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.
However, unlike the majority of rock and roll bands’ extended live versions of songs, the Dead’s aren’t just merely excuses for solos by various members of the band. Instead, the whole band is involved with elaborating on the the tune’s theme. Sure there are still solos, but they aren’t the long winded pointless exercises in ego stroking you’re used to hearing from a rock band. There’s a real unity of purpose within this group which allows individual solos to be seamless extension of the song instead of standing out too much like a sore thumb.
While Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Godchaux are obviously talented players and as innovative as anybody in popular music, there’s only so much variety you can produce with guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards in the early 1970s. While they may have been trying to emulate jazz bands with their extended improvisations, they can’t match them in terms of range of expression. That’s not a comment on their individual abilities as musicians. It’s just that instruments like saxophones, clarinets, flutes, and various horns can produce a far more diversified range of expression than your basic rock and roll combo. Instead of hanging onto every note waiting to hear what would come next (as I would listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Weather Report), I found my attention wandering during their extended jams.
Perhaps it’s also simply the limitations of the genre as it doesn’t lend itself to improvisation in the same way as jazz. For instead of building layers upon layers of music based on an original theme, here the music just feels like it’s going around in circles. After a while there are so only many ways in which you can circle back over the same material again and again without it beginning to become tedious. Others might find enjoyment in the repetition, but personally I kept finding myself waiting for some sort of evolution to take place. While the solos would provide the occasional break in the pattern, after a while they weren’t enough to hold my interest.
The Grateful Dead were not your typical rock and roll band. Their rather unique blend of laid-back rock and roll, blue grass, country, and psychedelic music was responsible for creating music quite unlike what anything anybody else ever performed. After years of playing together, there’s no denying they were also one of the few bands who could be guaranteed to be as seamless live as they were in the recording studio. However, while I know there are thousands who will disagree with me, neither the style of music nor the instruments they played were ideally suited to the improvised jams that dominated their live shows.
That being said, for those who are fans of their music, and for those who are interested in checking out what all the fuss was about, Dick’s Picks Vol. 28 is as good an opportunity as any. Not only does it contain versions of some of the band’s classic tunes; “Sugar Magnolia”, “Truckin'”, “Dark Star”, and some interesting covers; “Big River” by Johnny Cash and “Promised Land” by Chuck Berry, you’ll have the opportunity to hear examples of the jams that made them famous. Like all of the releases in the Dick’s Picks series, the sound quality is not an issue. The original recording was made through the band’s soundboard and has been digitally re-mastered to ensure as high as quality as possible considering the time period they were made in. It might not be the same as seeing the band in person, but you can still experience the music and make up your own mind if The Grateful Dead were/are deserving of the status of cultural icons bestowed upon them by their fans.