The only easily identifiable face on the Universal Amphitheater stage belongs to Bob Weir. Leading the band Ratdog, he is surrounded by musicians he has known from two to 20 years, and while they might be far less familiar to the audience, the songs have a special place for performer and crowd alike.
“St. Stephen,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Eyes of the World,” “Turn on Your Lovelight” are hardly top 40 hits, but they all register with the 4,000 fans in the audience as Grateful Dead classics.
There has not been a Grateful Dead since guitarist Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, but through a well-managed vault and a coterie of side projects, the band is seeing a renewed vitality.
Garcia himself pops up Oct. 12 with the feature release of “Grateful Dawg,” a documentary shot in the ’90s that captures Garcia and friend-collaborator David Grisman performing folk tunes and their unique blend of jazz, bluegrass and swing.
A soundtrack of the film’s music was released Sept. 17. In addition, there are rumors of a Garcia boxed set featuring material from his solo discs, though those have not been confirmed. Broadway Books will publish “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead” by Dennis McNally, the band’s biographer and longtime spokesman.
But the centerpiece of this year’s Dead resurrection is the Oct. 16 release of the 12-CD set “The Golden Road (1965-1973).” The boxed set includes the band’s nine Warner Bros. recordings, among them the classics “Workingman’s Dead,” “American Beauty” and “Live/Dead,” and seven hours of unreleased material and live takes that the set’s organizers suggest include the rarest of the rare — things like the studio jam session tune “Clementine.”
“Some of the older stuff surprised me,” says Dead guitarist and singer Bob Weir, the implication being that maybe the old records were better than he thought. “We never were a real slick studio entity. It also surprised me that our body of work is more vast than I ever realized. I never really paid attention.”
Between September 2002 and September 2003, the albums in the box will be broken out and released separately as special editions. Only the box, however, will include an 80-page book on the band’s Warner years.
Taking in the breadth of Deadness on the schedule, McNally notes, “It’s remarkably healthy in a pedestrian sense.”
The Dead left Warners in 1973 to form Grateful Dead Records, releasing “Wake of the Flood,” “Mars Hotel” and “Blues for Allah,” and then wound up at Arista in 1977, which continues to release live discs and compilations.
One enthusiastic record label exec with no ties to the Dead speculated the boxed set could see six-digit sales figures, a staggering sum for a set that will retail at about $150.
“This was the Dead’s artistic peak,” says David Lemiux, who oversees the Dead’s tape vaults and co-produced the boxed set for Warner Archives. “Each disc has its own personality, and now that original personality is enhanced by the added tracks. Overall it does tell a story about how diverse this band is.”
Other Dead-related discs also are scheduled.
On Sept. 25, a third “Vault” series recording — “Nightfall of Diamonds” — will be released on Arista, this one from the Oct. 16, 1989, show at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
And the Dead’s classic “American Beauty” will be released the same day in 5.1 Surroundsound (DVD Audio), remixed by Dead drummer Mickey Hart. A DVD audio version of “Workingman’s Dead” will be issued in November.
For the first time, the Dead’s recordings are being used as the barometers of how good the band once was.
The group’s “American Beauty,” “Europe ’72” and “In the Dark” are its only discs to top 2 million in sales — and it took a number of years to see those results.
Instead, the Dead were known to dominate the touring world: they were the highest-grossing act of 1993, pulling in $45.6 million, and the following year that figure went up to $52.4 million.
The offshoot bands, however, are grossing $200,000 to $300,000 per night, playing venues with capacities ranging from 3,000 to 20,000.
“The Grateful Dead has been a very fractured family since Jerry’s death and we’ve been trying to keep the family together,” says John Scher, who booked Dead tours for about 20 years and assembled this summer’s So Many Roads tour with Ratdog, Rusted Root, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Keller Williams. “We’re still hopeful that one day there will be a tour when we’re able to get all the members together. I never like to rule out possibilities.”
One assumes that the Other Ones — as the collection of former Dead members now dubs themselves in the wake of Garcia’s death — will eventually tour.
Until then, the Dead forces are carrying on in a variety of factions:
- Ratdog, fronted by Bob Weir, continues to tour . The band has also issued a double-CD live set from a Roseland show. The band’s show rely heavily on Grateful Dead material, even a fair amount of songs penned and sung by Garcia.
“At one time I tried to keep the songbooks separate,” Weir says of the differentiation between Ratdog and the Dead. “(But) there’s something about (the Dead’s) music that I’m carrying around with me. And now I assume Ratdog can do anything it wants to do. ”
- Phil Lesh & Friends, including Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes on guitar, will head out on their second tour of the year, doing 19 shows in the Midwest and Northeast, Nov. 7-Dec. 2. Scher and McNally agree they are currently the strongest of the Dead-related live act in terms of ticket sales.
- Mickey Hart and his ensemble Bembe Orisha will tour Oct. 28-Nov. 18, following the release of his album with the Japanese drum group Kodo.
- Jazz Is Dead, an instrumental quartet featuring Other Ones bassist Alphonso Johnson that performs jams of Dead tunes, has released their third disc, “Great Sky River” on Zebra Records. They’ll tour in November.
“The Grateful Dead has in my estimation about 60 really great compositions,” Johnson says. “These songs would be great no matter who interpreted them, so they provide a really good springboard for improvising.”