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Music Review: Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks 31 [4-CD Set]

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The Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks series, named after Dead archivist Dick Latvala (1943-1999), ran from 1993-2005, and consisted of 36 multi-disc CD sets. They were taken from a two-track recording device that had been plugged into the main sound board and left running during concerts. The sound, despite the equipment limitations, has been surprisingly good and clear. Real Gone Music has been re-issuing the sets since last year, and doing so in reverse order, starting with the 36th volume.

Dicks Picks 31 is one of the more unusual sets in the series as it presents the band in the middle of their Wall of Sound tour. The sound system was designed and built by the legendary Owsley “Bear” Stanley and consisted of 480 speakers stacked 30 feet high and 40 feet wide. It was so sophisticated that each group member had his own independent mix. For example, each string of Phil Lesh’s bass had its own speaker.

Another difference with this release is, for better or worse, the track list is made up of highlights from three consecutive shows, rather than a complete concert. Disc Two was taken from the Dead’s 8/4/74 Philadelphia Civic Center concert. Disc Three has material taken from their show at the same venue the following evening, and Disc Four selects five songs from their Roosevelt Stadium show in Jersey City, New Jersey from 8/6/74. Disc One combines performances from the first two shows. Whether you are partial to complete concerts or not, it all adds up to about five hours of music from one of the more creative and powerful periods of the band’s career.

The Grateful Dead at the time consisted of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, keyboardist Keith Godchaux, and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux. It was during the Godchaux era that the band began to expand musically. They began to fuse some jazz elements into their rock sound, which opened up all sorts of improvisational possibilities for Garcia and crew.

The band was spot-on during all three concerts and you can feel the energy. My only complaint is the compilers may have put a little too much thought into their selection of material. The last three discs contain no repetition of songs. It is always interesting to compare different versions of live songs by The Dead as they could be dramatically different from one show to the next.

Two songs from their Philly shows were also played at their Roosevelt Stadium concert and are the only repeats in the entire set. That Roosevelt Stadium show included a tight five-minute performance of “Playing in the Band,” while the first Philly show stretched it out to over 25 minutes with a number of intricate twists and turns. Likewise, two extended performances of “Scarlet Begonias” on consecutive nights show how the same song could be treated so differently within a mere 24-hour period.

The set is a ride through the well-known and the obscure. “Eyes of the World” (19:28), “China Cat Sunflower” (11:13), “Wharf Rat” (10:21), “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” (8:30), and a couple of jams share the limelight with the likes of “Sugar Magnolia” (10:42), “Truckin’” (9:46), “Casey Jones” (9:46), and “Uncle John’s Band” (10:46).

Dick’s Picks 31 finds a mature band at the height of its power. It should be a fine listen for Deadheads and casual fans alike.

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