The rap on the Grateful Dead’s eponymous 1967 debut album—which the group mostly recorded in just four days—is that they didn’t yet understand the studio and failed to accurately represent what they could accomplish in concert. There’s some truth in that. Then again, as a bonus disc included with this 50th anniversary reissue makes clear, their concerts at the time didn’t fully suggest what they were capable of, either.
That doesn’t mean that this package—the first in a series that will ultimately include 50th anniversary editions of the rest of the group’s studio and concert catalog—isn’t worth your attention. Yes, there’s some sloppiness in the playing and the songs mostly eschew the long, experimental jams that came later. But they already sound innovative; and to my ears, the rough edges are part of the charm of these likably anachronistic early Dead excursions, which are loaded with energy and infectious rhythm.
Jerry Garcia’s guitar and Pigpen’s organ stand out on the nine-track original album, which has been impressively restored and remastered for this reissue. Covers dominate: “Good Morning, Little School Girl,” the Chicago blues standard that Sonny Boy Williamson first waxed in 1937; “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” the country blues classic, which also dates from the 30s; jug-band king Noah Lewis’s “New, New Minglewood Blues” and “Viola Lee Blues,” the latter a 10-minute workout that at least hints at the jazz explorations to follow; Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It on Down the Line”; Obray Ramsey’s “Cold Rain and Snow”; and the apocalyptic “Morning Dew,” by Canadian folkie Bonnie Dobson.
The sole originals are the propulsive “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion),” which is credited to the entire group; and Jerry Garcia’s guitar-heavy, vaguely political “Cream Puff War.” Even more than the rest of the album, these tracks evoke Haight-Ashbury days, especially if you listen closely to the words. (“Golden Road” advises listeners to “light up smokin’ buddy, have yourself a ball,” and it sounds as if the group took their own advice before writing these lyrics.)
Considering how much live Dead material has already been released, it’s hard to believe that anything noteworthy remained in the vaults. But this package’s bonus disc, which preserves previously unreleased performances at the July 1966 Vancouver Trips Festival, is well worth hearing as an example of embryonic Dead. It was recorded about eight months before the release of the debut album and therefore before many people outside San Francisco had even heard of the band. (“Tonight, for your pleasure,” says the Vancouver MC, “we’re going to start off the evening with a group from San Francisco. They’re called the Grateful Dead.”)
Like the debut LP, the 79-minute, 17-track concert contains mostly covers and includes little in the way of extended jams. (Only two tracks clock in at more than six minutes.) The well-recorded disc incorporates most of the songs that surfaced on the debut album (“Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “Cream Puff War,” “Viola Lee Blues,” “Beat It on Down the Line,” “Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl,” “Cold Rain and Snow,” and “New, New Minglewood Blues”) plus numbers that would later become associated with the Dead, such as the traditional “I Know You Rider” and Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Also here are a strong cover of “Dorsey Burnette’s 1960 single “Hey Little One” and a few lightweight obscurities that understandably soon vanished from the repertoire, including “Cardboard Cowboy,” “You Don’t Have to Ask,” and Standing on the Corner.”
This expanded reissue may not evidence all of the expertise and innovation that came later, but it does conjure up a musically and culturally important era, and most of it is highly listenable.
Bill Scorzari, Through These Waves. The first two minutes of this album left me expecting a collection of jazzy, new-age instrumentals, but then Scorzari’s arresting voice entered the mix as he sang, “I woke up this morning with a dream of you, the sun was shining on the morning dew,” and I realized I was in for something else entirely. Scorzari’s songs are consistently profound, poetic, and emotional; and his voice—as gravelly and compelling as Tom Waits’s—is counterpointed beautifully with strings and, on the gorgeous “More of Your Love,” a female vocalist. This is one of the most compelling albums by a little-known artist that I’ve heard in a while.
Billy T Band, Reckoning. Billy T, aka William Troiani, is a New York native who has lived in Norway since 1997. He spent a decade working with the incomparable Tom Russell and has also backed up artists as varied as Nanci Griffith and Lightnin’ Hopkins. This is his fourth record with his own band, which includes trumpet and tenor sax players and a string section (violin, viola, cello). The group is top-notch and Troiani’s soulful vocal are sublime. On tracks like “Sad Man” and “I’ve Been a Fool,” the music sounds reminiscent of the best of 1960s Philly soul and Stax/Volt.
Lawrence Morrill Glass, Neanderthal. Last fall, I praised a five-song EP from Glass that showcased his amiable vocals and addictive folk/pop compositions. Now comes a full-length CD that combines four of the EP’s five tracks with seven additional noteworthy originals. Glass is impossible to pigeonhole: one minute he’s singing traditional pop/rock love songs (“The Habit of You”), the next he’s offering “Tina Fey,” a tongue-in-cheek ode to the comedienne/actress; then comes the touching, violin-spiced “Lou Reed Died,” which includes deft references to Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and “Vicious.” Somehow, it all fits together.