In part one of this review series on The Story Of The Grateful Dead, an exclusive super deluxe boxed set experience from Vinyl Me Please, I looked at the late ‘60s and early ‘70s classic live albums Live / Dead and Europe ’72. If you missed that review, please click here. In part two we will look at two 1980s era live releases represented in this set: Reckoning and Without A Net.
Recapping the intent of this collection, The Story Of The Grateful Dead is designed as a deep dive introductory overview for the vinyl-loving aspirant Dead Head who wants to get a bigger picture perspective on what the band was about. It is something you can’t quite get from just listening to one album or a streaming playlist on line. The set includes a beautifully printed 30-page LP-sized full-color booklet with insightful essays from members of Animal Collective, The Mountain Goats, Dirty Projectors and The National. There are many wonderful behind-the-scenes and on-stage photos! The set also includes links to four exclusive companion podcasts (QR scan codes will take you there via mobile devices).
Almost all the albums in the set are newly mastered in all analog “AAA” form by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. That is mostly a great thing and overall everything sounds real good. Excellent even. In general I’m very pleased with the quality of this set from the sound quality on through to the fine details of its packaging and perhaps most importantly, how the set was curated. If you are an established DeadHead, chances are you don’t really need this collection. However, if you are looking for nice quality vinyl pressings that are mostly pretty close to the originals in sound and in many ways better in packaging, The Story Of The Grateful Dead may be the collection for you.
All the albums were manufactured at Quality Record Pressing on 180-gram colored vinyl and each come housed in protective audiophile-grade lined plastic sleeves.
This is another one where I never really liked the sound — or, as I remember, the single pocket budget design cover on the original — so I was more than satisfied with the CD version in the Beyond Description boxed set when it came out. In reviewing this new version, I went back to that for reference and — thanks to my Oppo player it can decode it in HDCD quality so it sounds a bit better than a standard CD (basically pulling out 20-bit detail from a 16-bit package) and even the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz streams on Tidal and Qobuz.
All in all this is a very crisp recording with close-mic’d acoustic guitars — probably some combination of mics and internal pick ups contributing to this very direct sound. Don’t expect to hear a lot of concert hall ambiance on Reckoning. That is not a bad thing necessarily, but it is a more modern sounding recording (if you will) in that sense even though its from 1980!
That said, the performances are exemplary and a whole lot of fun as the band runs through old favorites and jaunty folk and country classics like “The Race Is On,” “Been All Around This World,” Deep Elem Blues” and “On The Road Again.” All that clarity is especially beautiful on some of the slower tracks like “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” and “China Doll.”
I have to say, this new edition is making me reconsider Reckoning as an album. It sounds much nicer than I remember. Maybe I just didn’t like the mastering on the original album version.
There are some quirks on my copy of Reckoning in this set which I do need to mention. While generally excellent sounding, this edition seems not quite perfect — at least as compared to CD and online versions I have compared it to (again, at this time I do not own this one on an original LP). I suspect that some of the problems may well be an inevitable reality of the condition of the aging master tape reels. All of these anomalies I am about to mention happen on Side Two.
There is a weird little “drop out” in “Dark Hollow” just after the first time Bob Weir sings that first line. It is not on the Tidal and Qobuz versions of the album nor is it on the CD in the Beyond Description boxed set. It is a small detail but significant. There is also a drop out toward the end of “China Doll” and in “Been All Around This World.”
Perhaps most oddly, you can also hear the sound of the tape playback machine re-engaging after a pause and restart at the beginning of “Monkey & The Engineer.” While I have no real idea other than speculation, it sounds like someone might have paused the cutting head (if that is possible, I don’t know) when making the new disc master and needed to switch to a new reel. While on one hand it is kind of cool, it also sounds like a mistake.
To all this, keep in mind that part of what you get with “all analog” remastering is that sometimes it becomes a warts ’n all scenario — there is no opportunity for the sort of more forensic clean-up and restoration capabilities in the digital realm. I have reached out to the Vinyl Me Please folks about these anomalies so if I get any more insights I’ll post them below in the comments section.
Anyhow, moving onward…
This new edition of Reckoning is a proper thick cardboard gatefold design and the photos which were previously on the inner-sleeves are now on the inside cover (albeit printed a bit darkly so some of the classic images of the band aren’t quite as clear as the originals). I really love how they designed a new logo to replace the Arista Records design while keeping the basic aesthetic of that era’s look and feel (using a large “GD” in its place!).
All in all, this is still a very nice version of the Reckoning album and it has greatly enhanced my appreciation for these shows and recordings.
Without A Net
This is an extra special part of this set as I have never had it before on vinyl. In fact, I never even knew the album had a vinyl release back in 1990. It is also the only release in the Vinyl Me Please set that was recorded digitally back in the day.
It is also in many ways the most pleasant of surprises in that it not only sounds really great but the performances are indeed exemplary. Mea culpa, but when this came out back in the day it was a point where I’d seen some lackluster shows by the band and I was thus kind of moving on to other musical vistas attention-span wise. Thus, I didn’t listen as closely to this release as I probably should have.
The good news is we have all this wonderful music which the band has made for us all to enjoy and rediscover. It is quite exciting to revisit this period of the band with fresh ears! There are some exemplary versions of old favorites with then-new twists thanks to synthesizers the band was working with (guitar and otherwise). “Bird Song” is quite epic and I quite like where is shows up in a different sequence toward the end of the album on the LP (it appears in the “first set” on the CD version of the album). It feels quite natural here coming after the smokin’ side of “Help On The Way” / “Slipknot” / “Franklin’s Tower” and before the rousing closers of “One More Saturday Night” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (a cover of the classic Traffic tune).
The band is playing really well, and the performances are not sloppy or sluggish (which happened for a while periodically in the ’80s).
In fact, the band’s playing is so amped up I had to double check whether the recording speed was accurate! Some of these performances remind me of some of the rare ’83 shows a friend had sent me years ago where — for a moment — the band was playing tight and really fast, like a machine (again, it wasn’t always that way during that period).
Gosh, Jerry sounds so vital and alive here — five years later he was gone. (sigh)
How does Without A Net sound on vinyl? Well, all things considered it sounds fine… great even! I have heard from some people online that the original LP version sounded a bit thin. I don’t think this new one version can be described as thin sounding. Phil Lesh’s bass is manic wonderful on “One More Saturday Night” here!
As I remember, the original CD sounded pretty good. I compared the new LP to the streams on Tidal and Qobuz (both 16-bit, 44.1 kHz) and it fared quite well. Again, I am not sure how this album was recorded exactly — were they originally mixed live to CD-quality two-track Stereo DAT tape or perhaps higher resolution digital multitrack system like ADAT and mixed down later? Whatever the case, the sound is quite nice, certainly crisp and clean but also not harsh or off-putting as some all-digital recordings can be.
The set producers even added the clown images from the original deluxe edition CD versions of Without A Net as the labels on these albums. How cool is that?!!
I’m real happy to have Without A Net on LP, finally. If there are any likely targets for an individual release from this boxed set, this album is it. We’ll have to wait and see…
Next week in Part Three of this review series of The Story Of The Grateful Dead I’ll look at the new versions of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. Stay tuned.