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Music Review: Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks 36: 9/21/72

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It has been quite a while since I immersed myself in the music of the Grateful Dead, but that ended when I acquired the Real Gone Music reissue of Dick’s Picks 36.

The Dick’s Picks Series, 1993-2005, named after Grateful Dead archivist Dick Latvala, resurrected hundreds of hours of live concert material from the legendary band. The series concluded with the four-CD release of their September 21, 1972 concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Three songs from their September 3, 1972 show at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado, were an added bonus, combining for nearly four-and-a-half hours of music.

The recordings for the series survived because Owsley Stanley, better known as Bear, the Dead’s early road manager, sound engineer, and chemist deluxe, plugged in his two-track tape machine into the front-of-house mixing desk. The band and crew would listen to the tapes following the concerts to learn and improve where necessary.

The sound is surprisingly clean considering the two-track origins. The clarity of Jerry Garcia’s and Bob Weir’s guitar sound is outstanding and enables the listener to not only appreciate their style but also the sophistication of their interplay. It is a guitar lover’s delight and some of the best playing I have heard from the Grateful Dead duo. On the down side, many times the loudness or up-front nature of the guitars drown out the other instruments. The bass and keyboards tend to come and go with the drums being the overall weakest presence and sometimes falling off the listening grid. The final result is excellent music with an acceptable overall sound.

The Grateful Dead of late 1972 consisted of lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir, bassist/vocalist Phil Lesh, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, keyboardist Keith Godchaux, and backing vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux.

The first three tracks present the basic elements of a Grateful Dead concert. “Promised Land” is a tightly structured song that serves as a warm-up. “Bird Song,” which clocks in at over 13 minutes, marks the first long improvisational piece where Garcia traveled his own journey a number of times before returning to the melody. They then move out of their element to transform Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso” into a a piece of psychedelic blues.

The highlight remains the band’s 37-minute rendition of “Dark Star.” This is probably the best version I have heard of this old warhorse as the musicians expand and contract the melodies to set out paths never traveled.

Other superior performances include “Sugar Magnolia,” ”Morning Dew,” “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” “Black Peter,” “One More Saturday Night,” and two visits to the early rock ‘n’ roll classic “Not Fade Away.”

Dick’s Picks 36 presents a concert experience that will leave listeners exhausted but satisfied. It’s good to have this release back in circulation.

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