It is such a treat to have an ongoing series of full-show releases of Grateful Dead concerts released by Rhino and the Dead (4 a year). Most of these shows were not originally recorded with the intention of commercial release, so many are imperfect insomuch as the mixes are not as precise as one might be used to on your typical “Live album.” But this is nothing new to even the most newbie of Dead-Heads.
The Grateful Dead were one of the few bands who not only allowed their shows to be taped by audience members, they actually encouraged it! As a result, different quality sound recordings are part of the Grateful Dead listening experience. And soundboard recordings, also of varying quality –not to mention generations (from back in the ol’ tape cassette trading days)– have always been with us, either through the generosity of folks at the board letting tapers plug in, or in those unintended releases that found their way into unofficial circulation like the famed “Betty Boards.”
Always one step ahead of the industry and most other bands, the Dead sought new avenues of exploration both on and off stage. One of those avenues was their immense Wall of Sound which dominated all of their 1974 shows (and had been on display in various forms throughout 1973). The Wall of Sound was placed behind the musicians so they were able to create their own mix. It was a state-of-the-art system that produced one of the cleanest and purest live music experiences ever. And it sounded like nothing else.
The recording used for the official release of the Grateful Dead’s Winterland show from February 24, 1974 has been mixed and cleaned up to the best possible standards. And while the vocals are sometimes lower than one might prefer, the show’s energy is on full display.
The band kicks off the evening with a terrific first set. It’s surely imperfect with the boys (and Donna) finding their way into the groove. By the time they hit PLAYING IN THE BAND which closes the first set, the band has officially achieved liftoff.
The second set holds some real surprises, most especially an incredible WEATHER REPORT SUITE that finds its way unexpectedly into a spectacular ROW JIMMY. Garcia’s SHIP OF FOOLS follows that and, I swear, it’s one of the best versions I’ve ever heard. Just beautiful. A rocking PROMISED LAND tips us off that the band has acquired a newfound fierceness that sets the stage for the whopping DARK STAR into MORNING DEW that follows. ’74 DARK STARS were always pretty special and this one is no exception. This is an incredibly exploratory and jazzy version clocking in at 29 minutes and still only containing the first of two verses! The MORNING DEW that follows is one of the most heartfelt and energetic of its era. This is the band coming together in that unique and unparalelled way that most Dead Heads seek out like the Holy Grail.
Every tour in Grateful Dead history has its own sound, as does every year. The music is based on improvisation and emotional resonance and, as a result, it translates each band members’ personal state as well as the group state. That includes the audience and venue. 1974 was the Dead’s “jazziest” year. It was also their last year before taking an 18 month hiatus from touring. It was also the last time the band toured with the mammoth Wall of Sound. Dave’s Pick’s 13 takes place at Winterland, the Grateful Dead’s home turf. This was family, comfort, ease and that is reflected in the music from these early nights in ’74.
The SUGAR MAGNOLIA that follows could have closed the show and everyone would have gone home more than a little satiated. But, in perfect Grateful Dead fashion, the band had more energy left and it would have been a shame to waste it. As a result, the NOT FADE AWAY into GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD and back into NOT FADE AWAY that closes the second set is pure Grateful Dead joy. A common combination of songs and always a crowd-pleaser, this night’s incarnation threatened to tear the roof off the place. It’s quintessential Grateful Dead at their most fluid, their most rocking. It is the kind of perfection that can only be earned through persistence and collaboration. It is the type of live music-making that prompts one to grin from ear to ear out of sheer, irresistible joy. Yes, this is what we seek.
The IT’S ALL OVER NOW, BABY BLUE that follows as the night’s encore is about as sweet as any version I’ve ever heard and is an interpretation of the Dylan song only 1974 could have allowed. It was also the first time the Dead had played the song since 1972.
Kudos to all involved in getting this show out there as an official release. I spent last night grooving around my living room, eyes closed, my senses transported back in time to an experience my body and soul longs for. I can’t wait to return to that place yet again. Perhaps next time will be alongside the upcoming Dave’s Picks 14.
Where are we going next, Dave?