IT'S been seven years since the Grateful Dead released a studio album, but at last they've come out with ``In the Dark'' (on Arista), a warmly nostalgic trip back to their loose, freewheeling sound of the '60s, with added maturity and depth. They even have a video of the hit single from the album, ``Touch of Gray,'' and they're in the midst of a national summer tour with Bob Dylan.
After a lengthy foray into watered-down pop during the late '70s and early '80s, the Dead appear to have gone back to basics.
Lead singer Jerry Garcia, co-producer of the album, co-wrote four of its seven songs with lyricist Robert Hunter.
It's an optimistic album, with a relaxed, almost sweet feel to it. They sing, among other things, about love gone sour (the wryly humorous ``Hell in a Bucket''), fear of love (the countryish ``When Push Comes to Shove''), and crass materialism (``Throwing Stones'').
Garcia's guitar and the taut rhythm knit it all together.
Most effective of all are the Garcia/Hunter collaborations ``Touch of Gray,'' with its ``I will get by/ I will survive'' chorus and lilting beat, and the moody minor groove, ``West L.A. Fadeaway.''
For a couple of years in the early '80s it seemed that the Dead might fold, largely because of Garcia's problems with drugs and illness. Now it looks as if his and the band's rejuvenation are complete.
In any case, the Dead have never stopped touring over the years, and even though they never got a lot of radio play or a top-40 hit, they still have one of the largest and most devoted followings around. In fact, the Dead own several publications, their own ticket office, and a data base through which their fans communicate with one another and with members of the band.
Although some may call the Dead's music nostalgic, the fact is that many ``Deadheads'' are young people - high school- and college-age '80s hippies - although the group's audiences are liberally sprinkled with their contemporaries, too. And though the Dead have been strongly identified with the drug culture, the band that started out in San Francisco in the '60s as Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions (and later the Warlocks) now seems to have passed beyond that phase without giving up the social ideals it had in the '60s.
The '80s version of the Dead (Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Brent Mydland, and Bob Weir) are now planning a tour of Asia, which would end with the band's playing at the Great Wall of China sometime next summer. With the success of the album and CD of ``In the Dark,'' the Dead could be headed at last for some high visibility on the pop charts.
Would such success spoil the Dead? Not likely. Said Garcia in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, ``I swear, it's like the Grateful Dead are the slowest rising rock-and-roll band in the world.''