Disaster Amnesiac has had his hears full of Grateful Dead throughout 2012, in no small part due to it being the inaugural year for the Dave's Picks series. Here we are, winding down what will surely be recalled as one of the more contentious years in recent memory, and here I am, digging into the last quarterly installment of the series's 2012 offerings, College of William &Mary, Williamsburg, VA 9/24/76.
In the world of the Dead, 1976 has often seemed to be regarded as the Year of the Re-set. It was a period in which the band picked themselves up after various "big picture" (no pun intended) fiasco, re-integrated Mickey permanently, and initiated their penultimate re-imaging (the last being Brent's arrival/the Godchauxs' departure).
Disaster Amnesiac has always heard the Dead's 1976 offerings as somewhat ponderous attempts towards their then-current goals of reviving themselves as a touring act and refocusing on the music, having handed the business reigns over to an actual record company (please note the sticker on Jerry's Travis Bean "The Enemy is Listening"). Aside from a soul stirring version of Mission in the Rain, an achingly raw evocation from Hunter on the lyrical side and Garcia on the performance side, I have rarely taken much time to listen to Dead recordings from that year. I admit to being somewhat surprised by Dead.net's choice of a 1976 show to finish off this year's selections, but, having listened to this three disc set, I understand why they did.
The show starts off somewhat prosaically, even hitting an almost maudlin note during Looks Like Rain, but something happens during the late first set Tennessee Jed. Disaster Amnesiac has heard the simplest of elements, the quarter note pattern tapped on the hi-hat cymbals of Kreutzmann and Hart, as the auditory sign that the drummers are starting to mesh as a unit. The way that they lock in the early portions of the tune sounds pretty magical to me; the players out front seem to feel it, too, as Jed's slow shuffle is followed by a killer Playing in the Band. This version of Playing is apparently legendary among Deadheads, and it's pretty clear why this is the case. All of the band's calling cards are on high display: Jazz-like inter-band interplay, quotes from other tunes (Jerry plays snatches of Let it Grow a few minutes into the song's lengthy instrumental passage, is this a signal of choices being made?), and an overall psychedelic spaciness endow its seventeen minutes with the kind of jamming flight that is so appealing to fans of the Dead's music. The fact that they partition the tune with a hot, tight version of Bob's Supplication (that's more like it rocker!) makes it all the more sweet for any Dead fan.
The second set kicks off with a version of Might as Well that may be the best example of Garcia's innate soulfulness in the vocal department and Phil's booming bass punctuations, and blazes forward from there, mostly featuring the band's distinctive 1970's fare. It still strikes Disaster Amnesiac, how much Jerry loved the slow, ballad form; his renditions of Loser and Stella Blue here are fine examples of this. What were this man's shadows like? Perhaps the answer to that question lies in Hunter's admonition, "roll away the dew", and the Franklin's Tower in which that line resides is part of a so loose it's tight Help on the Way-Slipknot-Drums-Slipknot-Franklin's Tower-The Music Never Stopped-Stella Blue that again finds the band reaching levels of instrumental/psychic interplay which only they could reach, in that and probably all other eras. It's over thirty minutes of sweetly continuous prime 1970's Dead, moving from the mystery of Help on the Way, to the rudimental/tribal drumming entrainment of Drums to the jubilation of The Music Never Stopped, and the band sounds like they're enjoying and feeling every minute of it. The show's closing numbers, rocking versions of Around and Around and U.S. Blues wave spirited victory flags for the band as they seal the deal. Jerry's vocal delivery on the latter is particularly inspired, pointed in his peculiar, knowing cadence.
Within their grand scheme, 1976 proved to be a very important year for the Grateful Dead. It set the stage for the heights of 1977, and all of the subsequent strange developments for the quintessential band of misfits. Dave's Picks vol. 4 shows their wily beast to have been very much alive and kicking, sloughing off the cobwebs of "retirement" and kick starting the Good Old Grateful Dead into their storied second half.