Grateful Dead – ‘Wings a Mile Long’ March 29, 1990 Wake Up to Find Out

by | Jun 14, 2015 | 0 comments


 Culled from a tour now represented
by two box sets and a number of official releases, the most recent Grateful
Dead vault release, Wake Up to Find Out captures the most famous and
arguably the most powerful performance of the famed 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 and held to the same standard as the mighty Europe 1972 and Spring
1977 excursions—well-known era’s containing musical alchemy that would occur
on a nightly basis.
The influencing 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 in a late era
peak, prior to their slow decent and enjoying 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 finally 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 inquisitive breezes of
inspiration, moving by their own accord. Lesh the main driving impetus,
constantly shifting the directive and 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 to dance before
drifting away. The jam gets thick and heavy with quirky additions by Mydland
and Weir before tumbling into a trippy drums segment and a spacious space
horizon of bells, clinks, dings and other playful ‘noises’ by the drummers. One of the finest post-retirement ‘Dark Star’ segments the band ever performed has just taken place and was thankfully captured for eternity by this recording.
 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 continues to blast  through a “Throwing Stones” >”Lovelight”
combo 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 done for
the entire evening. The crowd walks dazed to the exits after the gentle
rendition 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.

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