Road Trips Vol. 2 No. 1

MSG September '90 (9/18-20/90)

Released: 2008


Truckin' [9:07]
China Cat Sunflower [7:51]
I Know You Rider [7:09]
Playing In the Band [11:05]
Ship of Fools [6:43]
Playing In the Band [2:32]
Uncle John's Band [10:49]
Let It Grow [11:30]
Jam [11:18]

Jam [10:24]
Dark Star [13:21]
Playing In the Band [3:53]
Dark Star [14:44]
Throwing Stones [10:03]
Touch of Grey [7:41]
Turn On Your Lovelight [7:13]
Knockin' On Heaven's Door [9:29]


Liner Notes:

Growing in the Garden

You are on the floor of Madison Square Garden and Phil has just dropped a bomb. The bass notes resonate in your chest cavity and shake you to your bones. As you feel it, you hear it, and then the ground beneath bounces up to meet your downstroke. You are inside the world's largest urban speaker enclosure, and you are dancing on its cone.

From 1979 to 1994, the Grateful Dead played 52 shows at the Garden, a hallowed arena whose stunning acoustic properties and legendary reputation as the locus of countless historic events belies its mundane and weathered exterior situated above Penn Station--one of New York City's rail gateways--in a neighborhood long on discount stores and taverns and short on beauty and charm.

Madison Square Garden is blessed sonically by its architecture: its tiers of seats and concert floor are suspended from its circular frame--imagine a speaker cone turned on its back--and below it is the cavernous train and subway station that functions as the baffles inside a speaker enclosure. When the Grateful Dead and its audience were functioning in perfect synchrony, there was no better place on earth to be than inside this cone of perfect sound. No other band has managed to make that room resonate so powerfully on its own frequency.

Almost from the first, the Dead played astonishingly well at MSG, and the New York crowd rose to match the band's energy. Consider their second January 1979 show or, even more powerfully, the October 11, 1983 performance in which the band brought the house to a deafening roar during the opening seconds of "St. Stephen." These are moments that helped perpetuate the notion that the band simply played better in the East--perhaps it was true?

These were questions I pondered when I moved to New York City from my native California in 1987 and saw my first Garden shows that September. In that year's five-show run there were many great moments, the highest of all being the second set on the 18th, which reached a peak with one of the all-time great performance of "Morning Dew." I'm sure many of you had your share of those nights, when a crowd would disperse with its souls in alignment, and it felt like all was well with the world for those fleeting hours.

The September 1990 shows at Madison Square Garden were particularly welcome. Brent Mydland had died a scant two months before. However devastating his death was to his loved ones, friends and comrades, it was also a terrible musical loss. I loved the way he sang and played the organ, and some of his songs worked perfectly in the Dead's sets. It was an enormous relief, then, when the Dead seemed barely to have skipped a beat, finding a new keyboard player, Vince Welnick, and enlisting a great pianist, Bruce Hornsby, to join for the fall tour.

A friend and I met up in Cleveland for Vince's first shows the week before the Garden. Not bad, I seem to recall… promising. He was perhaps a bit tentative and hard to hear, but imagine the challenges of stepping into the Dead's rising tide. That Bruce was to join the fold in New York was really exciting; I knew him to be a fine musician, well-versed in the Dead's music. And I loved that his principal instrument was the piano--I had really missed the sound of a piano in the Grateful Dead's mix since Keith Godchaux had left the band in early 1979.

I made it to all six shows at MSG that year, and of all the Garden runs I saw from 1987 to 1994, it was the most consistently exciting. Best of all, it got better every night. By the end of the run, Vince and Bruce seemed to fit very naturally with the band, who appeared energized by their presence and relieved that its grief could be tempered by new beginnings.

Even the time-tested set list format seemed up for grabs that week. Any Dead Head could have told you which were "first set songs" and which were "second set songs"; what would happen before "Drums" and how a song would emerge from "Space." Imagine our amazement, then, when a new element was presented at the Garden on Bruce's second night, when he and Vince and Phil jammed together as a trio before "Drums." From then on, each night featured a different small combo improvising together before the drum solo. Such a simple wrinkle appeared to be a crease in the fabric of the well-pressed Grateful Dead set, and it gave me hope that the new guys would inspire additional formal innovations. You can hear at the end of this set's first disc a delightful improvisation from the September 19th show, in which Bruce, Bob and Jerry drive "Let It Grow" into fresh pastures, grazing together on Hornsby's harmonic pastoralism. About five minutes in, Jerry turns a corner into a fast blues and Bruce responds with a richly melodic boogie reminiscent of Keith Jarrett. For the rest of the jam, we hear a triumphant trio bring the audience to its feet with music it had simply never heard before. These jams before "Drums" were the talk of Dead Heads that week at the Garden, bringing us the perhaps unexpected satisfaction of knowing that our band was still growing before our eyes. (You can hear the 9/16/90 improvisations in their entirety on Dick's Picks Vol. 9.)

Vince Welnick, unknown then to most Dead Heads, was an enormously encouraging addition to the band. Listening to the recordings almost 20 years later, it is clear that he could play has ass off, could sing harmonies on key, and was rather trippy to boot. His organ positively wails on "Truckin'" and lights up "Dark Star" with a shimmering gloss.

Always sonic innovators, the Dead in 1990 were on the cusp of a new sound. The previous few years of touring had brought sonic perfection even to arenas and stadiums--a clear, airy sound that could deliver a precise stereo soundfield in which each instrument could be heard clearly. With a fraction of the speaker cabinets of the 1974 Wall of Sound system, the band was now traveling with equipment so good that it sometimes felt as if the Dead's music was bypassing the speakers on the way from the instruments to our bodies!

The band was experimenting everywhere with electronic sound generation. The drummers had incorporated electronic percussion over the years, and in 1988 and 1989, Jerry and Bob had brought synthesizers into their onboard electronics. The audience was hearing sounds that simply couldn't have been generated in the Dead's early days, sometimes to downright terrifying and psychedelic effect. This set's epic "Dark Star" ventures from moments of delicate, crystalline beauty into some black and harrowing realms--corners of space only reachable with the band's new gear. What more could Dead Heads ask from their band than to restore risk to a 25-year-old musical venture?

The 1990 Garden shows have settled in my memory as the last great run I ever saw. I witnessed marvelous shows here and there, but nothing as consistently solid as what you will hear on these discs, which document most of the final two nights' second sets: Kickass performances inspired by new blood, the unearthing of obscure material required to make each of six nights unique, and a raucous New York crowd determined to inspire the best in the band. After these concerts, the Dead headed to Europe for a tour that saw the new lineup hitting its stride many nights in new and exciting ways, thousands of miles away from home.

The Garden remained a centerpiece of the Dead's touring calendar until the end. There were many high points in years to come, including a mammoth nine-show run in 1991 feature Branford Marsalis's mighty return to the band after his staggering appearance the year before on Long Island. In 1993, the band delighted me by inviting tenor saxophonist David Murray, one of my favorite jazz musicians, to play one night, followed by blues harmonica master James Cotton. And no eyewitness can forget the magnificent and incendiary "Fire on the Mountain" in 1994, perhaps the last time New York City enjoyed the Dead as we all want to remember them.

But back to the last night of the 1990 shows, featured on this Road Trips set. After the interplanetary "Dark Star," I stood there completely stunned--not just by that explosion of spacey creativity, but by the cumulative effect of all I'd experienced that week. I had been thoroughly shaken out of my sometimes jaded Dead Head torpor. No doubt about it: Something new and promising was happening.

The set closed on a very energetic note, with "Throwing Stones" unexpectedly charging into a triumphant "Touch of Grey." The long instrumental section in the second half of "Throwing Stones" had never sounded more like a new American anthem than it did with the addition of Bruce Hornsby's piano, steeped in the songbooks of Stephen Foster and John Philip Sousa. And "Touch of Grey" could not have been a more appropriate way to close this epic series--after Brent's tragic death, the Grateful Dead's survival suddenly seemed assured. The encore that night was the perfect way to send us home: A positively swinging "Turn On Your Lovelight" that turned standers into twirlers, with Vince's inspiring organ solo and Bruce's boogie-woogie piano.

We all left the Garden a little bit higher that night, none of us imagining how soon, in the grand scheme of things, that Jerry would go; how soon all this would be over. Now, eighteen years later, we have a chance to review and enjoy the band at a fragile but thrilling moment, when it was blessed with new possibilities in the wake of tragedy, and rose to the challenge.

--Dan Levy


Grateful Dead:

JERRY GARCIA: Lead Guitar, Vocals
BRUCE HORNSBY: Piano, Accordian, Vocals
PHIL LESH: Electric Bass, Vocals
BOB WEIR: Rhythm Guiter, Vocals
VINCE WELNICK: Keyboards, Vocals

Compilation Produced by DAVID LEMIEUX & BLAIR JACKSON
Recorded by DAN HEALY
Package Design: STEVE VANCE



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This album was released in December 2008.

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