Thursday, February 1, 2024

Grateful Dead: “Dave’s Picks Volume 49” (2024) CD Review

I was thirteen the first time I begged my parents to get me tickets to see the Grateful Dead. They refused. They knew nothing of the band, only that the audience took drugs, and the band’s name I think scared them. That was in 1985. But when I began collecting tapes a few years later, I didn’t get much from 1985. What little I did hear didn’t sound that great. Jerry’s vocals seemed strained, and as I got deeper into the music, I focused on 1969, 1970, 1973 and 1977. From the 1980s, I thought the best years were 1980 and 1989 – the beginning and end of the decade, and I ignored much of the middle. But of course there were good shows every year. The new volume in the Dave’s Picks series contains two complete shows from 1985 – April 27 and 28, at Frost Amphitheatre in Palo Alto, California. Yes, it’s another four-disc treat!

Disc 1

The first disc contains the entire first set from the April 27th show, plus the first two songs of the second set. The band kicks things off with “Dancing In The Street,” and the show immediately feels like a party. All we need is sweet music, and here it is. In fact, Jerry Garcia’s guitar has a really sweet vibe. This is not the most rocking version of the song the band ever played, but it has a wonderfully cheerful vibe, and the jam, led by Jerry’s guitar, has something of an exploratory feel, which of course this early in the show promises an excellent night. And if there was any doubt about that, the band ends it right away by going straight into “Bertha,” and things become even more fun, the song moving at a good clip. Again, it is Jerry’s guitar work that becomes the focus here. Those notes themselves seem to be dancing. And we get eight shouts of “Anymore!” Such great energy. The band then shifts directions, turning to the blues with “Little Red Rooster,” with some interesting echoing of the early lines, and an easygoing jam that seems just right. I like the way Brent Mydland’s work on keys kind of sneaks up on you, unusual for him, and before you know it, your smile is almost too big to remain on your face. This is a seriously good rendition of “Rooster.” I don’t want it to end. But it does, of course. And then Jerry leads the band into “Brown-Eyed Women,” which seems the perfect choice. Yes, Jerry’s voice is straining at moments, but he makes up for it with his guitar work, and everything else sounds so good too. Plus, Jerry makes that strain work for the song, and the other guys really support him with their backing vocals, so that it ends up being a good version.

I love the way they begin “My Brother Esau” here, teasing the groove and the song’s blues element before going fully into the song. And then there is a bit of a hop to the tune’s rhythm, which is wonderful. I wish they’d kept playing this song. I never saw the Dead perform it live. The song was on my cassette copy of In The Dark, but later when I got the album on CD, it was missing. I never understood the reasoning behind that. They follow “My Brother Esau” with “Ramble On Rose.” There is an awkward start to this song that is strangely endearing and delightful. Again, there is something cheerful about it. The band seems happy. And Jerry manages to belt out the “leader of the band” line. There is a bit of playfulness, and a “We want Phil” chant is taken up. “We’re hanging onto him for a while” is the band’s response. But Phil Lesh pleases those folks by singing Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Phil gets playful here, as he often did on this song, singing “my best friend, my drummer” and “I started out on Heineken.” The band follows that with “Cold Rain And Snow,” an interesting placement for that song, which usually came at the beginning, or near the beginning of a set. It’s a strong rendition. They then wrap up the first set with “The Music Never Stopped.” They began the set by getting folks dancing, and end it with a song that puts everyone in that same space. This is another song that always makes people feel good, and the jam section is beautiful. And what a fantastic finish!

The first disc then moves us to the second set for a “Scarlet Begonias” opener. Yes, another song that is always appreciated, always enjoyed, always loved, and another with a completely cheerful vibe. This song is so much fun to dance to, and this version features some stellar guitar work. Things are moving, popping, and rising up into the air, bubbling over with joy and excitement. And the jam, while maintaining that delicious groove, does start to pursue interests outside our atmosphere. They start to explore, but do it while dancing. There is a sense of wonder coupled with a sense of belonging wherever we go. Things get a bit funky there, and you have to love that groove. It seems they are edging toward “Fire On The Mountain,” as was so often the case, but then, surprise, “Eyes Of The World” emerges. What a brilliant choice. “Eyes” is another song to keep the celebration going, for this is one that is a lot of fun to dance to, one to keep your whole body in motion, the guitar determining the direction of the dance. And during the dance we are reminded of the brevity of this whole thing, this celebration, as we “burst into bloom and decay.” But that just makes us enjoy the moment even more, dance all the more enthusiastically. As the really cool jam leads into “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” the music fades out and the disc comes to an end.

Disc 2

The second disc takes up right where the first disc left off, or a few second before that, actually, as the band segues into “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” which has a good deal of energy from its start. It’s a train pumping along, eager to go, go, go. The conductor occasionally steps down to tell us something or other, but the train can’t slow much even then. And again, there is such joy in the playing. It takes a moment before I realize we’ve begun to move into the next song, and talk about keeping the party going, they choose “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” with its great beat. This show will have people dancing even after their final breaths. They’re too busy enjoying themselves to notice an inconvenience like dying. And I love what Brent does during that vocal jam. That leads seamlessly into “Drums,” which is perfect. Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart keep a great beat going. They are really together on this one. Then after a few minutes, things start to drift into a different realm, one of youth and magic, orchestrated by baton fingers and jelly mouths, as electric blues and purples engulf the yellows, drinking from singing bowls, then running a series of tests. Things seem to be right, or right enough, though there are occasional warps in reality. We just roll past them, though you might find yourself in darker territory, instinctively putting up your guard. That large drum echoes in our gut, and the creature keeps coming, leading us to some ceremony. We recognize the vision on the altar, but as she turns to us, she disappears. And so do our surroundings. We find ourselves floating among an odd collection of objects in “Space,” things that become activated as we drift too close, offering warnings or information, it is unclear which. An order is called, an order is established, and the beings continue the ritual, our presence no longer heeded. Several speak at once, messages overlapping, losing meaning and becoming pure sound, and so drifting away from order, unraveling, though only to cover a larger expanse.

As things come together again, Jerry leads the others into “The Wheel,” one of my favorite choices of songs to come out of “Space.” It’s another reminder of the brevity of thing. But we’re “bound to cover just a little more ground.” We soon find ourselves in a pretty space, before things change again, and the band decides which direction to go. Then, bam, it all comes together again, and the guys burst into “Truckin’,” everything cooking well, a party on its own terms, even within the larger world. Then suddenly “The Other One” comes exploding up from below. It is a beast that immediately takes over all the world in sight, transforming everything it so much as glances at. There is an urgency and determination, and we are into the first verse, Bob Weir’s voice riding the beast into battle, casting shards of light into the thick hide of the adversary. Things then drift down to a human level for “Black Peter.” I think Peter will be okay. We all get lonely sometimes, and need people around us. No need to go dying for this to happen. But when we do go, it will be like any other day. No great changes, the world just keeps moving on without us. Jerry’s soulful vocal work draws us closer, and then a great rhythm emerges. See, everything is fine. This is as cheerful as “Black Peter” has gotten, and then we’re moved from that straight into the purest of rock and roll, Chuck Berry territory. “Around And Around” reminds us once again that it’s a party, so keep dancing. And Bob is into it, throwing himself into those vocals. That song leads straight into “One More Saturday Night,” one more rock and roll song to close out the second set. The encore is “Keep Your Day Job.” I remember a lot of folks weren’t all that fond of that song, but I always thought it was kind of fun, certainly not meant to be taken too seriously.

Disc 3

The third disc contains the entire first set from April 28th, and the encore. It was a special two-song encore at this show. There is an unusual choice to open the show, “Gimme Some Lovin’,” a song I think I only saw them do deep in the second set, so it feels like they’re starting off already in the middle of things, like the band wants to get straight to the heart of the matter, kick the show into gear. And then where to go from there? The band begins to drift off as they figure out the correct path. And soon the band is playing “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” Yes, there is a strain in Jerry’s voice again, but again he makes it work for him, and we hear a desperation in the song’s character as a result, which works, at least until it gets to the pretty section at the end, when we want his voice to be a bit gentler. Still, it’s a really good rendition, with some beautiful guitar work. Bob then shifts things into a bluesy area with “New Minglewood Blues.” Listen to Phil’s bass, it’s like some big dark cat strutting and ready to pounce. And there is something great about the way this rendition moves with confidence. They then shift into “Bird Song,” establishing a good groove before the song’s beauty comes into play. I love how you can feel the beauty passing by you, swirling around you and disappearing into the night, into darkness. Sometimes that’s what this music feels like: sparks of light in the darkness. The jam has a great energy. It might not be exploring any unusual territory, but it fills the space it does play in, making the place exciting. The song becomes gentle again as the vocals come back. “Snow and rain, snow and rain.”

There is a pause as the band deals with various things on stage, and then Brent leads the band into “Tons Of Steel,” a song that would be included on In The Dark a couple of years later. It’s a nice rendition, with a surprisingly soothing quality to the vocal delivery, even as we learn “the brakes don’t work and this grade’s so steep.” The song has a gentle conclusion. Jerry then begins “China Cat Sunflower,” this version featuring some nice jamming, moving at a good pace, like scaling a mountain in a foot race. And as we reach the top, we find a group of people dancing, and we’re in “I Know You Rider,” the folks beckoning us to join the circle around a bonfire. And holy moly, listen to Jerry belt out the “northbound train” line. Fantastic. And that’s how the first set ends.

This disc also includes the encore. And hey, that’s how we did it back in the days of tapes. The encore was put at the end of the cassette containing the first set. Anyway, the band delivers a rousing rendition of “U.S. Blues.” The guys are cooking here. It seems like the end of the show. Bob says good night. But the crowd manages to coax them back out for another number, the Bob Dylan song “She Belongs To Me.” It calms things down, becomes a beautiful rendition, and sends the crowd into the night feeling good.

Disc 4

The final disc contains the complete second set from April 28th. The first number is counted out a few times, and the band tears into “Hell In A Bucket,” with Bob full of playful attitude. There is a somewhat darker, heavier vibe to this song that I sometimes wasn’t into back in the day, but this is a song that has grown immensely on me over the years, and I love when Bob lets loose on vocals: “Ride, ride, ride/At least I’m enjoying the ride.” Jerry leads the band straight into “Crazy Fingers.” It is a fairly mellow rendition, with an intimate vibe at times. “Who can stop what must arrive now?” There is a pretty sound to the guitar, like brightly colored underwater flowers suddenly blooming, and the song takes us to some interesting territory, where joy threatens to explode at our feet with each step. And then we realize there is something delicate there, but we press on and suddenly it makes way for “Playing In The Band.” Now it seems the band is ready to tear into the outer atmosphere, first with sheer power, and then by easing into it sideways, by dismantling sections of the sky’s canopy. Things get crazier outside its protection, with beauty and danger along the same path. Forward movement continues, regardless of what might be to either side. Animals seeking affection pull up next to us, but we are too busy tugging a piece of yarn that holds together a section of reality. And interestingly, we are then deposited in the darker, delicate world of “China Doll.” We thought we were traveling farther out, but somehow went further in. This song sounds so pretty as Jerry sings, “Take up your china doll.” The song becomes a beautiful jam.

The guys then go back into “Playing In The Band” for just a moment, playing a hint of it before veering off into a different jam, the groove the most important element. The jam goes in some unexpected places, and then leads into “Drums,” this time immediately galloping into the deep belly of the cosmos. A belch can shift our entire reality. Step delicately on the rope of intestines stretching from one star to another. Tread carefully, as amphibians pop up on either side, greeting us in rhythm, and slip back under that layer of sparkling sludge. That rumbling stops other activity, draws everyone together. The pounding, the heavy steps of the universe itself, having taken on the form of one of its ancient monsters. It passes, and we are wrapped in the tendrils of some conscious cloud as we drift into “Space.” The darkness itself takes the form of a chord, delivering a pounding of its own, a strong fist of rock and dust. Golden creatures speak a language we should know, but can’t recall. And we settle upon a plateau where a ritual is in progress. Then we are inside one element of that, and if we look out from there we’ll see answers and history dripping from the skin of the participants into oblivion. Tiny rays of light dance with each other, engage in some courtship. Pieces of reality drop around us, but it’s an unrecognizable pattern, until the teases of “Playing In The Band” make the ground familiar, and then we are back in that song. The band has taken us out and brought us back yet again. And now that we are firmly on earth, they lead us down to the dock of the city for a rather touching and powerful version of “Wharf Rat.” That in turn leads into “Throwing Stones,” with some cool work on keys. “The darkness never goes from some men’s eyes.” It’s a strong rendition with a good “Ashes, ashes” part at the end, leading directly into “Not Fade Away,” always a fun way of wrapping up a set. This is a totally enjoyable rendition, and it has a big finish, rather than leaving the crowd clapping out the beat.

CD Track List

Disc 1

  1. Dancing In The Street >
  2. Bertha
  3. Little Red Rooster
  4. Brown-Eyed Women
  5. My Brother Esau
  6. Ramble On Rose
  7. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
  8. Cold Rain And Snow
  9. The Music Never Stopped
  10. Scarlet Begonias >
  11. Eyes Of The World

Disc 2

  1. Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad >
  2. Man Smart, Woman Smarter >
  3. Drums >
  4. Space >
  5. The Wheel >
  6. Truckin’ >
  7. The Other One >
  8. Black Peter >
  9. Around And Around >
  10. One More Saturday Night
  11. Keep Your Day Job

Disc 3

  1. Gimme Some Lovin’ >
  2. Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
  3. New Minglewood Blues
  4. Bird Song
  5. Tons Of Steel
  6. China Cat Sunflower >
  7. I Know You Rider
  8. U.S. Blues
  9. She Belongs To Me

Disc 4

  1. Hell In A Bucket >
  2. Crazy Fingers >
  3. Playing In The Band >
  4. China Doll >
  5. Drums >
  6. Space >
  7. Playing In The Band >
  8. Wharf Rat >
  9. Throwing Stones >
  10. Not Fade Away

Dave’s Picks Volume 49 was released in late January, 2024. My copy arrived on January 29th. This volume is limited to 25,000 copies. Mine is number 23528. I’m excited to see what special show the fiftieth volume will contain.

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