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Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings – The Grateful Dead

What has always made the Grateful Dead perpetually timeless and vastly important in a Head’s musical diet is the music’s ability to reveal new details with each passing listen. A greater knowledge of the lore and history illuminate as well, but the mix of lyrics, melodies and improvisation are the core from which everything blossoms. I recall living briefly in Boulder as I took classes at Naropa Institute and, on a whim, decided that I must go to the Rocky Mountains. With a Dead show playing on the car stereo, Robert Hunter and John Barlow’s lyrics magically gained an added resonance to what was going on in my life, and became pleasantly haunting when my soundtrack mirrored my surroundings. (And for those snickering, at that moment I was clean and sober enough to pass even the strictest DWI checkpoint.)

As time passes, new discoveries arrive in regards to fertile periods of the band’s existence besides the usual benchmarks (i.e. 1969, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1990). Which brings us to the ongoing reassessment of 1973, when Keith and Donna Godchaux were firmly entrenched within the waves of sound and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan made his journey to rock n’ roll heaven to play alongside some of his favorite blues musicians.

The latest Vault release highlights the musical personality of 1973 — a three-night stand at Winterland, November 9th to 11th. The nine-disc set is impressive in a number of ways. First, the packaging. The CDs, full-color booklet featuring a Dennis McNally essay, band photos and a running comic artwork of those in the scene. Think of it as a combo of the Sgt. Pepper cover and R. Crumb. Those items and other goodies are housed in a psychedelic-painted cigar box. Storage might be an issue for some, but get over it.

The music comes from a wonderfully recorded two-track tape that, of course, was digitized, cleaned up of any imperfections and brought to listeners via HDCD format. The mix is set so right that you can hear what each musician is doing during the song. Often, it’s enlightening as the members work together like a Swiss watch and only occasionally keep it together despite any dysfunctional ways.

If Winterland 1973 featured only November 9th, one might be more than satisfied. It’s a jaw-dropping full-steam ahead night from beginning to end that starts with a “Promised Land,” receives the occasional energy boost when the material turns cowboy (“Mexicali Blues,” “Me and My Uncle”), lays down the jam moments (a 20 minute “Playing in the Band,” “Eyes of the World”) and ends with cherry on top in the form of “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s as if the band members wanted to make a statement and backed that up immeasurably. The playing doesn’t let a stray note be heard, the harmonies work on a consistent basis, the explorations charter territories as if an interstellar map has been imprinted in their minds.

But, being the glutton for pleasure when it comes to the Dead, one can’t help but want more. As for day two, the energy remains high with a set opener of “Bertha” and a second disc that begins with “Weather Report Suite” that is followed by a nonstop “Playing > Uncle John’s Band > Morning Dew > Uncle John’s > Playing.” Whew!

By day three, there are a couple of small rough spots — a vocal here, slight hesitation here — that pop up from the near perfection heard the previous two nights, but they’re infinitely insignificant to the overall output. Included is a 35-minute “Dark Star” that does just as it’s meant to do: head to the cosmos. Except in this configuration, there’s more of a purpose to the proceedings. Some may view that as negative, but I won’t. Others might grieve over the set lists having a lot of the same material but that’s where the fun is to really listen and really hear and find the changes, reconfigurations that came about from one performance to another.

It’s the reason the Dead remain the musical equivalent of a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. There’s the joy of discovery in every listen.

A bonus disc for initial orders offers a good portion of the December 4th, 1973 Cincinnati Gardens show. Just as the third show in the Winterland run there can be heard an occasional rough spot as the members run through "China Cat Sunflower >I Know You Rider," "Truckin’," "Stella Blue,” “Eyes of the World” and “Casey Jones” among others. What’s especially interesting here is the inclusion of an early version of “Space” (not listed on my Deadbase X) that incorporates some of the Garcia guitar explorations along with a taste of Lesh’s “Seastones.”

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