The Grateful Dead | Go To Nassau
May 15 & 16, 1980
I feel compelled to admit something. It has been a really long time since I've purchased, traded, or even listened to any of the Grateful Dead's music. This is the very reason I find the latest vault release, The Grateful Dead Go To Nassau, 5.15-16.80, so refreshing and so damn good. It’s a lot like seeing a long-lost friend who has been enviably out of touch for a great long while.
The Dead that ushered in the Reagan Years represents a group I wish I knew. Potent in its creativity and execution, this post-70s juggernaut was invigorated by a slough of new tunes and an enviable place atop the outsider-society’s most revered. As the country caught a wave of progression, so too did the Dead. Go To Heaven, the follow-up to Shakedown Street, and Terrapin Station before it, punctuated a wealth of music that trailed the Dead into the 80’s. The silver screen shone briefly with Dead Ahead, their first full-length feature since The Grateful Dead Movie. Three years into their contract with Arista, 1980 also marked the recorded introduction of keyboard player Brent Mydland to the family (he actually started a year earlier). Mydland would hold the band's only disposable position with a decade-long pillar of controversial styles. But the band’s new blood was something guitarist Jerry Garcia also found invigorating.
This is the setting of Nassau, a collection of tunes spanning two nights of a three-night run at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum. If Arista really wanted to capitalize on a band they no longer include on their roster, a four-disc mini box set could have been better edited than this two-disc representation. They might have a better, more marketable set on its hands if it included some of the band’s mainstay chestnuts that peppered all three shows, like “Deal” and “Terrapin Station.” And since Go To Heaven figures so prominently here, it should be noted that the band mercilessly avoided “Antwerp’s Placebo (The Plumber),” the only Heaven song that never emerged during the run, if ever.
Nevertheless, the album launches into an incredibly smart and tight “Jack Straw > Franklin’s Tower” that sets an urgent and taught tone for the whole of the album. The group voice that was cultivated and matured for so long is immediately evident here. Bob Weir was indeed worthy enough to carry Garcia when necessary, and these discs prove it. So understated is Weir, his harmonic guitar playing blends into Garcia’s “Tiger” as an oft-unnoticed compliment.
Early on, Garcia shines on the very fine “High Time.” Garcia sounds energetic all the way through, too. Particularly deep into the second set, where his energy and spunk had been known to wane in later years. Propped up by Mydland’s welcome honky-tonk organ, Garcia rips some monster solos throughout each disc (check out “Peggy-O” and “Feel Like a Stranger”). Garcia and bassist Phil Leshalso lock into a sped-up “Alabama” drive that shows off their talent for musical conversations.
Ever the engine, Lesh guides the band in and out of an intense and seamless closing monster “Playing In the Band > Uncle John’s Band > Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad > Good Lovin’" -- that breaks only briefly for the rhythmically pulsing “Drums” segment. The handful of tunes that comprise this jam-happy segment are a stellar representation of just how spunky the Dead sounds from this refreshing era.
The Grateful Dead spanned an unprecedented four full decades rife with live music. With the constant live releases in its varying forms—the Vault, Dick’s Picks, etc.—it confounds me that any one volume can be considered better than another. But getting a peek at how they launched full bore into one of the most prosperous of those decades is an interesting experiment that I was glad to plunder. So, if an edited Dead shows isn’t your thing, or you have a terrible distaste for Go to Heaven, then you should avoid Go To Nassau at all costs. But if you like your Dead energetic, willing to wail, and tight as a drum, you will no doubt find this set a very compelling piece.
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