Sunday, August 11, 2019

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 31” (2019) CD Review

We recently celebrated what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 77th birthday, and then a couple of days ago marked the 24th anniversary of his passing. Early August is always a mixed bag for Grateful Dead fans old enough to have actually gone on tour (these days I meet a lot of younger fans who never once saw the band, which is cool and strange). The release of the new volume in the Dave’s Picks series is certainly something to be excited about, and will delight a lot of folks. It contains the complete show the band played at the Uptown Theatre in Chicago on December 3, 1979, when Brent Mydland was still relatively new to the group, bringing a fresh energy to the stage.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the first set. The band opens with “Alabama Getaway,” which was a new tune at the time, just a month old. When I was first getting into the Dead, around the age of 12 or 13, this was one of my favorites. It has a cheerful and pure rock and roll feel, so was easily accessible to me at that time. I still dig it now. It’s a good tune to start a show, to get things moving. And almost immediately Brent is making his presence felt on keys. “Alabama Getaway” would open Go To Heaven, which is one of the first Grateful Dead albums I purchased. It has some fantastic material, but probably the worst cover of any Grateful Dead record. What were they thinking with that photo? Anyway, “Alabama Getaway” leads straight into “Promised Land,” which works well, from one pure rock and roll tune to another. The band seems determined to get the crowd dancing and smiling right out of the gate. It’s certainly getting me dancing in my tiny apartment. Close my eyes, and I can sense several thousand others grooving all around me. This is a particularly good “Promised Land.” It’s followed by a good, cheerful rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women,” featuring some nice stuff on guitar. “El Paso” has something of a relaxed feel at first, but soon builds in energy, especially in the vocals. “Ramble On Rose” very quickly gets off the ground, basically the moment Jerry starts singing. His voice really drives this version. “The leader of a band,” indeed!

Then we get a really delicious version of “It’s All Over Now.” I love the way they handle it here, the strong groove having a cool vibe as it bops along. And the guys jam on it, with Brent in particular delivering some great stuff on organ. This isn’t one you’d expect to be a highlight of the set, but there you have it. A phenomenal rendition. Jerry then leads the band into a nice “Jack-A-Roe,” and Bob gives us “Lazy Lightning” into “Supplication,” which features the best jamming of the first set. That’s followed by “Althea,” which was relatively new at the time, another song that would end up on the follow year’s LP, Go To Heaven. This is a fairly mellow, but cool version. The band then wraps up the set with “The Music Never Stopped,” a fun tune to keep everyone pleased and energized through the set break.

Disc 2

Any set that begins with “Scarlet Begonias” is going to be good. That song never fails to excite the crowd, and you feel that excitement as the song kicks off the second set here. And this is a really good version. Jerry’s voice sounds a bit rough at times, but somehow that only adds to the track’s appeal. The band began the first set with a lot of energy, and they likewise get the second set off to an energetic start. Interestingly, the jam has a soft, low-key beginning, like creating a little space to breathe, to see where things will go. And this somewhat relaxed jam goes into some unusual places, a rather trippy “Scarlet” jam, which I love. And it of course eventually leads into “Fire On The Mountain.” Though it took me more than thirty shows before I saw my first “Scarlet”/”Fire,” the band paired these two rather frequently. The transition here is smooth and wonderful, and this “Fire” features plenty of good jamming. There is one moment where the sound gets weird, like it goes from soundboard to audience recording, and then back to soundboard. It’s jarring. But this is a seriously good “Fire On The Mountain.” It’s followed by “Samson And Delilah,” with its powerful thumping groove.

We then get into magical territory with “Terrapin Station,” which is gentle as it begins, taking us by the hand and leading us into another world, not wanting to scare us off. It is pretty, almost delicate, with some delightful moments where the guitars and keys are working together, reporting back from those outer realms, telling us everything is all right, not to worry. This song takes care to deliver us safely. It leads straight into “Playing In The Band,” a vibrant sunrise, firm ground, and joy all around. This one too then takes us up and out, and yet the farther out we go, the deeper we are inside ourselves. But there is nothing frightening here, within or without. The jam gets a bit odd toward the end, strange electronic voices from distant regions piping in. Then “Drums” takes over, and it is here we venture into some darker territory, though with some innocence and love bursting through. And that is where the second disc ends.

Disc 3

The third disc picks up with a short “Space,” which then leads directly into “Lost Sailor.” This is another song that would be included on Go To Heaven. It’s a good and mellow version, taking its time, not rushing anywhere, and is paired with “Saint Of Circumstance,” also from Go To Heaven. This version contains slightly different lyrics. At the beginning, Bob sings “Yes, this is heaven/A station on the line/You must be an angel/What else could be so fine.”  I’ve always loved this tune, the way it builds as well as its lyrics. One of the Grateful Dead T-shirts I wore often was a Calvin And Hobbes “Saint” T-shirt, which I bought in the parking lot before a show. “Saint” is followed by a moving and passionate rendition of “Wharf Rat,” an appropriate weariness to Jerry’s vocal delivery at times. There is something spiritual about this version, in the vocals and Brent’s organ. It’s unusual and gorgeous, and I love when the song bursts up to another level. “I’ll get up and fly away.” Oh yes, nothing can stop them. That leads straight into “Truckin’” and though this show hasn’t had a whole lot of exploration, it’s good to get this solid jam to pull everyone together at the end of the set, its tales of being on the road (figurative and literal) something all of us can relate to. And man, before it ends, the band offers a surprisingly wild bit of jamming. The encore is a classic rock and roll number, “Johnny B. Goode,” to send the crowd dancing out into the night.

The third disc contains some filler from the following night’s show, also at the Uptown Theatre. First we get a really nice version of “Estimated Prophet,” with a cool groove to the jam. Then “Franklin’s Tower” emerges from that, which is unexpected, as that song usually follows “Slipknot!” (though at my first show the band played “Franklin’s Tower” on its own in the first set). This song is always fun, and the version here is delightful. It leads to a totally enjoyable jam that is here presented as a separate track. As it fades out, you can hear that the “Drums” segment is about to begin.

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Alabama Getaway >
  2. Promised Land
  3. Brown-Eyed Women
  4. El Paso
  5. Ramble On Rose
  6. It’s All Over Now
  7. Jack-A-Roe
  8. Lazy Lightning >
  9. Supplication
  10. Althea
  11. The Music Never Stopped 
Disc 2
  1. Scarlet Begonias >
  2. Fire On The Mountain
  3. Samson And Delilah
  4. Terrapin Station >
  5. Playing In The Band >
  6. Drums
Disc 3
  1. Space >
  2. Lost Sailor >
  3. Saint Of Circumstance >
  4. Wharf Rat >
  5. Truckin’
  6. Johnny B. Goode
  7. Estimated Prophet >
  8. Franklin’s Tower >
  9. Jam 
Dave’s Picks Volume 31 was released in late July 2019. My copy arrived on July 27th. It is a limited edition of 20,000 copies.

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