The Grateful Dead were far ahead of their time in many respects, but none perhaps more so than the breadth, depth and quality of the tapes they archived (and as will be described below, occasionally lost) from their legendary live shows. The Dick’s Picks series was named for and originally curated by the band’s tape archivist, Dick Latvala. Following Latvala’s passing in 1999, the series was continued by the band’s current archivist David Lemieux. In contrast to the multi-track remixes released under the From the Vault banner, Dick’s Picks were mastered from stereo tapes, at times emphasizing performance over audio quality (which, to be fair, was almost always very good as well). This penultimate volume in the series features performances from three August stops on the Dead’s 1971 summer tour, Hollywood, San Diego and Chicago, spread across four CDs.
Originally released in 2005 (and reissued now for standard retail by Real Gone), the tapes behind Volume 35 have a story that’s as interesting as the music they contain. Shortly before Keith Godchaux auditioned for (and subsequently joined) the band, Jerry Garcia handed him a box of tapes from the 1971 tour – ostensibly to help Godchaux bone-up on the band’s repertoire. Whether or not he actually listened to them is disputed, but what’s known is that he parked them on his parents’ houseboat, where they sat until 2005, when his brother rediscovered them. Amazingly, 35 years at sea (well, canal, since the boat was moored in Alameda) had surprisingly little affect on the tapes, which are still quite full, crisp and balanced. Included is the entire San Diego show, the salvageable portion of the Chicago stop and an hour of the Hollywood performance.
With Mickey Hart having quit the band earlier in the year, Pigpen’s health issues minimizing his keyboard contributions (though not his vocals) and Godchaux yet to join, the band toured as a five-piece that played more as a guitar-guitar-bass-and-drums quartet. This gave them a rawer, less psychedelic sound, and seems to have simplified the board mix to stereo. All of the instruments and most of the vocals can be easily heard, and Phil Lesh’s bass sounds particularly rich throughout. The San Diego set (which fills disc one and a majority of disc two) mixes some of the Dead’s best-known originals (“Sugaree,” “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,” and “Sugar Magnolia”) with country, blues and rock covers (“El Paso,” “Mama Tried,” “Big Boss Man,” “Promised Land,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Not Fade Away” and “Johnny B. Goode”) that show off the band’s taste and range.
Concise numbers, like Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” are stretched into showcases for instrumental improvisation. At the same time, they don’t loiter in one groove long enough to become repetitive; the segues are as interesting as the song choices, and even casual fans will appreciate how easily the band knit together disparate influences, often charting the flow of their sets on-the-fly. The Chicago set ends disc two and fills disc three, repeating a few songs from San Diego and introducing new titles and a few rarities. Chief among the latter is Pigpen’s “Empty Pages,” which is reported to have only been played twice, with its debut for this performance. Also included is an early version of “Brown-Eyed Woman.” Selections from the Hollywood Palladium show finish off disc four, culminating in a twenty-five minute rendition of “Turn on Your Lovelight.”
Other tapes from 1971 have been released through standard retail over the years, including February dates in Port Chester (the first without Mickey Hart) on Three from the Vault, the multi-venue Grateful Dead, and a legendary April stand at the Fillmore East on Ladies and Gentlemen. The Fillmore East dates are perhaps the most highly regarded by fans, but the band was in such fine form throughout 1971 that just about any of these sets provide great listening to fans and a good introduction to newbies. Those who shied away from (or were repelled by) the scene that surrounded Dead concerts may be surprised at how satisfying the music is on its own merits. Though the tribal vibe of their live shows may not have survived the transformation to tape, the band’s musicality certainly did. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]