Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Album Review: Grateful Dead - Dave's Picks 49: Frost Amphitheater 1985

Grateful Dead
Dave's Picks 49: 4/28 & 29/1985
Frost Amphitheater Palo Alto, CA
** out of *****

Standard disclaimer: When reviewing the Dave's Picks series, and really any Grateful Dead release at this point, it needs to be noted that a lot of the truly great shows from the band have already been professionally released. (If new to the band, check out RtBE's Beginners Guide to The Grateful Dead Part's one and two.) With their vast back catalog on and all of their previous releases The band's selections are running thin when it comes to must own, professionally released shows.

That said, this series still exists for a reason, obsessive fans (like RtBE) will always listen to anything from the band as Dave and his team continue to unearth rare gems.

Unfortunately this isn't one of them. 

The two shows presented here (4/28 and 4/29) over four compact discs have minimal must hear moments and unless you are completely on the bus, this one can be completely skipped. 

1985 was an up and down year for the boys and you only need to hear Jerry's vocals for that to fully come crashing home. At the time of the presented shows, Garcia was about a year away from his diabetic coma that almost killed him and his vocals are shredded, destroying any nuance or texture. While the Dead were never known for pristine vocals, there is certainly magic to their singing and Jerry's ragged voice takes away from a lot of it during this phase of their career (84-86). 

The rest of the band, Bob Weir – guitar, vocals Brent Mydland – keyboards, vocals Phil Lesh – bass, vocals Bill Kreutzmann – drums Mickey Hart – drums, are in high spirits, maybe a bit too high, as things are super fast and moving throughout these two nights at The Frost, especially the first.    

The opening throwback to "Dancing In The Streets" is fairly well played, kicking off the night in interesting style, bleeding into "Bertha". Here is the first appearance of Jerry's cracking vocals that remind of Kermit the Frog at times on this night. The vocal effects are messed with as the echo is enhanced for Weir during "Little Red Rooster" which has too much slide guitar blistering forth.  

Perhaps the most all around solid first set offering is the lightly played "Brother Esau" which finds the band clicking. Garcia is straining during "Ramble on Rose" but Phil picks up the slack with a light hearted cover of "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" as Lesh sings lead. The fast take on "Music Never Stopped" wraps up a forgettable first set. 

The second set gets going with a serviceable version of "Scarlett Begonias" that uses a slow build easing things open as Garcia and Phil lead the jam with guitar and bass weaving, getting better as the song progresses before it jumps into "Eyes of The World". These mid-80's versions of the song are a bit disorienting as the tune is played at warp speed, never truly synching up as the band is racing forward.  

The speed continues for "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" as Jerry and Brent mix things up before a too fast version of "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" that is unique but not overall successful. After "Drums>Space" there is a super short version of "The Wheel" before "Truckin'" is upbeat as well, seamlessly moving into "The Other One" with the two drummers leading the charge. "Black Peter" finds Garcia's vocals still in brutal shape, but his solo and overall playing is excellent, while the band speeds through the final run of "Around and Around", "One More Saturday Night" and the encore of the best forgotten "Keep Your Day Job". 

For the opening set of 4/29 things aren't much improved, Garcia still sounds broken vocally an the band never truly connect. The set highlights are a funky version of "New Minglewood Blues" which has Weir and Mydland showboating with style, an OK "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider" combo and the set highpoint, "Birdsong" which isn't amazing, but stands out as solid with very nice playing from Garcia. 

The second set of 4/29 is clearly the best part of this release. From the outset, the pumping "Hell In A Bucket" has Weir playing a raging front man in fun style while Garcia must have taken some tea or other medicine during the set break as his vocals have improved and he doesn't strain, gracefully delivering "Crazy Fingers" with understated beautiful fret work, smoothly moving into a stout version of "Playin' In The Band".

The group is clicking throughout the jam before effortlessly going back to a ballad, this time "China Doll", which is a bit creaky, but the band goes back into "Playin'" for a bit before dropping off into "Drums > Space" only to reemerge with more "Playin'". The brief upbeat vibes drop back down for another Jerry ballad as "Wharf Rat" is good, leading to a big build that goes into "Throwing Stones" that has Weir going over the top with his vocals again before a good version of "Not Fade Away" ends the set. 

A good if understated run of songs, the second set is worth a listen, as is the encore of the very pretty "She Belongs To Me". It is almost as if during the second set, Garcia understood the songs he could sing and focused on those and his guitar, making for a smoother ride through tougher times. That is something the Grateful Dead always provide, even on their off days.
Support the artist, buy the album, and peep some video below (not Dave's Picks Audio):

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