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Music Review: Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks Number 34

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It seems like they were being called “The Good Old Grateful Dead” from day one. The moniker was perfect, because no matter what the conditions, the band always delivered. And seeing them play was only part of the reason one went to the concerts anyway. The cultural baggage that sometimes threatened to completely engulf them was always present. But with the passing of Jerry Garcia back in 1995, it all came to an end. We were left with the music, and what they left behind was an amazing body of work, especially live.

I am not a Deadhead by any stretch of the imagination, but I have certainly come to respect what they were all about. There have been a huge number of live recordings released over the past few years, and the Dick’s Picks collections are some of the best. Chosen by archivist Dick Latvala, the 36-volume Dick’s Picks present some of the Dead’s finest performances.

Dick’s Picks Number 34 concentrates on 1977. The three-CD set contains their full performance at the Community War Memorial in Rochester, NY on November 5, 1977, plus some tracks from Seneca College in Toronto on November 2, 1977.

By this time, the band had been touring for ten years, and even though there had been some changes in the lineup, they were a well-tuned machine. The replacement of original organist Pigpen with Keith Godchaux had come in 1972, and Keith’s wife Donna later joined in a backing vocal capacity. One of the knocks against the group was their lack of a strong singer. Well, that’s just the way it was, but Donna Godchaux’s backup vocals definitely helped.

The year 1977 also heralded one of the best albums the Grateful Dead had released in some time, Terrapin Station. Unfortunately they do not play the sidelong “Terrapin Station” suite, but they do pull out versions of the reggae-inflected “Estimated Prophet” and the traditional “Samson and Delilah” from the record.

Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing was always one of the highlights of a Grateful Dead show, and he did not disappoint the Rochester audience. Notable examples include the lengthy “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” “Eyes Of The World,” and “The Other One.” Phil Lesh gets a chance to step out with his “Phil Solo,” which leads into a marvelous version of “Eyes Of The World.” The most universal aspect of the Occupy movement has to be the ubiquitous drum circle, and we can credit or blame (depending on your point of view) Bill Kreutzmann and Micky Hart. Their relatively brief “Rhythm Devils” makes for a great introduction into the classic “The Other Ones.” The laconic “Good Old” Grateful Dead sound is also present, in crowd favorites such as “Candyman,” and “It Must Have Been The Roses.”

While the Rochester show provides the majority of the material on the set, there are also seven tracks from the Ontario concert they performed two days previously. The second version of “Estimated Prophet” is a powerhouse, and the crowd is obviously thrilled when the band pulls out “Truckin’.”

Jerry Garcia left us much too early, and his – and the entire band’s vibe is sorely missed. This 1977 concert is a prime example of what made them so special, quite apart from any of the “floating party” atmosphere that surrounded them. These guys could play, and when they were really inspired, were one of the best bands going anywhere. Dick’s Picks Number 34 captures one of those magic nights in 1977, and it is a welcome addition to their legacy.

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