Hearing Aide: Grateful Dead ‘Wake Up to Find Out’

Culled from a tour now represented by two box sets and a number of official releases, the new Grateful Dead vault release, Wake Up to Find Out captures the most famous and arguably the most powerful performance of the Spring 1990 tour taking place on March 29, 1990. This concert occurred during the middle night of a legendary three night stand at Nassau Coliseum, the site of many memorable Dead Head convergences. In Dead Head circles this particular tour is mentioned in the same breath as Europe 1972 and Spring 1977, well-known era’s containing musical alchemy occurring on a nightly basis.

The factor that contributes to making this particular concert even more unique is the addition of jazz saxophonist extraordinaire Branford Marsalis joining the band for one song in the first set and the entirety of the second set. As is usual for the Grateful Dead, when guest artists sit in it often drives the band members to new and unusual heights in their improvisations. In the case of Marsalis who was no stranger to jamming, he was indeed a virgin to Grateful Dead music, making his instant assimilation and dissemination of their music even more impressive. Wake Up to Find Out captures the Grateful Dead prior to their slow decent and at their final musical pinnacle. Following Garcia’s 1986 coma and 1987’s gigantic resurgence with the hit LP In the Dark, the Spring of 1990 is witness to a culmination of the group’s career coming to a head in a flurry of all-star performances.

Taken from the original multi-track recordings, the sonic clarity and definition on this release is unsurpassed. As this particular run of shows was being recorded for the eventual live release, Without a Net, all of the shows were being captured for posterity in a professional manner. This ain’t no bootleg. The high musical standard set during the playing of the tour was equaled by the recording method of the shows.

The concert and recording begin with the high tempo on-two punch of a “Jack Straw”/”Bertha” opener. Rough but ready and extremely high energy the band comes out swinging with a stinging duo of opening songs. The entire first set is typical of the era, which is to say played to an extremely high standard. The set is somewhat short but in this case quality outweighs quantity. After reaching an early summit with a fragrant and fat “Ramble On Rose” the first highlight of the set lifts off of the earth with a breezy and all time version of “Bird Song”.

Marsalis joins the band for an extended and delicately constructed version of the song in which his saxophone blends in with the band like a permanent fixture. Immediately Garcia and Marsalis trade feathery licks while Lesh and the drummers navigate the winds aloft, rising and falling with the altitude. It doesn’t take long for the band to generate a blustery convalescence of sound. Garcia switches to rhythm causing the jam to collect and disperse momentum. Once the tempo has been stated Mydland, Garcia and Marsalis weave their scaled discoveries into a slithering melodic dance. The song is driven by the breezes of inspiration, moving by its own accord, Lesh the main impetus constantly shifting the directive allowing for the soloists to create on an ever changing canvas. “Bird Song” soon gently returns to earth, headed toward the “Promised Land” and a rip snortin’ rock n roll conclusion to the first set. The rendition of “Bird Song” obviously got everyone off because as Marsalis prepared to leave after his appearance, he was notified by Lesh and other band members that he would be invited to join the band for the entirety of the second set. What a set it would turn out to be.

The second half begins with a patient and jazzy “Eyes of the World” built like the old days, this is actually the version that would end up being represented on the official release Without a Net. Finding the perfect tempo, this “Eyes” feels like the band has discovered the version they have been waiting their entire career to perform. Billy and Mickey tumble like rolling thunder and Lesh swings like a nimble club musician. Marsalis streaks across the landscape with transcendent melodic statements that not only play against Garcia’s statements but draw them in intimately before shooting across the bands percolating groove. Garcia uses his new-found MIDI capabilities to join Marsalis not only on guitar but on a breathy oboe.

In contrast to normal procedure the band segues into “Estimated Prophet” after a wonderfully strange wah-wah’d outro jam. Again, this “Estimated Prophet” is one of the better versions you will hear and an ace choice for Marsalis to play on because of its 7/4 time signature and jazz aesthetics. This is solid electric blue 1990’s Grateful Dead, containing tasteful true ensemble playing where the band interplay drives the jams, not individual soloing. This is what has and will always separate the Dead from other improv ‘Jam’ bands, their ability to listen and respond to the minutest musical detail and grow it into a stately sonic statement.

“Estimated” stretches like warm taffy, Marsalis drops out, Garcia starts to get strange and the jam has nowhere to go except for its natural resting place, “Dark Star”. The obvious choice to go after the delicious jamming that has preceded it, this “Dark Star” makes up the central meat of the set encompassing a pre-drums first verse, drums/space and a post space verse two. The band skips around the theme for a while making glorious statements. After the first verse is sung a kinetic ambiance settles on the band and they enter a sideways fusion flavored groove. A strange brew develops with the drummers getting especially excited by the proceedings by laying down a three dimensional dissonant rhythm. The central orbit of “Dark Star” is reached and the highlight of the concert is created with all members locked into an unseen influence. The jam takes on a tangible form, a pinwheel tumbling through a star filled transparent box that lacks gravity. Garcia thumbs through his diverse MIDI index hitting on multiple tones and even a “Close Encounters” vibe at one point while Lesh slides across wooden floors in his sock feet. Marsalis joyfully syncopates with Garcia tumbling into a multicolored ball of experimental scales, converging and then drifting away. The jam gets thick and heavy with quirky additions by Mydland and Weir before falling into a trippy drums segment and a spacious space horizon of bells, clinks, dings and other playful ‘noises’ by the drummers.

In all honesty I feel the band had busted their proverbial nut at this point as they move out of a foggy space and into verse two of “Dark Star” then into the joyousness of the “Wheel’. This is not negative in any way, I just feel had reached the end of their journey of discovery and now locked it into cruise control to rock the assembled crowd home. The band then blasts through “Throwing Stones” >”Lovelight” and the poignant encore of “Knockin on Heavens Door” –  all played extremely well and find the band exhibiting the same enthusiasm in place since the opening numbers. Marsalis illuminates “Lovelight” with his sexy horn blasts, making the familiar brand spanking new as he has consistently the entire evening. The crowd walks dazed to the exits after the gentle closing of “Knockin On Heavens Door”.

Wake Up to Find Out is a wonderful document of a band getting a second and even third wind after an extended and influential touring career. The concert is possibly the finest of an era saturated with evenings always perched on the edges of musical genius. The addition of Branford Marsalis only increases the bands penchant for improvisation and originality. This 1990 concert can lock into any era of Grateful Dead music and compete with the finest nights the band ever played. The quality of performance, recording capture and song selection combine for a perfect and proper listening experience.

Key Tracks: Bird Song, Eyes, Dark Star