Following the release of the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street in November of 1978, tensions between the Godchaux’s and the rest of the group were high. The married couple had reportedly been fighting like cats and dogs, all the while Keith Godchaux was deep into an addiction to opioids. These personal issues in conjunction with Keith’s increasingly more subpar playing would leave the band with no choice but to say goodbye to the couple. The Dead have always prided themselves on going out night after night and improvising in new directions, but this only works well if each member is willing push the others into new sonic avenues. When one member becomes complacent or unwilling to follow this path, it goes against the purpose of the band. So on February 19th 1979, after six years “playing in the band” Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux bid the Grateful Dead farewell.
The loss of both a keyboard player and voice in the group would be filled by one man rather quickly. Brent Mydland, formerly of Silver, had been playing in Bob Weir’s solo band and was invited to join the group. His youth, distinctive voice, and unique approach to the keyboard and organ would bring a much needed freshness to the band now in its 14th year.
Now with a complete line-up, the group needed to release another studio album in order to fulfill their Arista Records contract. The group hooked up with producer Gary Lyons and embarked on completing another studio album that July. The album would be a return to the group’s rock, blues, and folk roots, specifically shying away from the increasingly disliked disco sound they had previously experimented with. The group’s 11th studio album, Go to Heaven, was released in April of 1980, over one year after Brent Mydland’s induction into the Grateful Dead.
Right off the bat the band rips into the bluesy, rocking song “Alabama Getaway” to start off side one. The updated Chuck Berry sound is a return to form for the aging rockers. What stands out in the song is new keyboardist and vocalist Brent Mydland. His soulful tenor works well in conjunction with Garcia’s soft voice. The second track is a coming out for Brent Mydland on the track, “Far From Me,” which he wrote and takes lead vocals on. Mydland brings a soft rock vocal tone, a la Michael McDonald, to the song. The breaks in instrumentation take much inspiration from the California Soft Rock or “Yacht Rock” sound. Mydland’s youth in comparison to the other members is clear. His musical styles are inspired by the music of his youth in the ‘60s and early ‘70s , a decade apart from the other members of the band.
The next track, “Althea,” is a tune with a magical quality. Whether it’s the melody, the lyrics, or just the band’s ability to jam at the end, “Althea” is a song that stands above most of their discography. The opening riff is clear as day and commands attention. Phil Lesh talks about how their infamous jam “Darkstar” is always playing in the zeigtgeist and they just tap into it. “Althea” is exactly the same. From his emotionally guitar to his soft vocals, the song is inherently Jerry Garcia. Side one wraps up with the first Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow track on the album, “Feel Like A Stranger.” The funk music track is clearly inspired by the popular music of the time. The track is fairly forgettable, but it does have some great wah from Garcia and ‘80s synth work from Mydland.
The second side of Go to Heaven starts off with a pair of songs from Weir and Barlow that are meant to be played together. “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” aren’t the same song, or two in a suite, but they work as a pair so perfectly. “Lost Sailor” is a jazz-rock ballad with wild production. The strongest point in the song is when the instruments align on the lyric, “You’re a lost sailor, you’ve been to long at sea.” The bridge in particular features soft and beautiful playing from Garcia and Mydland. The track fades out and the band breaks into “Saint of Circumstance.” The immediate upbeat sound of the track flies in the face of the previous track, but it works so well. The chorus features powerful piano playing from Mydland and lifts up the track’s melancholic verses. The connection between “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” is odd. They both contain references to a “Dog Star” and could have a similar narrator, but are two separate songs. Sonically, the two songs just work together well.
Side two transitions to the second half using a short 39 second instrumental from Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The track features swampy frog like sounds, with Kreutzmann playing quick fills on the drums. It does little for the album as a whole besides adjusting the mood. The follow-up is a Mydland and Barlow composition, “Easy to Love You.” The romantic song is Steely Dan meets Doobie Brothers. The chorus and keyboard solo echo Michael McDonald, but the jazzy breakdowns after the chorus feel like a Fagen-Becker composition. “Easy to Love You” does feature a notable contribution from Hart, who plays a steel drum during the key solo, providing a laid back vibe to the track. The album wraps up on “Don’t Ease Me In.” The traditional track is most commonly credited to Henry Thomas, a Texas Blues musician who recorded the track in 1928. The track is interesting in the Dead repertoire as they had been playing different versions of it since their inception, even releasing it as the A-side to their first single in 1966. The track does a great job of subverting expectations when Mydland takes a solo instead of Garcia. The track does fall short in the vocal performances, compared to previous versions of the song. Previously it leaned more on acoustic guitars and vocal harmony, but the background singing in the 1980 version are blended so much that they just fall behind Garcia’s lead.
All in all Go to Heaven is a decent album, that gets a bad rap for it’s atrocious cover*. Excluding the cover art, Go To Heaven has aged well over the last 38 years and it still stands as a glimpse of the band’s newest iteration with Brent Mydland. Having completed the required three studio albums in three years contract with Arista Records, the Grateful Dead would take their longest break from studio recording following the albums release, not putting out another studio work until 1987.
*Author’s note: It is the prevailing opinion that the album art featuring the band in all-white disco suits prevented people from purchasing the album. There was more focus on album art in those days because the internet couldn’t be used to research the album prior to listening. Many albums were purchased because of the band name and album art alone. Casual listeners would think the band was going full disco, but the cover was meant to be ironic with back cover featuring the band in ripped up disco suits and text reading “Go to Hell.” However the back cover was never made, leaving the band looking like they had sold out to disco. The joke wasn’t there and it changed the general public’s perception of the group.