Absolutely modern

The new release, Ready or Not – a selection of live performances from the ’90s, tracks that weren’t brought into the studio and pressed into an album at the time – takes us back to the band’s final years.

Much of the current fan base was introduced to these shows in the ’80s and subsequently, including the many side projects and spinoffs that have kept up to this day… but we learned about the music from ’70s releases, bootlegs and audience tapes. It was in that earlier period that the group’s defining style took shape.

Combining elements of country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, pop, R&B… where the rhythm guitar played like piano, and the keyboard often like guitar… where the bass fluttered and flew and drummers set the pace as though with wings… where the lead musician was at once Chuck Berry, Coltrane, Miles, and banjo player at the fair…

Though there really was no lead musician, everybody improvised… together, all at once, but attentive to each other from their spaces. The songs, in equal parts surreal, familiar, lyrical, humorous, philosophic, frequently Western, blended with the musical invention to give form to something that was altogether new and outside the individual traditions it encaptured.

In that, it was an intimate, almost nostalgic form, evolving in the following decades with the band’s popularity. As venues became bigger and the crowds denser, the arrangements and orchestration progressed, in some ways for the louder, but more correctly I think for the broader. The canvas became larger, its blend of colors richer, and the brush strokes wider…

So that what started with a sense of history and place, ended expansive and sweeping, as if forward looking, and maybe even visionary…

It’s possible that many of us then didn’t get it, continuing to hear what was before instead of what the music was becoming, and listening now to the new ’90s release it feels like the music may have even been ahead of its time.

According to the poet, one must be absolutely modern, and, as poets often do, he left us to figure out his meaning on our own.

It’s probably most accurate to say that all the elements of all the eras of the music described – nostalgia and vision, both – were there throughout the years… and, on reflection, maybe this is the combination that being absolutely modern signifies.

Lyrics by Willie Dixon, music by Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman, arrangement by crowd.

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