While it’d be easy to assume that a band like the Grateful Dead might be best appreciated after dark—when the visual effects of stage lighting, live performance, and the recreational drug of the viewer’s choice would likely be at their peak—that’s not necessarily the case, as these two festival shows from the mid-1970s prove.
The Dead, when they were on, were wholly capable of not only presenting powerful concerts, but sets that could be the instrument of transcendence for band and fans alike. In fact, that was the whole point for them, really. However, that goal never limited their repertoire to only spacey improvisation and experimental soundscapes as some might believe.
Rather, they fully embraced the idea that the way to communion was paved with many different styles and types of music, including jug band, gutbucket blues, straightforward rock and roll, bluegrass, traditional ballads, and country and western. In many ways, these two shows are prime examples of the latter route to their version of rock ‘n’ roll nirvana.
Not that there aren’t plenty of jams and
improvisations sets, because there are plenty of those moments. Still, on these
dates the songs are front and center, with all four sets drawing heavily from
the band’s country, roots, and traditional music playlist. Starting with a
spirited reading of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” before effortlessly moving on
to “Cassidy,” “Tennessee Jed,” “New Minglewood Blues,” and “Sugaree,” the band
swaggers, sways, and struts for over an hour of now-classic gems on the first
Then, after a somewhat tentative “St. Stephen” to start the second set, they catch fire with “Not Fade Away” before launching into extended and seamless explorations of some of their then-newer efforts like “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “Franklin’s Tower,” until they and the audience hit a peak with an ecstatic reading of “One More Saturday Night.” Capping it all off with a rollicking rendition of “U.S. Blues,” everyone seems to have reached the pinnacle experience, with no possibility of pushing beyond to even greater heights of sonic communion.
Until the next day, that is, when the band simply picks up where they left off at the end of the previous show. After opening with a hearty reading of “Might as Well,” they offer up some of the most powerful versions of their favored covers—“Mama Tried,” “El Paso,” and a bouncing “Dancing in the Streets” melded with a heartbreaking take on their own “Wharf Rat”—and some of their best country-fried classics, including “Deal,” “Loser,” and “Friend of the Devil.” They hit a plateau by the end of their first set, one that leaves the listener happy, but with the promise of more.
It’s a promise which the Dead delivers
on with the sizzling second set captured on the fourth and final disc. From the
opening beats of “Samson and Delilah” to the closing notes of the encore, a
burning “Johnny B. Goode,” it’s a bravura performance, one which offers all
sorts of pleasures. Between those two bookends, the listener will encounter not
only the bittersweet joys offered by “Brown-Eyed Women,” but also an extended
jam that starts with a triumphant “Playing in the Band” before it slides into a
short “Drums” and an awe-struck take on “The Wheel” which effortlessly enters
“Space,” before diving into a delightful “The Other One” and a “Stella Blue”
that is simply stunning.
Then, without missing a beat, it’s back to “Playing in the Band” which soon builds into one of most ecstatic versions of “Sugar Magnolia” captured on tape. They could easily omitted the aforementioned “Johnny B. Goode” and the show still would have felt complete, and one of the best examples of this era of the band in concert, but Chuck Berry’s tune serves as both a celebration and a vehicle to return both musicians and audience to more mundane reality.
Throughout, the band is in top form.
Jerry Garcia, who for many reasons was seen as the manifestation of the heart
and soul of the Grateful Dead, puts in one of his best performances. His guitar
lines are fluid and agile, yet wholly capable of driving and prodding his band
mates on to great heights. And Garcia’s voice is at its best. In fact, these
are some of his better vocal performances of the era, as evidenced on his
full-throated approach to “Ramble on Rose” on the third disc.
Bob Weir’s at his best, as well, vocally urgent and yearning by turn, all the while providing solid support for Garcia’s explorations with his own rhythm guitar jams. Keyboardist Keith Godchaux weaves lines throughout the tunes with a subtle and understated grace, while Donna Godchaux lends just the right backing and wailing vocals needed. And the rhythm section, consisting of drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and bassist Phil Lesh, keep everything rock solid without weighing down the proceedings.
For those who love the Dead, Real Gone Music's re-release of one of the rarer entries in the Dick’s Picks series will be met with real joy and enthusiasm. For those who have always wondered what was so special about this band, and what drove so many to rave about their concerts, this should help dispel any doubts about their abilities as musicians and performers. More importantly, this particular collection highlights their collective ability to transform what was supposed to be a simple concert into an act of mutual communion and transcendence. And it’s all captured here, in these songs recorded on a late summer’s weekend, a lifetime ago.
There are some who claim that seeing the Grateful Dead perform literally changed their lives in real, substantial, and lasting ways. If you listen to these performances closely enough, and listen with an open ear and heart, you might just discover for yourself that that rare magic still lives.