The Grateful Dead
All The Years Combine: The DVD Collection
By Dave Thompson
Thirty-eight hours. It’s not much, really, not when you compare it to the months, even years, worth of Dead audio that’s out there. But still, a day and a half’s worth of Dead video is something to be both grateful for and perhaps a little overwhelmed. Fourteen discs demand a lot of time and a lot of attention. But you get to the end of the final one, and, strange thing: You really want to go back to the beginning.
Ah, yes, the beginning. The span of the concerts included here is, initially, a little disappointing. The oldest footage dates from 1974 (the most recent from 1991), which means there’s a solid eight years of vintage Dead that isn’t included here. Eight years, which, in visual terms, might well have been the most fascinating.
But then you wonder: What shape would that footage even be in? Video was not like audio in those days; you couldn’t simply wander in and point your phone at the stage. Cameras were huge, and they required huge crews to operate them. Television was scarcely interested in the band, and the feeling was mutual (the booklet accompanying this package isolates maybe half a dozen known performances).
It was indeed 1974 before technology and temperament were able to find a happy meeting place, and “The Grateful Dead Movie,” shot that year, is where this collection opens. With one of the finest rock concert movies ever made, it was shot across five nights at Winterland as the band prepared for a short hiatus, and it captures them still in the flush of wild, wild youth. Add a 5.1 audio mix, a bonus 95 minutes of extra material, bonus documentaries and a whole lot more, and “The Grateful Dead Movie” kicks the box off in unimpeachable style.
We return to Winterland for the next show, the venue’s 1978 closure and the three sets the Dead played on the final night. Check in here for a finest-ever version of “Stagger Lee,” for a shimmering “Dark Star;” for a brittle “St. Stephen.” Then check out another disc’s worth of bonus material that takes you back to Winterland itself, for a couple of documentaries.
These two concerts (spread across four discs) are themselves the brightest stars in the package. They isolate specific moments in time, meaningful memories in the larger rock picture, as opposed to “just another night” within the band’s continued live experience. Which is not to say that what we receive thereafter is a disappointment. Just that the sense of occasion is less pronounced as we drop in, apparently at random, to Radio City Music Hall in 1980; four nights in California spread between 1985 and 1987; two shows shot two weeks apart in 1989; and three weeks apart in 1990; and then an RFK Stadium show in 1991.
All have seen the light of day in some past form or another; four past volumes of “View From The Vault” are here, for example, together with most every other legit Dead release you’ve stacked onto the shelves so far. And each is spectacular in its own way; each has its own place in the Dead’s private history.
The RFK show, for example, was one of the first the band played following the death of Brett Mydland, and one of the first, therefore, with Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick on dual keyboards. The Buffalo ’89 show catches the band in magnificent form for a July 4th celebration; and the Oakland 1985 gig, of course, was the foundation for the “So Far” video release, a wired conceptual piece which Jerry Garcia himself described as “just another Grateful Dead attempt to describe the indescribable.”
That description remains as true today as it did back then, and maybe more so, because you’ve never seen this footage looking so good. Everything here has been cleaned up and remastered; surround sound has been added where the original audio tapes allow for it; bonus material has been pinned on the end when and where it exists. The booklet is a chunky little thing that traces the Dead’s video history from beginning to end, and it nudges you to watch the next DVD even as you’re recovering from the last.
Altogether, then, this is a magnificent collection, the kind of offering you wish every band with a voluminous archive would take the time and effort to create. And 38 hours goes by like a dream.