Sometimes you just get the feeling that it goes on forever - a bottomless cavern with no end in sight? I am talking, of course, about the archives of the Grateful Dead, a body of work that is taking on its own life. Some of it is musically orgasmic, and a lot is just historically fascinating. The new release Rare Cuts and Oddities – 1966 is certainly in the latter category. However casual, any Grateful Dead fan is to some extent an archivist, and this album will fill a gap in almost anyone’s Dead archive.

Most of the music is from some raw demo tape stuff, which is “Point Zero” in the long, strange arc the Dead would take over the next 3 decades and beyond. What you hear is a garage band, bleeding the blues through their front man - Rob McKernan, a.k.a. Pigpen. The sound is thin - Jerry Garcia’s guitar whines nasally like a petulant teenager - but if listened to enough and examined like each inch of the Zapruder film, the essence of the Grateful Dead emerges. Phil Lesh and Billy Kreutzman on bass and drums are evidently the heart of the Dead sound, which is not surprising as any great rock and roll starts with the rhythm. But to hear a music that will one day twist like a tie-dyed t-shirt made so simplistic and heartfelt is to see the truth.

There are some goodies in here as well - a version of "Cream Puff War" delights with alternative sections and lyrics, the bluesy “Betty and Dupree” plays as a prequel to the diamond blues, and Garcia takes the vocals on the future-Bobby-song “Promised Land.” The CD booklet features nice photos and more first-person historical snippets that accompany the music perfectly. The free-form, live version of “King Bee” > “Caution” that closes out the disc hints at a long-windedness that would soon become a signature of the young band. Here Pigpen shows who the big boss man is, and you realize why his picture is staring back at you when you remove the CD from the case. Rare Cuts and Oddities is, in a way, a tribute to Pigpen, a long gone but not forgotten cog in the Grateful Dead perpetual motion machine.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 8/24/05]

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