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Sunday, July 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: In the Dark and "My Brother Esau"

Continuing my year-long (or nearly so) journey through albums from 1987 that I still listen to and enjoy today, following The Joshua Tree, Sign o' the Times, Solitude Standing, and Running in the Family: before July finishes up, let's salute the Grateful Dead's unexpected pop gem, In the Dark.

I'm cheating a little with this one, as I did with Level 42's small masterpiece last month--while I was familiar with their (first ever!) pop radio hit, "Touch of Grey," I wasn't by any stretch a Dead-head when this album hit during my senior year. And I never really became one, even after--once again!--someone I knew on my mission to South Korea a year or two later, a cool guy who had brought his guitar with him and would spend evenings playing James Taylor, Rolling Stones, and Grateful Dead tunes to a lot of us in the apartment, got me thinking about who these odd folk-rocking guys were. But he did at least convince me to give them a try, and first chance I got after returning to the U.S., I picked up a couple of Dead cassette tapes: the compilation album Skeletons from the Closet and this one. And fell in love.

I wasn't alone; there was a small, dedicated group of Dead-lovers at BYU back in the early 1990s, and anytime anyone in Provo, UT, aspiring to pretend that the city was a "real" college town like we imagined, scheduled some live music on campus or off, and an acoustic guitar was involved, you could be sure that "Friend of the Devil" or "Uncle John's Band" would make an appearance. Some of these folks were more devoted than me; they made the road-trips to Las Vegas or San Francisco, and became fully initiated into the Grateful Dead's happy cult. But I just listened--so much that my original cassette eventually died. Which was a terrible loss, because one of my favorite Dead songs, "My Brother Esau," was for some reason left off the CD version of the album. It's such a strange, wonderful, peppy, Old-Testament rock-and-roll tune, with Bob Weir's refrain "shadow-boxing the Apocalypse / wandering the land" haunting the whole number. Watch this live video, and you get the whole range of mid-late-stage Dead: Weir in his short shorts, the Mick Jagger-esque frontman (even though he doesn't dance); Jerry Garcia, wearing his sweats and flannel shirt, looking at his friend and the world in general with curiosity and bemusement; Brent Mydland hyped up, jamming out on the keyboards; Phil Lesh, playing his bass from some other planet entirely. That's all you need to know, right there.

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