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Published: 2005/02/04
by Jesse Jarnow

Dick’s Picks, v. 33 – the Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead Records 275

There's something a little unsettling about listening to Grateful Dead music from 1976 — not because it's bad (it mostly kicks ass), but because it always seems like it should be way better than it is. The band was back after a year-and-a-half "break," during which they created and recorded the most technically ambitious music of their career with Blues For Allah, as well as played a handful of shows (including their most flawless gig, at the Great American Music Hall, in August 1975, subject of the band’s very first archival release, One From the Vault). I dunno how it actually went down, but in retrospect, the year 1975 holds a certain utopian cache in Deadland. Maybe it’s the scarcity of goods, coupled with the Dead making it count — like they’d finally figured out that less was more.

All of which is why I wish the music on the four discs of the 33rd installment of the venerable Dick’s Picks series, recorded in October 1976, was better. But you can’t have everything, and – anyway – oh, what it must’ve been like to be at the Oakland Coliseum on those two days. It must’ve been pretty, um, utopian, the weather warm, the Dead grateful. They’d been back since June, with one full Bay Area stand in mid-summer. The October shows – billed as Day on the Green – had the Dead co-headlining with The Who, hitting the stage at 11 in the morning (!?) on both days — which could, perhaps, account for the general sluggishness residing in the music.

Or it could be the two drummers.

Though Mickey Hart rejoined the band during 1975, and actively participated in the creation of the powerful new music the Dead made that year, they were no longer the same propulsive psychedelic monsters Hart had quit four years earlier. As such, he was all well and good on new tunes like "Help on the Way" and the other new material debuted at the few '75 gigs written with two drummers in mind, but – with the Dead's return to the road – he had to adapt to the entire repertoire of lean, even delicate, Americana the Dead had created in his absence.

I don't think there's any way that one could make a reasonable case for songs like "Ramble On Rose" or "Stella Blue" (both played at the October 10th show) or most other Garcia/Hunter tunes really needing two drummers the same way one could for ’60s era beasts like "The Eleven" and "The Other One." On the "Ramble On Rose," Hart and Bill Kreutzmann perform admirably, locking into a good-natured plod behind a song that – to paraphrase Garcia – might come on an imaginary jukebox in an imaginary bar, cut by an anonymous band on an anonymous label.

But there's no way to mistake who's playing "Ramble On Rose." It's the Grateful Dead through and through, and what it loses during the verse (thlump, thlump, thlump) it makes up for during the bridge, as Hart and Kreutzmann erupt into stadium thunder, freeing Bob Weir up for some gorgeous arpeggios while Garcia opens his delivery into a full-throated croon. It’s great, fersure, and one can easily see just what appealed to the Grateful Dead about that treatment. It’s a trade-off – subtlety for power – and the Dead made a bargain.

It was the sound they pursued for the next 20 years. It became the template for nearly everything in their vast songbook, the trick that just about every song was building to: that eruption of drums (even if it was just a fill or two) from Hart and Kreutzmann. In the end, it was songs like "Stella Blue" that got hurt the most, though. On versions performed in the years following the tune’s debut, one hardly ever notices Kreutzmann. He’s there, and perfect, as Garcia veritably cries. On Dick’s Picks v. 33… thlump, thlump, thlump, all building towards that same explosion of percussion at the bridge.

So maybe that's what's unsettling. But, like I said, it still kicks ass. It wasn't quite a formula yet, and the Dead make some great music with it. Each show has a centerpiece that is riveting and dramatic, especially the monster "Playing in the Band > drums > The Wheel > space > The Other One > Stella Blue > Playing in the Band" sequence from the second night (thlumping aside). The "space" sequence following "The Wheel" is fierce and wild (though probably didn’t need its own label), and Garcia’s lines on "The Other One" reinforce my belief that it might be the only song that remained consistently exploratory and magnificent in each year of the Dead’s existence.

But that's nit-picking, idn't it? There's so much Grateful Dead music available for consumption in nearly pristine form that listening to it has regained something of the quality of its initial creation — listen to it in the moment, dig it, put it away, forget about it, pull it out, listen again as if it were new, and dig all over.

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