Music Review: The Grateful Dead Dick's Picks Volume 26

Set captures band at the height of their powers.

By , Columnist

This particular volume of the Dick’s Picks series of live recordings remains one of the most highly prized of not only this series, but of all officially released Grateful Dead concerts. In fact, it’s still common to see used copies on eBay selling for well over $100.

Thankfully, you won’t have to pay that much for your copy since Real Gone Music reissued this set late last year. Which is a very good thing, given that this two CD collection not only delivers on all expectations, it exceeds them.

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In many ways, this two-disc set presents what could be seen as the ideal early live Dead experience, one that captures the band’s original, classic lineup at the peak of their powers but a few short months after the show documented on the justly revered Live/Dead release from Warner Bros. Even better, it presents what could be seen as a prototypical night’s performance, albeit culled from two consecutive nights, with disc one featuring mostly shorter songs (from the Electric Theater in Chicago, IL, on April 4, 1969) and a second hour-plus set on disc two (from the following night's show at the Labor Temple in Minneapolis, MN) consisting of five tunes that serve as launching points for extensive improvisations. Quite simply, there is no better representation of what it was like to attend the ideal show by the early Grateful Dead out there.

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Everything kicks off with two songs which capture the dichotomy that was the Dead. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” is a sardonic slice of sly innuendo and folk-inflected songwriting that chronicles the lust-fueled crime, and subsequent punishment, of the titular character as he tries to secure his share of “sweet, sweet jellyroll.” Once that tune’s moral has been delivered with a knowing smile and a wink by Jerry Garcia, we find ourselves transported to the delicately shaded “Mountains of the Moon,” performed with an almost hallucinatory clarity.

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Then the syncopated, stammering lines of “China Cat Sunflower” creates another rarified environment, one where only nonsense makes sense—a joyful noise that leads to the alternating regal procession and drunken stagger of “Doin’ That Rag.” That’s followed by driven, headlong versions of "Cryptical Envelopment/The Eleven/The Other One.” And then it’s time for a double serving of gutbucket blues courtesy of keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who delivers the goods on “I Know It’s a Sin” and a 20-minute plea to “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Next, Bobby Weir steps up to the mic to share a tale featuring a couple of hard-drinking cowboys with “Me and My Uncle.” Finally, Pigpen finishes up the set with another dose of the blues which leaves the listeners “Sitting on Top of the World.”

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Still, as good as that first set is, for many listeners—and for hard-core Deadheads in particular—it’s the second disc that makes this release such an incredibly powerful, as well as popular, installment in the DP series.

Beginning with an exceptional version of “Dark Star,” the band embarks on one extended improvisational exploration after another, pushing themselves and five of their seminal compositions to the limit…and just far enough beyond to prove their mettle. It’s not just a bravura performance; more importantly, it’s one that highlights just how good these guys could be when they played live. Furthermore, it’s also proof positive that there was real reason for their repeated attempts to create something that, when the vibe and the moment converged in a certain manner, was capable of transporting everyone present at that moment—and, despite the primitive recording technology and all the intervening decades, the modern listener—to a place that none of them had inhabited, much less encountered, before.

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Still, as the various members of the group have noted in interviews, they considered themselves essentially a dance band. And that’s a truth that’s evidenced even in the midst of their most spaced out meanderings—even then, as the sound verges on dissonance and noise, there’s an essential rhythm and funkiness undergirding the proceedings. And even at the most abstract moments of their nearly half-hour search for meaning in the heart of a “Dark Star,” that rhythm is there, pulsing and pushing them forward, until it is finally given form in a rollicking version of “St. Stephen.” And then, once the saint has been served, it finally bursts forth yet again, wholly transfigured into the joyful romp of “The Eleven.”

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There’s an exuberance here that’s undeniably contagious, and a passion that’s soon transformed into the undeniable urge to merge flesh and bone in a whole ‘nother kind of communitas, given voice by Pigpen’s plea to yet “Turn on Your Lovelight.” There’s a real swagger to this version, even when it breaks down to just the drum beat, hand claps and a chorus of human voices in call and response. If ever there was a consummation that needed immediate realization, it was and is this one, and the release offered by tune’s end is truly capable of moving earth and sea.

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Still, there’s one last song to be sung, and it one of the most powerful versions of “Morning Dew” of this or any era of the band. This is more than the final tune of the evening, a well-deserved encore before an inevitable parting of ways. It’s there in the tone of Garcia’s vocals and fluid guitar lines, a heartfelt yearning for both peace and love, not just of the moment, but everlasting. As good as other versions of this post-nuclear apocalyptic vision might be, there are few that are the equal of this one.

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And yet, as devastating as it might be, there is comfort offered by the song, and its singer. This moment didn’t just pass us by, to leave us alone, bereft. Instead, all know they were there, together and that, despite the barriers of time and space, and all the shortcomings inherent to flesh and human understanding, that the moment was shared by all present, and it truly mattered.

Thanks to Dick’s Picks volume 26, that moment has not only been preserved, but will continue to matter for years to come.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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