Three From the Vault – Grateful Dead
Rhino Records 162812
Lets get the facts out of the way, shall we? 2/19/71. Capitol Theatre. Port Chester, New York. ESP Experimental Show (?!). An original Betty Board. Mixed by Grateful Dead soundman Dan Healy and ready for release back in 1993, Three from the Vault sat on the shelf for a decade and a half. Perhaps, most significantly, this was the first show of the turn-on-a-dime Dead-era without drummer Mickey Hart. This event was precipitated by some fairly shady financial shenanigans perpetuated by the elder Hart although Mickey himself was never connected with the business snafu.
After a sluggish trio of songs fails to ignite the San Francisco beast, the band kicks into gear appropriately enough with Pigpen on It Hurts Me Too. Bertha leaps forward with pleasant abandon but the real surprise is served as the band cracks open Playing in the Band for its second appearance after its debut the night before without the exploratory jam that would become commonplace. Heres its just a damn fine jam-uppercut one-two punch after the bouncy Bertha.
Smokestack Lightning featuring Pigpen on harp, squawk, venom and vocals lifts the set towards a peak with a heavy blues jam that circles the listener with modest restraint. Its warm delivery and group synergy tease rather than assault. An always-welcome kick-ass reading of China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider closes the set with perfunctory euphoria.
The band feel their way through their infant quintet factor without attempting anything too revolutionary. The next year would provide those epic voyages. However, truth be told, garment seams show all over the first set, but isnt that what many love about the patchwork quilt that made up the Dead, anyway? Maybe not.
This issue isn’t resolved in the second set, either. The band continues its exploratory hesitation while delving into a Greatest Story Ever Told > Johnny B. Goode combo that serves as a prelude to the debut performance of Bird Song. To be sure, the inaugural version is a beaut and Bill Kreutzmanns tasteful drumming plays a key role nestled next to Jerry Garcias vocals and sweet guitar tone. The entire band is spot-on. Pigpen, again, raises the bar with a fiery take on Easy Wind, which features Kreutzmann continuing his budding role as an expert timekeeper, gear shifter, and soloist. With "Deal," Garcia debuts another new number from his first solo album. The band appears quite tentative about its old-time rock theatrics but all hesitation is cast aside for Cryptical Development > Drums > The Other One which finally achieves true blue interstellar Dead space before dropping into the gorgeous sophomore reading of Wharf Rat.
Deadheads have come to expect more in their listening adventures. This early 1971 show is neither great nor rare for either the jaded or budding head. Heck, it is questionable whether or not the historical importance of Kreutzmann’s first gig as a solo drummer was really that critical. Despite the recent announcement of a live Dead radio station on the Sirius internet channel, perhaps Jerry Garcia was right after all: There never was a Grateful Dead viewpoint. Nobody has ever understood our trip at all, except us. We just keep on playing.