Thursday, February 16, 2017

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 21” (2017) CD Review

For the last few years, as a Christmas gift my parents have ordered me a subscription to the Dave’s Picks series of Grateful Dead concert recordings. They did so this year too, but for some reason the order didn’t go through, and by the time we realized it, it was too late to place a new order. But they were kind enough to order the first volume of the year from an independent seller (for quite a bit more money). And I certainly needed it today. I started my day by watching the press conference in which the supposed president was insulting and insane. Why are the reporters so polite to him? Why do they laugh when he insults them, like they’re in on some great joke? Ask your questions, demand answers, and write your articles. Don’t feed his ego. You don’t need to be friendly with the guy, no matter how often he asks for “friendly” questions. Anyway, it was a horrible and stupid way to start my day. So, fuck it, I decided today would be a day of drinking and Dead. I opened a bottle of wine, turned off the phone and settled in for a good day of the Dead.

The new three-disc set, Dave’s Picks Volume 21, contains the complete show the Grateful Dead performed in Boston on April 2, 1973. Like a lot of folks, I think 1973 is the best year for the band. The first disc contains most of the first set. After the briefest of introductions, the band kicks off the show with a Chuck Berry rock and roll song, “Promised Land.” They then keep the energy up with “Deal” and then “Mexicali Blues.” Things start to get really good with a sweet rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women.” Ah, yes, this is what I need. There is some goofing around before “Beat It On Down The Line,” and that tune gets me dancing. I dig Keith’s work on piano. “Yes, I got a sweet woman, lord, and she’s waiting there for me/Yes, that’s where I’m going to make my happy home.”

The band then dips into some mellower material with a really nice “Row Jimmy.” “Broken heart don’t feel so bad/You ain’t got half of what you thought you had/Rock your baby to and fro/Not too fast and not too slow.” Bob then jokes about releasing big spiders in the front of the stage, and the band goes into “Looks Like Rain.” They follow that with “Wave That Flag,” the song that would eventually become “U.S. Blues.” In this earlier form, the music is the same, but the lyrics are quite different, including lines like “Ball the jack, chew the fat” and “Stretch the truth, pull the tooth,” which would soon be cut. I always enjoyed hearing “U.S. Blues,” and it never failed to get me smiling and dancing and singing along. This early version is certainly no exception.

For those folks in the Phil Zone, the band plays “Box Of Rain.” Then they do a fun rendition of “Big River.” But it’s when the band begins “China Cat Sunflower” that you can hear the crowd getting really excited. Ah yes, once you’ve done a bit of acid, those images never really leave you, and for that I’m thankful. Are our brains forever altered? Probably. And wasn’t that the point? I think so, though it’s difficult to recall at times. No matter, just enjoy that groove, because this is when the band starts jamming, this is when things start taking off. The transition to “I Know You Rider” is smooth, and it’s a damn good rendition.

They follow that with “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” a Loretta Lynn country song that the band played only for a brief time, with Donna Jean on lead vocals. “You ain’t woman enough to take my man.” That leads to the band singing, “We can share the women, we can share the wine.” Interesting transition, eh? This is a good “Jack Straw,” and that concludes the first disc, but not the first set. Yup, this is a nice long show. The first disc is more than seventy-four minutes.

The second disc picks up where the first let off, with the last couple of songs from the first set. A fun “Don’t Ease Me In” is followed by “Playing In The Band,” and yes, it’s everything you want and hope for from a 1973 “Playing,” with plenty of interesting jamming. Oh yes, this is what it’s all about, lifting me off this world into an alternate reality that often feels more like home than the one where we end up spending most of our time. Is that what draws us again and again to the music? Well, this is an excellent “Playing.”

And then we still have the entire second set! The band gets it underway with a seriously good “Ramble On Rose,” followed by “Me And My Uncle” and then “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” That’s followed by an excellent and energetic “Greatest Story Ever Told.” Geez, who would have thought that song would be a highlight of a second set from a 1973 show? But there you have it. And the band then does a very cool version of “Loose Lucy.” “Thank you for a real good time!” Everything is working so well. “Loose Lucy” is followed by a really good “El Paso,” which rolls along at a great pace under the momentum of the story. The band then brings things down a bit for a beautiful, moving, touching rendition of “Stella Blue,” one of my favorites. “It seems like all this life was just a dream.” The second disc then concludes with a Chuck Berry song, “Around And Around.”

The third disc contains the rest of the second set and the encore. And as good as everything has been so far, this disc contains most of the magic of the night. It opens with “Here Comes Sunshine.” The band played most of the tracks from the 1973 studio release Wake Of The Flood at this show, and “Here Comes Sunshine” is the song that gives that record its title. This is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard, with some excellent jamming and great communication among the musicians. The jam at the end is presented as a separate track, and this is where things turn both introspective and spacey. Let go or hold on, but see where it takes you. Dark corridors, to be sure, but with bright beads of light, as if from some playful sprites and twisted spirits dancing in the shadows. And soon they’re in control.

The band then eases out of that space into “Me And Bobby McGee” and then into an incredibly pretty “Weather Report Suite: Prelude,” another unexpected highlight of this set. And then, rather than going into the rest of the song, the band slides into “Eyes Of The World,” and as you probably know, nothing beats a 1973 “Eyes.” What a great jam! And as it’s getting wild, it suddenly relaxes into a beautiful rendition of “China Doll.” They then wrap up the second set with a couple of high-energy tunes: “Sugar Magnolia” and “Casey Jones.” The encore is “Johnny B. Goode” (the third Chuck Berry song of the show) into “And We Bid You Goodnight.”

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Promised Land
  2. Deal
  3. Mexicali Blues
  4. Brown-Eyed Women
  5. Beat It On Down The Line
  6. Row Jimmy
  7. Looks Like Rain
  8. Wave That Flag
  9. Box Of Rain
  10. Big River
  11. China Cat Sunflower >
  12. I Know You Rider
  13. You Ain’t Woman Enough
  14. Jack Straw
Disc 2
  1. Don’t Ease Me In
  2. Playing In The Band
  3. Ramble On Rose
  4. Me And My Uncle
  5. Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
  6. Greatest Story Ever Told
  7. Loose Lucy
  8. El Paso
  9. Stella Blue
  10. Around And Around
Disc 3
  1. Here Comes Sunshine >
  2. Jam >
  3. Me And Bobby McGee >
  4. Weather Report Suite: Prelude >
  5. Eyes Of The World >
  6. China Doll
  7. Sugar Magnolia
  8. Casey Jones
  9. Johnny B. Goode >
  10. And We Bid You Goodnight
Dave’s Picks Volume 21 was released at the end of January, 2017.

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