Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 17” (2016) CD Review

For Christmas I received a year’s subscription to the Dave’s Picks series of Grateful Dead live recordings, and the first show arrived several days ago. It’s a three-disc set containing the complete show the Grateful Dead performed on July 19, 1974 at Selland Arena in Fresno, California. Yes, the Wall of Sound days. It includes Phil and Ned’s “Seastones,” which was performed between sets. This set is limited to 16,500 copies.

Disc 1

The first disc contains most of the first set. The band kicks off with “Bertha,” a song that is always appreciated. The mix is a little off at the beginning, with the guitars disappearing for a bit. Just consider it a good chance to groove on Keith’s playing. The problem seems fixed within a couple of minutes, and I am dancing around my apartment (having dressed myself in green). There is a bit of stage banter after “Bertha,” in which Bob asks those with fireworks to stop lighting them. Then they go into a fun rendition of “Mexicali Blues.” Bob’s vocals sound a bit tinny, a bit harsh, but hey, these kinks are always worked out. The band keeps things moving with “Deal” and “Beat It On Down The Line” before slowing things down for a sweet “Row Jimmy,” with Jerry and Donna sounding really good together at moments in the chorus. And there is some really pretty stuff on guitar. That’s followed by a nice version of “Me And Bobby McGee.” I love that moment when Phil’s bass rises with Jerry’s guitar.

One of the highlights of the first disc is “Scarlet Begonias,” a song that appeared on From The Mars Hotel, which had been released just a few weeks before this concert. “Well, I ain’t often right, but I’ve never been wrong/It seldom turns out the way it does in a song.” This tune has the first great jam of the show. The first disc then concludes with good versions of “El Paso” and “Tennessee Jed.”

Disc 2

The second disc begins with the end of the first set, an excellent rendition of “Playing In The Band.” The band wastes no time in getting to interesting territory. Basically the moment the jam starts, they’re jumping off into the unknown. And there is plenty of great stuff here to take you on an interesting trip, while keeping you somewhat grounded as well. Bill is really dancing on his kit, keeping us grooving, even as things get crazier around the ten-minute mark. And a couple of minutes later the bands lands upon another great groove, and things keep moving forward. There are moments of chaos, but this version just keeps finding these fantastic areas to land, fantastic areas to leap from again. At nearly a half hour, this version has a whole lot of jamming. And the main theme re-emerges so perfectly. Sure, Donna’s scream is a bit rough, but who cares? This is just bloody awesome.

That’s followed by what people sometimes labeled as Set 1.5, which here is titled “Seastones” because of the record title, but which tapes often had as simply “Phil & Ned.” It’s a spacey improvised piece that Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin performed between sets in 1974. It’s like an electronic noise landscape, sometimes frightening and forceful. This is approximately fifteen minutes.

Then we go into the second set, which the band kicks off with a kind of mellow “Brown-Eyed Women” followed by “Me And My Uncle.” A pretty “It Must Have Been The Roses” and the always-welcome “Jack Straw” finish up the second disc.

Disc 3

The third disc contains the rest of the second set, starting with “He’s Gone.” I love the way it eases in, with the guitar doing a sort of relaxed version of the vocal line before the vocals come in. This song was about different things over the years, and at this point Pigpen’s death from the previous year was still felt strongly, and the song has a mellow, thoughtful vibe (though Jerry still belts out “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile”). There is a messy transition to “Going where the wind don’t blow so strange,” with not all members on the same page, but overall this is a nice version, and I particularly like the vocal play after the verses – “Nothing’s going to bring him back” – which they handle beautifully. And the jam goes in an interesting direction; offhand, I can’t think of another “He’s Gone” that goes that way. And it works really well.

The band then picks things up with “U.S. Blues,” which in its final form was still pretty new at that time (earlier it had been “Wave That Flag,” with different lyrics). This is always a fun song, and a good one to listen to in this nutty election year.

The second set also features “Weather Report Suite,” which the band did in its entirety only around that time. In later years, they’d do only the third part, “Let It Grow.” The jam in “Let It Grow” gets pretty energetic, pretty powerful in this version, and is one of this disc’s highlights. It leads to a spacey jam, which is presented as its own separate track. That jam develops a good groove (which reminds me just a bit of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” at moments). That jam eases into “Eyes Of The World,” one of my favorites. “And the seeds that were silent all burst into bloom and decay/And night comes so quiet, it’s close on the heels of the day.” We’re really feeling that these days, eh? This is a great version of “Eyes,” particularly the jam, which includes that added section which was present in 1973 and 1974 but dropped later on. That slides into a really nice “China Doll.” They then wrap things up with “One More Saturday Night,” a song that later on would be played at basically every Saturday show. (In 1995, I was designing a humorous shirt which I had planned on selling on the fall tour. On the front was a close-up of Jerry’s face, with a finger over his lips, urging us to be quiet; on the back it was to say, “Don’t tell Bob it’s Saturday.” Of course, the fall tour never happened, and I never made those shirts.)

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Bertha
  2. Mexicali Blues
  3. Deal
  4. Beat It On Down The Line
  5. Row Jimmy
  6. Me And Bobby McGee
  7. Scarlet Begonias
  8. El Paso
  9. Tennessee Jed
Disc 2
  1. Playing In The Band
  2. Seastones
  3. Brown-Eyed Women
  4. Me And My Uncle
  5. It Must Have Been The Roses
  6. Jack Straw
Disc 3
  1. He’s Gone
  2. U.S. Blues
  3. Weather Report Suite >
  4. Jam >
  5. Eyes Of The World >
  6. China Doll
  7. One More Saturday Night 
Dave’s Picks Volume 17 was released at the end of January, 2016. My copy arrived on February 1, 2016.

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