Dick’s Picks, v. 35 – Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead Records 289
It's hard to believe that we have arrived at Dick’s Picks 35. The brainchild of the late archivist Dick Latvala, the series of archival Grateful Dead releases has survived the online music revolution and the sag in CD sales the downloading phenomenon created. Oh, and let’s not forget that the band of record hasn’t played a single note in over ten years. While there are a couple thousand concerts in the Dead’s vault, after 35 releases, one might think that the well would eventually run dry. After all, how many of these albums does a Deadhead really need? How many will be frequently revisited and how many will wind up collecting dust on the shelf of forgotten Dead shows? These are all pertinent questions to be asked, and Dick’s Picks 35 does provide a few answers.
By the late summer of 1971, the Grateful Dead were in need of a B-12 shot. Well into their sixth year, the band had been through Hell (in the form of a disastrous performance at Woodstock and an even more disastrous non-performance at Altamont) and back. Critical success had arrived the year before with the release of both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and the band’s sound had abandoned much of their swirling psychedelic past in favor of a more rootsy, somewhat countrified feel. Longtime fans were not especially thrilled about this change, and many voiced their displeasure at concerts, including those featured on Dick’s Picks 35. In February, Mickey Hart suddenly departed the band in disgrace after learning that his father had swindled the group out of thousands of dollars. Scaling back to a five-piece took some adjusting, but by April, they were in excellent form. However, the Grateful Dead in its formative years thrived upon change, and by late summer, the music had begun to stagnate.
A solution arrived in the form of pianist Keith Godchaux, and Jerry Garcia gave him a stack of 71 tapes to familiarize himself with the Dead's current sound. It's Donna Jean Godchaux's assertion that husband Keith never really listened to the tapes, but no matter what happened, he left those tapes on his parents' houseboat, where they sat for nearly 34 years until Keith's family discovered the treasure trove of Grateful Dead lore while cleaning the boat. The tapes were returned to the vault, filling in a gaping hole in the summer of '71 collection. Since nary an August '71 soundboard tape has been in circulation, the Dead rushed to release Dick’s Picks 35, a four-disc set that includes the entire August 7th San Diego Convention Hall show, all that was salvageable from the August 24th Chicago Auditorium Theater concert, and over an hour from the August 6th Hollywood Palladium gig.
This writer often has the same problem with these four-disc releases. One disc always winds up as the redheaded stepchild, receiving an introductory listen and then never being heard from again. Disc one will likely suffer this cruel fate. Honestly, the music it documents is just not that interesting. Each song is shortened and most suffer from lagging tempos. The playing seems to lack inspiration, and even a typical first set showstopper like "Sugaree" is of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. "Bertha" is boring and "Truckin'" does crack the ten minute mark but manages to go nowhere in that span of time. The one exception is the fourth ever version of "Mr. Charlie," a very raw and dirty rendition that ends all too soon. Regardless, something is clearly lacking here, and after a few listens to the first disc, it's clear the band is in a bit of a rut.
Disc two offers some hope in the form of a more attractive setlist. "Sugar Magnolia" bristles with much-needed energy, and a "Not Fade Away > Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad > Jam > Johnny B. Goode" sandwich is always sure to please. However, this band was propelled by the brilliantly luminescent lines of Garcia, and those glistening leads seem to be AWOL. Garcia has his moments, but he never seems to connect the dots, telling a disappointingly fragmented story with his guitar. Even a typical heart-wrencher like "Sing Me Back Home" seems to be missing its mojo. August 7th certainly wasn't a high-water mark for the Grateful Dead, and you can practically hear the band reaching for a lifeline to pull them to another plane.
Thankfully, there are two other concerts and two more discs in this release. The August 24th show has some great moments, whether it's a funky Bill Kreutzman beat in the middle of "Good Lovin'" or one of the best stabs Bob Weir ever made at a passionate "Me and Bobby McGee." An incredibly squared-off take on "Brown-Eyed Women is noteworthy for novelty's sake, and the Pigpen original "Empty Pages" is a haunting blues number that should have been played more than just three times. Speaking of Pigpen, he's the star of this show, coaxing wailing leads out of Garcia's slide guitar on "It Hurts Me Too" and displaying ten tons of bravado on "Big Boss Man." Garcia is much more his normal self, as well, ramping up his blues licks and finally providing those melodic leads throughout an energetic "St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad > Not Fade Away" moneyshot. Phil Lesh is also in fine form here, gelling perfectly with Kreutzman and providing his own leads when Garcia becomes passive. With a true give-and-take feel, this variation on a common "Not Fade Away" theme is light-years better than the August 7th attempt, and one can finally catch a glimpse of the Dead building off one another to dazzle an audibly excited crowd.
The album-closing sixty-plus minutes of August 6th almost sounds as if it comes from a different band. Suddenly, the group is loose and prone to jamming, making a smooth-as-butter transition from "The Other One" into "Me & My Uncle." The loose nature doesn't quite lend itself to "Deal" or "Sugar Magnolia," songs that should soar and not sag. (In fact, the latter is probably the only repeated song that is much more engrossing on August 7th.) On the other hand, "Morning Dew" gets its necessary quiet but focused exploration, and a twenty-five minute "Turn On Your Lovelight" features Pigpen playing his favorite role of audience matchmaker.
While there are some notable peaks on Dick’s Picks 35, there are plenty of mediocre moments. Of course, even mediocre moments from the Grateful Dead can be more interesting than 95% of what’s out there, but when a band has released so many live albums, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons. Unfortunately, there might only be one or two tunes on this record that stack up to previously released versions. The bottom line is that Dick’s Picks 35 is more noteworthy for the story surrounding the discovery of its source tapes than the music contained on those tapes. It will likely only interest completists and ’71 aficionados, and the rest of us should either search through the Dead’s back catalog or sit tight until the inevitable Dick’s Picks 36 is released within a couple months.