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Published: 2007/10/21
by Dan Alford

The Golden Road Revisited: Recent Vault Releases

In 1991 the Grateful Dead began the first ongoing archival release series in rock music, now a standard practice, known simply as The Vault Series. The premise was simple: periodically release the best shows in the Vault that exist in multi-track format. Five years ago featured a guide to the initial releases up through 2002’s Go To Nassau. The series continues to offer approximately one release per year, and it’s time to stop and take stock again. Remember, the key with the Vault series is sound quality; the multi-track tapes offer the very best sound, sound with the clarity and depth meant to thrill true audiophiles.

As a group, the five releases boast a wealth of history, including many debuts, final (or nearly final) versions, and moments of transition in the band’s career. The bulk of the music features Pigpen, and you can actually track his whole tenure in the group through the many versions of “Caution” that punctuate the soundscape- from a harmonica-laden 68 to an open-ended 72. The “Playing in the Band” collection tells its own tale, beginning with the confused second performance, dwelling on the final 74 style meltdown, and finally placing the song in its long-held, pre-drumz second set habitat. Like the other Vault releases, soundboard recordings of many of these shows have been staples in trading circles for years. Unlike the earlier releases, however, each one features only a complete show(s), including the first two mid-seventies editions from the Vault; the mixes were reserved for bonus discs that were offered with most pre-orders, and those discs can help put an actual album in perspective. The packaging often includes extensive liner notes, or multiple takes on the night(s) in question (although Rockin’ the Rhein has none at all); lots of photos and some nice original artwork. All in all, in every way, the series continues to be the standard for archival releases.

The Closing of Winterland (2003)

The Closing of Winterland is really the companion CD set for the DVD released at the same time in 2003. Capturing the well-known New Year’s Eve performance from 1978, widely circulated from FM sources, the multi-tracked source is dynamic and bright, a joyful and fun recording. The band is at a turning point, and it seems appropriate that Bill Graham says it’s “1978 going on 1981.” Dan Ackroyd, who had opened the show as part of the Blues Brothers, counts down into a full strutting “Sugar Magnolia,” which carries a kind of easy, nonchalant sparkle.

A long “Scarlet Begonias” stretches with relaxed drumming and tight passages from Garcia, all colored with lots of warbling and decorated by Bobby’s filling in the thoughts. The band then prowls through a low and spacious “Fire” before moving into a more traditional first set, featuring a number of minor highlights like the piano on “Big River,” the gunfire drumming on “All Over Now” and Jerry’s high-strung, whistling guitar at the end of “Stagger Lee”.

In set II an early “Miracle” sounds like some mutant version of “Cream Puff War” rather than the old rock and roll workhorse it would become. Matt Kelly’s harp and Bobby’s momentary rap emphasize the point, while Jerry’s guitar twang helps the band cut out a sizzling little shuffle-step jam-brilliant roots-blues rockin’. Somewhere in there the band crosses over, and by the beginning of “Terrapin Station” the music seems golden. The following “Playing” steps right to the boundaries with racing leads, Weir’s deranged curlicues and deep thumping bass that seems constantly to be doing its best to dislodge any sense of “song.” At 13 minutes, it holds up to most 1972 versions before giving way to the Devils, Jerry and Phil holding on till the very last second.

On the third disc Lee Oskar sits in on harp for a blissfully world-beat segment of a 20-minute “Drumz” that is nothing but ahead of its time; this would have been progressive 20 years in the future- stunning. What is essentially “Drumz, Part II” starts with and Egyptian “Ollin Arageed” groove and a shot of the Thunder Machine from Ken Kesey, deep bass ensuing right after. It was a family affair, and John Cipollina also sits in for a long, nasty “Not Fade Away”, and on into a barn burning “Around and Around.” The balance in times is kind of amazing here- “Drumz” and “Not Fade Away” are almost exactly 19 and a half minutes long, while the “Miracle”, “Terrapin” and “Playing” are all between 11 and 13 minutes, and it all helps create a very balanced, masterful vibe.

And then, of course, there is the third set, famously breaking 1535-day drought since the last San Francisco “Dark Star”- although it does, admittedly, wind a pretty straightforward path to the first verse. Thereafter it shines bright with nice Bob and Jerry interplay and oddly lurching drums. “Other One” lurks none too far in the background, calling out in Phil’s bass, but it’s just a resting stop as the band floats back into “Dark Star” and on into “Wharf Rat.” There is definitely a late night feel here, but the set closes with a smoking “St. Stephen” > “Good Lovin’” marred only by an ugly false end from Phil.

This set did not include a bonus disc, although the DVD, did include an audio disc with a few tracks from the show, including a sample of the Blues Brothers’ set.

Rockin’ the Rhein (2004)

2004’s Rockin’ the Rhein is most noteworthy because it is the first full concert Vault release from the Europe 72 tour (4/24/72). It’s an odd choice simply because the performance is variable, if not inconsistent. The first disc is very strong, just what you would expect from a 72, with tight glowing versions of staples like “Truckin’”, “China” > “Rider”, “Mr. Charlie”, along with a rare “Chinatown Shuffle” and a fair amount of stupid banter. The second disc starts with a big ol’ muscley swagger of a “Good Lovin’”- Pigpen at his very finest as blues man and band leader. Phil is racing along at one point while the rest of the group pounds on the one; everything works here. It’s also a bit haunting as the last rap before returning to the song has McKernan pleading, “Remember me when I’m gone.”

The disc also features a second dose of prime Pig, filler from 5/24/72 in London: “Lovelight” > “Two Souls In Communion”. Some of the other material from this date appears on Europe 72 and Stepping Out with the Grateful Dead, but this pairing, which closed the second set, is actually the last Pigpen “Lovelight.” That fact that this signature tune uniquely winds into a gut wrenching “Two Souls” (which in tone alone is an odd way to end a show in 72) seems to have preternatural significance. Give you chills? It should.

The bulk of the third disc is a huge, hazy “Dark Star,” very quiet and spacious, dark. It’s like a trip through a fogged in swamp, with murky clearings, shadowy inlets and a general directionlessness. The song never takes flight, though; there are no bouts of brilliant sparkle. After 25 minutes, the band lunges into “Me and My Uncle”- 71 and 72 psychedelic cowboys are usually some of my favorite segments. This one dives right back into morass for another 15 minutes. In direct opposition to the first 50 minutes, the disc ends with manic, post-break versions of “NFA” > “GDTRFB” > “NFA” and “Saturday Night”- makes me wonder about the consumption of substances that night.

The bonus disc, Academy of Music, features pre-Europe tracks from that venue in March of 72- everything coming from the 22nd except the final cut, which is from the 23rd. The jam in the opening “Playing” has a great warp and weal. At the beginning Garcia is caught up in a tight growl while the rest of the band spreads out together, like complementary colors. Eventually Jerry starts loosening his step, easing the stride, and just when he begins to settle, the rest of the ensemble rises up to meet the lead and carry the whole movement home- a worthy 13 minutes of music.

The middle of the disc is comprised of a nice suite with a raging “Sugar Magnolia” that crashes hard to jump start a long, low “Caution,” certainly the most original and interesting of the many released in these past few Vault issues. Whereas the bulk of the improv and jamming comes in the segue of earlier versions, this one opens up repeatedly in the song itself. Its 24 minutes are filled with a slew of distinct rants from Pigpen that interlace a whole range of colors and tones to make for one long, swaggering prowl. The band eventually swells into a gorgeous, lazy variation of a “GDTRFB” jam- a moment that hints at the gold that would come in Europe- and finally lands in a weaker “Uncle John’s Band.”

The disc closes with a very rare stand-alone “Dark Star” from the second set that follows a similar track as the “Caution” in that it is full of varied textures and a quickly shifting group mind.

Fillmore West 1969, The Complete Recordings (2005)

A box set like Fillmore West 1969, 10 cds that capture every note of four nights in a row during a seminal period in the Grateful Dead’s career, may initially seem like something for only the hardcore, mainly because of the similarity in setlists. The easy comparison is Miles Davis’s The Complete Plugged Nickel with has seven straight sets from the second great Quintet in 1965. But actually, this collection is eminently listenable with a wide variety of sounds and performances, and as these are the source tapes for Live Dead, the set is filled with the music with which so many Deadheads first fell in love.

All that being said, you can’t get Fillmore West because it was a limited release and sold out in the preorder stage. Industrious heads will obviously get their hands on a copy, but the easiest access to the music is the three disc compilation version which is overflowing with grand, meaty samples from the collection- definitely worth the purchase. The details of what is included there are covered below.

The first disc features a “Cryptical” > “Other One” that is also part of the So Many Roads box set. It has a tidal sense of ebbs and rises fueled by Garcia’s racing leads, along with a prominence of drums in the mix, whether driving a triple time march into the verses or lightly tapping the cymbals to edge out the quieter passages. The Rhythm Devils were crucially important to the beast that was The Grateful Dead in 1969, even though Phil and Jerry shine on the jam out of the second “Cryp,” running complEmentary paths like a high mountain gale and the cliff of the horizon itself.

The second disc is one heady, tea steeped psychedelic set from “Dupree’s” all the way through “Lovelight”- this box set is all about grandeur, heroes on the rise. The acoustic guitar work is warm, but the mix is weird on “Mountains” and it’s obvious why it wasn’t used on the original release, but then there comes that great, glorious “Dark Star” that we all know so well. There is something truly amazing in these early “Dark Stars,” an explosive vitality that seems to follow its own internal logic- the music could go anywhere but it tends to follow a direct course, always furthur. The songs rocket like dense lysergic fountains, none more greatly than this one.

“The Eleven” is unsettled on all fronts, although there is some nice organ chasing Jerry- but Phil just isn’t having the rest of the band. The “Lovelight” is long and low with an extended passage where the band punctuates Pig’s rap with nothing but the one, and a quick reference to “Going to the Country,” not to mention the uproarious conclusion.

Disc 3, the first set from 2/28/69, opens with an oddly rhythmic and dynamic “Dew” that feels like a true creation of group mind- everything is balanced and it’s a level playing field, although the organ stands out at the start, as do the military traps at the end. There’s a fantastic 11 minute “Schoolgirl” with Pigpen killin’ on the harp, Garcia trying to match the extended solo in its slink and pulse. McKernan dominates this set, also contributing a nice “King Bee” with a slow-funk bass line from Phil, and a “Lovelight” closer where he and Garcia go at it again. That tune also has an interesting ride from Phil that drives the song down to the rap. This may be the most interesting disc in the whole box set, and luckily every tune appears on the first disc of the Fillmore West 1969 compilation set.

Disc 4 is an epic undertaking and could have easily been released as Live Dead all on its own. While the first set from this night is the most interesting, this is probably the best single set. The “Dark Star” is especially well gilded, as it takes flight, glides, rises again and soars, and then repeats the whole angelic movement- it really is pretty stunning. There is also a great, short jam out of “The Eleven” into a long, blistering “Death Don’t.” Jerry’s vocals on the latter are superb, emotive and playful at turns. The set is completed on Disc 5, a classic “Alligator” through “We Bid You Goodnight.”

Disc 6 provides a heavy dose of prankster-style psychedelics- The “Other One” is a bit agitated and aggressive, energetic, and the “Cryptical” hits a wonderfully groovin’ stride. “New Potato Caboose” is a circus of structure, obtuse and playful with a cool, throaty mid-section.

The “Dark Star” on Disc 7 is a stellar, probably my favorite of the bunch, as the forces tear from the axis early on and the frayed edges add some interesting texture. An organ-driven supernova late almost draws the song to a close, but an antagonistic noodle from Garcia draws the band back into a truly muscular climax. The version Disc 8 is low, prowling, with fine interplay all around: Jerry and Pigpen; Jerry and Phil; Bob, Jerry and Pigpen. The bass work is especially good, whether as solos or fills. In fact the whole box set is loaded with little 1-3 minute bass gems, sometimes piled high on top of each other, that just glisten and sparkle. There are also some minor vocal flubs, just to balance it out, almost all of which, as in “The Eleven” on this disc, are on Jerry’s lines.

On Disc 9 the “Other One” is furious and harried with a prolonged high-end dance from Jerry and Pigpen- the organ drops for a second and slides back up, effervescent. The “Cryptical” end is almost as long as everything that’s preceded it, all snaky and dazzling in its inception. But the song catches fire and blazes bright and long- a chunk of music worth hearing over and over again. This is also on the compilation set.

The final disc is one colossal suite: “Alligator” > “Drumz” > “Jam” > “Caution” > “Feedback” > “Goodnight”. That jam is an expansive, potent piece of music almost 25 minutes long. It glimpses ahead to some of the spine tingling jams in late 71 and 72- as great as 69 is, this is music ahead of its time. A long passage hints and toys with the “Goodnight” jam from “GDTRFB”, but it’s so fresh and spontaneous. Amazing. Listen to the whole 10 disc set straight through, from beginning to end (take a couple of days), and when this pops up, it is the perfect culmination. A sick Garcia/Devils groove trails and whines and races and dips and cuts; unique playing pleads through the center of the jam. It’s no wonder this makes up the third disc on the compilation. This is real “steal your face right of your head” Grateful Dead.

The Fillmore West 1969 Bonus Disc actually contains material spanning 68-70 from Fillmores East and West along with the Carousel Ballroom. The early “Caution” from 6/8/68 follows the unlikely, and absent, pairing of “Alligator” > “Lovelight.” The track fades in at the very end of “Lovelight,” Bobby howling backup, and thunders into locomotion. The tune is rowdy and raw with a harp segment midway and an even more rhythmic sensibility than usual. The end careens into a particularly tweaky and violent feedback moment that melts into a soupy, spacey fadeout, almost hinting at a glacially paced “Third Stone from the Sun.”

The rest of the disc is rounded out with two very weird suites: “He Was a Friend of Mine” > “China Cat” > “New Potato Caboose” from 6/8/69, and “China Cat” > “Rider” > “High Time” from 2/7/70. The first tune, achingly plaintive, stretches for 12 minutes, hops up into a lively “China Cat”, and tumbles right into “New Potato,” which trails off in a long, beautifully warm jam that flares up around 10 minutes in and scorches a path to the finale- great stuff. This bonus disc was available with both the box set and the compilation.

Cow Palace (2006)

Despite the longstanding availability of high quality recordings of 12/31/76, Cow Palace is a great addition to the Vault catalog. The sound is amazingly rich and full- an occasion when “you’ve-never-heard-like-this” is actually true- and the performance is amazing. The first set is loaded with strong material, although a slick “They Love Each Other” and a delicate, warm “Looks Like Rain” stand out. The set closes with a monster “Playing in the Band.” By this time the jam vehicle’s first set closer spot had begun to focus on mini-suites like “Playing” > “The Wheel” > “Playing” or “Playing” > “Supplication” > “Playing”, and it was just steps away from acquiring its second set staple status. In fact there are only three more “Playing” closers and only 4/22/77 is a stand-alone version. Nevertheless, this one hearkens back to 74. The jam immediately dives into a tangled jungle of sound, with vines snaking in all directions, or pointing to quieter, mossy patches. About eight minutes in, a new movement starts to take shape, Bob and Phil teasing back and forth alongside Jerry’s wandering guitar. The music turns heavy again, although Keith’s rhythmic noodling lends some buoyancy as the drama increases. At 15 minutes the heft is suddenly gone and the band takes off on a lively new path, spinning and rolling and not really going anywhere- but that’s just fine.

This show is a time marker in a way most New Year’s Eve shows aren’t; it really is a boundary of eras, as the band was leaving the vestiges of the early seventies patterns and sound, and was just two months from debuting what would become important examples of the Grateful Dead’s whole sound and aesthetic, songs like “Terrapin Station,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Estimated Prophet.” Early in the second set of Cow Palace is a nice “Eyes of the World” > “Wharf Rat,” and like the “Playing”, there are only four more versions before the former song falls into one of the most recognizable GD pairings, “Eyes” > “Estimated”. It’s the jam out of “Wharf Rat” that shines here, though, starting with a “Here Comes Sunshine” tease. The band then slips into a funky little strut and finally rolls around to 1976’s workhorse, “Samson and Delilah”- it’s one of those gorgeous, unique moments.

The third disc opens with a long “Around and Around” into a very spacey “Help” > “Slip” that runs far away from the usual territory, fading into the expanse and reemerging in a brief “Drumz.” The set closes with a stunning “NFA” > “Dew.” The former stretches out and works into a nice groove at the very end, and the latter just gallops- it’s one of the hoppingest versions out there. Bob and Jerry are so densely, explosively intertwined they can’t be pulled apart- a stellar close to a great show. But the final treat is a gorgeous second encore of “Uncle John’s Band” > “We Bid You Good Night”. Perfect.

The bonus disc for this set, called The Spirit of 76, has earned the heaviest rotation of any single disc in the last five Vault releases- this is music you want to show off to your friends. Make the effort to find it in a used record store or somewhere on the web. It opens with a tight, hot “Music”, nothing too adventurous but spot on. An amazing “Crazy Fingers” follows (both are from the middle of set I, 6/9/76), blossoming into a gorgeously heady jam great lines from Phil. It could go in any direction, and you’d be sure it was going to transition, but it simply winds down to a stop instead- very, very sweet. The disc features another of the late “Playing” first set closers, 9/24/76’s “Playing” > “Supplication” > “Playing”. The framing cut is bright and airy, picking up on the “Sup” groove early, especially if you’re listening for it. But the band doesn’t stay for long, dispersing into a spacier moment as soon as the final lightning strikes, taking it on home. The disc closes with a thick “Scarlet Begonias” that opens right up, a vision of the midland territory that would lead to “Fire” in a matter of months. Great stuff; required listening.

Three From the Vault (2007)

The most recent release from the Vault is oddly enough this summer’s Three from the Vault, February 19, 1971 at the Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY. The liner notes for the two-disc set detail roughly how GD releases work and how this one was forgotten for 15 years. Like many other Values issues, this show circulated widely as a soundboard recording, but while it is certainly a source full of warmth, it doesn’t have the sparkle and glow richness of Cow Palace, for instance- it’s just not that much of an upgrade.

The show itself is most noteworthy for the very young (second time) performances of “Playing”, “Loser”, “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Wharf Rat,” and the debuts of “Bird Song” and “Deal.” There is a folky, song-oriented tone to the whole performance- “purity” can’t be the right word for a show bookended with songs about cocaine, and a center filled with drinking and gambling, not to mention bus stops born of explosions, but there is a good dose of the band’s Americana essence on display here. Undoubtedly much of the stripped down feel comes from Mickey’s newly born hiatus and the void that Billy is only just beginning to learn to fill. That absence is everywhere, palpable but not a drag, and especially clear in the interesting, quietish “That’s It For the Other One” in the second set. Phil and Jerry goad each other through short surges, but the song doesn’t mushroom and rage as it had. It’s an early foray into the broad and varied terrain that would soon open before the expansive versions that characterize much of 1972.

The best material on Three from the Vault definitely belongs to Pigpen. The “Good Lovin’” that closes the second set has great, atypical rapping and a fantastic climax; set I has a nice “Easy Wind” and a smoldering 14-minute “Smokestack Lightning” filled with Garcia’s incredibly slick leads and fills. Unfortunately, unlike most of the recent Vault releases, Three From the Vault did not come with a bonus disc, even though there were five other nights in this run.

Special thanks to for help with dates on the bonus discs.

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