Judging from the sound of Dave's Picks 10-Thelma, Los Angeles, CA December 12, 1969, Pigpen and the boys were caught during one of those quintessential runs, in which all of the elements of the Grateful Dead gestalt were mixing just so, the polyglot voices of what, for that weekend, was their High Psychedelic Masters Septet blending into one eloquent, elegant sound.
Did I mention sound? Why yes, and it's justified. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect that Disaster Amnesiac has noted while listening to Thelma is the mix, the actual full sound. It just seems very different from the Bear-fried over the top ballroom blitzes that characterize so many of the other 1969 recordings that I've heard. From what I gather, the club called Thelma, on the Sunset Strip in L.A., was a mid-sized one (maybe the same size as the Straight Theater in S.F.?). I don't think I'm wrong in guessing that the amps may have been turned down just a bit, that the cymbals may not have been slashed quite as hard as when they were playing at the Fillmore East or on Haight Street. Even the Feedback sounds somewhat delicate here, before tucking into a lovely And We Bid You Goodnight.
Another possibility that Disaster Amnesiac has entertained while digging into this most recent Dave's Picks is the highly possible scenario that there were "industry types" in the audience on the evening of 12/12, and that the band were playing to their tastes somewhat. I'd argue that the preponderance of Pig tunes here (very much not a bad thing any time, anywhere) gives evidence of this. Ron's masterful showmanship, sounding slightly restrained yet very professional, is highlighted on a great, languid Easy Wind, and straightforward takes of Hard to Handle and I'm a King Bee, dynamic Lovelight and a an almost Steve Reich-sounding (at least from Phil's vantage) Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks) marathons. This is not to say that he does the Industry Pussyfoot, mind you. He and the rest of the Dead most definitely get down. There's just a feel of them maybe attempting to put on a somewhat more understandable (for the linear types) presentation on these tracks. And, with Pigpen at the helm, it works, naturally.
As Disaster Amnesiac has listened to and enjoyed the newest offering in the Dave's Picks series, the idea of change keeps coming to mind. It seems likely that even the most casual of fans of the band will be appraised of the Grateful Dead's penchant for change. Change was the lifeblood of the Dead. As I have ruminated from that point, it strikes me their aesthetic demise can probably be directly linked to the logistical barriers that arose with their Super Star Status later on, barriers that seemed to have made it impossible for them to go all I Ching on their affairs.
Way back in 1969, though, the Grateful Dead harnessed the high power of willful change with abandon and succeeded often. Thelma most definitely gives off that energy. Along with Primal Dead chestnuts (roasted) such as Cold Rain and Snow and Alligator, major stylistic signs of Change such as Black Peter, Casey Jones, Uncle John's Band, and Cumberland Blues are broken out. The band sounds as if they are enjoying the discovery of these slightly more inward-looking musical spaces; the playing often sounds as if they are collectively kindling these spaces, as opposed to just dosing them and blowing them up. The move away from Avant-Garde abstraction and into master songwriting is in full effect. After all, these may well have been among the last shows with TC! These tunes and others carried the band for a few years, and it's definitely fun to hear them as they were emerging, signaling new musical spirals, slightly more well crafted, in which they could collectively dance.
Bonus Disc Bonanza!!!!
Seeing as I've never bothered to review the bonus discs that come with the second quarter of each Dave's Picks year, I figured a bit of spieling is in order now. 2012's 1974 offering featured some really nice Wall of Sound jamming, with a great Nobody's Fault But Mine thrown in. Last year's bonus gave some hot 1969 Fillmore Auditorium jams, notable for one of those rare Mason's Children appearances. As for 2014's edition, recorded 12/11/1969, the listener finds the Dead in a bit more of an expansive psychedelic mode, with a a Dark Star that features lovely tones from Jerry and out into a pretty Feelin' Groovy Jam, a solidly played, after some initial sour notes, Saint Stephen and a nicely transitioned, ride cymbal swingin' The Eleven. From The Eleven's East Indian tala, they jump right into the West Virginia Appalachian stomp of Cumberland Blues. After a break, That's It For the Other One gets a nice, long, twenty five minute romp with a great tandem drums spot before the full on ensemble dynamics. The set ends with a snaky version of Cosmic Charlie, the band wants to play more, Jerry says "fuck it", and that's that! Good '69 stuff here, but good luck trying to find a copy at this point!