Dick’s Picks, v. 36: September 21st, 1972 – The Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead Records 2595
1972 was the year that it all came together for the Grateful Dead. After seven years of transformation from a heavy blues band with jugband undertones into acid rock that morphed into post-Altamont acoustic songcraft, the band found a way to synthesize the whole trip. Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir released solo albums that essentially included members of the Dead but served as documents that contained songs that would feed the GD live beast for the next 23 years. Although credited as a Weir solo slab, Ace, for all intents and purposes, was the Dead as they played on every track and ranks near the top of their studio releases. Garcia’s self-titled ’72 companion piece offered “Bird Song,” “Loser,” “Deal,” and “The Wheel” — all tunes that became live staples.
In ’72, Bob Weir found his voice after years of struggling for an identity. His onstage showman predecessor, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, had left the band just three months prior to their September performance in Philadelphia after a long battle with the bottle had forced his mortal frame into a slow, tragic decline. Weir took the reins from McKernan and developed a unique songwriting partnership with lyricists Robert Hunter and, most importantly, John Perry Barlow. There is no better example of Weir’s odd but beautiful time signature riffs on display than the aforementioned Ace.
However, it would be onstage where the Dead would undergo its true metempsychosis. Mickey Hart had taken a personal hiatus from the band and Keith Godchaux along with his wife, Donna Jean, had been added to keyboards and backing vocals, respectively. Keith Godchaux was the first Dead keyboard player to easily slide between the band’s multiple genres and jam adventures with ease and grace. To many Deadheads, the true sound of the band can be found during the Mighty Era of the Sextet: 1972-1974. As legend goes, the band was able to turn on a dime more efficiently during the Hart-less years and, in bassist Phil Lesh's words, “Kreutzmann played like a young god” — especially the transcendent passage of vintage 1972.
This strange year saw Nixon re-elected, Vietnam continuing its extensive quagmire, the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and landmark albums either researched, recorded or released by the Stones (Exile on Main Street), The Who Quadrophenia), Led Zeppelin (Houses of the Holy), and the twin towers of progressive rock, Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon) and Yes (Close to the Edge). The Dead would drink from the same deep well in ’72 with their legendary trip to Europe and multiple classic shows ranging from an incendiary “Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia > Caution” on April 8 in London to the prototype for all hallucinatory festies to follow, a three set mindbender at writer Ken Kesey’s farm in Veneta, Oregon on August 27th, where the phrase "shake and bake" was redefined in LSD’s multi-dimensional glory.
Shall we go, you and I, while we can
Recorded nearly a month later, Dick’s Picks, v. 36, continues the ’72 precedent of hot and rockin’ first set songs with a second set that included extremely long jams that defy comprehension and easy literary definition. The sound on this four-CD set is crisp, clear and loaded with HDCD magic that just hums from the headphones. Originally produced by Owsley “Bear” Stanley, he states in the liner notes that “the fewer mics used, the cleaner and more transparent the soundthis show used only 12 mics onstage and there were 22 added into the tape machine (bass and lead guitar) for presence.” Lesh really comes off very well in the superb mix on these recordingshis bass is full, warm, well-rounded and a huge foundation for the twin guitar attacks of Garcia’s carpet-bombing meltdowns and Weir’s inspired rhythm work. Godchaux is also a catalyst as he accentuates the jamssomething he would either be unable or incapable of later in the decade once the cocaine had hit the sound and moved the band into a percussive tone. This massive monolithic wall of concentrated heaviness produced the extraordinary hard rock shows of 1977 but, inevitably, rendered the keyboards null and void until Brent Mydland’s introduction in 1979 would re-ignite ivory improvisation.
The first set includes several songs played at a definitive peak level at Kesey’s farm, but what is most remarkable is that even late in the year, the band would find fresh ways to interpret material. “Bird Song” was an acid trip in Oregon. Here, the band loosens the groove to expose a little bit of the melodic subtext. “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” is intense and euphoric and doesn’t stray too far from the norm but it also sounds fantastic due to its 1972 dynamics — fast, tight, energetic and better than anything else happening within a thousand mile radius. The rest of the set contains readings of “Black-Throated Wind,” “Loser, ” and “Ramble On Rose” that, in their infancy, still sound like numbers from some long gone era. “Playing in the Band" — also a wee bit of a baby in ’72 — certainly doesn’t sound that way here as it closes the rousing 13 song first set. The Dead roar through the song's psychedelic and hard-edged space for 15 extraordinary minutes before the song’s reprise rips everyone right back to earth and a goosebump slice of rock nirvana hits you from every direction.
Weir: “We’re gonna take a short break.”
Garcia: “Short break!”
Weir: “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Garcia: “Back in a few minutes! A few minutes!”
The twin pairing of “He’s Gone >Truckin’” opens the second set and the former serves as a subtle and poignant passage which segues into the crowd-pleasing theatrics of the latter’s always welcome jugband-on-speed trajectory. “Black Peter” contains Garcia’s requisite moment of Zen silence and was a wonderful addition to the Trips/Hunter canon during the early 70s that served as a bridge to Garcia’s later transformation into wise and ancient gypsy miner. “Mexicali Blues” like “El Paso,” was the country honk that Weir seemed to require in between the best bar band on the planet’ rawk, jam bliss and the psycho freakoutsnothing ventured, nothing gained, just plain old hip shakin’.
Ahhhthe true dish has arrived. “Dark Star > Morning Dew.” This is where the fingers hide, the mind ceases all thought pattern activity and the keyboard awaits inspiration. Let’s do the math: 37-minute “Dark Star.” 12-minute “Morning Dew.” Does that tell the story? No. The band floats along until it mind-melds with a driving rain of interstellar constellations formed in galaxies a billion-odd light years awaydripping wailing guitars and scattershot rhythms and light heartbeat cymbals and cautionary tom toms and hemp-plucked bass notes, investigatory keys that play with the space between, legions of Heads and Wookies and Tapers and Scribes and Twirlers were born during these exquisite out-of-body superhuman moments of translucent diamond-edged exotica that can only be described as GRATEFUL DEAD MUSIC. (Yes, I had to take a sip of moonshine to write that sentence.)
This is easily one of the longest versions of “Dark Star” and, like much of the Allman Brothers’s Live at the Fillmore East, there is not one note of unnecessary substanceevery sound seems deliberate and strangely accurate. “Morning Dew” continues the magic until Garcia reins in the utopia bliss with his mantra at its coda: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.”
“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” is pure joy and races around the block and up the street and downtown on its way uptown for ten minutes of good ole Dead before two more relative newbies race out of the gates in the form of a sharp “Sugar Magnolia” and a brief reading of a rather sedate “Friend of the Devil.” The pace immediately escalates as the band moves into the ’72 closing centerpiece juggernaut that was “Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad >Not Fade Away” that seers the eyebrows and induces whiplash. “One More Saturday Night” on a Thursday, no less, closes the massive gem of a show with the usual dose of shredded licks and vocal cords from Weir & Co. as the band wrings every drop of Chuck Berry sweat from this upbeat rocker.
As if all of this Dead at their peak wasn’t enough, we also get a three song segue pearl from the first show after the August 27th touchstone — “He’s Gone >The Other One > Wharf Rat” from September 3rd at Folsom Field, Boulder, Colorado. Like the recent Live Phish goodies, this filler ain’t filler by any known definition. “He’s Gone” is wonderfully slow, patient and well-played. “The Other One” clocks in at 28 minutes and doesn’t even get to the “Spanish Lady” lyrical passage until the fourteen-minute mark. The band explores every nuance of its seasoned rhythm, as the space is disturbing, opaque and wonderfully hypnotic. “Wharf Rat” is still a newborn infant at this point but indicates quite precisely how much of a prophetic seer that Robert Hunter would become as his timeless tale of the down-and-out-everybum would become even more profound as the decades past.
So many Dick’s Picks just appear like obligatory purchases because they are, after all, pristine Grateful Dead recordings. However, this time, we truly received a gem from the boys as this show carefully defines the Dick Latvala blueprint for a classic release: primal, transcendent, exploratory, scorching hot, WEIRD, bizarre, eccentric and worthy of submission to the Heady Masses 32 years after the fact. Indulge. Listen. Enjoy.