Pickin' on the Grateful Dead: A Tribute
Various artists
(CMH Records)

It's not such a bad idea -- an all-instrumental CD consisting of bluegrass covers of your favorite old Dead songs. Certainly classics such as "Truckin'," "Casey Jones," and "Cumberland Blues" (all included here) evince bluegrass and country roots. And there's a fine cast of musicians on hand to play the tunes. David West plays everything from dulcimer to mandolin to banjo to upright bass. Bill Flores offers a brisk pedal steel. Tom Ball huffs on harmonica. Phil Salazar saws on the fiddle. And that's just a sampling. But something's wrong here. The trouble with these Dead renditions is, well -- Jerry, cover your ears wherever you are, you don't want to hear this -- they're slick. On several tracks the beat is tapped out on a Jack Daniel's cardboard box, and even that sounds slick.

One of the pleasures in listening to the Dead was that it was one of the few rock bands to capture the spontaneity of jazz. Even the group's studio music sounded as if it were discovered in the moment; it wasn't rigid and prearranged. It simply occurred. There's none of that feeling on Pickin'. Every move feels painstakingly plotted.

"Friend of the Devil," for instance, sounds like it's been monitored with a stopwatch to make sure each musician gets equal time to take his licks -- first mandolin, then banjo, then harmonica, then guitar, each one picking up a bit too smoothly where the other left off. Of course, that can't be the case -- West lays down every track but the harp. So what's the point of recording it that way? Slick. And corny.

There's a distinct lack of imagination to these arrangements as well. They do little more than project a lead instrument into carrying the melody, and then provide the appropriate backing. A different instrument takes the place of Garcia's vocal each time, but who cares? Why not just sing?

It's not a total loss. The songs are listenable; after all, you know them by heart, and they haven't exactly been damaged. They're actually pretty humorous at times. Picture yourself at the Disney World amphitheater, listening to some old guys in tuxedos pick and grin their way through "Truckin'." Or imagine you're listening to the audio system demo tape you received with the purchase of your new Oldsmobile. The potential for amusement is endless.

-- Keith Morris

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble Live at Carnegie Hall
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble

B.B. King Live at the Regal
B.B. King

The only time I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan live was at a roadhouse in New Jersey a few months before his first album came out. The place didn't even have a stage -- Vaughan and his drummer and bass player set up on the floor in a corner. At some point he just wandered out, strapped on his guitar, and launched into an incredible instrumental medley that felt as if it contained every single blues tune I'd ever heard. (He couldn't actually do that, could he?) Vaughan proceeded to do a few tunes that would become his hits ("Love-struck Baby," "Pride and Joy"), then exploded in a version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" filled with such fury that it sucked all the oxygen out of the club and froze everyone, even the waitresses, in place.

Live at Carnegie Hall captures the magic of that night, although with the addition of the Roomful of Blues horns it sounds somewhat like a B.B. King show. The singing, the playing (especially Stevie Ray's work on "Honey Bee" and "Dirty Pool") flaunt the joy Vaughan found in performance and help create one of the best live blues albums ever.

On the other hand, the best live blues album of all time, B.B. King's Live at the Regal, completely overshadows even the best King show I ever saw (at a hippie ballroom, backed by Booker T. and the MGs, with hundreds of older Southern blacks sitting up front in chairs they brought themselves). Recorded in 1958 on the South Side of Chicago, this classic (newly remastered) has the feeling of a family reunion, one that brings together Memphis favorite son King and a howling contingent of fans who had recently moved north from the Mississippi Delta. B.B. roars through all his hits, his voice and guitar one-upping each other throughout. Whenever he pauses to gather himself, he tells stories that, no matter how many thousands of times he may have told them before, sound fresh and elicit shouts of recognition from the crowd. While Live at Carnegie Hall has a flat spot here and there, Live at the Regal is flawless, starting at perfection and never slipping below it for even one note.

-- Lee Ballinger

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