There was something about a New Year’s Eve show and the Grateful Dead, as the forthcoming All The Years Combine: The DVD Collection so artfully illustrates. Three of the DVDs in this sprawling package, due today (April 17, 2012) from Shout! Factory, feature Dec. 31 performances captured in 1978, 1985 and 1987.
You’ll be dissecting this one long after the party hats and streamers are safely put away. After all, there are 14 DVDs and 38 hours of footage of absorb here. Four installments from “View from the Vault” series, for instance, make up the heart of this new DVD collection. But the New Year’s shows tend to resonate a little more fully, as the late Jerry Garcia and Co. fight off the calendar-driven emotional disquiet of that day with a heady blend of American musical styles that still intrigues and delights.
Experienced anew, their songs thrillingly swerve off into anthematic calls for peace amidst troubled times and then into this sweetly romantic longing. They arrive cloaked in psychedelic warmth, but then evolve into these galloping primal rhythms and electronic dissonance. That’s to say nothing of the cover tunes — from old-time rock ‘n’ rollers like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, to folk and blues figures like Bob Dylan and Howlin’ Wolf, to hard-bitten country stock from the likes of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
If there is a flaw in All The Years Combine, it’s that the package focuses too much on the Grateful Dead’s final years — with all but three of the DVDs dominated by concert footage from 1987 or later. The group disbanded following Garcia’s death in August of 1995, though various surviving members have played together over the years.
Still, the sheer volume of new sights and sounds here, not to mention the group’s enduring musical curiosity, ultimately reduce that issue to nothing more than a quibble.
It’s probably best to begin All The Years Combine with the two-disc edition of “The Grateful Dead Movie,” a 1974 date at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom that got the deluxe reissue treatment from Shout! Factory in 2011 — including an extensive slate of bonus features. “The Closing of Winterland,” sterlingly mixed from 24-track master reels, finds the Dead back at the same location for a memorable New Year’s Eve 1978 concert that was to be the final show at that legendary venue — with all of the expected reunion-like camaraderie. A series of famous names make guest appearances, including Lee Oskar of War, John Cipollina of Quicksilver, Greg Errico of Santana and author Ken Kesey. Bonus features include a documentary film on the Winterland arena, and an interview with Bill Graham.
“Dead Ahead,” recorded in 1980, finds the Dead celebrating their 15th anniversary with a series of shows at Radio City Music Hall. This set was captured from a simulcast closed-circuit pay-per-view feed that went out to 20 movie theaters across the country. “So Far,” a psychedelic 1987 documentary only previously available on VHS and laserdisc, combines footage from private band sessions with portions of a Grateful Dead concert on New Year’s Eve 1985 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. “Ticket to New Year’s,” again filmed in Oakland on New Year’s Eve — this time in 1987 — was also a national pay-per-view telecast.
As for the “View from the Vault” series, be warned that they don’t arrive in chronological order.
Start with “View from the Vault IV,” which captures complete Grateful Dead sets from two shows on the 1987 tour with Bob Dylan — first at Oakland, then at Anaheim. Next, double back to the initial installment. Recorded in 1990 at the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, with bonus from the more intimate Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky two nights later, highlights include a rumbling new take on “Touch of Grey,” and a pair of Dylan covers in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (one of several terrific feature turns by Phil Lesh) and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which serves as an emotional encore. A bluesy 13-minute improvisation called “KY Jam” a must-hear moment from the Louisville show.
“View from the Vault III” finds the Grateful Dead performing in 1990 at Mountain View, California, in what would be one of the last appearances by keyboardist Brent Mydland — who passed the next month. The band offers muscular new takes on “China Cat” and “Terrapin Station” on the main disc; the group’s reimagining of the New Orleans funk staple “Hey Pocky Way” is part of the bonus material. “View from the Vault II,” meanwhile, takes us to the initial tour after Mydland’s death — in the summer of 1991 at the old RFK Stadium in Washington D.C., with Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby sitting in. Bonus material here includes an earlier RFK show that featured Mydland. “Dark Star,” “Jack-A-Roe,” “Tennessee Jed” and “Box of Rain” are among the standout moments.
A pair of 1989 shows are featured in “Truckin’ Up to Buffalo,” directed by Len Dell’Amico, and “Downhill From Here,” one of the initial commercial videos released in the aftermath of Garcia’s sudden death. All The Years Combine concludes with give previously unreleased and never-before-seen live dates from 1987-1991, a new interview with Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux, as well as the 1992 documentary “Backstage Pass” directed by Justin Kreutzmann — son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann.