The Grateful Dead’s 1974 tour is famous for being the one which Owsley “Bear” Stanley’s (1935-2011) “Wall of Sound” system was used. At the time, Bear was their sound manager, and his agile mind went to work on creating the ultimate sound system. It was so complex that it featured separate channels for each string of Phil Lesh’s bass. It was a monumental structure, but proved to be far too costly and troublesome to be used on a coast to coast tour. As the concerts captured on Dick’s Picks 31 show us though, the brilliance of Bear’s setup was undeniable.
The Real Gone label have begun issuing the Dick’s Picks series to retail outlets, and this four-CD set is number 31. The Dick’s Picks series of concert recordings were culled out of the Grateful Dead’s archives by the late Dick Vatala (1943-1999). The band entrusted him with the task of literally “picking” some of the greatest of the Grateful Dead’s concerts from their vast archives. Prior to these Real Gone releases, the sets were only available through the Dead’s mail-order and online businesses.
As the “Caveat Emptor” disclaimer on the back reminds us, the CDs were mastered from the original two-track analog tapes. The upshot is that the music did not come directly from the soundboard, so the quality of it may not be absolutely “perfect.” Well, it sounds pretty good to me, and the incredible attention to detail in the separation of the instruments comes through loud and clear.
While hearing the Wall of Sound in all its glory is certainly a big attraction, the shows themselves were fantastic. The 31-tracks that comprise the four CDs were all recorded in early August 1974. To be precise, they come from three days of concerts; August 4 and 5 at the Philadelphia Civic Center in Philadelphia, and on the 6th at Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey.
These Northeast Dead fans were in for a one-of-a kind concert experience from the post-Pigpen lineup of the band. Not that Pigpen could ever be replaced of course, but Keith and Donna Godchaux had joined the group to help fill out the sound. Keith played organ, and his wife Donna added a new element to the mix with her vocals. For a variety of reasons, the Grateful Dead took an extended break after this tour, no doubt related to their exhaustion from it all.
There was a payoff to the rigorous schedule however, for they were an incredibly tight band at this time. The musical connection of the six members was extraordinary, verging on the telepathic. Over the course of their 30-year career, the lineup of the Grateful Dead changed a number of times. A great deal of Dead fans agree that this configuration of the band was one of their finest. Besides the Godchaux’s, they were down to the core of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann’s drums. I cannot help but miss “The Other One” - drummer Mickey Hart, but he would not return to the fold until October of that year.
Be that as it may, the Grateful Dead were performing at a peak of their considerable powers during these concerts. Opening their Philly stand with a nearly 26-minute version of “Playing In The Band” is a statement in itself. The band jump head-first into the deep end of the pool, and you can practically hear the gasps of the audience at the amazing sound Owsley’s speaker system.
“Playing In The Band” is one of those “perfect” Grateful Dead songs. Not only do Robert Hunter’s lyrics speak to fans on something of a one-to-one basis, but the structure of the tune allows for a wide variety of musical extrapolations. As something of a jazz fan, I find it incomprehensible that the group’s jams were dismissed as “stoned indulgences.” If a critic does not understand the concept of improvisation, they should just admit their ignorance. Nobody called Miles Davis “indulgent” when he stretched “Gondwana” out to 46:50 at his concerts in Japan six months later.
It seems as if “Playing In The Band” was the unofficial theme of these concerts, as there are two more versions included in the set. Both are on disc four. In fact, the programming of the five songs on the fourth disc is interesting enough to list here; “Eyes of the World” (19:28), “Playing In The Band” (22:37), “Scarlet Begonias” (9:25), “Playing In The Band” (5:04), and closing with “Uncle John’s Band” (10:44).
I will refrain from listing all of the songs, running orders, and times of the remaining three CDs. There are another 25 tracks included in this set, and the choices the band made are quite intriguing. As my discussion of the opening, heavily-improvised “Playing” hints at, the group were very much in a “jam” mode at this time. Highlights include the great “Weather Report Suite,” “Truckin,” and two very self-descriptively titled “Jams.”
Of the covers that the group put their distinctive stamp on, I found their version of “Me & Bobby McGee” to be a real highlight. First of all, it is simply a great song. But the in the hands of the Dead, it also stands as a bit of a tribute to one of their friends from the early days of the Bay Area scene, Janis Joplin.
There are so many highlights on these discs that I could probably write a paragraph or two on every song. For the sake of brevity I will refrain - but “Wharf Rat,” “The Other One Jam”/”Space” and “Ship of Fools” are just a few more that should not be missed.
Dick Vatala knew what he was doing when he picked these concerts, without a doubt. There is no question that Bear’s Wall of Sound is a major selling point for this one, but it is definitely not the only one. Beyond all of the external factors, the Grateful Dead were performing some of the best concerts a person could see in 1974. Dick’s Picks 31 at least allows us an opportunity to be there in spirit at least.