By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Deadheads are a persnickety, obsessive bunch; the only group with a comparable fascination with minutiae, trivia, and detail are baseball announcers: "Sorry, Clint, I doubt it--the Dead have rarely gone from a second-set-opening 'China-Rider' directly into 'Dark Star' when 'Deal' closed the first set, and never on a summer tour!" If you understood that last sentence, then you'll probably love Dead to the Core: An Almanack of the Grateful Dead. The 'ck' spelling of almanac was required because of the conflict with the Grateful Dead Almanac, official organ of the aforementioned band. There is no word (yet) on plans for an Almanak.
Core is impressively dense. A staggering number of shows are listed, usually with annotation and anecdotes. It's a trip into bizarre world of hard-core Deadheads, where concerts stand with the weight of legal precedence, referenced only by a date. Author Eric F. Wybenga has listened to a lot of tapes, and he cross-references and compares with surprising fluidity. He also does an unexpectedly good job finding new ways to describe a subject already worn smooth by description. Therefore, if you do not find "Bobby going over Niagara Falls in a barrel" a very informative bit of song description, you may not wish to purchase this book.
The rest of the book is pretty standard, but livened up by the inclusion of quite a bit of recorded stage patter and a bunch of "Hey! I was there!"-type lists. Wybenga is one of the first archivists to begin wrestling with unpleasant truths such as the band's generally lackluster run through the '90s.
It's a beginning, but Core suggests that that may be all you could expect from people who can pull out three "Morning Dew" references to support an argument about a tour that ended 12 years ago. Still, as a fan, Wybenga makes progress in at least addressing issues like the band's now-punishing rain of official products, but he's nowhere near being able discuss issues like the role of Almanacks and their contributions to the situation.
While offering little besides bafflement to the uninitiated, Core is a kick-ass book for Deadheads--packed with short bursts of trivia and interesting groupings of topics, and therefore perfect for the bathroom. In fact, Wybenga does such an impressive job with the musical issues that the reader can't help but miss an equivalent effort to explore the other areas. It probably wouldn't be the book Wybenga wanted to write, but as of now, such a book is conspicuous by its absence. The real benefit of Core may be the way it points that out.
Big Bad John
John Stedman hates American blues labels.
The way they produce, whom they record, their philosophies in general--they all come under his fire, and he shoots from a considered position. His London-based label, JSP, may be the most energetic blues indie in existence. JSP's ad in a recent Living Blues touted no fewer than nine new releases; of these, three are by Metroplexers.
U.P. Wilson, Andrew "Junior Boy" Jones, Tutu Jones, Bob Kirkpatrick, Joe Coronado, and Alanda Williams are locals who have cut albums for JSP in just the last three years. The first three artists have since enjoyed a significant increase in renown. Kirkpatrick, the eldest, is a singer-guitarist whose estimable Going Back to Texas might well have never been made had it been up to American labels.
Kirkpatrick, who plays in such neighborhood bars as T.B.'s Lounge and Muddy Waters, is a retired federal employee with a pension and a nice house. It's unlikely he'd care to leave this well-earned comfort to go live out of a van for a few billion miles. Yet, unless you're rigorously touring, most American indies deem you unsignable. They figure (with some accuracy), acts that move units are acts on the road.
"Perverse!" wrote Stedman in reply to a query on the subject, noting that if Sun had had this policy, it never would have signed Elvis Presley. "It seems any act can get signed if they're touring," bellyaches the Brit. "It's a crazy policy and accounts for much of the garbage that's out there."
He says that "certain labels and managers who should know better" are to blame for the proliferation of "rock/blues," which he loathes because it siphons attention from the Real McCoy, which is precisely what he finds in Texas. "My personal take on Texas blues, particularly the D-FW people, is that their music has that raw power that grabbed me when I first heard blues back in the '60s. Other blues areas have lost that, or the music has become 'touristy,' as in Chicago," writes Stedman. "The fascinating thing about Dallas' blues scene--given the enormous amount of talent that is in town--is how little covered it is by record companies; also, the lack of a serious local label that could take that talent further." Soul-blues labels Malaco and Ichiban he slags for their reliance on synths and drum machines. Other labels, he reams for multi-tracking and slickness.
The Chicago label Alligator and JSP had a fairly zesty legal slugfest over harp blower Carey Bell, but save Alligator chief Bruce Iglauer, most blues fans regard Stedman as, at worst, a benign carpetbagger and, at best, downright beneficial. His label gives legs up to deserving artists and won't hold them to a contract should they get an offer from a bigger company (as did the Joneses, Andrew and Tutu, when they went with Bullseye). He sees nothing untoward about a British label specializing in an idiom so quintessentially American.