As Vince Welnick settled into his role as the Grateful Dead’s only piano player in the spring of 1992, the band had started heavily introducing a fresh batch of “new” songs in their touring rotation. Most Deadheads figured these songs would eventually be recorded and released as the band’s next studio album.
The death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 ended any chance for that album to be completed. Several unofficial compilations have been put together featuring live versions of the “new” songs, Now, The Grateful Dead has released Ready or Not… nine live versions of these songs recorded from 1992-1995.
While rocking shows from start to finish were rare for the Dead at that time, this album gave Dead archivist David Lemieux the ability to pick from the best individual performances of these songs during the band’s last three years on the road. This allows Lemieux to create a very accurate picture of what these songs and the band sounded like at the time. “Many of the songs can easily stand alongside some of the Dead’s oldest, most-loved songs as bona fide classics despite their short tenure in the repertoire,” according to Lemieux.
Lemieux is spot on as this album showcases that, no matter their age, some of these selections were easily the highlight of the particular night they were played. The sound on the live album is impeccable as the band was recording all of their concerts digitally during these years.
Ready or Not begins with the Garcia/Robert Hunter tune “Liberty” (10/14/94 Madison Square Garden). This version is a great example of how Garcia’s voice on a good night was enough to carry a song. There’s no need for an extended guitar solo. Just a very happy sounding Jerry backed by his super tight rhythm section.
“Eternity” (4/2/95 The Pyramid Memphis Tn) was really starting to take shape in 1995 as the band continually stretched it out enough to be a legitimate second set stronghold. This version of guitarist Bob Weir’s song, written with Blues legend Willie Dixon, really allows each band member to shine. Weir’s vocals and bountiful energy stand out, but not as much as his guitar playing. As Garcia noodles around trying to find the right sound from his guitar, Weir’s guitar riffs jump out of the mix as he leads the band for a while before handing off to Phil Lesh, who takes over with some outstanding bass leads. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart seamlessly steer the ship throughout the song and the entire album while Welnick and his keys continue to find their place in mix. Once Garcia finds the right midi sound he picks up the Eternity jam and leads the band off into the rest of that night’s second set. As Lemieux says, the year of the music doesn’t matter when it came to a hot show. “When the Grateful Dead were ‘on’ in their later years, their live concerts were as good as any era in their history.”
“Lazy River Road” (3/25/93 Chapel Hill) is another example of Garcia’s voice and the band being on point. This effortless version is only the eighth time the song was played live. It went on to become a first set regular with 67 live versions of the two plus years on the set lists.
“Samba in the Rain” (3/30/95 The Omni Atlanta) is the one question mark on this album. This Welnick/Hunter collaboration was never a fan favorite. Although it probably would have been recorded for the album, this version offers nothing special other than some cool Spanish horn effects from Garcia’s guitar.
Noticeably absent from this album is a song featuring Phil Lesh on vocals. Welnick delivers a powerful “Way to go home” (6/28/92 Deer Creek IN) just two songs later so his contributions are spotlighted. Perhaps Lesh’s “Wave to the Wind” would have been a better choice since Lesh was taking vocal leads almost every night in concert.
“So Many Roads” (6/23/92 Burgettstown PA) was a song that on a good night could evoke the emotion of a band classic “Morning Dew” (see 7/9/95). This is another dazzling version where you can hear the pain in Garcia’s voice as he screams out “So many roads to ease my soul” over and over as he reflects on the toll spending the last 30 years on the road has done to him. This is easily one of the best songs on the album and is sure to give the average deadhead goosebumps at a minimum.
“Corrina” (10/14/94 Madison Square Garden) and “Easy Answers” (9/13/93 Spectrum Philadelphia) are two songs that feature lyrics from Hunter and Weir, who had begun writing together in the early 90’s. The 17 minute pre-drum “Corrina” has each member of the band lobbing grooves at Garcia who finds the right sound for each challenge.
“Days Between” (12/11/94 Oakland Coliseum) is simply the Grateful Dead at its best in their last touring years. The song debuted in early 1993, but with some of Robert Hunter’s best lyrics ever, it instantly became a crowd favorite that still has legendary status today. Garcia couldn’t recite this mystical tale any better, with lyrics such as “A hopeful candle lingers in the land of lullabies. Where headless horsemen vanish with wild and lonely cries.”
For Ready or Not, Lemieux made his goal pretty clear. “This batch of ‘new’ Grateful Dead songs has never been compiled in one place and given its proper due as a huge part of the Dead’s late-era legacy.”
Now it has.