By Blair Jackson
Three of my all-time favorite albums have gotten revelatory upgrades through new releases. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are coming out as high-resolution, high-bit-rate downloads through HDtracks, a company run by audiophile record pioneers David and Norman Chesky. And the classic Merl Saunders-Jerry Garcia Live at Keystone album from 1973 appears in an expanded 4-CD iteration from Fantasy Records called Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings. Yay—I love new old stuff!
Right off the bat, I should mention that the hi-res Workingman's Dead (which is out) and American Beauty (coming November 6) are not precisely the albums that 99 percent of you are familiar with. You may recall that back in 2001, when DVD surround recordings looked like they might be the Next Big Thing (and an important new revenue stream for record companies), Warner Bros. hired Mickey Hart and his engineer in that era—the great Tom Flye—to go back to the 16-track master tapes of those two albums and remix them in 5.1 (front left-center-right, rear left and right, plus a subwoofer channel). It is stereo versions of those remixes—which all but vanished from the planet when the Warners-favored DVD-A format did not succeed—that are now being offered as downloads through HDtracks.
The way most producers and engineers have approached creating surround versions of classic albums is to spread out the instruments within the larger sound field that surround affords, but still stay faithful to the original in all other ways. There's greater clarity because of the increased separation of instruments and vocal parts; greater depth all around.
But this is Mickey Hart! So he and Flye took a different approach. They dug deep into the masters, found parts that had been turned down or ignored and even extended a few songs—“Truckin'” and “Sugar Magnolia” fade later, giving Jerry a chance to shine more. On “Candyman,” Hart and Flye found a little vocal coda with Jerry dipping around the other singers with an inventive line.
“It's beautiful,” Mickey told me in 2001, while he and Flye were making some final tweaks in the studio. “I don't know why it was faded originally, nor do I care. I'm not being judgmental about it. So, I gave it another dB or two, and now you can really hear Jerry pumpin' out there, layin' it out.
“On 'Dire Wolf,'” he continued, “we found a set of vocals that weren't on the album version and sounded great. Bob [Weir] walked by the studio when we were listening to it, and he said, 'Oh yeah, that's the way it was supposed to be …' but it wasn't mixed in.” On “New Speedway Boogie,” backing vocals that are nearly inaudible on the original are a revelation.
There are many more subtle changes—electing not to pan the electric guitar break in “Cumberland Blues” and de-emphasizing one of the acoustic guitar lines toward the end of that tune; giving new clarity and prominence to the organ and piano lines on the back part of “Black Peter”; moving Garcia's wonderful pedal steel line on “Sugar Magnolia” into the foreground, etc.
“This is a new creation, based on the old,” Mickey said. “I try not to overindulge. You can't take too many liberties and be a total revisionist and take it into some bizarre space because you have this itch. There's a certain respect you have to have for the original recording. I think I'm doing this for the right reasons, and I'm trying to let the music tell me what to do. I don't have a real agenda other than making it sound great and making it a real treat for the fans, and, of course, making it a treat for me.”
I've given a serious headphone listen to the HDtracks version of Workingman's Dead and I'm really impressed. I also A-B'd several songs with the regular CD version. Now, don't get me wrong—I love the original, which I'm sure I've listened to more than a thousand times since it came out in '70. It's a nearly flawless work and it's ingrained in my brain. But there's room for another interpretation. Why not?
It starts with crystalline vocals—always a strongpoint of the album. With greater separation between the voices, each is more distinct and it's easier to pick out what harmony Bob or Jerry is singing. The drums are crisper, the subtleties of the acoustic guitars more pronounced, and Jerry's electric runs sound as if you are in the room with him. You might not agree with every mixing decision Mickey and Tom Flye made, but the fact is there's nothing on the remixed version that wasn't on the master tapes; it's just some different choices, both in how parts are emphasized (or not) and in the selection and implementation of reverbs and other mild processing. And though it's not 5.1 surround, it has a dimensionality that approximates that effect, especially on good headphones.
I won't get all techy on you, but the reason hi-resolution digital audio files (in this case 96kHz/24-bit) make such a difference is they literally contain more information than a conventional CD (at 44.1kHz/16-bit). Longtime Grateful Dead sound associate Dennis “Wiz” Leonard told me recently, “If you do the math on 44.1/16-bit, there's so much missing information, our analog brains have to fill in the spaces,” which makes listening “more taxing and less relaxing.” To play back the hi-res files—which can take from several minutes to several hours to download, depending on your setup—you may need to also download a program that can handle that sort of material. I used Media Monkey (which was free). A few others recommended by the HDtracks folks are Amarra, JRiver, and Pure Music.
“With CDs and MP3s,” HDtracks' David Chesky adds, “there's a harshness and all this extraneous garbage you can hear. But with 96/24, it's like you're in the room with the band. It's not hyped and its more timbrally accurate. It's more of an artistic human exchange. It's crystal clear without that etched sound that CDs sometimes have.
"And one of the big reasons is you're not compressing it. You're hearing the harmonics of the instruments and the harmonics of the voice—all these complexities that got swept aside [in 44.1] are there again." And of course there's the spatial aspect. "Think of the Dead as a symphony orchestra," Chesky says. "If you put the trumpets and the violins and all that in the first row, they get pushed together. But if you put the tympani in the left hand corner and the bass is in the right, you can hear all the parts cleanly. Now each musician has his own space in the three-dimensional sound field and you can hear the lines and the parts. It's also more organic-sounding.”
You can check out HDtracks' wide variety of offerings on their web page.
As for the Jerry and Merl box, I've always had a special place in my heart for the original double-album Live at Keystone because I was at the two shows from which it was drawn. How's this for good luck: In July '73, I was living back East, having just finished a semester at Tufts (outside of Boston). My girlfriend broke up with me and I was feeling blue, so I hopped on a plane to visit my older brother, who was living in the Oakland Hills.
Within a few days of arriving, I learned that Jerry and Merl were playing at the Keystone Berkeley. I'd never heard of Merl (they hadn't played outside of California at that point) and never seen Jerry apart from the Grateful Dead. My most recent Dead concert at that point was at the cavernous Boston Garden on 4/2/73, a famously good show I did not enjoy because I was sitting way up in the rafters and the sound sucked.
So imagine my delight when I walked into the tiny Keystone Berkeley for the first time on July 10, 1973, and saw Garcia, Saunders, John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt on the venue's postage stamp-sized stage about five feet in front of me! I probably knew fewer than half the songs they played, but I was hooked immediately. So much so that I lined up early the next night to see them again. The two songs that hit me hardest were Dylan's “Positively 4th Street” (which I did know) and “Like a Road Leading Home” (never heard of it). But I dug it all.
When the double-album—recorded by Dead associates Rex Jackson and Betty Cantor—came out late in the year, I practically wore out the grooves in the first couple of months. I learned to love “Someday Baby” and Merl's funky “Keepers” and the group's all-but-unrecognizable jam around “My Funny Valentine.” And “Like a Road” was sublime—I still consider it one of Jerry's finest performances. What an album! What a band!
In 1988, Fantasy Records inexplicably released two separate CDs containing the material on the double-album (plus a couple of bonus tracks), and a third called Keystone Encores, with even more unreleased material. All were excellent!
What's cool about The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings is that for the first time we get all four sets played on July 10-11, in order. It includes alternate versions of five songs that appeared on the '88 CDs (all good, though none improve on the released versions), and both shows have been remastered. To my ears, this sounds considerably better than the original CDs (it's louder and has more low-end punch). It's been so long since I've heard the vinyl version I can't compare them. Speaking of which, a new vinyl edition of the original Live at Keystone double- album was also released concurrently with the box.
These shows remain the truest snapshots we'll ever get of this lineup—soon, Martin Fierro's sax and flute would be added to the group, irrevocably altering their sound. There's a purity and simplicity to this quartet that I find both appealing and intoxicating. And I'm happy to have an excuse to rediscover this amazing music in a new way.
(Want to win a copy of Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings? Of course you do! Click here for details.)