Thursday, November 9, 2023

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 48” (2023) CD Review

The year’s final volume in the Grateful Dead Dave’s Picks concert recordings series contains the complete show the band performed at Pauley Pavilion at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, on November 20, 1971, as well as a chunk from the October 24, 1970 show. Well, 1971 was an interesting year for the Dead. Mickey Hart began his absence in February of that year, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s health was questionable, Keith Godchaux joined the band, and the group introduced a lot of excellent new material, much of it played at this show at UCLA. By the way, the release’s liner notes were written by Bill Walton, who was at UCLA at the time. and is of course a big Grateful Dead fan. We’ve all seen him at Dead shows (he’s hard to miss). He gives a wonderfully personal account of the time, combining music and basketball.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the entire first set. The band kicks things off with “Bertha,” one of the many songs that were introduced in 1971. Keith Godchaux is prominent in the mix, and he is cooking on the keys, maybe feeling a need to prove himself. After all, he had just joined the band. The energy is high here, the band a powerful force seeming able to forge new territories through its will alone. What a great start to the show. After a brief bit of tuning, Bob Weir follows that with “Me And My Uncle,” keeping the energy up. It’s serious business, this fun the band is clearly having. Jerry Garcia leads the band into “Sugaree,” another song that was introduced in 1971 (and one that would be included on Garcia’s first solo album). This is a song that the audiences I’ve been a part of have always loved and appreciated. Was it that way right from the beginning? Seems so, and Jerry delivers a good rendition here. Some of his vocal work is surprising in its power. There are some fantastic moments. The passion of his delivery is wonderful, and though this is a fairly short version, it still stands out because of that.

Bob gets things rocking with “Beat It On Down The Line.” The band is totally going for it here, no half measures. No jamming either, just giving it everything and wrapping it up in a few minutes. Then as “Tennessee Jed” starts, it seems like the band is determined to rock this one a little more than usual. The song at the time was only a month old. It’s always fun, but here it is delivered with a bit more speed, a bit more raw energy. Rocking it, rather than grooving it, if you know what I mean. The band on this night is like a train barreling down a mountain, or maybe straight through a mountain, its engine aflame. Even the jam seems determined to drive its way through any and all obstructions, not to be hindered by anything. “Mexicali Blues,” another fairly new song, keeps things moving, the pace fast.

There is some playful stage banter about the monitors, “only an illusion,” yes perhaps, and we hear that technical difficulties are the story of their lives. Maybe, but nothing stops them from delivering a good rendition of “Brown-Eyed Women.” I particularly like Bill Kreutzmann’s work on drums here. It’s a fairly short rendition, but I guess all the songs have to be short, since there are fourteen of them on the first disc. More stage banter follows, and I love that this is included. We didn’t get much of that in later years, when Jerry was leery of saying too much from the stage because some folks took things a bit too seriously. “We’re having some meaningful interaction up here, and we’ll be with you in a minute,” Bob tells the crowd. And then the band goes into “El Paso,” which features more great stuff from Bill on drums. As the song progresses, it begins to feel like we are riding a horse, pushing it to move faster, harder. Sometimes every ride is our last ride.

It’s back to rock and roll with an energetic rendition of “Big Railroad Blues.” This set is full of fiery, rocking numbers. Folks in the audience must have been exhausted by the end of that set. But the band gives them a moment to cool off with a sweet rendition of “Jack Straw,” another recent addition to the repertoire. “My old buddy, you’re moving much too slow,” they sing, but this time perhaps in response to the tempo, and soon the energy picks up and the band begins rocking this song as well. That’s followed by a hopping rendition of “Cumberland Blues.” They do some very cool stuff with this one, letting the rhythm drive it. It’s a fun song to dance to, and this is a particularly spirited rendition, a highlight of the first set. The band then goes into “Playing In The Band,” and the jam starts with the main theme, riffing on that, but letting it unravel a bit to see what its components are, while maintaining its force, its drive. They don’t stray far at all. This is a short rendition, only six and a half minutes or so. After a pause, they jump into “Casey Jones.” It’s a good version, one to keep everyone dancing. It feels like a first set closer, but no, the band decides to do one more song before taking a break, “One More Saturday Night.” Yes, one last rock song before the break, and Bob lets loose, making it a pretty exciting rendition.

Disc 2

They pick up right where they left off, opening the second set with “Truckin’,” and we wonder if it will be another high-energy rock and roll set. This song certainly has an abundance of energy. The jam maintains that level, and “Truckin’” leads into a drum solo. This is a short solo that keeps moving, a link between what has passed and what is to come. And that is “The Other One.” The monsters come together, rise from the sea and burst into the sky, filling it, blocking the sun, frightening the villagers. The creatures take inventory, picking out possible snacks, while soaring and diving and rising again, teasing. And then tearing an opening in the sky itself, and letting bright sharp particles fall into the atmosphere, causing them to swirl and form patterns. And we are into the song’s first verse, and those particles grow and glow, pulse and breathe before fading, disappearing into the darkness. But something else arrives to take their place. Something larger, its point of origin unknown, though it seems to come from a deeper darkness, and carries the night with it, painting the hills and forests with it, until they are no longer recognizable. We are into interesting territory now. The band is at last taking us into new spaces, and finding good grooves even in the strangest of lands, and using those grooves to unite all the realm’s denizens, from the largest of beasts to the tiniest of particles. All are now engaged in some kind of dance led by the band. And then comes an opening, a place to breathe, or where breath is not even necessary, the space stretching out, a space that is somehow soothing. Soon the beat draws all elements together, and shapes them into the song’s main theme, and we are into the second verse. They conclude the song right after that verse.

The band then changes directions, going into “Ramble On Rose,” yet another song that was pretty new at the time of this show. The song’s pulse is insistent at the beginning, and this song features some nice work on keys. Jerry rips into the lyrics at times. Some tuning and stage banter follow, with Bob calling out to those listening in on the radio, joking about them listening to “Dead air.” The band then goes into “Sugar Magnolia.” Does Bob come in too early? No matter, for this is a good rendition. The band has really focused on rocking this night, choosing tunes that need a good deal of energy. There is some more stage banter, “What does it all mean?” And Jerry leads the band into an enjoyable cover of “You Win Again.” Then after a bit of goofing around they are back into rock and roll with “Not Fade Away.” At this point, the band must be using up its reserves of fuel, not wanting to have anything left over at the end. Go all out. And why not? It seems like they are going into “China Cat Sunflower.” There is a moment when the jam finds itself in that place somewhere between “China” and “Rider.” Or have I lost my mind? Well, whatever, soon they find their way into “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” another high-energy number, which leads back into “Not Fade Away” to close out the night, Apparently there was no encore that night.

Disc 3

The third disc comes from the show the Grateful Dead did at Kiel Opera House in St. Louis on October 24, 1970. It’s a year earlier than the other show, and for this one Mickey is still with the band and Pigpen is feeling good enough to play. Keith Godchaux has not yet joined. This show, as I understand it, was just one set (though a fairly long one). The disc contains the beginning and end of the set, with one song from the middle. The show (and disc) opens with “Dancing In The Streets,” and this is when it was still a rock and roll song, before it took on that other flavor in the later 1970s. Pigpen is on keys. This was a transitional year for the band, but the way things are getting underway here, it is clear that this show is coming from the early side of that coin, having a heavier vibe. It is more sixties than seventies. The song becomes a good jam, and that jam smooths out at one point, becoming familiar, going into a “Tighten Up” segment. There is some good stuff from Phil Lesh as he seems to be striking a path at a certain point. “All we need is music,” indeed! After a pause, the band goes into a delicious cover of “Hurts Me Too” with Pigpen on vocals. He was so good at delivering these blues numbers, and here he gives us some nice work on harmonica as well. The song becomes a cool, mellow blues jam.

The disc then moves to the middle of the show for “Good Lovin’,” the drums leading into this fun rock tune, again with Pigpen on vocals. And it isn’t long before the drums are in charge again, giving us a rhythm to move and twist our bodies to. The solo is given space to breathe. And then suddenly the band is right in it, jamming, making everything glow. Some seem more eager than others to get back to the main body of the song, but there is still a whole lot of jamming left before things are set for that. And even then, they tease us, dancing around the opening, before ripping into the vocals again. The sound gets weird for a moment just before that, but no worries.

The disc then takes a shorter jump to the final portion of the show, starting with “St. Stephen.” The “lady finger” section is delicate, in great contrast to the main part of the song. So when they burst back into it, it comes with a strong force. That goes straight into a good version of “Not Fade Away,” which in turn leads into “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad.” Interestingly, the lyrics are delivered sweetly, gently, with more of a folk bent. It is a folk song, after all, and the band had only very recently added it to their repertoire. I love this rendition, and it is a highlight of the disc for me. The band jumps back into “Not Fade Away,” and then goes straight into “Turn On Your Lovelight,” with Pigpen once again on lead vocals. This jam cooks, and that repeated guitar hook streams down to the earth, planting lights in the ground, which soon pop and grow each into its own carnival ride. And we have enough tickets to give them each a go. Pigpen is the barker in the center of the circuit, gathering folks in, selling us bottles of medicine. We shout back at him whatever he says, for we are sold, “Shine on me!” The groove takes hold and guides the jam, and Pigpen takes the opportunity to mold and shape the crowd as he wishes. The energy gets high before the end. And what a finish.

CD Track List

Disc 1.

  1. Bertha
  2. Me And My Uncle
  3. Sugaree
  4. Beat It On Down The Line
  5. Tennessee Jed
  6. Mexicali Blues
  7. Brown-Eyed Women
  8. El Paso
  9. Big Railroad Blues
  10. Jack Straw
  11. Cumberland Blues
  12. Playing In The Band
  13. Casey Jones
  14. One More Saturday Night

Disc 2

  1. Truckin’ >
  2. Drums >
  3. The Other One >
  4. Ramble On Rose
  5. Sugar Magnolia
  6. You Win Again
  7. Not Fade Away >
  8. Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad >
  9. Not Fade Away

Disc 3

  1. Dancing In The Street
  2. Hurts Me Too
  3. Good Lovin’
  4. St. Stephen >
  5. Not Fade Away >
  6. Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad >
  7. Not Fade Away >
  8. Turn On Your Lovelight

Dave’s Picks Volume 48 was released in late October. Due to some weirdness with the mail, my copy did not arrive until November 8, 2023. This release is limited to 25,000 copies. Mine is number 14739.

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