Thursday, October 25, 2018

Grateful Dead: “Pacific Northwest ’73 – ’74: The Complete Recordings” (2018) CD Review Part 1

The new Grateful Dead box set, Pacific Northwest ’73 – ’74: The Complete Recordings,  contains six complete shows on nineteen discs. When it arrived, based on the size of the shipping box, I would have thought the UPS guy was delivering an appliance for the kitchen, were it not for the strange figure printed on the side of the box, greeting me. The box set itself is much bigger than is necessary, and includes a little wooden box that contains a receipt of sorts, reminding me that it’s a limited edition set. I guess I’m supposed to fill the wooden box with pot, but, whatever, it’s completely unnecessary. Enough about that. The important thing is the music, and this set contains six complete shows from the band’s peak years – three from 1973 (which in my opinion is the best year for live Dead recordings) and three from 1974. There is also a book with notes on these shows and what was happening within the band at that time.


The first show is from June 22, 1973 at the P.N.E. Coliseum in Vancouver, British Columbia, and it takes four discs to give us the full show. The first set kicks off with “Bertha,” always a great way to get the fun started. Jerry’s vocals are a little low in the mix at first, but after a couple of minutes that is fixed. But then the guitar drops out for a bit. Hmm, not good. Still, the energy is there and by the end, things are sorted. The energy stays high for “Beat It On Down The Line” (with ten beats to start it). And Keith is rocking the keys. Jerry delivers a good “Deal,” and the fun, fast pace continues with “Mexicali Blues.” They then mellow things out just a bit with a sweet rendition of “Box Of Rain.” Listening to this version takes me back to the feeling I had in my early teens when I was first getting into the Grateful Dead. There was always something about this song, you know? And American Beauty was one of the first Dead albums I bought. I was getting my first glimpse at beautiful and exciting possibilities. “Box Of Rain” is followed by “Bird Song,” which is when things start getting interesting, and a bit jazzy, with the night’s first exploration. What a great vibe, and it’s interesting how the main line is worked into the jam. And the vocals sound great. This is a phenomenal “Bird Song,” certainly one of the first set highlights. Bob follows it with “The Race Is On,” a totally fun and kind of goofy tune. Then we get a nice “Sugaree,” followed by an incredibly pretty rendition of “Looks Like Rain,” at times delicate, at times powerful. The band then lets the crowd know it’s going to be a long show, something I don’t recall them specifically saying at other concerts. Jerry then leads the band into a gorgeous version of “Row Jimmy.” The first disc concludes with a sweet-sounding “Jack Straw.” Really, everything here has that sweet, magical vibe, and everything seems to be flowing from a central place. The band is connected to it, and to each other.

The second disc opens with “China Cat Sunflower,” and you can almost feel the notes cascading down your back as you dance. Plus, it has such a wonderfully cheerful vibe, sounding like it might lead to “Uncle John’s Band.” But of course it leads into “I Know You Rider.” “Big River” has a lot of pep, and “Tennessee Jed” has that great groove, but it is “Playing In The Band,” the set closer, that takes us into that other realm, that place that the Grateful Dead are so adept at traveling to, in part, I think now, because they created it. At times, this feels like some magical underwater place, populated by brightly colored human-like figures that communicate by telepathy. A nod, a smile, and yes! This is what it’s all about, in case anyone is wondering. And that’s right – sixteen songs in the first set. Like, two hours. Holy moly! The second set then begins with a really nice version of “Here Comes Sunshine,” with plenty of jamming, taking us to some beautiful places, and moving us with a good groove too. Bob then serves up some rock ‘n’ roll with Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” Jerry follows that with a good, somewhat relaxed rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women.” The second disc then ends with a rousing “El Paso,” featuring some fantastic moments, particularly on guitar.

The third disc begins with a moving rendition of “Black Peter.” At times, Jerry’s voice is nearly at a whisper, making us feel like we’re at Peter’s bedside, so then when the song rises in volume, we are completely emotionally invested. That’s followed by a good version of “Greatest Story Ever Told,” with a nice rockin’ jam, and fire in Donna’s vocals. After a decent “Big Railroad Blues,” the real highs of the second set begin with “He’s Gone.” The “Smile, smile, smile” stanza oddly comes before the “Hot as a pistol” stanza, but this version is sweet and sad and beautiful. The meaning of this song changed over the years, and this tour marks the first major change, from an angry attack on the man who ripped the band off to a song in memory of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died in March of 1973. And the gentle vocals at the end nearly had me in tears. Then, bam, the band launches into a raucous rendition of “Truckin’,” to bring everyone back up and to let everyone know the band will carry on, that there is a long road ahead, and that, while it may be strange, it’s also going to be a whole lot of fun. The jam is absolutely fantastic, with Phil leading the way. Holy moly! The band goes off into some interesting territory, space the band maps out as it goes, and soon there are little hints of “The Other One,” as the band shifts into it during the jam, easing into it, which is interesting in itself. This is one song that almost always manages to surprise us, the band tackling it countless different ways. Here we get into strange, even frightening territory. And right when it seems they’ve drifted off entirely and everything is over, the song comes pounding back in, in dramatic fashion, for the second verse. It then transitions smoothly to “Wharf Rat,” another highlight. The “I’ll get up and fly away” part is particularly moving. As the band begins “Sugar Magnolia,” the third disc ends.

The fourth disc contains the very end of “Wharf Rat,” then gets going with a high-energy, fast-paced “Sugar Magnolia.” There is a rather lengthy pause before “Sunshine Daydream.” The second set then concludes with a fun “Casey Jones.” The encore is “Johnny B. Goode.”


Two songs were better in 1973 than any other year – “Eyes Of The World” and “They Love Each Other” – and this Portland show has both of them. The first set opens with Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” It takes a few seconds for Bob’s vocal microphone to work, but no matter. Jerry follows “Promised Land” with a good version of “Loser,” and then Bob lightens thing with “Mexicali Blues.” For me, the set starts to really move with “They Love Each Other.” This is when that song had a really good groove and energy, and there is excitement in Jerry’s vocal delivery. Jerry seems to forget the lyrics at one point, but again that is no matter. Another thing I like about this song in 1973 is that the band includes that little bridge which they dropped later on. The band lets the crowd know they’re going to put them in a mellow mood, and then goes into “Looks Like Rain.” This is Oregon, after all, and the band follows “Looks Like Rain” with a nice rendition of “Box Of Rain.” Jerry follows that with a playful, totally fun version of “Big Railroad Blues.” Just listen to the way he sings likes like “Went down to the depot, never got there on time.” And I dig Keith’s rock and roll piano. The band follows that with “Jack Straw,” with some forgotten lyrics, but a nice version all the same. That’s followed by a version of “Sugaree” that feels relaxed until the very end, and then by “The Race Is On.” Right from the beginning of “Row Jimmy,” Jerry’s voice is smooth and wonderful, his delivery full of passion and experience, and Donna’s harmonizing is gorgeous. This is an excellent rendition, one of the highlights of the first set. It’s followed by “Beat It On Down The Line” (seven beats to start it this time), and then “China Cat Sunflower.” It’s a really good rendition, and the jam has a bright, positive energy, and the transition to “I Know You Rider” is pretty smooth.

The sixth disc begins with the end of the first set, Chuck Berry’s “Around And Around,” a good dose of energetic, pure rock and roll to tide folks over until the second set. The second set kicks off with a good rendition of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” I always love the “Across the lazy river” part, and that section is particularly nice here. Donna then sings lead on “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” a fun country tune that was only briefly in rotation for the Dead. Donna is really in her element, and gets a chance to shine. Bob keeps things in the country realm with “El Paso,” and then Jerry leads the band into a delicate, gorgeous rendition of “Stella Blue.” “It seems like all this life was just a dream.” “Greatest Story Ever Told” follows. This was never one of my favorites, but they really pour a lot of energy into this version, and it leads straight into “Bertha,” which is always fun. And then “Big River,” with some cool stuff on piano, wraps up this disc.

The seventh disc is where a lot of the magic of this show is. It starts off with “Dark Star,” so there you go. A nice long version that begins in a rather mellow place, but no place in the normal world. We are untethered, floating in a warm, oddly familiar space just outside the atmosphere. And just as we’re getting comfortable with our surroundings, Phil begins changing things – the rhythm, the tone, the weight of it. But we’re ready now, and eager for whatever ride the song takes us on, and this new groove is working well. The guitars pick it up, add their own spin to it, and then the thing is moving under its own momentum. Somewhere in the middle, Bill is left to himself, delivering a nice, jazzy drum solo, and it isn’t until after that that Jerry sings the song’s first verse. And right after that, the band ventures off into stranger territory, bidding ordinary reality farewell. And after a while “Eyes Of The World” emerges. This song always lifts me up, always makes me happy, always makes me feel connected to something important and good. Besides, it’s fun to dance to. And this song is even more special in 1973, for it has that added section to the jam at the end, that cool bridge. The jam in this version is excellent, a joy to listen to, to dance to, one of the best “Eyes” jams I’ve ever heard. It then eases into a gorgeous, haunting “China Doll.” Incredible. There is a respectful and needed pause before the band launches into “Sugar Magnolia” to end the set. The encore is “One More Saturday Night.”


The first set of the Seattle show begins with some technical difficulties. You know that means it’s going to be a good show. They kick off with “Casey Jones,” and, yes, there are certainly sound problems. But what a fun choice for an opener, one that gets me dancing. It leads directly into “Greatest Story Ever Told.” Wow, Bob was really keen on this song at that point. They played it at all three shows. That’s followed by a fairly relaxed rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women” and a nice version of “Jack Straw.” We then get “Box Of Rain,” another song they played at all three shows. There are a lot of repeated songs, but the band sounds so good that to a certain extent the song choices are almost irrelevant. There is a kind of mellow vibe to the set, and even “Deal” has something of an easygoing feel. “Mexicali Blues” is fun, as always, and is followed by an announcement of more technical difficulties. Donna then sings “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” There are moments in this version where she sounds adorable. But for me, one of the highlights of the set is “Row Jimmy.” Perhaps it’s because in a relatively mellow set, here is a song designed to be mellow. Anyway, it’s a sweet, beautiful rendition. It’s followed by “The Race Is On,” and then “China Can Sunflower.” It’s during the “China Cat” jam that the band starts to really groove. The transition to “I Know You Rider” is again smooth, and this is a really good version of “Rider.” “Beat It On Down The Line,” which has six beats to start (or six and a half), has plenty of energy. The disc then ends with an intriguing “Loser.”

The next disc opens with “Playing In The Band,” which is fiery and rocking from the start. But it’s the jam, of course, where the more interesting stuff happens. It’s like the band knows this and flies through the opening portion in order to get more quickly to the magic. And perhaps as a result, the jam has a lot of movement, a lot of motion, momentum. The jam flows and occasionally bursts with light, and that’s how the first set ends. The second set then gets off to a great start with the always-appreciated “Bertha,” featuring some nice stuff from Jerry on guitar. Without a pause, Bob leads the band into “Promised Land,” with Keith seriously rocking the keys. We then get another groovy rendition of “They Love Each Other” to keep us dancing. This version has such a delightfully cheerful vibe, and for me is one of the disc’s highlights, with its somewhat silly finish. “El Paso” begins kind of gently, but soon builds to become fairly powerful. Jerry then mellows things a bit with an excellent version of “Black Peter,” his voice sounding so sweet, so good. Wow, there are moments in this version when each note Jerry plays rings with clarity and emotion. This is another of the disc’s highlights, and is followed by a hopping version of “Big River,” and then a wonderful rendition of “Here Comes Sunshine,” with a fine jam of its own. The disc concludes with “Me And My Uncle.”

The tenth disc contains the rest of the second set, beginning with a heartfelt, gentle reading of “He’s Gone.” I love the vocal jam near the end, and the way Keith adds accents on the piano. It’s a beautiful, fun and sweet section. “He’s Gone” leads directly into a version of “Truckin’” that feels like it pulls us all together. You know? The jam has an uplifting and uniting vibe and energy, and it keeps us moving, driving forward, but rarely rushing. A cool drum solo then leads into “The Other One.” Oh man, it is often Phil’s bass which thrills us at the beginning of this song, and that is certainly the case here. But there is a lot going on here, and it’s really interesting how that main thrust is there all along without completely taking focus or control. This song, as I’ve mentioned, always manages to surprise. Things are getting wild now, and then before the band even delivers the first verse, they ease into “Me And Bobby McGee.” Then, as they finish that song, they go right back into “The Other One,” and it has a jazzy vibe now, featuring some nice work by Bill on drums. This version goes in lots of intriguing places, and eventually Bobby gives us the first verse. It is after that first verse that things begin to get weird, as well as somewhat darker, more dangerous, even harsh. We never get the song’s second verse, and instead “Sugar Magnolia” emerges from the chaos to conclude the set on a high note. The encore is “Johnny B. Goode.”

(Note: I will review the rest of this box set – the three shows from 1974 – in a separate post, just so this doesn’t get too long, you understand.)

the shipping box

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