Continuing its pattern of releasing individually the DVDs that comprise the Grateful Dead’s All The Years Combine box set, the latest pair from the band is Truckin’ Up To Buffalo and Downhill From Here. Both from summer 1989 and both previously released in other formats and labels, these two concerts are wonderful reflections of a time in the band’s history most fans agree was quite sparkling. While current distributor Shout Factory has not added any content to what was already issued, their renewed availability is once again part of the good news.
The other good news is the concerts, themselves. Starting with Truckin,’ a July 4th show from Rich Stadium in Buffalo, NY, the Dead seem fully aware of both the scope and symbolism of the appearance. Smiling and energetic from the “Bertha” kick-off, the group pushes tempos throughout, culminating in a raucous “Deal” first-set closer. In between, even ballads like “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Row Jimmy” roll with an undercurrent of urgency and conscience. It would be hard to deny the sextet truly is enjoying itself. Second set highlights, from a “Touch of Grey” opener to a “Ship of Fools/Playing in the Band/Terrapin Station” trifecta, abound. Jerry Garcia appears particularly motivated, shredding Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Only keyboardist Brent Mydland’s “I Will Take You Home,” threatens to slow things to a halt. Even the ostensibly expected entry of a “U.S. Blues” encore plays as joyous and fun. Overall, it’s party to celebrate again and again.
When something is titled as perfectly as Downhill from Here, it’s easy to expect perfection within. Or not. The Grateful Dead, beginning with its own moniker, has often dabbled in sly, dark humor. From lyrics and band interviews, right down to the hippie goth all-black stage clothes of its captain Jerry Garcia, it’s hard to know if the band heading downhill is a good thing or bad. If this performance is the measuring stick, it’s a free and easy trip. Filmed in Alpine Valley, WI just a few weeks after Buffalo, the Dead seem to be riding that wave of tour momentum. Appropriately “Let the Good Times Roll” starts the show leading to a gritty “Feel Like a Stranger.” Three cuts from the prior evening’s concert are interspersed into the first set, conspicuous only due to the group’s change of clothes, but flow seamlessly culminating with a blistering “Deal.” The second set winds through many segue ways, some by now classic such as “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider,” some less so as “Uncle John’s Band/Standing on the Moon.” Again, a show so strong it should surprise nobody in its inclusion in the band’s released collection.
On both Truckin’ and Downhill, Grateful Dead supporters and critics will find a band, even 25 years into its existence, still inspired and inspiring. Still fiery and fun. See and hear what those tens of thousands were following all summer.