so I demurred, telling myself, “I’ll see Paul McCartney the next time he’s in town.” I actually did, but I was married with two young kids by that time.

A lot of the really big concerts were booked at the Atlanta Stadium (also now gone). The Beatles played there in 1965 (fifty years ago yesterday, in fact!); there exists a decent audio bootleg of the show. I recall one particular week in the mid 1970s, though for the life of me I don’t recall the year. Both Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had scheduled dates at the stadium. I didn’t go to either, as I was still too young for such things. (My first concert was Electric Light Orchestra at The Omni in October 1978.)

I did manage to see Pink Floyd in the David Gilmour-led version, both in 1987 (The Omni again) and 1994 (Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech). And I saw Jimmy Page with The Firm in the early 1980s. But this coming weekend, I’ll have the opportunity (of sorts) to make up for that missed mid 70s opportunity. I’m seeing a pair of acclaimed tribute bands – Led Zeppelin 2 and The Australian Pink Floyd Show – in Charlotte NC.

In recent years, there’s been a sharp rise in the popularity of tribute bands overall. Maybe it’s down to aging baby boomers wanting to recapture the excitement of their younger days. Maybe it’s because today’s rock – at least in its most commercial variant – isn’t very compelling. Whatever the reason, tribute acts are all over the place, and the general standard to which they hold themselves is rather high. Our hometown venue – Asheville’s Orange Peel – books a staggering number of tribute bands, and they’re always well-attended. So well-attended, in fact, that many of them include Asheville on their circuit once or even twice a year. That’s somewhat amazing.

In the past, I’ve interviewed the members of Pink Floyd tribute group The Machine not once, but twice. And I interviewed the members of Beatles-themed 1964: The Tribute as well. I’m interested in what they do, how they do it, and (besides the cash) why they do it. So it’s with great pleasure that I will be interviewing the Led Zeppelin 2 guys right before the show this coming Friday. Look for a feature based on all that, coming soon to Musoscribe.

Here’s a clip of Led Zeppelin 2 performing “Immigrant Song.” These guys aren’t messing about.

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Album Mini-review: Iggy Pop — Psychophonic Medicine

August 18th, 2015


File next to: New York Dolls, The Stooges

If you made a list of the most unsentimental rock acts, Iggy Pop would be near the top of the list. Right? He never looked back, always charted his own unique, peanut-butter-and-glass-coated path, right? Well, apparently not. As this 2CD set illustrates, James Newell Osterberg acknowledged his roots, if only on recordings clearly not planned for official release. Across 21 tracks drawn from sessions and live dates in 1981 and 1985, he pays bizarre tribute to The Animals (or perhaps David Johansen?), Robert Plant‘s Honeydrippers, Jimi Hendrix, and his old band, (the 1960s version of) The Stooges. The tracks are outtakes from his critically-shellacked 1981 commercial bid Party; sessions produced by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones; and a live date in San Francisco. Strange even by Iggy standards, this set seems to collect his most ill-advised efforts. That it still doesn’t (totally) suck is a testament to his importance, I guess.

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Album Mini-review: Chappo — Future Former Self

August 18th, 2015


File next to: Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Tame Impala

If you’re the kind of person who loved Flaming Lips‘ output circa Clouds Taste Metallic through Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but feel they subsequently went off the rails and/or ran out of ideas, you’d do well to check out Chappo. With a sound at times reminiscent of Tame Impala, Chappo wraps pop melodies in arrangements that touch on synth-rock, psych, garage and Apples in Stereo styled chirpy pop. Seemingly disparate left-field elements like trip-hop percussion and wide-eyed psych-folk vocals unexpectedly combine seamlessly with ambitious arrangements that suggest an indie-rock rethink of Jellyfish. Funky/soulful guitars a la Beck are out front one moment, and the next thing you know, the melody’s floating on a pillowy synthesizer bed. Future Former Self is all over the musical map, but somehow it all works in a cohesive manner. If you want an album with a definable “sound,” look elsewhere. For adventure, look here.

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Album Mini-review: District 97 — In Vaults

August 18th, 2015


File next to: Spock’s Beard, King Crimson

This band has been busy. With the unlikeliest of vocalists – American Idol contestant Leslie Hunt – they nonetheless kicked the door down into progressive rock, and proceeded to cut a live disc with one of John Wetton, one of the genre’s icons (King Crimson‘s 1974 Red pretty much invented the genre of prog-metal, and hasn’t been bettered since). On this, their fourth album, they dial back the classical trappings of their earlier material, but keep the melodic quotient high. Those who insist that prog can only be done properly on the Atlantic’s Eastern shores clearly haven’t heard D97. Hunt is a stunningly expressive vocalist; as such, she can hold her own amidst tricky time signatures and the slashing, angular chording that is part and parcel of modern prog. With extensive use of vocal harmonies, In Vaults deftly balances melody with the adventurism that fans of the genre demand.

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Album Mini-review: Wizzz! French Psychedelic 1966-1969 Volume 1

August 17th, 2015

File Next to: Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond, Roman Coppola’s CQ Soundtrack

France has long been notorious for its musical insularity. Listen to a bootleg of the Beatles‘ February 1964 show – the height of worldwide Beatlemania – and you can hear the group just fine; the Parisians merely clap. And they simply couldn’t accept the real Elvis Presley; they had to mint one of their own, Johnny Hallyday. France was seemingly resistant to outside musical influences, and that worked both ways: Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg were huge stars at home, but got relatively little traction internationally. But a newly-reissued collection shows that French musical artists did pay attention to what was happening elsewhere. Fuzztone guitars, combo organs and simple, trashy melodies are all the rage on this fourteen-track set. Is it derivative? Sure. But it’s always undeniably French, with a vaguely square café jazz vibe applied to songs worthy of (if not The Seeds, then) Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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Album Mini-review: Jaga Jazzist — Starfire

August 17th, 2015

File Next to: Dungen, Zero 7

With their fifth album, 2010′s One-Armed Bandit, Jaga Jazzist seemed to have distilled their multifarious sound into a cohesive synthesis of downtempo, trip-hop, electronica, and experimental jazz; their approach suggested a cross between Zero 7 and Dungen. They followed that studio album with a live set, 2013′s Live with Britten Sinfonia, expanding on their already thick and deeply textured arrangements. Now with Starfire, the Norwegian instrumental ensemble moves into longer, denser, more adventurous song structures. At eight minutes and change, the title track is evocative of some spy adventure shot in European locales. But the group’s music is far too interesting to serve as soundtrack accompaniment; the eight-or-nine musician Jaga Jazzist has always been skilled at putting varied instruments to intelligent use. The group skillfully combines analog synthesizers, brass, and standard rock band instrumentation in a way that makes the combination seem perfectly natural. Even the long songs never meander.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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Album Mini-review: Moby — Hotel:Ambient

August 17th, 2015


File next to: Brian Eno, The Orb

Brian Eno once described ambient music as the aural equivalent of wallpaper; it’s designed to be experienced passively rather than attentively. It does what it does, and you do what you do. The most effective (or characteristic) ambient music, then, floats by unobtrusively. That’s not at all what Moby’s fourteen instrumental tracks do here. The beats are alluring, and draw the listener into Moby’s sonic washes of sound. But while it doesn’t fit the classical definition of ambient music, this reissue of his 2005 album is nonetheless enjoyable. The music doesn’t actually go anyplace; that would be completely anathema to the genre. But somewhat perversely, it’s too, well, interesting to serve as truly ambient music. “Real” instruments such as piano coexist nicely alongside washes of synthesizer pads and what (in places) sound like actual drums. Too engaging to qualify as ambient, it’s nonetheless a fulfilling way to spend an hour-plus.

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Album Mini-Review: Todd Rundgren/Emil Nikolaisen/Hans-Peter Lindstrøm – Runddans

August 14th, 2015


File next to: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Tangerine Dream

This would be noteworthy if only for the fact that Todd Rundgren rarely collaborates with other artists (Utopia, Ringo’s All-Starrs and that one Residents album excepted). And Rundgren rarely visits musical territory he’s explored previously. But on Runddans, he does both. Those who prefer his pop-centric side (Something/Anything being the exemplar) might find Runddans a bit meandering. But listeners who enjoyed Initiation, Healing, and/or the quirky A Cappella will simply delight in this. Runddans is mostly instrumental, but when Rundgren does sing – wordless vocalizing on “Solus” and proper singing on the “Put Your Arms Around Me” suite – it’s deeply soulful and redolent of 1975′s “Born to Synthesize.” One can draw a straight line from A Wizard/A True Star to the delightful yet dizzying cut-and-paste psychedelic arrangements found here. And Todd’s guitar work on this lush, warm disc will conjure memories of pyramid-themed stagecraft and ankh-shaped instruments. A triumph.

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Album Mini-review: No Joy — More Faithful

August 14th, 2015

File Next to: My Bloody Valentine, Best Coast

There’s a curious quality to some of the best shoegaze: the dual feeling of moving both at breakneck speed and at a glacial pace. The music on More Faithful, No Joy’s third long player, is a case in point. From the opening notes of kickoff track “Remember Nothing,” the band is full-on, steamrolling ahead in a manner recalling Hüsker Dü. And simultaneously, they’re creating a gauzy, head-nodding, somnambulant ambience. And that sharp contrast works. When they dial things down — that is to say, when they lean more in the dreamy direction – the melody in their concise songs reveals itself more overtly. Sweet vocal harmonies float atop hypnotically repeated chords. No Joy’s overall sound suggests Best Coast with a wider sonic palette. More Faithful is sequenced so that the pummeling tunes alternate with the subtler ones; the effect is alluring and creates a nice bit of musical tension.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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