Thursday, December 6, 2012

Grateful Dead: Dave's Picks Vol. 4

I'm a Deadhead.  The contours of my Deadheaddom are these.  I got on the bus in 1987-1988, but only figuratively:  I only saw three shows, and never followed the band.  Becoming a fan when I did, I'll forgive you for thinking I was turned on to the band by "Touch of Grey."  It's true, that song was everywhere in 1987, and I heard it and liked it as much as most rock radio listeners did.  But I think my getting turned on to the Dead when I did had more to do with the simple fact that I went away to college in the fall of '87.  And my college was full of Deadheads, and I was already a hippie wannabe, so:  it was gonna happen anyway.

As I say, I only saw three shows (I was in Japan for most of the time between my second show and my third).  And I never even got seriously into tape collecting.  Only when Everything went up on the Internet Archive did I start listening to unreleased Dead in a big way.  On the other hand, I've bought every vault release since they started releasing 'em with One From The Vault in 1991.  In case you're not counting, that's dozens and dozens of multidisc sets in the last twenty years.  At the moment there are only three I'm missing.  And I'll get around to them, too, don't worry. 

I'm obsessed with completism and with anthologizing, so I judge any new Dead vault release by slightly different criteria than most Deadheads do.  At least, that's the impression I've formed over the last dozen years or so of perusing Deadhead discussion fora.  I want to have nothing less than a representative canon of live Dead, one that touches on all significant performances from throughout their career.  I want this canon to exist, in some kind of definitive form, so that a hundred years from now, my great-grandnieces can explore the Dead in some kind of systematic fashion, rather than the haphazard, random way I've done it.

(Although, yes, it's true, I've enjoyed that haphazardness a great deal, and probably would have lost interest if the Dead had ever made it totally easy for me...  That's the nature of the trip, always has been, and perhaps it's for the best.  But, still.)

So I look at any new release with an eye to the gaps it fills, both in my collection and in the canon (as constituted by official releases).  Only after that do I think about things like show quality, sound quality, etc. 

I have here before me the most recent Dead release, Dave's Picks Volume 4.  It consists of the complete 9/24/76 show at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  It's a subscription-only, limited-edition, sold-out set (my copy is no. 3835 of 12000), so if you don't have it, I guess you're SOL.  (I kind of hate the limited-edition concept - it seems unjust to people who haven't become Deadheads yet but one day will - but whatever.)

It's been clear for most of the last couple of decades that most 'heads who buy these things prefer '70s shows.  For a while I was keeping a running count of what proportion of releases were from that decade;  I lost count, can't be bothered to figure it out now, but it's pretty damn high.  Over 50%, surely.  A mere third of the band's career comprises the lion's share of the canonical output.  That bothers me, and not just because I'm a completist.  I'm one of those dodos (a rare and, perhaps, foolish bird) who likes '80s and '90s Dead, too.  There are gems in every year, even at the depth of Jerry's addictions.

On that score, DaP4 is more of the same.  In fact, the series so far has been four '70s shows, with a fifth promised as the first release of 2013.  So that's a little disappointing.  Still, there's '70s and there's '70s.  Within that decade, the lion's share of the lion's share come from just four years:  1972, 1973, 1974, and 1977.  '70, '71, '75, '76, '78, and '79 are not unrepresented, to be sure, but they've been a lot slower to reach something like representative coverage. 

I'm about at the point where I feel 1976 is done.  This is the fifth full show to be released so far from the autumn tour, in addition to a few scraps that have slipped out here.  I'm sure there are great moments left to be compiled (my personal Fall '76 anthology includes a couple of tracks from 9/30 and 10/15 that haven't been released yet), but as tours go, this one is now quite well represented.  Especially considering that there are entire years in the '80s and '90s with no releases at all.  Not to mention the gobsmacking fact that we have yet to get a '67 show.  Summer of Love and all that? 

So for canon-fleshing-out purposes, this is useful but perhaps at the limits of usefulness.  But what about the music?

My God, but I love the Grateful Dead.  I go through months at a time where I don't listen to them, but then I'll put on a disc and I'm right back in that Deadhead space, and I don't want to listen to anything else.  At this point it's safe to say that there's no artist, no body of work (not even Dylan or Yes, who I've loved longer and deeper than the Dead), that does it for me like the Dead do. 

And Fall '76 is good Dead.  I am glad that they've reached such a good level of coverage for this tour, because I love it.  Yes, they're still figuring out what they can and can't do with two drummers, and yes, they're still working out the kinks in the new repertoire they invented for themselves with their return to touring in summer '76 (after a nearly two year hiatus).  And yes, things would only get better from here - smoother, more inventive.  But I do like the sense of discovery and risk you get with these fall '76 shows.  By spring of '77 (which is far more extensively covered than this tour, and with good reason), they'd once again be playing like gods;  here they're just beginning to feel that they could get there again. 

At the moment I think my favorite passage from this show is the extended, drum-bifurcated "Slipknot!" deep in the second set.  Keith is the one leading the band here, playing off the drummers without using Jerry as a mediator - as tasty as his licks are in this segment, he's basically irrelevant.  There were lots of gnarlier "Slipknot!"s to come, but few this supple, this close to actual jazz.  It's the Dead at the limits of their style, ready to become something else.

And to balance that, I would direct your attention to "Big River," which also sees Keith and the Mickey/Billy team running the show.  This version prances, skips, marches, and frogsteps its way down the big muddy - all on water, of course.

This band could do anything.

No comments: