Thursday, 29 October 2020

Blackfoot













Strike (1990)


Road Fever/I Got A Line On You/Left Turn On A Red Light/Pay My Dues/Baby Blue/Wishing Well/Run And Hide/Train Train (Prelude)/Train Train/Highway Song


This is a fine rock album from 1990. Blackfoot were from Florida and were notable in that singer/guitarist Ricky Medlocke was of Lakota Sioux and Blackfoot ethnicity. Two other members were of Cherokee and Creek origin. Medlocke has had a couple of spells as part of Lynyrd Skynyrd so it not surprising that some of their influence is present in this band's Southern rock sound. For me, though, their influence comes just as much from British blues rockers Free. 


Road Fever kicks the album off in great rocking fashion, full of soaring riffs, drums and a classic rock vocal. It is simply fine. powerful kick-ass, blow the cobwebs away rock of which there is always some room for.


A groovy, catchy drum intro takes us into the Free-esque I Got A Line On You. Once more, the riffage is great as is the powerhouse lead vocal. Rock-wise, everything about this track is perfect. a classic of its genre. 


Left Turn On A Red Light is even more like Paul Rodgers and Free in its majestic slow bluesiness. Check out that huge guitar and drum sound when the song kicks in. 


Pay My Dues continues the blues rock vibe on a muscular number and the Bad Company-influenced Baby Blue brings us more Free riffs and vocals. Talking of Free, up next is Blackfoot's superb cover of Wishing Well. It is so good, it almost matches the peerless original. 



Run And Hide is a solid, mid-pace rock ballad that, for some reason, doesn't sound as loud as the rest of the album's material. Train Train has the reassuring thump back, however, on a blistering serving of upbeat, chunky blues rock. 


The album's tour de force was the seven minute-plus guitar-driven Highway Song, complete with Free Bird-style extended instrumental ending. Fantastic guitar on there. If you like a bit of bluesy, heavy-ish but accessible rock then this will not disappoint. 






Friday, 16 October 2020

Fleetwood Mac - Heroes Are Hard To Find (1971-1974)

  

Future Games (1971)


Woman Of 1000 Years/Morning Rain/What A Shame/Future Games/Sands Of Time/Sometimes/Lay It All Down/Show Me A Smile   
                                                                      
It is often thought that Fleetwood Mac had two distinct phases - the Peter Green blues band and the Buckingham/Nicks soft rockers. It is often forgotten that from 1971 to 1975 there was the Bob Welch era of folky, often acoustic material. Welch replaced Jeremy SpencerChristine McVie joined officially and the group, despite Danny Kirwan still being there initially, became a bit like AmericaCSNY or Bread. What is in no doubt is that they sounded nothing like Peter Green's original Fleetwood Mac, they were already a different band.

Woman Of 1000 Years is a sleepy, acoustic dreamer of a number typical of early seventies blissed-out soft folk rock, full of gentle vocal harmonies and chilled out acoustic strumming. Morning Rain ups the tempo on a vibrant piece of country rock, with a few funky guitar licks thrown in. It is all very, very CSNY if you ask me. So very 1971. Kirwan's guitar still shines out, though, ringing like a bell. The vocal harmonies are quite Beach Boys-inspired too, from their music of the time. The band all merge together vocally in a convincing and cohesive fashion. It is actually quite uplifting to hear it all come together. I'm rambling a bit here but listen to the song, I am sure you will get what I am saying. This was a band offering something completely different to their previous sound and enjoying it.

What A Shame shows that the group had not completely lost their rock edge on a punchy, brassy, chunky instrumental workout with some edgy, choppy guitar and some saxophone featuring, the cut rocks along solidly. Future Games is a beguiling, eight minute long Bob Welch song that rambles along in a folk rock way, punctuated by some fine guitar. It is very hippy/psychedelic in feel and is probably a couple of minutes too long but at the same time there is a certain addictiveness to it.

Sands Of Time was a single, not a successful one, but it has an appealing psychedelic pop sound that goes well with the America-style harmonious vocals. Nice bass on it too, and lead guitar for that matter. It is definite grower of a track. It is over seven minutes long, but it doesn't seem it as it flows on its smooth, untroubled way. Sometimes is a pleasant, melodic and lengthy Elton John-ish number while Lay It All Down is probably the album's rockiest cut, in an early seventies Mott The Hoople sort of way. The final number, Show Me A Smile, is a laid-back Christine McVie ballad. It is ok, but doesn't quite hit the spot that some of the other tracks does. Overall, though, this was a much underrated, little-mentioned album that deserves some attention.




Bare Trees (1972)


Child Of Mine/The Ghost/Homeward Bound/Sunny Side Of Heaven/Bare Trees/Sentimental Lady/Danny's Chant/Spare Me A Little Of Your Love/Dust/Thoughts On A Grey Day  
                            
This was the album, from 1972, where Fleetwood Mac properly set out their post-blues rock direction. It is a pretty typical early seventies soft-ish rock album, but muscular enough to keep it from being thought of as country rock. In many ways, it actually is the band's most cohesive and complete album thus far. It is sort of ethereal and easy on the ear. Very Traffic-like in places. Future Games had got half way there but this one went the whole way in terms of re-inventing the band. Make no mistake, this is a proper seventies rock album. In the midst of all that glam rock stomping, mature, musically creative offerings like this tended to get forgotten. It lacked the prog-rock indulgence that was so popular at the time so it seemed doomed not to be given much attention, which was a pity.

Child Of Mine is an excellent rocker to kick off with. Danny Kirwan is still contributing his impressive guitar and the rest of the band back him up in fine fashion. Mick Fleetwood's drumming is as rock as it has ever been and John McVie's bass rumbles reliably away. Bob Welch's The Ghost sounds so like much of the Traffic-influenced material Paul Weller would record some twenty-thirty years later, even down to the flute, while Christine McVie's Homeward Bound is a superb riffy rocker that captivates from the very first Honky Tonk Women cowbell notes. I really like this and am enjoying listening to it properly for the first time. The sound quality is excellent too.

Sunny Side Of Heaven is a guitar-driven, melodic instrumental that almost sounds, wiuth its twangy guitar sound, like The Shadows from the same era. Bare Trees finds seventies folk rock meeting gentle funk on another highly impressive number. Kirwan's guitar is again top notch, as is Mick Fleetwood's cymbal work. Bob Welch's Sentimental Lady was a tender, laid-back number similar to some of the material The Beach Boys were putting out at the same time. Welch's American voice was giving the group their first US tone in their sound.

Danny’s Chant begins with some Hendrix-esque fuzzy guitar feedback before settling into a slightly funky, wah-wah guitar-driven semi-instrumental workout. Spare Me A Little Of Your Love is a wonderful slow rock ballad of the sort Christine McVie would come to specialise in post 1975. She began it here with this one. Parts of it remind me of Van Morrison’s Linden Arden Stole The Highlights, although that wasn’t recorded until 1974. Check out that rocking bit right at the end too. Dust is an Al Stewart-ish tender number and is the album’s last proper song, as Thoughts On A Grey Day feature an old lady (credited as Mrs. Scarrott) narrating a poem (from her home in Hampshire), which was an odd end. Let not that detract from the fact that this was a very good album and a real forgotten gem.
 



Penguin (1973)


Remember Me/Bright Fire/You Make Me Feel/(I'm A) Road Runner/The Derelict/Revelation/Did You Ever Love Me/Night Watch/Caught In The Rain   
                                        
By 1973, the hugely talented guitarist Danny Kirwan was fired after arguing with the other band members during the Bare Trees tour and he was replaced by guitarist Bob Weston and vocalist Dave Walker. It was the only album that Walker would appear on. It was the first Fleetwood Mac album that I was aware of, noticing the cover as I flipped through piles of albums in record stores as a teenager.

Kirwan would be a huge loss to the band as the entered a real bridging point before the renaissance of 1975. All traces of blues rock were now gone, permanently, and Bob Welch's West Coast sound, together with Christine McVie's tuneful, romantic songs dominated the group's output now, paving the way for the band's total re-invention in 1975. The album was the closest thing so far to what was to become the trademark Fleetwood Mac sound.

Remember Me is a harmonious Christine McVie soft rocker and Bob Welch's Bright Fire is as laid-back and unthreatening as his tracks were expected to be. You Make Me Feel is very much a Christine McVie prototype for her Rumours stuff. It is instantly recognisable as the sort of thing Fleetwood Mac would go on to do in the mid-late seventies. It is a good one, actually, very easy on the ear.

 

The group's cover of Jr. Walker & The All-Stars(I'm A) Road Runner is surprisingly muscular and stomping, with a fine vocal from Walker. If you heard this and didn't know who it was, you would 1000% not identify it as Fleetwood Mac. It is really enjoyable, actually.

The Derelict is a folky number with Walker again contributing a convincingly strong vocal. There is some fine harmonica on here too. the track is sort of solid country rock in style. This, along with (I'm A) Road Runner would be the only two tracks Walker contributed to. He left the group in mid 1973. Revelation is a deep, rhythmic rock number with an equally deep, mysterious vocal, some rolling drums and killer guitar parts. For a Bob Welch song, it is surprisingly brooding and grinding. I like it a lot. Did You Ever Love Me is the album's final Christine McVie song and it is a catchy, summery number with a vaguely Caribbean, steel band backing.

Night Watch is more recognisable as a breezy, sleepy Bob Welch song. Original guitarist played guitar on it but was strangely uncredited. The track has an extended instrumental fade-out. Caught In The Rain is a chilled-out acoustic and backing vocal instrumental to end with.

I have read quite a bit of negativity about this album, but I have always found it pleasantly enjoyable, with fine sound quality and musicianship throughout. Quite where it fitted in with the musical zeitgeist of 1973 is unclear, though.




Mystery To Me (1973)


Emerald Eyes/Believe Me/Just Crazy Love/Hypnotized/Forever/Keep On Going/The City/Miles Away/Somebody/The Way I Feel/For Your Love/Why    
                                                                                              

This was Fleetwood Mac's second album in 1973, following, in October, on from the underrated (in my opinion) Penguin. This is very much a Bob Welch/Christine McVie album, with both singer/songwriters contributing (Welch seven songs, McVie four). Incidentally, the album was recorded on The Rolling Stones Mobile Unit, as indeed was Penguin.

Emerald Eyes is a dreamy, laid-back opener from Bob Welch. The sound is all very AOR now and the song leads into McVie's piano-driven rocker, Believe Me, which, although upbeat and lively, is still in the same mature vein. As on the previous album, she was laying down the foundations for the material that would form the basis of some of the group's trademark late seventies/eighties sound. She continues on the breezy, tuneful Just Crazy Love, showing just what a developed songwriter she was becoming. Those basic blues days of the late sixties seemed a long way away now.


Hypnotized is a delicious, slow and sort of psychedelic number from Welch that sorts of gently swirls around your mind with its subtly infectious understated rhythm. It is one of his best songs for the band. I am sure both Sting and Chris Rea had listened to it as I can hear both of them in there. 

In 1973, it seemed that everyone had to dabble in reggae, and Forever is the group's contribution to the trend. It is ok, but a tiny bit clumsy in places. Christine is back on the pleasingly low-key groove of Keep On Going. It is a Welch song but she takes lead vocals and indeed, it sounds like one of her songs. It also features some nice percussion and a Spanish guitar break. The City contains some bluesy wah-wah guitar as the group slightly revisit their heritage on the bluesiest cut they had laid down for a while. It is a fine track.

Miles Away is also a good one, an insistently rocking number again containing some good guitar and a mysterious, brooding vocal. Somebody, another Welch track, is similarly grinding but in a relaxing way, featuring more fine guitar interjections. It is almost funky in places and is another top quality number.

The Way I Feel is a plaintive but entrancing McVie ballad with an acoustic and piano backing and, of course, her winsome, smoky-sounding vocals. The YardbirdsFor Your Love is covered next, and it stands as a bit of an incongruous throwback to a previous era but, having sad that, it is solid and muscular and does the business in its seventies garb. A nice nod to the blues is found on the intro to the album's closer, Christine's Why. It breaks out into more typical fare but is none the less attractive for it. As with the previous album, this was a most underrated, mature and satisfying offering. The group's releases from this period deserve more exploration, I feel. This was a really solid piece of work.



Heroes Are Hard To Find (1974)


Heroes Are Hard To Find/Coming Home/Angel/Bermuda Triangle/Come A Little Bit Closer/She's Changing Me/Bad Loser/Silver Heels/Prove Your Love/Born Enchanter/Safe Harbour  
                                               
Released in September 1974, this was the last of the Bob Welch albums, that had begun back in 1971. He left soon after this and the group began their well-known re-birth in California. Actually, they had re-located there before the recording of this album. The Welch era is a sadly undervalued one, he was a talented individual and it was so sad that he eventually took his own life. His contributions over this period should never be forgotten.

The cover, once again, after Mr. Wonderful in 1968, has Mick Fleetwood displaying his horribly ribby-looking chest. Do us a favour eh, Mick.

Heroes Are Hard To Find is a catchy, rocking poppy number full of brass and a great Christine McVie vocal that was released as a single but was not, unfortunately, successful. If The Mac had released it three or four years later it would no doubt have been a hit. Coming Home is an Elmore James blues song, but it is covered here in typically Bob Welch spacey, dreamy style, rendering it almost like a new song. Angel is quite a heavy rock number from Welch and Bermuda Triangle is a mysterious, semi-spoken bluesy number that has echoes of Chris Rea's later material, for me.

Come A Little Closer is a beautiful Christine McVie piano-led ballad with breaks out into something majestic with her voice in full Songbird mode. It is a bit of a lesser-known classic. Welch's She's Changing Me is a catchy pop song while McVie's Bad Loser is a rumbling, drum-powered brooding rock number. Welch's Silver Heels is a rhythmic, vaguely Billy Joel-esque song with Welch wishing he could "sing like Paul McCartney". Actually, he sounds rather similar to him.

Christine's Prove Your Love is mellow and seductive, as her material so often could be. It is a lovely, warm and romantic song. Born Enchanter is a deep, bluesy grinder from Welch, full of sombre but melodic rhythms. Safe Harbour is a virtual instrumental (vocals right at the end) with obvious nods to Peter Green's Albatross.

So ends an often overlooked period in Fleetwood Mac's history that contained some really impressive albums. The stratosphere awaited now though....

Monday, 12 October 2020

The Grateful Dead - Dancin' In The Streets (1975-1989)

 



Blues For Allah (1975)



Help On The Way/Slipknot!/Franklin's Tower/King Solomon's Marbles/The Music Never Stopped/Crazy Fingers/Sage & Spirit/Blues For Allah

This album, from 1975, was roundly criticised for being a bit of an uncohesive one, largely because of the final, sprawling track. Forget that, however, and there is a some excellent, quietly appealing funky/jazz/Latin-influenced material to be found in its first part. 

Help On The Way/Slipknot!
is laid-back, sleepily funky in a sort of Traffic meets the later period Eagles way, with a bit of Average White Band thrown in. Lovely guitars and keyboards feature in its cool vibe. There is a great guitar solo near the end along with some funky bass as it goes into the Slipknot section  I love this track. 

It seamlessly morphs into the slightly more upbeat but equally Traffic-esque groove of the exquisite Franklin's Tower. You can just get pleasantly lost in this stuff. It  has heavy hints of Traffic's Feelin' Alright in it, for me. Once more it is melodically and gently funky.

The instrumental
King Solomon's Marbles sounds as if early-mid seventies Santana had taken over with its infectious Latin percussion and Carlos-style guitar. It is thoroughly intoxicating throughout, particularly as it develops into an improvised jazzy phase half way through. 

The Music Never Stopped
starts like Stevie Wonder's Superstition and is a superb piece of  white funk groove - totally irresistible. Great female backing vocals and saxophone are to the fore on this fine song. The lead vocal is subtly convincing too. 

Crazy Fingers is a delightfully relaxing vaguely reggae-influenced number with a Steely Dan-esque rhythm and lyrical quality to it. This is the album's last great track, and to be honest, you could end things here, as it gets a bit indulgent from now on.

Sage And Spirit
is a pleasant enough acoustic instrumental few minutes but the Blues For Allah suite of passages sounds like a trip back to 1967-68 to me. It is a directionless incongruity compared to most of the album. The percussion would not have been out of place on The Stones' Their Satanic Majesties. While there is a certain druggy appeal to it I feel it sticks out from the melodic ambience of the rest of the album. Although the bass in places is sumptuous there is a general feel of indulgence that makes me wonder who exactly was into it back in 1975 as people were listening to Blood On The Tracks, Young Americans and Katy Lied. Go back to the first five tracks, though, and you have a very good album.




Terrapin Station (1977)



Estimated Prophet/Dancin' In The Streets/Passenger/Samson And Delilah/Sunrise/Terrapin Station

From 1977, this is a highly appealing, multi-style album from The Grateful Dead that had nothing to do with any real contemporary musical trend. It is a complete one-off and quite addictive, particularly the two fine tracks that bookended it. The shorter, punchier material in between is good too as well. 

Estimated Prophet
is a superb reggae-influenced number that Sting must surely have been influenced by that features some killer Steely Dan-inspired wah-wah guitar. This is one of my favourite Grateful Dead tracks. 

Dancin' In The Streets
is a surprising, disco-ish cover of the Martha Reeves & The Vandellas Motown classic that is as catchy as it is completely off-the-wall. Did all those old hippy deadheads go for this I wonder? No matter whether they did or not, I think it's great. If you had asked me who this was a while back, however, I would never have said The Grateful Dead in a million years. 

Passenger is another comparatively short number, this time a Doobie Brothers-style riffy and brassy chunky rocker. This is as commercially rocking as The Dead had got. Apparently, it was inspired by Fleetwood Mac's Station Man.

Samson And Delilah
is also a comparatively short song with a gospelly, soulful and thoroughly infectious groove to it. 

Sunrise is a beguiling, female-vocal-led ethereal but orchestrated number that is quite different to anything else on the album. It has a bit of a Jefferson Airplane feel to it, for me. 

The album's centrepiece is, of course, the sixteen minute extended workout of
Terrapin Station. The first part is a proggy but appealing slow bit of quiet , folky rock with a decidedly Pink Floyd-esque part around four and a half minutes in. The instrumental middle passage rocks harder, again, in a prog rock fashion, complete with Elizabethan-sounding woodwind parts, as if Jethro Tull have joined in. The next vocal passage is very Genesis-ish, to my non-prog rears anyway and the sweeping strings are classically-influenced. Check out that superb, slightly Latin rhythmic bit too. Great stuff. 

Although some may consider it too lengthy, its instrumentation is simply outstanding to overlook. It is a totally unique, classic piece of music. God only knows how it was created, or under what influence. Lyrical nonsense too, but who cares?




Shakedown Street (1978)



Good Lovin'/France/Shakedown Street/Serengeti/Fire On The Mountain/I Need A Miracle/From The Heart Of Me/Stagger Lee/All New Minglewoood Blues/If I Had The World To Give

This was the album that must have really appalled many of The Grateful Dead's obsessive "deadhead" fans as they supposedly "went disco" in many people's eyes. Their psychedelic years seemed light years away and eve the folky, country AOR of earlier seventies albums had gone as The Dead got themselvres a bucketload of rhythm. Good for them I say. I love this album. It is a "soft rock" classic. Even an old punk like me likes a bit of soft rock, you know. 

It was completely irrelevant to punk/new wave and employed some disco-ish grooves, but it was more funky, Latin-ish rock if you ask me. 

First up is an utterly irresistible cover of the equally wonderful Youngbloods' Good Lovin'. It gets your toes tapping from its first note. Great stuff as far as I'm concerned. 

Just as fine is the syncopated, Steely Dan style rhythms of France - a sleepy, summery number with some steel band percussion featued and a winsome vocal from Donna Jean Godchaux (incidentally, it was to be her last album, along with husband Keith).

The only track that really sounds "disco" is Shakedown Street, with its infectious beat, groovy hi-hat, funky wah-wah guitar and a an absolute serial killer of a bass line that surely to goodness inspired Queen's John Deacon to come up with the bass line on Another One Bites The Dust. Donna Jean Godchaux has suggested that the track was a sort of tongue in cheek response to the contemporary mania for all things disco. Either way it infuriated their traditional rock/country/psych fans but launched many groups/artists to dabble in disco/funk, such as The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Rod Stewart, ABBA, The Jam, The Clash and, of course, Queen. 

The song was intended to crack the singles market but it failed, but its far-reaching influence cannot be denied. 

Serengeti is a short bit of African-inspired instrumental rhythm, the like of which Talking Heads would utilise to great effect on the following year's I Zimbra. Their polyrhythmic drumming was surely influenced by this too.

Fire On The Mountain is a fetching, staccato number with hints of The Eagles' later work and a sort of reggae tinge to its appealing rhythm. It features a great bit of guitar half-way through. 

I Need A Miracle is an amusing-ish and greatly appealing rocker that has a superb hook and great riffs, bluesy harmonica too - again, I love it. 

Donna Jean Godchaux's romantic slow groove, From The Heart Of Me is sleepily beautiful in a hot summer afternoon way while Stagger Lee is a bluesy, slightly country, clavinet-driven and very Band-esque re-working of the old folk song. 

All New Minglewood Blues takes a track from the band's 1967 debut album and re-visits it in rocking, chunky fashion. Again, there is nothing disco about this, with its fine rock guitar breaks. Too much emphasis was put on the earlier harmless, groovy fun of Shakedown Street, wasn't it? A track like this is proper muscular blues rock, for me anyway. 

The album closes with the disarmingly romantic If I Had The World To Give. This is a lovely track, simple as that. This may not have been an on-the-nail, culturally relevant 1978 album but it sure sounds great in 2020, so there you go. Once more, The Dead had put out an album that was different from all their others and is gloriously unique. They really were quite special.




Go To Heaven (1980)


Alabama Getaway/Far From Me/Althea/Feel Like A Stranger/Lost Sailor/Saint Of Circumstance/Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber)/Easy To Love You/Don't Ease Me In

Two years after their over-exaggerrated descent into disco, The Dead kept up their wry take on the contemporary trend by appearing on the cover of this, their next album, in Bee Gees-style suits, with the hell airbrushed put of them. They didn't normally appear in person on their album covers, so this made things worse as far as fans were concerned. The joke didn't really work, did it, making them look like the dinosaurs that punk and new wave were supposed to rid the world of. No that any of that matters now, does it? This was another fine album, in my opinion. It is a powerful AOR/soft rock offering, completely out of time, of course, but full of verve and vigour. I like all The Dead's phases and steadfastly refuse to criticise this one. For me, it is superb album. Say what you like. 

The Godchaux pair had now left the group and Brent Mydland had arrived on keyboards and some vocals. Donna Jean was missed, vocally, but not terminally. 

Alabama Gateway rocks enthusiastically from the off - a great, rousing start to proceedings and, although I'm sure many fans loathed the Eagles-style AOR of Far From Me, I think it's great. The first thing you realise is how much Mydland's voice on this track (and the others he appears on) sounds like Don Henley. 

Althea is a lovely, laid-back Dire Straits-ish number with lots of Knopfler-esque guitar and
understated vocals. It is similar to material on the first two Dire Straits albums. Love that guitar. 

Feel Like A Stranger sounds like something from David Bowie's Young Americans album (Right or Fascination) and is an infectious piece of chugging white funk. Even the typically eighties synthesisers are funky as hell here. It does, however, come to a strange abrupt end.

Lost Sailor is a sleepy piece of jazziness, featuring some fine guitar and bass. 

Saint Of Circumstance is a Steely Dan style jazz rock number. Both of these tracks are immaculately played and mightily appealing. 

Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber) is a short, gurgling instrumental before Mydland brings his best Don Henley to the table again on the Eagles groove of Easy To Love You. There is also a lot of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers about it too. 

Don't Ease Me In is a bluesy rocking cover to finish with, ending the album on a lively vibe. It has been a pleasure from the first note to the last. These two Grateful Dead albums may have attracted considerable opprobrium but I, personally, struggle to understand why - they're great.




In The Dark (1987)


Touch Of Grey/Hell In A Bucket/When Push Comes To Shove/West L.A. Fadeaway/Tons Of Steel/Throwing Stones/Black Muddy River

Seven years after two excellent albums, The Grateful Dead returned with this, an absolute killer of a rock album that is accessible, clever and all-round likeable. 

Touch Of Grey is a really catchy opener, with great riffs and singalong hooks aplenty. As 1987 rock offerings go, it is up there as one of the best. 

A rat-a-tat rum roll introduces the solid riffage of Hell In A Bucket which has a fair few echoes of Joe Walsh and Don Henley.

When Push Comes To Shove is a rollicking piece of bar-room blues rock driven along by some fine piano. 

West L.A Fadeaway is pure Dire Straits in many ways with its Knopfler guitar sound and quiet, smoky blues rock  ambience. It gets into its groove and just keeps going over its seven minutes. There is something Dylan and Clapton-esque about it in places, too. 

Tons Of Steel is get out on the highway Eagles/Don Henley rock and is a copper-bottomed driving rocker, full of atmosphere and on the road melody. 

Throwing Stones is another in this procession of top quality tracks. It is also Dire Straits in feel but with some of The Dead's own distinctive groove in there making it really attractive. It is sort of hard to describe just what it is but you just know it when you hear it. Lyrically, it also touches on political corruption in a more direct way than The Dead usually serve up. Their lyrics are often more obtuse than they are here. It features a great guitar solo in the middle as well. Let it never be forgotten that The Dead could play.

The album ends with a classic in the anthemic and beautiful Black Muddy River which is lovely piece of slow, solid rock with a bit of a sad country tone to it. I can't analyse it much other than it is uplifting and inspiring. Listening to its mournful Van Morrison-esque tones makes me feel good, in some strange way. Like its two predecessors, this was a really good album - varied, unique AOR at its best. Strangely enough, however, the more I like an album in an unthreatening way, like this one, the less I can write about it.




Built To Last (1989)


Foolish Heart/Just A Little Light/Built To Last/Blow Away/Victim Or The Crime/We Can Run/Standing On The Moon/Picasso Moon/I Will Take You Home

So here we had it - The Grateful Dead's final studio album after so many years packed full to overflowing with varied and wonderful music. For many "deadheads", I guess the final four offerings were their worst but not for me, I love all four of them.

This one is another intoxicating soft rock classic. Yes, it features the synthesisers of the period, but it doesn't get bogged down by them, there are guitars all over the place.

Foolish Heart is a delicious piece of laid-back, gentle AOR to begin with that, while typical of late eighties soft rock, still has that special something that The Dead always bestowed on their songs. Steely Dan had the same vibe about them. It is also sort of Bruce Hornsby-ish. 

The next track, Just A Little Light, is another excellent one, with more than a few hints of Chris Rea in its guitar chug and lyrics. I am not a great lover of synthesiser in rock, but The Dead utilise it nicely here. The track carries with it a great atmosphere, for me.

Built To Last is a beguiling, intrinsically sad soft rock slowie that again reminds me in places of Bruce Hornsby. 

Blow Away is also a killer ballad in the same tradition, enhanced by some brass and great, searing guitar. It is a track full of power and drama but, as with so many of the group's tracks, I don't quite know what the original Deadheads will have made of it. It is several solar systems away from that hippy/psych stuff. Still, groups mature and The Dead are certainly like a thirty year-old wine.

Victim Or The Crime is a chunky number that puts me in mind of Sting's later solo material, somehow. It ends with some more absolutely stonking guitar. 

We Can Run is a marvellously anthemic Don Henley-style hands-in-the-air number. some may find it cheesy. I find it glorious. Brent Mydland's vocals are beautifully emotive and the guitar just soars, taking you to some sort of musical Valhalla. It serves as a fine farewell from The Dead, this challenging, inventive and innovative group of mini-genii. 

Wait, though, there are still three tracks left - the slow and dignified Standing On The Moon is top class too, with a lyrical feel of Talking Heads' The Big Country as the countries that can be seen are rolled out. 

Picasso Moon is a solid, muscular rocker while a final goodbye is said with the gentle, tender lullaby I Will Take You Home

So, thank you then to The Grateful Dead - a group it took me over fifty years to find. Thank goodness I did. They're bloody superb, whatever phase in their career you listen to.














****

There are many "best ofs" available, but I find these two are the best way of accessing The Dead's material in one huge gulp;-

The Grateful Dead - Truckin' (1967-1974)



 

The Grateful Dead (1967)
The Golden Road/Beat It On Down The Line/Good Morning Little School Girl/Cold Rain And Snow/Sitting On Top Of The World/Cream Puff War/Morning Dew/New New Minglewood Blues/Viola Lee Blues

"Blues-based tunes played by musicians who came to rhythm late, expanded so they were equally suitable for dancing and for tripping out" - Robert Christgau

I must admit that until quite recently I had little or no knowledge of "The Dead"'s mighty canon of work. For whatever reason, these rock leviathans had completely passed me by. They came straight out of San Francisco's maelstrom of psychedelia in early 1967, and, although this album is very much one of learning on the hoof it is not without its fresh, vibrant appeal. Actually, I really like it, although I am sure long-time "Dead Heads" dismiss it. It is also, far more of a blues rock album than a psychedelic one, despite its opening blast. 

The album starts in short but lively sixties psychedelic rock fashion on The Golden Road - madcap drums, Eastern-style guitar soloing, swirling organ, frantic vocals and a feel of Jefferson Airplane from the same era about it. Some rock 'n' roll follows on Beat It On Down The Line with an even faster pace and a distinctly early Elvis-influenced vocal. This is actually great stuff and a million miles away from the group's later material. 

As it was 1967, the blues was still huge in the rock firmament and here we get a great version of the much-covered blues standard, Good Morning Little School Girl, delivered in a slow, brooding, effortlessly bluesy style, with a fine harmonica solo to boot. they sound like The Doors in places on this, particularly at the end. 

Cold Rain And Snow is a very 1967 number - with more Doors vibes, great drums and organ and a real groovy feel from its outset. I love it. Check out those sixties drum rolls and bass fills. 

Sitting On Top Of The World is a no-holds-barred, wonderful serving of breakneck blues rock that has the band sounding like The early Rolling Stones speeded up. 

Cream Puff War taps in to the anti-war sentiments of the time on muscular organ and drum slice of short but aware rock. That guitar sound is spectacular. 

Another much-covered track was Tim Rose's Morning Dew which is done here in extended blues rock fashion that again must have influenced The Doors. It is full of menacing, portentous atmosphere and is immaculately played. 

The bluesy vibe continues of the excellent, chunky rock of New New Minglewood Blues, which features some impressive organ breaks. 

The final number, Viola Lee Blues, is a ten minute blues workout of the sort so many subsequent bands would emulate. Once more, the atmosphere is palpable - this is thoughtful, finely-executed blues influenced rock of the highest order. The organ/guitar interplay near the end freaks out too, man. 

Although this was very much a child of its spaced-out, psychedelic 1967 conception it is a bluesy, serious album with no pop pretensions, although it rocks royally on several occasions. It was played superbly well, has a great sound and, for me, is fantastic - far better than I expected it to be. 

Anthem Of the Sun (1968)
That's It For The Other One/New Potato Caboose/Born Cross-Eyed/Alligator/Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)

"Nobody could sing [the new tracks recorded in NYC], and at that point they were experimenting too much in my opinion. They didn't know what the hell they were looking for" - David Hassinger - producer

The Grateful Dead had been dissatisfied with their first album, apparently (I'm not quite sure why - I think it's great) and, where that was one was rocky, psychedelic and, most importantly, bluesy, this offering was indulgent, experimental and, in many places, rambling. 

It contained only five lengthy tracks and was recorded using techniques that took independently-recorded instrumentals and vocals, creating a patchwork quilt of sound when they were pasted together in the studio. All sorts of instruments were used - this being 1968, just as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, of course, had done recently. There was 'prepared piano' (whatever that was), harpsichord, various percussion instruments, kazoo along with Eastern and Latin American instruments. 

The result is a challenging mish-mash of sounds and ambience that is something of a difficult listen, to be honest. It is nowhere near as instantly appealing as its predecessor, not at all, and the sound quality doesn't get anywhere close to the impressive standard of the debut album. Whereas I found that album to be exhilarating and energetic, displaying fine musicianship, this one, in contrast, I find directionless and lacking in cohesion or purpose. In many ways, it is a journey in studio experimentation made live and released straight to the public. The band were interested in trying all sorts of new things, but, by their own admittance, it lacked something in the quality control department. 

That said, there are some bits where I think "yeah, that's a good bit" - various bass runs, drum parts, percussion or the occasional guitar lick, but, overall, I have to say that it struggles to hit the spot for me. It does have a strange capacity to grow on you, however but I still prefer the debut album. 

Let me detail a few plus points, though - the bass, chunky guitar riffs, infectious drums and sharp organ breaks on the adventurous That's It For The Other One and the bass/guitar/drum combination of the most appealing of the album's tracks, New Potato Caboose

Then there are the organ and guitar chops on the short, hippyish romp of Born Cross-Eyed

The rhythmic groove of Alligator has some infectious percussion and a superb guitar solo at nearly six minutes in. 

The track merges seamlessly into Caution, which also has some excellent, improvised percussion, vocal and keyboard moments. 

Perhaps the biggest plus point of all is the fact that the album was remixed in 1971 in order to make it more 'listener friendly' and there is, to my ears at east, a marked improvement. The sound is warmer, particularly the bass and the whole thing seems to have been really 'cleaned up', for the better.
 


Aoxomoxoa (1969)
St. Stephen/Dupree's Diamond Blues/Rosemary/Doin' That Rag/Mountains Of The Moon/China Cat Sunflower/What's Become Of The Baby/Cosmic Charlie

"Sometime in 1969, when we realized the colossal debt we got ourselves into with the decidedly indulgent making of 'Aoxomoxoa', we realised that we needed to get a handle on our finances. We were a group of altruistic troubadours, a traveling psychedelic circus" - Bill Kreutzmann

After their highly experimental second album, The Grateful Dead went even further, in some ways, on this archetypal psychedelic album from 1969. Many aficionados of the band and music critics love it but I find myself liking some of it and finding other bits of it pretty much unlistenable. While Was prepared to accept some of the previous album’s indulgence, on this one it becomes somewhat impenetrable, for me. Having that said, there are some impressive bits and some fine musicianship and several pieces of drug-inspired post-hippy inspiration as the sixties came to an end. The carefree optimism and love of two years earlier had been replaced by an edginess with war and violence all around in Vietnam and Altamont and this was expressed in much of the period’s music. Just take some drugs and block things out, allowing the music to become more introspectively experimental and off the wall. 

St. Stephen is one of the album's better tracks - a chunky piece of psychedelia meeting embryonic prog rock, full of changes of pace and ambience backing beguiling lyrics about a first century saint. 

Dupree's Diamond Blues is a surprisingly country-ish, jaunty bar-room sway of a song. It carefree drunken singalong vibe sits a bit incongruously with the rest of the album. 

Rosemary is very typical of its era - a dense, folky acoustic dirge with distorted, incoherent vocals that turn it into a bit of a difficult listen. It could have been much better. For some, no doubt, this murkiness contains its appeal, but not for me. 

Doin' That Rag is a more rocky song, albeit a slow-paced one with solid riffs and vague, ethereal vocals. Again, for me it is a song that doesn't quite achieve its potential, despite some excellent organ , drums, guitar and bass. There are hints of The Band in there somewhere - here and there, probably the organ and drum sound. Both of these songs sound so much better on their 1971 remix - see bottom of the review. 

Mountains Of The Moon sees the band going all folky and medieval with one of those sixties Rolling Stones-style harpsichord backings. 

China Cat Sunflower, a perennial live favourite of the band, is the album's stand-out track, a virtually impossibly to categorise cornucopia of impressive sounds. Basically, it's a bit proggy, but it has a funky bass line and some bluesy guitar in places and some swirling, soulful organ. 

Now, I apologise in advance to all the Deadheads who may love it, but I find What's Become Of The Baby to be virtually unlistenable, particularly in its original 1969 incarnation, with its feedback, strange noises and vocals played backwards or whatever. It is The Dead's Revolution 9. 

Cosmic Charlie redeems things somewhat with a bassy slow shuffle enhanced by some piercing lead guitar. 

Like its predecessor, Anthem Of The Sun, this album was remixed by the band in 1971, again to great effect, giving it a more polished, less 'home-made" sound. A lot of the sonic mess has been taken off What's Become Of The Baby, which makes it just about acceptable. St. Stephen sounds much improved too and Rosemary is much cleaned up. In fact all of them do - the 1971 version is the superior listen, for me - warmer, bassier and clearer. It almost makes it a different album. There are many who may love that ad hoc rawness, but I prefer the polish of the remix of both albums. 

Overall, I find that while I liked the group's bluesy first album a lot, these two experimental, drug-addled offerings can be left for just the occasional listen. As the band underwent a sea change into country rock/Americana in the following year I find that it is very much to my taste. These albums are not without their freaky, trippy good points, but they need searching for. Several listens to the 1971 mixes helps.
 

Workingman's Dead (1970)
Uncle John's Band/High Time/Dire Wolf/New Speedway Boogie/Cumberland Blues/Black Peter/Easy Wind/Casey Jones

"The song lyrics reflected an 'old, weird' America that perhaps never was ... The almost miraculous appearance of these new songs would also generate a massive paradigm shift in our group mind: from the mind-munching frenzy of a seven-headed fire-breathing dragon to the warmth and serenity of a choir of chanting cherubim. Even the album cover reflects this new direction: The cover for 'Aoxomoxoa' is colorful and psychedelic, and that of 'Workingman’s Dead' is monochromatic and sepia" - Philip Lesh

In 1970, The Grateful Dead completely abandoned their psychedelic, adventurous, drugged-up style, took on songwriter Robert Hunter and re-visited their original folk rock roots, tapping in to the CSNYByrds and Bob Dylan-led country rock boom and The Band-driven Americana one of the time. It was a total change in style, one as shocking as any in rock music thus far. There were no longer any murky, edgy weird soundscapes, no feedback, no pasted-together individually-recorded sounds, no tapes played backwards - The Grateful Dead now offered CSNY vocal harmonies, immaculately-played country rock ballads, bar-room blues boogies and riffy country blues rock. The only thing to make people think they were The Grateful Dead were the often beguiling, perplexing lyrics. 

With regard to CSNY, Neil Young said that 'Hearing those guys sing and how nice they sounded together, we thought, 'We can try that. Let's work on it a little'. So, the Dead clearly influenced their supposed influencers. 

The band then gained a new generation of "Deadheads", who began the cult of following the band from city to city, revelling in hearing different songs played like aural train-spotters. I am unsure as to how the fans from the psychedelic era took to country rock , however - maybe they lost some of the the hippy cult fans from the previous three years. Whatever, I'm not really sure about the minutiae of the Deadhead thing, only that it became huge and carries on to this day. Anyway, I won't dare to comment any further because I really don't know too much about the whole phenomenon of these many disparate fans. On to the music, which is what matters to me. 

Uncle John's Band is a delightful crystal clear acoustic and melodious bass-backed country rock number with full-on CSNY harmonious vocals. It features some infectious percussion too. 

High Time is also a lovely folky slow number, with another gently beautiful bass sound and a chilled-out vibe all over it. The druggy sixties freak-out merchants had become blissed-out bucolics. 

The country vibe continues on the upbeat, finger-pickin' and steel guitar melody of Dire Wolf. God knows what early Deadheads were making of this - I can't see how it appealed to those reared on grungy, acid-inspired psychedelia. 

After this pleasurable bar-room take we revisit the blues of the 1967 debut album on the rocking groove of New Speedway Boogie. I love this, infinitely preferring it to those dense, psychedelic experimental workouts of 1968-69. 

Cumberland Blues is a Pure Prairie League-style energetic country romp with lots of CSNY in there too. 

Black Peter is a dead slow piece of sleepy, acoustic blues while Easy Wind is a superb serving of early seventies, muscular blues rock. This is another one I really like, with its chunky riffs, solid drums and urgent organ. There is also room for a fine harmonica solo alongside some excellent guitar. 

Casey Jones finds the group dabbling in a vaguely funky feel on another robust piece of bluesy rock. Quite why they were telling us that the wholesome fictional railwayman was high on cocaine while driving his locomotives is somewhat mystifying, but I guess it was considered amusing at the time.

Of The Dead's albums thus far, this is easily my favourite, yet I found it easier to write more about the experimental albums than I do this one. I guess it is far more formulaic, not that that is a bad thing. 

Incidentally, there is a fantastic live concert recording available on the 50th Anniversary reissue of this album. 


American Beauty (1970)
Box Of Rain/Friend Of The Devil/Sugar Magnolia/Operator/Candyman/Ripple/Brokedown Palace/Till The Morning Comes/Attics Of My Life/Truckin’

"It was a surprise to us – as it was to everybody else: this machine-eating, monster-psychedelic band is suddenly putting out sweet, listenable material" - Robert Hunter

This was The Grateful Dead’s second album of 1970 and it was even more of a country rock one than its predecessor. Forget psychedelia, The Dead were a full-on country rock band now, something that is often forgotten when the names of the country rock boom’s biggest artists are trotted out. It was more of an acoustic-driven album than the previous one had been, which more bluesy and it concentrates even more on vocal harmony. Don’t underestimate the magnificent bass playing of Phil Lesh either. 

Box Of Rain is early seventies country rock heaven - harmonious CSNY-style vocals, jangly but melodic guitar and that early Eagles meets The Byrds to jam with CSNY sound. It has a really appealing sound and is full of fine guitar. 

Friend Of The Devil is an energetic serving of tuneful country rock, featuring some finger-pickin’ guitar and an infectious ambience all round. The sound is great too, clear and with a good stereo delivery. 

The delightfully breezy Sugar Magnolia has the group going full on CSNY with large hints of the sort of thing Pure Prairie League and The Flying Burrito Brothers were doing at the same time. It is just a great song - beautiful melodies and hooks abounding.
 
 
Operator is a lively, attractive country rock number with slights hints of The Ballad Of John And Yoko about it, plus a great bit of harmonica.

There is a lot of 
CSNY influence  floating around on here, although this undoubtedly cut both ways, as indeed David Crosby has acknowledged - “Sometimes they have given us credit for teaching them how to sing and that's not true. They knew how to sing; they had their own style and they had the most important quality of it down already, which is tale-telling. The idea is – when you hang out with other musicians – to sort of cross-pollinate your idea streams, and that naturally happened between us on a level that was very rare. We would listen to what they were doing with time signatures and with breaking the rules, and it appealed to us a lot”. The Dead’s Jerry Garcia had also played on CSNY’s Deja Vu

Candyman is a sleepy drink-addled sounding maudlin country rock ballad featuring some fine organ and guitar while Ripple is a most fetching mid-pace, gentle number too. 

The laid-back, peaceful feeling continues on the deliciously bassy slowie Brokedown Palace

The tempo ups again on the catchy and melodic tones of Till The Morning Comes and Attics Of My Life is just beautiful and that wonderful bass line just has me purring like one of my three cats. 

The album closes with a Dead favourite - Truckin’ is great, lively, toe-tapping country rock chugger with a rockabilly edge, great guitar and a lovely rubbery, insistent bass line. 

I love the previous album, but I appreciate this one even more. Really good stuff. Robust country rock at its best.
 
Wake Of The Flood (1973)
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo/Let Me Sing Your Blues Away/Row Jimmy/Stella Blue/Here Comes Sunshine/Eyes Of The World/Weather Report Suite

This was The Grateful Dead’s first studio album for three years and they continued their transformation from far out druggies to country rockers. The album, from 1973, was an enchanting mix of country rock, soft rock with gentle reggae, funk and jazz rock influences lurking under the surface. It is a most pleasant affair. It was a peculiar thing in the mid-seventies that mature, ‘adult’ music like this flourished in the USA, whereas the UK was in the grip of glam rock and prog. 

Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo is a laid-back country number with a feel of The Band to it. All very relaxing, AOR stuff and again a million miles from the late sixties psychedelic freakouts. Check out that fiddle and guitar - really catchy. The track gets better with each listen. 

Let Me Sing Your Blues Away is a lively piece of vaguely funky, brassy, saxophone-enhanced Americana easy-swinging rock. 

Row Jimmy is an appealing, slow pot-boiler with some sleepy, soothing vocals and overall chilled-out vibe. It has a slight reggae backbeat to it. 

Stella Blue is even more gentle. It is a quite, reflective ballad and is so laid-back as to be almost comatose. The bass is sumptuous on it. 

The tempo ups a little on Here Comes Sunshine, which is once more carrying a little bit of a summery reggae influence, together with hints of The Beatles’ Sun King in its bassy bliss. 

The jewel in the crown of the album is the delicious Eyes Of The World, which features some sublime melodically funky rhythm guitar and sone great high-pitched lead guitar, as well as fine male and female vocals (from Donna Jean Godchaux). This was The Grateful Dead at their mid-seventies best. 

The same compliment can also be paid to the lengthy closer, the beautiful, bassy and folky Weather Report Suite. It has a quiet, folky first section and a more upbeat but still subtle second passage featuring some killer jazzy saxophone. All very relaxingly cerebral, as is the whole album. There are probably reams of analysis to be read about the songs but the only question for me is do I like it. Yes I do. I’ll never make a Deadhead, will I, if I am not prepared to analyse.

From The Mars Hotel (1974)
U.S. Blues/China Doll/Unbroken Chain/Loose Lucy/Scarlet Begonias/Pride Of Cucamonga/Money Money/Ship Of Fools

The Grateful Dead were again laid-back champions of mature AOR mixed with a jazzy soft, smooth funky-ish sound on this 1974 offering. It is another album that totally disproved my previous misconception of the band being a spaced-out group of drugged-up hippy rockers. It is full of subtleties and not inconsiderable servings of soft, melodic funk rock. 

The Grateful Dead were really impossible to categorise, weren’t they? Where did their hordes of ‘Deadheads’ come from - were they rockers, funkers, hippies, psychedelics? The group were certainly one of music’s great mysteries, for me. I am certainly enjoying re-assessing them, though. 

U.S. Blues is a piano-powered, loose and rollicking bar-room rocker to begin with and China Doll is an initially plaintive and finally harmonious ballad backed by some nice guitar and what sounds like a harpsichord. 

Unbroken Chain is a sumptuous number with a delicious bass line, a fine lead vocal and sensual female backing vocals. It is one of those songs that just has a wonderful, chilled-out vibe to it that I love. The guitar and piano is great too. This material is really difficult to compartmentalise and analyse - it sounds pretty lame just to say simply that I like it. Anyway, I do, I like everything about it, just listen to that guitar/drum interplay half way through for a justifying reason. The bass line is Heaven-sent too. 

Loose Lucy is a short track for The Dead, but it drips with Little Feat-ish funky seventies rock and an irresistible rhythm all round. 

The funk rock continues on the infectious groove of Scarlet Begonias, which culminates with some excellent Latin percussion and vocal from Donna Jean Godchaux

Pride Of Cucamonga is a delightfully bassy and lively piece of soft country rock. It has a real summer morning feel to it. 

Money Money is a muscular, chunky rocker that kicks ass most pleasantly and this surprisingly short album ends with the slow, dignified Band-like Ship Of FoolsPhil Lesh’s bass is yet again superb, as it always was. 

This was more understated brilliance from this most beguiling group.