Grateful Dead – Road Trips – April Fools ’88 (album review)

Grateful Dead – Road Trips vol. 4 no. 2 – April Fools ’88 ( / Rhino)

This 3-disc set continues the series of quarterly live releases from the massive Dead tape archives, pairing together successive nights at what was known as the Brendan Byrne Arena (now the Meadowlands) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, March 31 and April 1, 1988.  Road Trips vol 4 no.2 finds the Dead in a unique time in the band’s history – transitioning from longtime champions of the hippie counter culture to darlings of MTV and Top 40 radio with their (only) Top Ten hit “Touch of Grey.” The chasm-like feel of the large arenas on this tour seemed 1000 miles away from the band who frequented the more cozy confines of the Fillmore two decades earlier, yet they would soon begin to top the annual lists for highest-grossing concert tours.  If this unlikely stardom affected the band, it certainly didn’t show.

In fact, despite playing three nights in Jersey, they chose not to play “Touch of Grey” even once.  Disc one opens with a fitting April Fools’ joke that the band plays on the audience, before launching into “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” originally from Wake of the Flood.  Fresh off a tour the previous summer with Bob Dylan, they touch on four of his compositions, including a searing rendition of “Ballad of a Thin Man” sung by Bob Weir, while the band shows off their underrated bluesier side with “When Push Comes to Shove.”  Disc two samples the best of the March 31st show, including “Fire on the Mountain,” and a stunning drum solo on “Rhythm Devils,” before ending with two more Dylan tracks “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (this time sung by Jerry Garcia).”

Disc three returns to the April 1st show, picking up in the second set.  “China Cat Sunflower” shows the incredible communication that went on between guitarists Weir and Garcia.  Also of note is Weir’s screeching on “Estimated Prophet.”  The set closes with one of their newer songs at the time, “Throwing Stones” that morphs into the Buddy Holly classic “Not Fade Away.”  It’s interesting to hear Brent Mydland’s keyboards on some of the tracks – sometimes it’s the only proof that these recordings are from the late Eighties and not some earlier time.  The band gives a spirited performance and never ceases to amaze how they transition from song to song to song, without taking a breath.  An interesting snapshot of a band finally receiving the fame they deserved.  –Tony Peters