I should probably be clear from the outset of this write-up that I am not now and never have been a “Dead Head”. While I’m familiar with the band’s music, I’ve never seen them live, let alone obsessively followed them on tour. The first time I encountered “Dead Heads” I was under the mistaken impression that they were in a band when they talked about going on tour.
The idea that anybody would go from city to city following a band was something I’d never encountered before. I don’t remember whether I was more taken aback with the fact the people in question hadn’t been born when the Grateful Dead were first popular or that somebody would organize his/her life around a band’s touring schedule. I guess I must have seemed equally strange to them because, although I liked the band, I had the nerve to suggest they weren’t the be all and end all when it came to music.
What I eventually came to understand was there was a night and day difference between the versions of the band’s songs as they appear on their studio albums and what they did in concert. Songs that were maybe four or five minutes long in their recorded form could turn into 20 minute jams in concert. While there has been a healthy trade in bootlegged tapes of the band’s concerts over the years, the Dead had their own archivist who compiled their live concert tapes. Dick Latvala put together a series of 36 volumes collectively known as Dick’s Picks. Previously only available directly from the band, they are now being reissued for retail sale by the Real Gone label with the most recent release being Dick’s Picks Vol. 28 taken from two concerts in 1973: Pershing Municipal Auditorium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on 2/26/73, and the Salt Palace, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2/28/73.
While Dead stalwarts Jerry Garcia (lead guitar), Phil Lesh (bass & vocals), Bob Weir (guitar & vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) still formed the nucleus of the band, 1973′s version also featured new comers Keith Godchaux (piano) and Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals) who were added after the death of Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan. For all pop radio tries to instill the idea that the 1970s were an era of “classic rock,” the early part of the decade was really quite fallow as the big acts became bloated and rock and roll was being turned into a successful commercial product. It wouldn’t be for a few more years that the rise of punk would shake things up again. So survivors of the 1960s like the Dead, who still played by their own rules, were one of the few bands who stood out from the pack. The addition of the husband and wife Godchaux team doesn’t seem to have changed the band much at this point, as the set list for both nights’ gigs is replete with old favourites.
However, the big appeal of these concert recordings for Dead aficionados and novices alike will be the chance to hear some of the freeform improvisations their concerts were famous for. While bands like Phish have since assumed the mantle of “jam band to see,” the Dead were the first rock and roll band to follow the lead of jazz bands and turn concerts into exercises in improvisation. Songs like “Dark Star”, of which there is a 25 plus minute version taken from the Nebraska show, achieved their real fame because of their concert renditions. Each of the four discs in this set contains at least one example of a song extended far beyond its original recorded length.