There’s nothing grim about these reapers. The Grateful Dead made a long, cheerful ritual out of their changing-of-the-annum gigs at the Oakland Coliseum, and the one that rang in 1988 and was shown live on pay per view finally comes to video as Grateful Dead: Ticket to New Year’s. This not-too-deeply buried time capsule finds the band moving into a comfortable middle age — seasoned and spry, riding high on the renewal then afforded by their hit single ”Touch of Grey” (which, in typical Dead fashion, is not part of the show). Other than the tiresome prog-rock detour ”Terrapin Station,” the celebratory set list nicely represents the band’s marginally melancholy sprightliness, and none of the players look like they’re ”Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (though keyboardist Brent Mydland, two years from that door, does appear twitchy).
Unfortunately, producer-director Len Dell’Amico and Jerry Garcia had the numskull notion to intermittently spoil a perfectly well-shot concert by overlaying it with kaleidoscopic visual tricks and stock footage of nature, space, and riots, as if to nudge us every 10 minutes or so and say, The Dead’s a ’60s band, y’know.
But when Dell’Amico simply lets his expert performance footage roll — with bright lighting that doesn’t overdramatize the Dead’s calm and edits that linger just long enough — it’s as good a late-period document of the group’s casual iconography as any in circulation. As a bonus, a few intermission-time comedy bits offer psychic rest for the wired, the best of them being a perfectly cast little sketch with drummer Mickey Hart, as Mr. Spock, doing a mind meld on Garcia’s Santa. Which does put the words logical and gift in close subliminal proximity. B+