Aoxomoxoa — 50th Anniversary Edition
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Next up in Rhino’s ongoing Grateful Dead 50th deluxe anniversary reissue campaign is this third studio set from the San Francisco icons. The oddly named 1969 album (the palindrome title is meaningless) was the home of a few interesting firsts for the Dead. It was the first time they recorded on 16 tracks, the first time Jerry Garcia took all the lead vocals, the first time Robert Hunter penned all the lyrics and, perhaps most tellingly, the first time the band produced themselves.
The latter is crucial in that any outsider would have cut the avant-garde, some say unlistenable, nine-minute “What’s Become of the Baby,” a plodding, drugged-out, sound effect-enhanced psychedelic drone sung by Garcia (whose voice is electronically distorted) that thankfully was never performed live. Ditto for the only slightly less annoying acoustic “Rosemary” that at two minutes is a far less intrusive swing and a miss. Since the album only runs a little over a half-hour, that leaves it at basically EP length. Despite those 11 minutes of failed experiments, Aoxomoxoa introduced at least two songs out of the remaining six (“St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower”) that became standards in the Dead’s voluminous catalog.
The MIA vocals of Bob Weir and especially Pigpen (whose blues roots are also missed) leave this as too much of Garcia’s show. While some tunes like the harpsichord driven “Mountains of the Moon” float into interesting areas, and the acoustic/country-oriented “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” signals the band’s move into Americana with the classic Workingman’s Dead the next year, there’s not enough quality music here. Perhaps that’s something a producer would have confronted the guys with. Even the promotional notes for this reissue call it “messy and murky” although they go on to say “mysterious and majestic.” The latter description is questionable.
Collectors will drool because this edition includes the seldom heard original 1969 mix which is muddier but includes some different, often longer arrangements of some selections. It’s followed by the crisper, and tighter, 1971 mix that has been the standard since.
More intriguing is the previously unreleased 69 minutes of live music that fills this set’s second (expanded) disc. These tracks were whittled down from performances in January 1969 about six months before Aoxomoxoa was released in June. The band is in fine form, opening with a winding 14-minute “New Potato Caboose” that doesn’t really go anywhere but takes enough interesting turns getting there (including some amazing bass work from Phil Lesh) making it worth the ride. A few songs from the forthcoming disc are previewed, but it’s the Pigpen-led “Alligator” from Anthem of the Sun that really gets things fired up. Nearly four minutes of the appropriately titled “Feedback” beats Neil Young at his similarly styled Arc game by over two decades. An 11-minute version of what is described as the final live version of the psychedelic “Clementine,” a song the group never recorded, might also pull in some Deadhead enthusiasts.
Most impressive is the fidelity; it’s as clear and clean as if this was recorded in 2019 instead of 50 years earlier. The amazing work by the reissue team is a good enough reason to purchase (maybe again) one of the Dead’s least essential studio releases, although one that still has its moments.