Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Album Review: The Grateful Dead - Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 3/9/81

The Grateful Dead
Madison Square Garden, NY NY 3/9/81
**and1/2 out of *****

The Grateful Dead decided to release this individual show as a standalone from 17 CD box set In and Out of The Garden, March 9th, 1981 and it is a solid effort from the worlds most famous arena. 

The main caveat regarding this release is that during this time/tours the master recordings of the band were done via cassette and the sound quality has not held up well in comparison to other eras from the group. The overall release has a thinner, dry, distant feel at times and it is confusing as to why the official Grateful Dead archivists don't go the matrix route of mixing with these early 80's releases, as they did on the fantastic Dave's Picks 8

Whatever the reason, the playing and performance from this night is pretty good to great, adding official release power to an underrepresented era in Dead history. The band at the time, Jerry Garcia – guitar, vocals Mickey Hart – drums Bill Kreutzmann – drums Phil Lesh – bass Brent Mydland – keyboards, vocals Bob Weir – guitar, vocals were about a year removed from Go To Heaven and Brent was solidifying his place in the group.  

Opening with "Feel Like A Stranger" the hollow sound is noticeable and makes MSG feel empty, but the band is pretty connected from the start. Dropping into the gorgeous "Althea" Garcia gets his vocal chords started (this first set is not his most robust singing) around some of Robert Hunters best lyrics before Bobby delivers a very strong "C.C. Rider".

During "Ramble On Rose" the crowd floats in with Garcia's vocals still creaking, but it is during "El Paso" where the lead guitar work of Garcia and Weir's vocals combine to form an excellent version of this usually standard offering. It is only outdone in the first set by "Bird Song" which uses a jazzy backbeat from Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann as Garcia flutters all around the fretboard beautifully. 

A few fair to lackluster offerings "Deep Elem Blues", "Beat It On Down The Line" and "New Minglewood Blues" keep the first set far from must hear but Garica's vocals and the band as whole warm up to kick off the second set with a solid combo of "China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider" highlighted by Mydland's keys, Garcia's runs, and the best harmonies of the night, especially on the energetic "I Know You Rider".

That palpable sense of things heading somewhere stays active throughout "Samson and Delilah" with rich bass lines from Lesh and keys from Brent, but Garcia tones things down, delivering a serviceable, if ill timed, "Ship of Fools". 

While the pace screeches, Weir kicks it back up as "Estimated Prophet" establishes a great groove that delves into excellent interplay between everyone seamlessly dropping into "Uncle John's band" which keeps the positivity and uses crazy fingering from Jerry, plinking keys from Brent, stout bottom from Phil as the jamming in these two songs delivers the highlight of the show. 

The "Drums>Space" rumbles and zone out before "The Other One" stumbles out of the gate, but links up eventually with Garcia switching guitar tones and Mydland following. Once the song gets in gear the energy kicks up to a furious workout before a gorgeous "Stella Blue" that seems to want to fade into "The Wheel" but instead Bobby kicks up a semi-hokey version of "Good Lovin'" to wrap up a set of high's and a few low's. 

A perfunctory "U.S. Blues" acts as the encore as the band ends their first night in 1981 at Madison Square Garden in NYC. For those not looking to lay out for the full box set, this one of show gives a solid taste of the sound, band, and songs from that era. Not one of the best in the band's history, but The Grateful Dead have so many facets and eras it is always worth checking in on them. 
Support the artists, buy the album and peep some video below:

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