Dead, Winwood and Dylan

Grateful Dead
The Closing of Winterland
December 31, 1978, San Francisco
DVD (Grateful Dead Productions/Monterey Media)

Though many younger fans of the jam band genre were still in their diapers at the time, the Grateful Dead was hitting a comfortable stride at the end of the ’70s. Evolving from its start as a grassroots, acid-fueled blues-cum-jugband in the ’60s, the Dead of 1978 had become a well-oiled rock and roll machine.

The band might never have acheived such status had it not made the professional acquaintance of one Bill Graham, who promoted them like none other and used the Winterland Arena as ground zero for his favorite group. The Closing of Winterland represents a welcome addition to the relatively small number of visual Dead documents (especially when compared to the huge body of aural artifacts by and of the band) and features the cultish jam collective in solid form.

The final Winterland show marked not just the send-off of a festive West Coast venue, but also the end of Graham’s impressive series of Winterland/Bill Graham Presents concerts (Winterland/BGPshows included performances by a then relatively unknown David Bowie, the Band’s 1976 epic Last Waltz, an interesting Sex Pistols outing, a pair of classic shows by Bruce Springsteen and countless Dead bacchanals). In its earlier incarnations, the storied hall , which was constructed shortly after the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, played host to ice skating spectacles and boxing matches, among other events.

The DVD begins with a countdown to the new year emceed by then Saturday Night Live cast member Dan Akroyd, who also peformed that evening as part of the Blues Brothers.

Akroyd’s slightly off-kilter count serves as appropriate color commentary, while Graham, dressed as Father Time, rides above the crowd in a twelve-foot-long glowing joint suspened by a highwire. The costumed promoter and his outlandish vehicle descend onto the stage just as the clock strikes midnight and the Dead kick into a vintage “Sugar Magnolia.” Other standout material from the band’s three-set all-night guest-enhanced Winterland revel include “Scarlet Begonias,” “Terrapin Station,” “I Need a Miracle,” “Dark Star,” “Saint Stephen,” “Good Lovin'” and a rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” that sees a usually reserved Garcia nearly duck-walking and wind-milling as the crowd goes berzerk.

The two-disc DVD, a must-have for Deadheads, includes snippets from opening acts the New Riders of the Purple Sage and a tight Blues Brothers performance (which included a young Paul Schaeffer). The DVD also features amusing interviews with members of the Dead and the band’s road crew.

Steve Winwood (CD)
About Time
Sci Fidelity Records

Recalling his free-wheeling days with the group Traffic, Winwood blends a yen for good ol’ jamming with some of his more polished pop stylings. In a start-to-finish gem of a disc, his Hammond B-3-flavored blend of rock, jazz and world (including hints of reggae and Brazilian) creates fresh and compelling soundscapes that provide a sonic balm for fevered listeners. The release also signals the first time in 27 years that the artist has foregone the use of click tracks, loops or other such recording techniques. With his distinctive vocals and help from musicians including guitarist Jose Neto, drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. (an alumnus of Traffic and Santana), percussionists Karl Vanden Bossche and Richard Bailey and saxman and flutist extraordinaire Karl Denson, About Time signals a respectable achievement for the mature Winwood. The disc’s lead track, “Different Light,” has been nominated for song of the year in Relix magazine’s fourth annual Jammy Awards. Winwood’s artistry has aged well. Push play and enjoy.

Music from the Motion Picture (CD)
Masked and Anonymous
Columbia Records

If the reviewers are anywhere near accurate, Bob Dylan still hasn’t learned how to act — but that’s beside the musical point. The soundtrack to Mr. Dylan’s latest cinematic effort takes in quite a diverse group of artists, including himself and his current highly touted backing group. The opening track is a version of “My Back Pages,” peformed in Japanese by the Magokoro Brothers. The tune is easily identified though the words tend to float by, unless of course you speak Japanese, in which case you’ll probably love it and sing along. But that’s not the only track on this disc that crosses cultural boundaries — multiculturalism being a theme that prevails in the film. Los Lobos takes on “On a Night Like This,” alternating verses effortlessly in Spanish and English and lending the music a cross-cultural vibe that let’s us know that Dylan’s music is global at this point. Yet as far-reaching as his influence has become, Dylan’s roots are fundamentally American. As a result, the standout offerings on the disc tend to come from artists such as African-American Shirley Caesar, who lays on the funk and soul to take “Gotta Serve Somebody” to a new high. The Grateful Dead make an appearance with a poignant live version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” while the Jerry Garcia Band puts down a version of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” that might even surpass the original. Dylan and his endlessly touring band (guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile) demonstrate their potency on “Diamond Joe,” “Down in the Flood” and “Cold Irons Bound.” Other cultural exchanges include a version of “If you See Her Say Hello,” by Italian folk-pop hero Francesco de Gregori and “One More Cup of Coffee” by Turkey’s Sertab Erener. The film’s director, Larry Charles, reportedly picked through thousands of Dylan covers before settling on the final tracks. The Columbia package also includes a bonus disc of classic Dylan material by Dylan, including “All I Really Want to Do,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Tangled Up in Blue,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Moonlight” and “Cold Irons Bound.”

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