You Can't Keep A Good Jam Down

The album includes new songs as well as Dead standards.

Despite some early and feverish speculation (Eric Clapton on guitar! No,

no ... Carlos Santana on guitar!) the future of the Grateful Dead seemed

pretty much resigned to the history books when Jerry Garcia died in

1995. The remaining members of the Dead were all hovering around 50, and

it was virtually impossible to imagine the Dead without Garcia's

time-worn, reedy vocals and soaring, revelatory guitar leads.

Not that there weren't plenty of new and interesting ways for Deadheads

to spend their time and money. In the years immediately following

Garcia's demise, various members of the Dead toured as part of the

neo-hippie Further Festival, and Grateful Dead Merchandising has been

releasing archived, live Dead recordings at a rate of 10 new discs a

year.

Then, last year, proving you can't keep a good jam down, three of the

guys -- guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart --

decided to join a cast of fellow travelers (including sometimes Dead

keyboardist Bruce Hornsby) and headed up the Further Festival shows as

the "Other Ones" (the title of a classic Dead tune about Neal Cassady).

Of the band's surviving members, only drummer Billy Kreutzmann decided

he'd rather continue his early retirement (keyboardist Vince Welnick,

who joined the Dead in the 1990s, apparently wasn't invited along for

the ride).

The results, as evidenced on the live The Strange Remain, are

for the most part a success. Weir, who split vocal duties with Garcia,

assumes the lead role here: on The Strange Remain, Weir lends his

weighty tenor to such Garcia classics as "Friend of the Devil" and

"China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider." Hornsby also picks up some of

the slack, throwing in a handful of his own tunes into the mix. And to

make up for the loss of Garcia's slashing, shivering, hallucinatory

guitar lines, the Other Ones add a trio of lead musicians: San Francisco

Bay Area guitarists Steve Kimock and Mark Karan and saxophonist Dave

Ellis all attempt to fill in the considerable gap left by the death of

Garcia. Overall, Kimock and Karan admirably fill their unenviable roles

-- they pay homage to Garcia, squeezing out shimmering cascades of notes

and playing soaring, clarion leads. But Ellis is unquestionably the best

"new" member of the Other Ones. Harking back to Branford Marsalis' dates

with the Dead earlier in the decade, Ellis is a wonderful melodic

centerpiece, driving the band on, reigning them in, shouting out

evocative leads and murmuring insistent affirmations.

Thankfully, the previously Dead Ones are also in prime form. Hornsby,

who invigorated the Dead when he joined them in the 1990s, is his usual

athletic self, with his slightly behind-the-tempo solos and endless

comping highlighting almost every track. Weir's rhythm guitar work is

surprisingly fluid and subtle, and his voice sounds great. Hart, joined

here by John Molo, lays down layers of percussive delights. And Lesh's

muscular and harmonically adventuresome basslines, long one of the

highlights of seeing the Dead live, are typically inspiring.

As is to be expected, the jamming on The Strange Remain is often

wonderful: the 13-minute "China Cat/Rider" combination is as focused and

tightly wound as it's been in years, and the languid "Jack Straw,"

fueled on by Ellis' screaming sax and some blistering guitar work,

builds to an admirably feverish pitch. The gorgeous, acoustic rendition

of "Friend of the Devil" is also a treat, as are a pair of Hornsby-led

tunes (his own "White-Wheeled Limousine" is one of the best tracks on

the disc, and his jaunty, soulful version of "Sugaree" is brilliantly

evocative). Finally, Weir's "St. Stephen," which the Dead had not played

since 1983, gets a masterful, revved-up, highly syncopated treatment,

with shining dueling guitars and great rhythm work.

Occasionally, the Other Ones lack a certain intensity and focus. Weir

breaks out a handful of his signature numbers, songs that were known

for their driving force when they were part of the Dead's repertoire:

"Estimated Prophet," "Playing in the Band" and "The Other One" are given

royal treatment, with each song clocking in at over eight minutes. But

despite the ample space afforded these songs, the power and direction

that Garcia gave them -- even in his most abject, drugged-out days -- is

sorely missing. The relentless explosions of "The Other One" and the

breathtaking ebb and flow of "Playing" are almost completely gone. In

their places, listeners are treated to some solid jamming, a few musical

flourishes and an almost total lack of real inspiration. Even worse, the

trio of new tunes -- "Banyan Tree," "Baba Jingo" and "Only the Strange Remain" -- are New-Agey, indulgent drivel, featuring regretful lines that seem to mock the

mythology the Dead built over the years: "Behind me is a tiger and a

killer with a knife/ One wants me for supper and the other wants my

life" and "Ask the lizard on the stone the way to no man's land" are two

of the worst offenders.

I imagine it will be difficult for any Deadhead to resist the

lure of The Strange Remain. At their best, the Other Ones offer

focused jams of a higher caliber than almost any band playing today, and

they promise a ride on a three-decade-long trip that doesn't look like

it'll be ending anytime soon.