The best live album of all time? Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks Volume 4: February 13th & 14th 1970, Fillmore East - LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY! #45

[Again with the long titles! - Ed.]

I’ve always found the Grateful Dead much like a lost army wandering through a foreign land. For much of the time they’re simply plodding along, trekking aimlessly with no direction to shoot and nobody to aim for. Yet occasionally the army will stumble across an adversary, an opposing army, and battle commences with the deafening roar of gunfire, the unity of the troops fighting against one common perpetrator. In this brief moment, that comes along only very rarely, there is a moment of astonishing cohesiveness and individual heroism, with each man out to win the battle for himself and his comrades, giving their all individually and as a group. Similarly, the Dead’s live performances were often tired, unfocused and insipid, laboring their way through all-too familiar material to audiences who were too stoned to care. Yet once in a while, and sometimes for incredible runs of months or even years on end, the Dead simply got it right. They had the focus, the motivation, the passion: the mood was right, the songs were great and the improvisation extended beyond the farthest reaches of the cosmos.  Thank goodness for those dedicated fans who set up mobile recording studios in almost every venue they played at, so that the very pinnacle of the Dead’s live showmanship wouldn’t just remain the stuff of legend: it would be available for us many decades later in superbly rendered quality.

1970 represented one of many artistic peaks for the band. Their two studio albums released that year (Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty) had both gone platinum, and their live performances reached pinnacles that other bands could only dream of. 1970 saw the band at their early best before the jazz influenced leanings of Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux saw them move away from what they did best: raucous psychedelia and folk. Ultimately at this point, they represented the spirit of the 60’s excess still persisting, with their self-indulgent improvisations, massively extended guitar solos and their titanic wall of noise. Early live favourites like Dark Star and Turn on Your Lovelight had been honed to perfection and permitted to go to some vastly strange and unthinkable places. And what strange places they would go!  On these two nights in February 1970, just for a while, the Dead became more than just musicians, they became musical prophets, delivering the most wonderful music to those lucky enough to be present.

Alright alright, I realize that sounds ridiculous. And for anyone tuning into the album from the start it probably seems all the more incredulous. Disc one doesn’t start off remarkably, with a few short live favourites like China Cat Sunflower and I Know You Rider. Played well, admittedly - they’re on fine form. The opener Casey Jones is delivered with a much tougher bite than the album version, with crunching electric guitar and bass replacing the folksy acoustic that characterized that album. A nine-minute Dancing in the Street is noteworthy but far from the glorious highs they would take this song in their disco-influenced rendition from Barton Hall in May ’77. But let me ask you something: do you think a band can go on stage and just launch into some mind-altering improvisation? Don’t you think they’d need some warm up time? And I reckon that’s what the first few tracks are on this CD: warm up time! I have a number of Dead shows and they often start off much the same way; with a few fan favourites done fairly straight, leaving the monster improvs until they’re locked in the groove a bit and have found their feet. Not that this is a bad thing: not when you’ve got improv like on this CD: The centerpiece: three mammoth pieces, each half an hour in length. An absurd prospect, surely! And yet…

THE ultimate live track – Dark Star – commences with its signature bass/guitar motif. The Dead largely dropped this in their later career because they had done all they could do with it, although they often teased audiences by playing this opening salvo before launching into something different. Not this time. Dark Star was less than three minutes long in the studio but with a structure that just demanded improvisation. This version commences with a languid exposition of the theme with guitarists Garicia and Weir trading licks over a simple shaker beat. Phil “the monster” Lesh on bass is unusually restrained but characteristically inventive in his melodies and counterparts to the guitar playing. Enveloping quietly and mysteriously, it’s a good nine minutes before the vocals come in, at which point the music is almost deadly silent, the lyrics delivered as if in a hesitant whisper, adding more to the enigma of this already enigmatic composition. One verse down, and here the song takes a strange turn, almost a step back... done are the interlocking guitars and shakers. The band launches into a free form improvisation, just as quiet as before, with eerie guitar feedback, deathly quiet tremolo and skittering drums, a cymbal crash here and there. Into what dimension have we been transported? Wherefore comes this inclement sound? After treating our ears to this mindwarp, the band picks up the pace and launches into a groovy jam; notorious among Deadheads as the “Feelin’ Groovy” Jam because of its similarity to the Simon and Garfunkel song of the same name. Again, the playing is just extraordinary, with each musician at their personal best and also striving for a unified sound. The sparks fly, the cavernous spaces of the music are circumnavigated with the greatest fervidity… this is it right here folks, the pinnacle of live improvisation. And there’s still two whole discs left!

Dark Star segues right into another exhaustive workout, That’s It For The Other One, from their mad psychedelic experiment Anthem of the Sun in ’68. Another instantly recognizable guitar lick, the audience lets out a few orgasmic cheers. Boy are we in for a treat tonight! A few minutes of the song is obviously too much for the two drummers, who decide to break into a fervent drum duet (that’s right, a drum DUET, never mind a solo! When drum solos just aren’t enough) that’s astonishingly harmonious and inventive. A thunderclap of bass signals the return of the band and, as if seeming to capitalize on the newfound pace of the track, launch into a furious improvisation with a military-style drumbeat. No no, surely they can’t keep up thunderous pyrotechnics for long? Right? Wrong. For a ridiculous fifteen minutes the band keeps ascending to newer and newer highs: every note from Garcia’s guitar hits the sweet spot, the drumming is right on cue, the band is so tight that they slip to and from improvisation to melody before you even know it’s happening. A brief lapse in this manic drive is heard at the end, when the mournful lyrics “You know he had to die” are repeated while the band gives the music a suitably lugubrious treatment. Another burst of cacophony rounds out the song before launching right into yet another 30 minute workout, the showstopper Turn On Your Lovelight. Now, in my opinion this isn’t the definitive version – the rendition on Live/Dead achieves in 15 minutes what this one does in 30, with twice the kick and twice the cohesiveness. But that’s not to detract from this version: nay, this one is still remarkable – it just doesn’t quite hit the heights of the Live/Dead version, but I should mention that that version is my favorite live performance of any song by any band at any time, ever, so naturally it’s going to fall short. But it only does so marginally.

This is keyboardist Pigpen’s time to shine, taking over on lead vocals. Barking them out with a greater vocal conviction and infinitely more sex appeal than that other part-time-singer-in-a-band Ringo Starr, he gets the audience utterly riled up with his charisma. The rest of the band of course are on top form, blitzing their way through the blues stomper with unparalleled intensity. Pigpen’s vocal improvisations in the middle are pure showmanship, asking the audience to  “Reach over your left shoulder, touch that fox, tell her to come on over! and “get your hands out of your pockets and do somethin’ with ‘em, besides playing pocket pool!” There’s plenty of audience communication, with clapping responding to Pigpen’s outrageous cries. Now as I’ve said before, this isn’t quite the definitive version, and I sometimes think it’s a massive shortcoming of this version that the 15 minute Live/Dead version, at almost exactly half the length, delivers better on almost all fronts. But there’s one thing this version has to its advantage, and that’s the exact thing I just criticized it for – its length. In the Live/Dead version, it’s a blockbuster throughout its entire length, always erupting or else bubbling just under the surface. With this one, the wait makes it more interesting. Which of us can deny that waiting a long time to experience something, be it sex, a foreign holiday or getting your own car, makes it infinitely more desirable and interesting? Similarly, the Dead’s version of Lovelight here spends such a good portion of its running length in restraint that it keeps us on edge awaiting the gargantuan, show-stopping conclusion. And it’s not a disappointment. Over the course of the last 10 minutes the improvisations become progressively more cacophonic with bursts of brutal bass and guitar. The main theme reappears with its distinctive bassline and it keeps building and building, the drummers speed increases, Pigpen’s cries turn into roars… and it finally erupts in an earth-shattering climax. 90 minutes of pure otherworldly improvisation seems like it was no trouble at all.

And it’s STILL not over… one disc left. How much more awesomeness can my ears stand? The truth is, a lot, and there’s a lot more left to give. Disc three offers a happy medium between the first two discs, with a few short tracks interspersed with long soloing from most of the band members. This entire disc, however, is completely continuous, with each of the songs blending into the next in an hour long frenzy. The short Alligator paves the way for another fantastic 10+ minute drum duet which continues to excite throughout its entire duration. It segues nicely into the oft-performed Me and My Uncle for three minutes before the drums come pounding back in again for the raging rendition of the Buddy Holly classic Not Fade Away. That Bo Diddley beat, the bam-pa-bam-pa-bam, ba-pam-pam immortalized in so many songs, has never been given such prominence. The excitement and unpredictability of the live show continues as this song, originally less than three minutes is extended to 14, and merges seamlessly into a rare, unreleased track called Mason’s Children. The final centerpiece of the show is a riveting Caution, with its bluesy influence (the opening lyric “I went down to see the gypsy woman” echoes Muddy Waters’ Hoochie Coochie Man) opening up the floodgates for bluesy improvisation. The fastest paced number of the two nights doesn’t stop the band from making some of the most fluent jams they’d ever performed, with some stunning virtuoso guitar work from Garcia and jazzy, loose drumming from Kreutzmann and Hart. Captivating stuff. Finally, to add a little bit of mystery, the show ends with two quiet, brooding, solitary pieces. Feedback is exactly as you’d expect – just feedback, but controlled feedback. Lacking the overwhelming impact of Hendrix’s use of feedback, it’s cautionary and mysterious instead, offering a new means of utilizing this formerly alien sound. Lastly the band drops all instruments entirely for their soothing acapella rendition of the traditional And We Bid You Goodnight.

This is the way the show ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

Ultimately the Grateful Dead were first and foremost a good old-fashioned rock and roll band, who used live shows as a whole new vehicle for their sound and style. Dick’s Picks Volume 4 captures them doing what they do best at the very best of their ability. There’s no pretentious, complex compositions here, no turgid trudging through their back catalogue. It’s just a rollicking carnival ride through some damn fine rock and roll, blues and psychedelia, with some divinely inspired ideas on the two evenings. The best live album of all time? Call me when you find a better one; I imagine I’ll be waiting a long time.

Words - Adam

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