Chief Justice Michael Stailey is truckin' on down to Uncle John's fer some Sugar Magnolia.
"Sometimes the light's all shining on me
From their inauspicious origins as members of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, to the 1995 passing of founding member Jerry Garcia and the band's subsequent disbanding, The Grateful Dead were the poster children for late '60s anti-establishment counter culture. Their psychedelic love fest transcended genres and defied labels. Taking inspiration from a variety of contemporaries (from Bob Dylan to The Beatles), they perfected their truly unique sound through an unbelievable touring schedule, one that would make other bands weep with exhaustion, logging more than 2,300 live shows in 30 years to an estimate audience of more than 25 Million fans. More astoundingly, they did it all without a set list, preferring to tailor their shows to how they were feeling and the energy their fans were reflecting back to them.
But the magic didn't stop there. Of The Dead's 13 studio albums, eight went gold, one scored platinum, and two double platinum. Amazingly, in all that time, only five singles cracked Billboard's Hot 100 chart ("Uncle John's Band," "Truckin," "Sugar Magnolia," "The Music Never Stopped," and "Alabama Getaway"), just one earned Top 10 honors (1987's "Touch of Grey"), and none of their work was ever awarded a Grammy Award. The recording industry did attempt to compensate for their lack of professional recognition in 2007, by honoring surviving members of the band with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. But in the end, their music as adored by generations of Deadheads speaks more to the legacy of The Grateful Dead than anything else possibly could.
Shout! Factory has done yeoman's work in creating Grateful Dead: All the Years Combine, a visual compendium of Grateful Dead history. The sobering thing is, the deeper you go into this set, the more Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and the revolving door of replacement bandmates go from being young hippie gods to looking like your grandpa and his old army buddies. You certainly can't argue with the music they made over 30+ years, but damn if consuming this much Dead in one sitting doesn't make you want to jump into death metal mosh pit to cleanse the palette.
So let's break down this 14-disc bad boy…
The Grateful Dead Movie (1977)—This may well be the ultimate Grateful Dead experience for the uninitiated. From its trippy animated short film opening to a unique mix of interviews, performances, and documentary examination, you come away feeling you've earned your Deadhead membership. Judge Adam Arseneau reviewed the Blu-ray release, giving the film its proper due. Loaded with bonus features including a full length commentary and three hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes, this is the crown jewel of the set.
The Closing of the Winterland Ballroom (1978)—What turned out to be my favorite piece in the set, this mesmerizing documentary captures the demise of San Francisco's beloved music venue and the all-night long Grateful Dead concert intended to be its swan song. Featuring guest performances by The Blues Brothers (yes…Danny, John, Paul Schaefer and the band), New Riders of the Purple Sage, and sit-ins by Lee Oskar, Matthew Kelly, John Cipollina, and Greg Errico. Once again, while the performances are great, its the human interest and background stories which really make this experience memorable.
Dead Ahead (1981)—SNL stalwarts Al Franken and Tom Davis awkwardly introduce The Dead's 15th anniversary, 8-show run at NYC's Radio City Music Hall. This near two hour experience culls numbers from their final two nights, the last of which was simulcast to theaters across the country. After the previous two discs, this feels like somewhat of a letdown, as it's nothing more than a true performance capture. Not that there's anything wrong with 114 minutes of live Dead music.
So Far (1987)—And now for something completely different. This experimental short film (55 min) from directors Jerry Garcia and Len Dell'Amico attempts to provide audiences with a head-trippin' view of The Dead Experience. Combining live concert footage from their 1985 New Year's Eve show in Oakland, with private recording sessions, animation, and obscure visual references. It didn't do much for me, but you could come away with an entirely different opinion.
Ticket to New Year's (1987)—This holiday pay-per-view special was as much a comedy variety show as it was a Dead concert. SNL's Tom Davis interviews Jerry (who does his best Julia Childs impersonation), audience members ask questions of the band, Mr. Spock (Mickey) attempts to mind meld with Santa Claus (Jerry), and producer Bill Graham pulls off yet another of his patented midnight entrances high above the Oakland Coliseum crowd. Goofy stuff.
Truckin' Up to Buffalo (1989)—By this point, I'm reaching Dead saturation. Despite the amazing musicianship, and cover versions of Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues," Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," and Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," I've come to accept the fact that I am not a Deadhead. The enthusiastic crowd at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, NY is proving otherwise, as they feed the boys every ounce of energy needed to pull off one hell of a show.
Downhill From Here (1989)—Here, my interest perks up a bit. Although I was going to school in Iowa at the time, this particular two-and-a-half hour show was filmed over two nights at one of the greater Chicago area's favorite music venues—Alpine Valley. Just over the border in Wisconsin, Alpine was a premiere outdoor facility that drew some of rock's biggest acts, and The Dead are no exception. I mean, the encore on this one is Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and they had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand.
View from the Vault (1990)—Live from the now extinct Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA. "Touch of Grey" opens the show and it's quickly becoming as ubiquitous as "Uncle John's Band." For as much as I like these tunes, hearing them over and over is starting to grate. Luckily, we get some great palate cleansers in the form of "Mexicali Blues," Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle," the 13 minute "KY Jam," and a rousing encore in the form of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Bonus features include tracks from the Louisville, KY show recorded two nights earlier.
View from the Vault II (1991)—From RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. Bruce Hornsby sits in with the band on piano, as The Dead settle into their comfortable golden years. I'm not knocking the musicianship of any of these guys, but the concert experience is becoming a little staid. This deep into the set, we begin to separate the casual Dead fans from the diehards. The 25 min version of "Dark Star" is unbelievable.
View from the Vault III (1990)—Stepping back in time to June 1990, we get the last filmed performance of keyboardist Brent Mydland who died the following month from an accidental overdose. He was only 37 years old. The real heavy duty jamming occurs in the second half, as the band goes nuts with "Estimate Prophet," "Terrapin Station," and the 24 min "Jam," but the upfront set is no slouch with Sam Cooke's "Good Times," Johnny Cash's "Big River," and Luther Dixon's "Big Boss Man." Plus, bonus performances from their 1987 show at the same venue, Shoreline Ampitheatre, just outside San Francisco.
View from the Vault IV (1987)—Going further back in time, we get to sit in on the Dylan & The Dead tour, as the boys played their own show up front, and then backed the legendary Bob Dylan in the night cap. This 237 min concert holds nothing of note for me, save for their rendition of James Crawford's "Iko Iko," and that's only because I'm a huge Dr. John fan. Other than that, you're looking a more of what we've seen done better in previous performances.
Presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full screen, the source material varies widely which challenged Shout! Factory to present a cohesive package. The film stock footage holds up surprisingly well in clarity, though colors are washed out and grain gets thick in low light. The video segments aren't quite as tolerable, though the majority of won't bother the casual viewer in the least. After all, we're here for the music, and we get that in spades. Though some may cry for a Dolby 5.1 remix, these performances were not captured during an age where the surround channels would have enhanced your enjoyment in any way, shape, or form. The 2.0 Stereo mix handles everything from interviews to mainstage performances with purpose and clarity.
In addition to the bonus material found on several of the individual concert films, we get an entire disc of previously unreleased material. First are five performances from 1987-1991, direct from The Grateful Dead archives. Again, the best of best is found elsewhere in this set, but true Deadheads will thrill to their heroes in never-before-seen segments. Next, a new interview with Dead archivist David Lemieux, who helps put everything here in context and helps fill in the historical gaps. We also the 1992 documentary Backstage Pass by Bill Kreutzmann's son Justin. Only 35 min in length, the film takes six key Dead tunes and uses them to segment the band's history through concert footage, home movies, and abstract visual form. And finally a 40-page booklet of photos and insights from Jerry Garcia biographer Blair Jackson on the band's storied history.
When it comes to The Grateful Dead, there's nothing I can say or do to sway your interest in the band. They are, quite simply, a American legend as important to our cultural zeitgeist as Elvis and The Beatles. Love 'em or hate 'em, you have to respect what they managed to accomplish and the rich legacy they leave behind. Credit Shout! Factory for capturing some of that essence through the impressive Grateful Dead: All the Years Combine. Chain smoke this 14-disc set and you'll be feeling an entirely different kind of stoned.
Not Guilty, man.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Bonus Performances
• IMDb: The Grateful Dead Movie
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