OK, OK, you can go ahead and count Disaster Amnesiac as a convert to early 1980's Grateful Dead appreciation. After listening to the tight, hot set from Atlanta's Fox Theater from November 30th, 1980, I've got to agree with Deadheads: the band had plenty of juice in the earlier part of that decade.
Juiced in many ways by their new-ish (at that point) keyboard player Brent Mydland. This, the first edition of the Dave's Picks run to feature the late Antioch, CA native, shows him invigorating the band. Disaster Amnesiac feels as if, with his addition, the Dead got not only a shiny new palette of sounds from his passel of keyboards (in contrast to Keith's primarily acoustic focus), they also got an "on key Donna", a harmonizer that could actually do so with a ton more precision than Mrs. Godchaux. There are so many examples of this new found excitement over the course of the Dave's Picks Vol. 8's three discs, so I'll just mention a few, such as his glassy fills during Lost Sailor or his Glass-ey Minimalism during Playing in the Band's ferocious middle jam section. The band sounds tightly focused throughout, even when spacing out during the fluttery Bird Song or knocking out the requisite cowboy jams of Me and My Uncle>Big River, and I can't help but feel that this clarity was in no small measure due to Brent's presence. Even ballads such as It Must Have Been the Roses and China Doll sound un-shambolic and on point.
Further examples of this set's robust vigor can be found in Loser's broad, heavy groove (topped off with an emotional solo from Garcia that drops with precision right back into the chorus), Cassidy's Allman Flavored twin guitar harmonic focus (a result of playing in the Peach State?), and Samson and Delilah's tight rhythmic strutting. Dave's Picks Vol. 8 features a band that is greased, primed and stompin'.
Disaster Amnesiac has seen at least two references to this show's Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain suite as being one of the top examples of same, and, while I tend to like the more shuffle-based Scarlet of the 1970's, as opposed to the cut time feel found herein, its middle jam, featuring blazing Jerry/Brent duo exchanges and a precision pull into Fire from Phil, is most definitely a high point for the song(s).
Bob Weir has been quoted as saying that the 1980's were his favorite period of Grateful Dead musical production, and hearing his great slide playing on Little Red Rooster and the rockin' showmanship he brings to Around and Around (what's with the faux Brit accent, Bob?), the listener can hear him as he takes the reins of the band in many ways. If Garcia was The Leader, Weir was The Worker, the increasingly more effective mover and shaker of the whole thing as time progressed.
It would be difficult to mention any one tune on which the drummers sound great, in that they sound tightly locked throughout. Kreutzmann and Hart's tandem battery was really working for this show, and Disaster Amnesiac has thrilled at the Hart bongo-beat tom tom runs as they skitter over Bill's fluid ride cymbal sticking. Their solo feature is filled with interactive, often really quiet talking drums/tar chatter that leads into the full Beast onslaught. Powerful.
Despite being in the thick of The Heineken Years, Phil also sounds focused and present,laying down thick bass rumbles during tunes' changes and keeping pace with Jerry and Brent during the jam portions. Phil was having a good show, the band was having a good show, in 1980 even!
It's clear that there are tons of people who have been in on what was a secret to Disaster Amnesiac: the Grateful Dead could be just as powerful in the early 1980's as at any other time in their storied career. Take a listen to Dave's Picks Vol. 8 (if you can find a copy, it sold out in minutes!), and hear a sublime, powerful mixture of their formula as it unveils new aspects, grounded in what was at that time fifteen years' road experience and kicked into gear by new blood.