The Grateful Dead, well aware that they’ve got three consecutive nights in the L.A. Sports Arena, paced themselves gently Wednesday through three hours, performing a great many of the songs added to the Dead’s gargantuan repertoire within the last three years. If any other band played so slow, it would be called uninspired.
Singers Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia knew their limits: If either pushed too far , he quickly recoiled. Garcia was off-key early on and flubbed lines on the Dead diamond “Uncle John’s Band”; Weir swallowed his words at the end of softly sung lines or else shouted. And when they started the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” during the multisong jam in the second set, the guitarists repeated the opening riff four times, slowing the rhythm until it landed in a comfort zone.
Still, Weir found every gospel nuance in Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” balancing shouting and singing, stomping the rhythm and chugging away vocally like a pipe organ in a choir loft. Leading the Dead far more passionately than Garcia ever has, Weir got the band to jell for a tune on a night that was too pat, safe and measured.
The material, however, was strictly A-list, loaded with other musicians’ songs and including two unrecorded numbers. Starting with the Beatles’ “Rain” (perhaps a nod to the 13th anniversary of John Lennon’s death?) and moving through “Let the Good Times Roll,” Slim Harpo’s “I’m a Kingbee” and “Staggerlee, ” the Dead once again confirmed their ability to make any number their own. The same textures were applied to Harpo’s raw ’50s blues as to the late ’60s Beatles tune. The evening’s dynamic changed only when a few country touches were applied , as in “Mexicali Blues” and “Me and My Uncle.”
Two unrecorded songs, “Lazy River Road” and “Way to Go Home,” worked significantly better than the tired warhorse “Morning Dew” or the recent “Picasso Moon.”
The lengthy “space jam” section lasted about half an hour. The drum solo was kept to a tolerable 10 minutes, but Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and Garcia went on interminably through non-melodic solos that had no context or direction. When Garcia started to pull the band back to earth with a Dead-tempo Irish jig, sanity was semi-restored.
The lighting was stellar throughout — colored lights beamed into the audience from the ceiling and rich psychedelic images painted against a backdrop of sculptures that resembled a trampoline and three wedges of cheese.