Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Grateful Dead-Dave's Picks v. 2; Dillon Stadium, Hartford, CT 7/31/1974

The second installment of the 2012 Grateful Dead Dave's Picks has been out for about a month now, and, wow what a huge slab of a complete show it is (and that's not even counting the bonus disc, to be reviewed, ah.....later).
Said show occurred 7/31/1974 at Dillon Stadium in Hartford, CT. 1974's live Dead recordings are all special for Dead Heads and fans in that they feature the fabled Wall of Sound; that beast of a sound system seems to be a primary reason for archivist Dave Lemieux's having picked this particular show for the 2nd Quarter 2012  Dave's Picks installment. 
The stellar audio clarity and separation of the Wall of Sound shows the Dead at one of their fable peaks. The 1974 iteration of the band was a fluid, multifaceted group, capable of going from the countrified sounds that (for some) defined their post-raw psychedelic mode, to the more purely "Dead" vibes of Scarlet Begonias or Wharf Rat. What's really appealing about their music during this period is the tumbling, loose manner in which it was played, coupled with their ability to have it all hang together in its own idiosyncratic way. The over the top nature of their 1960's acidic jamming had by then given way to a more inwardly focusing group sound. If one wants to hear the purely psychedelic element within the Dead's sound, one must listen a bit more closely. The raw nerve of psychedelia is there, just wrapped within new complexities of approach from the music's players. The clarity of the Wall's sound certainly helps the listener dig in to these complexities. 
For example, a Dead fan will certainly thrill as they listen to Garcia's picking, strumming, and soloing, all delivered on one of his finest axes, fondly known as Big Bad Wolf. What's really striking to Disaster Amnesiac is the searching way in which he played during this period. There is a repro'd article by Bruce Myer in the liner notes, in which he opines that, instead of staying with their early 1970's formula, the Dead chose to remain musically risky, following the music's development as opposed to that of the bottom line. This choice can be heard in Jerry's playing throughout the show. His sound never sits still; the listener can hear him playing with variations on tunes that were obviously quite familiar to the hard-touring group. People rag on Garcia for that, but one can't ever accuse him of playing it safe with the forms he worked within. The way he bends around the chords, runs up and down the songs' structures, or even attacks his songs' phrases, is a real pleasure to hear. His playing on these discs often brings to my mind the classic Dead image of the wooden wheel that has one broken spoke and several roses grown 'round it.
Jerry's six string foil, Bob Weir, had obviously developed his own unique voice by this time. While not quite as present in the mix guitar-wise as Garcia (at least until his slide is broken out), his oblique rhythm guitar work is heard in all of its chiming, spiky glory. It's more often Bob's songs that bring the Dead of the early 1970's their progressive, Jazz-tinged character, too. The Weather Report Suite from the Dillon Stadium show is a great example of that.
Bassist Phil Lesh was perhaps the greatest beneficiary from the Wall's crystalline audio presentation. His self-taught, non-standard "lead bass" playing can be heard loud and clear in the mix. Lesh often defined the sound of the band with what he didn't do, laying out and then dramatically digging in. The clarity of the Wall of Sound allows this force its full resonance, its full heady effect on the music. Jackson mentions that Lesh and Ned Lagin did a Seastones electronic set during at this show, but Lemieux decided not to present this aspect of the Dead's resident brainiac's oeuvre (there is a Dick's Picks from Boston Garden that does give the listener a live sampling of that action).
Probably also dancing with joy at the Wall's clarity was Bill Kreutzmann. His drum set got its own mics and speakers for each and every piece for crying out loud! His tom toms sound particularly cannon-like as he rolls and tumbles through the 3 sets of the concert. Much like Garcia, Kreutzmann's propensity to take chances, to play with the songs' forms, is brave and striking. That's not to say that his playing isn't tight as well; at times it has a relentless snap. Along with the snap, though, Bill brought a kind of non-linear Zen to the band's jams, often evident here. A tumbling, at times traffic-stopping recklessness, that while often not pretty, is always dramatic.
I can recall reading an interview with Bill Kreutzmann in which he describes pianist Keith Godchaux's initial audition for the Dead. The drummer's description of Keith's playing as having "danced along on top of the changes" is fitting here, too. The Classically trained Godchaux must have enjoyed being able to hear the sounds of his grand piano playing as it interacted with the rest of the group.
Although their approach to vocal harmony had found its own sort of perfection in the early 1970's cycle of albums, by the time of this disc's concert, it seems as if they had given up the ghost there. People either love their vocals or hate them, and their often raggedy character gives plenty of room for either feeling. Even former studio singer Donna Jean Godchaux muffs a few times. In as much as the Wall of Sound boosts the listener's ability to hear Garcia's runs or Bill's fills, it also highlights this, the Dead's weakest point in all eras of their existence as a band. I guess the friendliest way to describe them is "they have character". At least, that's the case for Disaster Amnesiac.
It's been said before, but bears repeating, that the crucial element in the Grateful Dead's music was the gestalt nature of their playing. The band sounded best when all players were present and capable of interactive playing and listening. The show featured on Dave's Picks 2 is a great example of the Dead's 1974 conglomeration doing just those things, in a marathon 3 sets. The tunes are culled mostly from their 1970's repertoire, one in which they were firing on very strong cylinders. The clarity provided by the Wall of Sound only adds to a long list of strengths heard therein. The Grateful Dead were a wild, wooly, shambolic beast of an electric, eclectic jam in those days!


Pig State Recon said...

Great and perceptive review here, Mr Amnesiac. As you point out, it's their dedicated commitment to play around and altering the tunes/structures that most marks the DEAD live thing - which ironically, is the bit that most alienates their more casual fans. I also agree with your assessment of the appeal & limitations of their vocals - like rhubarb, they are most definitely an acquired taste.

But I must admit I've also struggled with DEAD drumming at times too. I suspect this has something to do with how much easier it is for drums to clutter up lighter/folkier rock stuff than in bands who take a heavier approach to their rhythm, ala SABBATH? Just a guess.

Mark Pino On Drums said...

Hey Row! Thanks!
There is a point of the version of China Doll contained on this release where Bill sounds like he has no idea how to play it. Gotta give 'em credit for having the guts to take chances like that, but, yeah, you're right!