December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

Grateful Dead

If these two retrospectives reveal anything about the late-era Grateful Dead, it’s that the band’s inspiration ebbed long before Jerry Garcia’s death last year. He and his bandmates produced only three studio albums during their final 15 years, and they still had trouble crafting enough good songs to fill them. Thus, the best Dead tunes from the ’80s and ’90s fit easily (with highlights from three live albums and two studio LP’s from the late ’70s) on the two CD-set The Arista Years. It’s nice having FM-radio staples “Alabama Getaway” and “Touch of Grey” alongside lesser-known gems like “Terrapin Station,” but the decidedly weaker tunes from their 1989 album Built to Last make it clear that by then, this band was actually falling to pieces.

And while Dozin’ at the Knick, an epic three-CD set taken from three 1990 concerts in Albany, N.Y., captures the symptoms of dissolution (Garcia’s raspy croak on “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” forgotten lyrics on “Uncle John’s Band,” awkward song-to-song transitions), it has enough lovely moments to confirm how extraordinary Dead shows could be. Garcia’s guitar shimmers throughout, and when the harmonies finally come together on “Brokedown Palace,” you’ll yearn to spend one more evening with the living Dead. (Arista)

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