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Published: 2003/06/28
by Dan Alford

A Map to the Golden Road: The Vault Series

In 1991 the Grateful Dead began the first ongoing archival release series in rock music, known simply as The Vault Series. The premise was simple: periodically release the best shows in the Vault that exist in multi track format. The series, like its younger brother Dick's Picks (which draws only from the two track recordings, as does the View from the Vault series), was slow to get rolling, but now offers approximately one release per year. The key with the Vault series is sound quality; the multi-track tapes offer the very best sound, the sound with the clarity and depth that will thrill true audiophiles. Soundboard recordings of many of the shows included on Vault issues have been staples of the trading scene for many years, but here they are polished and presented at their very best.

While the initial releases featured complete shows, the series has abandoned that format almost entirely in favor of highlight sets from multiple nights. Whereas Dick's Picks favors lengthy, psychedelic jams, including many Dark Stars and Playing in the Bands, the Vault releases rely heavily on first set material, the work horses of the Grateful Dead's repertoire. The series also draws almost exclusively from very early Dead and later Brent-era Dead, leaving over fifteen years of music nearly untouched. All that being said, the Vault series is an exceptional document. Perhaps it is the extra time and effort needed to remix the master tapes, or perhaps it is the series' fondness for collections of highlights, but every Vault volume is a gem.

One from the Vault

The very first installment in the Vault series was an interesting choice because just about everyone in Dead-dom already had it. There can be no doubt that 8-13-75 is one of the greatest GD shows ever, and despite Healey's liner notes, it was widely circulated as a high quality soundboard. What was missing, however, was the bulk of the second set, and that, along with is pristine sound offered by a multi track recording, immediately made One from the Vault a necessary addition to every music collection.

Performance wise, this two-disc set includes the baddest introduction in GD history, each band member joining Help on the Way after being introduced by Bill Graham. The Music is spectacularly smooth, as is the Eyes > Drumz > King Solomon's Marbles. The second disc also features an extremely rare version of Weir's tuning exercise Sage and Spirit, and a monster, twenty-one plus minute Blues for Allah to close. It would be a real treat if the other few shows from 1975 were released, as they all feature a similar brightness and electricity. Check out the Golden Gate show for another great Help > Slipknot opener, and 3/23 for a very sweet, tight, almost entirely instrumental set.

Two from the Vault

Two from the Vault is a postcard from 1968, a show that captures the essence of the band at the time- wild and raucous vibrations. Set lists offered relatively little variety in 68, with many, many Dark Star > St. Stephen > Eleven and Cryptical > Other One > Cryptical suites. Be that as it may, both the versions included here are excellent, especially the St. Stephen > Eleven. The Dark Star is also noteworthy, a densely packed psychedelic brew that clocks in at just over ten minutes- a personal favorite. Easily the most striking piece, however, is the opening Schoolgirl, a swagger filled strut that oozes sex. The throbbing bass, the sharp leads and the Pig at his best, this song alone is worth the price of Two from the Vault. The liner notes are also interesting, including a sort of guide to appreciating multi track recordings with headphones.

Hundred Year Hall

The first of the series to drop the moniker, Hundred Year Hall is from the legendary Europe '72 tour. The two disc set is comprised of highlights from a single night in Germany, including much of the early first set and the opening and closing suites from the second set. The Playing in the Band is possibly the finest music ever produced by the Dead. It has all the cosmic significance and scope of a twenty-seven minute exploration from 74 crammed into a tight, swirling nine minutes of bliss- worth the cost all by itself.

The second disc is the opening jam with a meaty Truckin > Drumz that plows into a colossal, incredibly imaginative and engaging thirty-six minute Other One. Robert Hunter does the liner notes for this release and provides one of the best descriptions of a Dead jam ever written. In fact, the music is as much a compliment to his words as his words are to the music. Hundred Year Hall is a release for the psychedelic lovers. Incidentally, the rest of the show does circulate though not as widely as some Vault series shows.

Terrapin Station

This release was originally produced as a limited edition with proceeds directed toward Terrapin Station, a sort of nebulous concept for a Grateful Dead archive, museum, performance space and community center that never really got going. It is still available, and features, along with some truly outstanding packaging, the entire show from Phil's birthday in 1990. It's a show like so many others from the era, with a pretty standard set list and strong performances all around. Some highlights from the first set include Sugaree, a smokin' Althea and big birthday Tom Thumb Blues. The second set is focused around a monolithic Terrapin (the show was chosen to meet the release's title, not the other way around) > Mock Turtle Jam, an active, unformed jam of almost nine minutes. The Wharf Rat > Throwing > NFA is also very well done.

Terrapin Station really is a classic show in that it captures the vibe of 89-90 Dead shows perfectly. Beyond being a nice show, the recording is very rich and warm, and worth exploring.

Fillmore East 2-11-69

Fillmore East 2-11-69 is a prime archival release for its rarity if nothing else. The two disc release features two complete shows, an early and a late from the same night. The Grateful Dead were opening for Janis Joplin ("I want you to do it for Janis," Jerry belts out at the end of the late show), and the band tried to make best use of its hour on the stage by cramming in as much music as possible. As such, however, there is a frantic feeling to the early show. Even the Lovelight, at just under twelve minutes, from late in the set has just enough of a tempo boost to make it edgy. The early show also ends with an atrocious version of Hey Jude, a thankfully rare rendition from the Pig Pen days.

The second show is much stronger, opening with Dupree's and Mountains of the Moon, both with acoustic guitars. From there on in, it's a musical whirlwind, a tour de force performance as good as anything from 69. Garcia switches to electric to complete a nice transition to an incendiary Dark Star. Turn this one up to thirteen; it's devastating. These sets come from the Tom Constanten era, and his creepy, baroque organ work does wonders here. The set closes with a raw, chunky and distorted Caution, framed on both sides by gorgeous licks from Jerry. The Feedback > Goodnight is just right, and as an added bonus there is a two minute sample of the Cosmic Charlie encore, all that exists of that particular performance.

Dozin’ at the Knick

1990 was a banner year for the Dead, even though we lost Brent. It is a very rich source of music that will continue to provide material not only for the Vault series, but Dick's Picks and View from the Vault for many, many years to come. Dozin'' is a compilation of material from the Spring Tour (as is Terrapin Station), and the Dead's first stop at the new Albany venue. It was a three night run where camping was allowed down near the Hudson River, the scene extended for blocks and blocks and blocks and love was in the air; and magic was in the music. All three complete shows could have easily been released, although 3/26 (the Monday night show) already circulates widely in FM and pre-FM soundboards.

What is included on the three disc set is the entire second set from 3/24. It's very heady pre-Space with a fine, cosmically relaxed triad of Playing > Uncle John's Band > Terrapin. Then last tune exits into a blissful, hauntingly beautiful Mud Love Buddy Jam. The name is a play on Mind Left Body jams (which, interestingly enough, were often called Heaven Help jams until the mid eighties), although the actual performance has little in common with the famed musical peaks from 73 and 74.

Disc three includes the rather rowdy conclusion to the set (check out the Watchtower) and the post-Space segment from 3/25, with its truly excellent Black Peter. Disc one is an amalgamation of the three nights, but relies heavily on 3/26. Dozin' at the Knick is distinct for the songs represented, and the first disc is full of great ones that don't appear on other volumes. A later era Dupree's Diamond Blues, an explosive Bucket and a lyrical, meandering Row Jimmy all shine, but this set also includes the best versions of Just a Little Light and Blow Away. If you're not familiar with this particular Blow Away, become so. It is a required part of your Grateful Dead vocabulary. Dozin' at the Knick is highly recommended.

Ladies and Gentlemen…

Ladies and Gentlemen… is culled from the closing of the Fillmore East run in 1971. The full concerts of these famed shows circulate widely in a variety of qualities, but really benefit from this release. Essentially a highlights set, each of the four discs begins with a number of shorter, first set tunes, and finishes with a lengthy, open-ended segment. By way of stand alone tunes, Bertha, Bird Song, King Bee, Morning Dew and Me and Bobby McGee are all stand-out versions. For the jammed portions, consider the Alligator > GDTRFB > Cold Rain from 4-29 on disc four, with its absolutely sinister Hard to Handle-esque jam into Going Down the Road (in the liner notes, Blair Jackson truly waxes poetic on this one); for that matter consider the rockin' Hard to Handle on disc three; this is the music that made the band.

Disc three also features one of the most acclaimed suites in the history of the Grateful Dead. 4-28's second set closer boasts the return of Tom Constanten for a fantastic suite that achieves near perfection, despite the vocal stumbling at the end of St. Stephen. Disc two closes with a very hot Uncle John's Band > Lovelight, and don't forget the Midnight Hour > We Bid You Goodnight, the very last performance by the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore.

Nightfall of Diamonds

Nightfall is a complete recording of one the most important late era shows, 10-16-89. As it's Bobby's birthday (interesting that 2 of 3 later releases are birthday shows) the energy level is high straight through. On top of that, the boys had recently performed the Hampton stealth shows with bust outs of Dark Star, Attics of My Life and Help > Slip > Franklin's, and it seemed like anything was possible. In fact those stealth shows were also in the running for this installment of the Vault series.

The first set opens with a dense, fast paced suite of Picasso Moon > Half Step > Stranger, and ends with a nice Let It Grow > Deal. The sparks really fly, however, in Set II. There is a fantastic sense of cohesion to the whole set (which features no between song breaks) due in part to clouds of MIDI stardust that reappear in nearly every song. The Dark Star opener is epic, the first performance before an arena sized audience, and its energy and style ooze into the following Playing. To close the set, the second verse of Dark Star elegantly sweeps into Attics, with a Playing Reprise topper. Although it is has been very widely traded as a soundboard recording for many years, this two disc set still offers a real piece of history.

Go to Nassau

The Vault release from the fall of 2002 draws its title from the fact that it features early versions of much of the material released on Go to Heaven. The humor, however, is that Nassau is easily one of the most inhospitable venues on the East Coast. The double disc set features a number of suites from 2 nights in May of 1980, and is one of the best Vault releases to date. The music exudes enthusiasm; it's bright and energetic and fearless, without needing to push the boundaries too far. The first disc has an excellent Jack Straw > Franklin's Tower to open, and closes with China > Rider, a common first set closer at the time.

The second disc features the meatiest music from the second sets, including a fantastic string of Stranger > Althea > Sailor > Saint, each one sparkling with freshness. The disc is rounded out with strong performances of more familiar material in one long passage. The transitions all shine, especially the Playing > Uncle John's Band. Go to Nassau is simply one of the most fun recordings to escape from the Vault- highly recommended.

Steppin’ Out

The most recent Vault release is still another sampling from Europe 72. This four-disc set draws exclusively on the England shows, and is designed similarly to Ladies and Gentlemen… in that each CD has many first set songs capped off with a long suite or hefty piece of improvisation. Also like Ladies and Gentlemen… most of what is included already circulates widely as complete shows.

There are some interesting song choices included on this set, such as a young Black Throated Wind and very rare versions of Two Souls in Communion and Rockin' Pneumonia. Disc two includes Hey Bo Diddley sandwiched between NFA bookends, a rollicking jam. Also, discs three and four both close with monumental suites that are required listening for any GD fan. The second set opener from 4/7 is a wild, exploratory segue-fest that centers on an Other One > El Paso > Other One (the early seventies featured many wonderful juxtapositions of lysergic laced improvisation and tales of the old West- check out 12/5/71's Dark Star > Me and My Uncle > Dark Star). The second set closer from the following night is similarly spectacular, its weight resting squarely on the broad shoulders of a thirty plus minute Dark Star, and an overwhelming Caution.

This release has been widely praised by many for including the music we fell in love with, the Grateful Dead of legend, yet there is so much more worth releasing from the shows that make up this volume. Can a Steppin' Out Vol. II be far behind?

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