The reason the latest edition of the Dead’s Road Trips series exists is as good as any: a 50-minute suite of “Terrapin Station > Playing in the Band > Uncle John’s Band.” “Terrapin,” for the most part acts as a prelude. It is its usual magnificent self, building to an appropriately mystical climax, which does exactly its job: getting the show to the brink of the other side. “Playing,” 27-and-a-half-minutes, counting the drums segment and following jam, blows into a major key “All Along the Watchtower” jam before chugging at full speed through a series of fusiony climaxes, very much of the same cloth as the wild “Estimated Prophet” from two nights later, released as Dick’s Picks, vol. 5.
“Uncle John’s Band,” then, is an epilogue, a gentle return to earth, both for its homey musical content, but also its performance. It is only its second rendition since the band’s 1974 retirement, and—despite being fairly well done in terms of accuracy—is redolent of the gripping creative malaise then in its first, horrible bloom. After that, songs I wish the Dead never played: “I Need A Miracle,” the Bob Weir-led version of “Good Lovin’,” and—most painfully—an anemically perky “Bertha.” Indeed, by design or accident of mix or the aforementioned malaise, Garcia’s guitar falls far back in the mix, the tune an inadvertent preview of the band’s wilderness years after his passing, forming and reforming in different guises, with different people trying to be him. But then, suddenly, when the solo comes round, here comes Garcia. Thankfully. (And don’t even get into the “Wharf Rat” on the bonus disc, where Garcia’s voice is a pale wisp of its former stature as one of the great American voices. Or “Ramble On Rose,” where the lyrics are beginning to be forgotten, the details lost.)
There are other great moments on the two disc set. Many of them come in the 15-minute “Sugaree” that opens the first disc. “Sugaree,” as a jam, functions like reggae, its value in how long Garcia can milk that vibe with a winding, inquisitive solo. By that standard, this is an all-time classic “Sugaree.” One to lay back with on a summer Sunday. The rest of the show is a bit lame. Or perhaps just tame.
“High Time,” one of Garcia and Robert Hunter’s finest love songs, gets an airing during the first set. Garcia sounds tentative during the intro, hitting a few bum chords and—again—buried behind Mydland’s chiming keyboards and Weir’s rather ornate rhythm guitar. His vocals are soulful, but not all there. When it comes time for the melody’s emotional climax—the “come in when it’s raining” line Garcia was unable to hit even on Workingman’s Dead—Garcia opts out entirely, swinging for the note in a space an octave lower. The song is more mature for it, but Garcia sounds fragile. His voice nuanced and almost breaking, but the music sounds utterly smooth: the beginning of the Dead’s stadium rock period, abetted by Mydland’s synths, and Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s rows of roto-toms and percussion gimcracks.
For some, this couldn’t matter less. For others, this is the edge, the magic nearly disappeared. Even by those standards, it’s still a pretty boss “Playing.”