History of the Grateful Dead Volume One (Bear’s Choice) holds an interesting position in the band’s catalog. You kind of have to already know the band to even get what the title means. It sounds as if it is some sort of greatest hits collection, and (Bear’s Choice) could mean practically anything.
There were a lot of oddball titles going around in the rock world in 1973, when the album was initially released, and only those “in the know” would know who Bear actually was. History of the Grateful Dead Volume One (Bear’s Choice) is actually an early live “best of,” as selected by the famous Owsley “Bear” Stanley, acid guru, and Grateful Dead soundman.
Before Dick Vatala of the Dick’s Picks series came along, Bear was the Deadhead most trusted by the group. Hence, he was given the opportunity to choose the songs included on this set. The music was actually recorded three years prior to release, during their February 13-14, 1970 stand at the Fillmore East in New York. The album was intended as a tribute of sorts to founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died while it was being compiled. It was also the final release of their contract with Warner Bros. Records, who never really seemed to know what to do with the band.
Audio Fidelity has recently issued a remastered, numbered, limited edition, and 180-gram vinyl version of the album, and it sounds better than ever. One of the things those of us who are old enough to remember buying vinyl back in the day tend to forget is how crappy the sound often was. To save money, the vinyl on those records was often pretty thin. I always thought all the hoopla about virgin vinyl and audiophile stuff was just marketing, but it was not. I have an original, paper-thin copy of Bear’s Choice, and played it next to this Audio Fidelity one. There is no comparison. For fans of the group who like to go “old school,” this is one of those Dead albums to put on your list.
Besides being remastered, and the high quality of the vinyl, the album is identical to the one released in ‘73. Side One is a five-song acoustic-based set, featuring Pigpen, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Weir. The album opens with Pigpen doing a version of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Katie Mae.” One of the strange things about this album is the fact that it is called History of the Grateful Dead, because it is pretty misleading. Of the seven songs total here, only one was written by the band itself. That is the closing song on side one, the 7:27-long “Black Peter,” from Workingman’s Dead. While I like the whole side, a real highlight for me comes with their version of the classic Everly Brothers song “Wake Up Little Susie.”
The full band, electric-based set of songs on Side Two is probably where most Dead fans initially gravitated to though. It consists of two songs, “Smokestack Lightnin‘,” (17:59) and “Hard to Handle” (6:15). Deadheads love it when the group stretches out a tune, and really get inside it. This definitely happens during Howlin’ Wolf’s oft-covered “Smokestack Lightnin’.” I have seen complaints that the Dead were out of their league with such covers, and I wholly disagree. Garcia was far more than his nickname “Captain Trips” would imply. He had a working, near musicologist-level knowledge of music, and his leads here are fantastic. Actually, the whole band works together as a magic unit on both tracks, which are a very fitting tribute to Pigpen.
“What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been” is more than a line from a Dead song (“Truckin’”), and later title of a “best of” Grateful Dead compilation. That is one of the Grateful Dead albums which definitely fits with its name. But to those who picked this album up when it was released in 1973, the title probably was a bit confusing. The quality of the live performances inside it, however, no doubt fully made up for any misunderstandings. One thing is certain, History of the Grateful Dead Volume One (Bear’s Choice) has never sounded better than it does on this Audio Fidelity edition.