Between 1965 and 1995 in venues around the world, the Grateful Dead played more than 2,350 shows, some 2,200 of which were captured on tape for posterity. They were one of the first bands to encourage fans to record their concerts, and like the many jam bands who followed in their wake, this helped the music spread in a grassroots, communal sense that has continued into the 21st century with virtually every live document readily available online. Hardcore Deadheads will always have their favorite shows/recordings, so there’s no sense in a relative neophyte such as myself making any sort of critical pronouncement, in this case regarding Grateful Dead Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 4, which captures back-to-back performances on May 6 and 7, 1980, at Penn State and Cornell, respectively.

By this point, the Dead had been through a number of lineup changes and, with the departure of husband/wife team Keith and Donna Godchaux in 1979 (the former enlisted following the 1972 death of original keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan), the band were on their third keyboardist, Brent Myland. This substantial lineup change resulted in a change in sound, which made 1980 a year of significant transition. Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 4 features both originals and covers as was long typical of Dead shows, but lacks any of the heavy-hitters for which the band was most revered. Having just released the rather poorly-received Go to Heaven featuring Myland filling the roles of both Godchauxs in keyboards and vocals, the band seems to be taking tentative steps forward in the new decade. They perform the requisite handful of numbers from Heaven (“Lost Sailor,” “Saint of Circumstance,” “Feel Like a Stranger” et. al.), each of which shows the band exploring an updated sound in which Myland’s keyboards place prominently.

These songs sound very much a product of their time, with touches of yacht rock and more structured arrangements, and thus stick out awkwardly within the more comfortable confines of songs like “Row Jimmy” (here stretching to more than 12 minutes), “Shakedown Street” and “Terrapin Station” (both of which surpass 13 minutes). Mixed in with all this is a rip-roaring, borderline sloppy rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” that features an awkward three-part harmony courtesy of guitarists Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia with Myland. As if to clear the air, they immediately embark on a solid four-song stretch of “Shakedown Street,” “Bertha,” “Playing in the Band” and “Terrapin Station.”

The dead is renowned more for the experiential nature of their shows, and these recordings boast good fidelity, with the kick drum especially punchy, cutting through the well-separated guitars and keyboards. But they fail to make a case for these shows to be of interest to any but the most ardent Deadheads. And while the band is in as fine a form as can be expected from a group whose entire modus operandi was that of living and playing in the moment, warts and all, the transitional nature of the performances often come off tentative and listless. Fortunately, there are approximately 2,198 other examples of the band in their live element, the majority of which you can check out with a few keystrokes. The curious would be better off with a seasoned Deadhead guide to find the easiest points of entry and listenability.

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