Friday, June 2, 2017

Grateful Dead 7: Skull & Roses

In the year following their first live double album, the Dead had recorded and released a pair of LPs that concentrated on succinct songwriting. They learned to use this concentrated approach onstage, where they were now down to five members, with just one drummer. Hence, their next live installment—also a double—reflected less of a lengthy, space jam approach and more of the tight country and blues covers they’d picked up along the way, and indeed made their own, to the point where only obsessives like ourselves know (or care) that other people wrote and recorded them first.
The album simply titled Grateful Dead by the record label has long been referred to by Deadheads (as christened on the inner gatefold) as “Skull & Roses”, due to its artwork and to differentiate it from the eponymous debut. A quick listen to the two similarly titled albums should dispel any confusion, as they almost sound like two different bands. Beginning with the confident gallop of “Bertha”, a Garcia-Hunter original, side one moves to Merle Haggard’s prison lament “Mama Tried” and the jugband revision of “Big Railroad Blues” before ending with the complicated textures and meter of “Playing In The Band”, spotlighting Bob Weir in the music he wrote. Side two is the album’s only concession to psychedelic jamming, being an 18-minute extension of “The Other One”, known previously to record-only fans as the first track from the second album. Keep in mind the first five minutes are devoted to a drum solo.
Side three is all covers: “Me And My Uncle”, written by Papa John Phillips and learned from a Judy Collins album; “Big Boss Man”, which gives Pigpen his moment in the dwindling spotlight; “Me And Bobby McGee”, captured a month after Janis Joplin’s version topped the charts; and the standard “Johnny B. Goode”, which shows just how much of the Dead’s sound came directly from Chuck Berry. Side four is split between another Garcia-Hunter original, the mournful “Wharf Rat”, and the medley of “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad”, establishing the Bo Diddley beat that they’d use for countless similar medleys over the duration of their career.
If one was so inclined, the “Skull & Roses” album could be shaved down to a single LP highlighting the band’s original compositions. Indeed, “Bertha”, “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat” were sweetened in the studio, predominantly by Garcia buddy Merl Saunders on organ (as well as some unclarified pianist and doubling of the vocals on the latter track). With those on one side and “The Other One” on the other, it would have been a simple sequence, but that would have been at the expense of the covers that, again, loom large in the legend. And indeed, the album as a whole is one of their better sets, with a fresh live sound throughout that concentrates more on the music than the audience. The quick fades, however, can be a little frustrating.
Another double album that could fit on a single CD, the eventual expanded version added two more ‘50s vintage covers and the now-obligatory hidden radio ad. A few later vault releases have mined the era surrounding this album, most notably the four-CD Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead, which scans through four of the Fillmore East shows out of the New York dates recorded for what would be the “Skull & Roses” album.

Grateful Dead Grateful Dead (1971)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead (2000)
     • Three From The Vault (2007)
     • Winterland May 30th 1971 (2012)

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