30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965-1995
Initially released as a limited-edition box set so lavish it was on the verge of being absurd, 30 Trips Around the Sun is a deep exploration of a simple idea: tell the Grateful Dead's story through unreleased live performances taken from every year of their life. This concept reaches its full fruition in its 80-CD incarnation, containing a full unreleased show for every year between 1966 and 1995, but the four-CD distillation operates in a similar fashion and may seem more attractive to Deadheads unwilling to immerse themselves in a monthlong listening session. The closest analogy to 30 Trips in their discography is 1999's So Many Roads (1965-1995), a five-disc box heavy on unreleased live material, but that set wound up skipping over the fallow periods a chronological march inevitably hits. Aware of this pitfall, the archivists behind 30 Trips selected the finest unreleased shows from each of these 30 years and, for this set, chose to showcase songs that rarely appeared in the Dead's repertoire. This turns out to be a fairly broad category, encompassing Pigpen singing Lightnin' Hopkins "The Rub" in 1971 and Donna Jean Godchaux debuting with the band in 1972 via a duet with Jerry Garcia on Dolly Parton's "Tomorrow Is Forever," as well as Phil Lesh singing Robbie Robertson's "Broken Arrow" in 1993 and a bittersweet "Visions of Johanna" from 1995 that closes out the set. As its considerably shorter than its parent, the four-disc 30 Trips Around the Sun never lingers upon the eras of the Dead that cause consternation among fans -- here, Brent Mydland's synths don't seem quite so prominent and Vince Welnick's penchant for sambas is hidden -- yet this shorter box still illustrates how these eras bled together or echoed throughout the Dead's history. Most of all, 30 Trips illustrates how the Dead kept circling back to their folk and blues beginnings no matter who supplemented the core quintet of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart. While the four or five main keyboardists brought their own signatures (particularly Pigpen, whose rough-hewn growl provided a gritty counterpart to the band's spacy early explorations), come 1971, the year after the twin masterpieces of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, the Dead maintained a groove more psychedelic in spirit than sound. Although this truncation emphasizes this continuity, it's still possible to hear how the band's first 15 years were a rapid progression while the second 15 were about reliability, but perhaps the most affecting thing about 30 Trips is the simple passing of time. By the end, Jerry's voice sounds rough and fragile, Weir's confidence surges, Lesh's lines are elastic, and the "Drums" showcase for Kreutzmann and Hart turns exploration into schtick -- it's a mix of emotion and show that's endearing and even moving. If you take all 30 trips, the Dead's journey feels long and sweet and unlike anything else in rock.