Return of the Living Dead

By the time Garcia reaches "Down the Road"'s driving coda with its wistful urge for "going where the climate suits my clothes," he seems more in search of a lost utopia than any change in the weather. It's precisely the kind of inventive jamming that would disappear from the Dead by the following year, when Garcia's heroin addiction (stemming from the late Seventies) became all-consuming.

His guitar playing soon descended into the perfunctory, with aimless noodling replacing what was once pointed exploration. Bassist Phil Lesh has referred to this period as the "Heineken years," an admittance of his own alcoholism as a response to Garcia's disinterest in life beyond drugs and the rest of the band's acquiescence in simply soldiering on. In 1985 Garcia was arrested for drug possession, an event that seemed to scare him straight (or at least straighter), and flashes of inspiration would return in the following years. But by 1992 Garcia had lapsed again into the full throes of his addiction, to the point where even the most die-hard fan would have to agree that any magic occurring was out in the audience, not under the stage lights.

Which is why the Other Ones' performance from the summer of 1998 on The Strange Remain comes as such a surprise. After all, the core of this band (Hart, Lesh, and Weir) is the same unit that seemed to plod on during the last few years of the Dead's existence. Now augmented by keyboardist Bruce Hornsby (a frequent collaborator from the early '90s), saxophonist Dave Ellis, guitarists Steve Kimock and Mark Karan, and percussionist John Molo, they cohere as a pulsing jazz unit. The band floats effortlessly from structure into a swirling rush of bell-like tones, twinkling piano, and crystal-sharp guitar notes, gracefully plucking melodies out of the air. One could quibble over the song selection here (no "Dark Star"? -- the Dead's signature vehicle for inner travel; where's Lesh's chilling take on the Garcia ballad "China Doll"?) but what did make the cut is strong enough to silence any fears that the Other Ones would become an oldies act.

There's a vibe of mystery and chance on The Strange Remain, a return to the Dead's hallmark tradition of leaping into the void in search of transcendence. We're not always sure where the band is heading, and neither, it seems, do the musicians themselves know. It's a quest that doesn't always pan out, but when it does, when the group finally bears down on a theme, all their instruments singing in unison as on the rolling crescendoes of "St. Stephen," it's a truly wondrous thing.

If there is indeed a tinge of nostalgia at work here (both for the members of the Other Ones and their faithful audiences) it's not necessarily a wholly negative pathos. The legacy of the Sixties still lingers powerfully as an unfulfilled promise. Whether its adherents mused or raged, carried signs or built bombs, they held firmly to the idea of the future as malleable. In today's social landscape, where the boundaries of the possible seem fixed in stone, it may be more important than ever to dream, and the more ridiculous the fantasy, the better.

It's a sentiment Carol Brightman echoes when she recalls the "plaintive one-finger salute of Deadheads outside concerts. They were looking for the miracle of a free ticket but also, I came to think, for the lost spirit of the Sixties. This includes the loopy abandon of the [Merry] Pranksters; the hedonism of the Grateful Dead, with their fondness for risk, at least where drugs and music are concerned, also their genius for teamwork; and the audacity and fierce belief in justice of the New Left at its prime. 'I need a miracle' is what you say after your elders have thrown in the towel.

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