Dick's Picks 35
The Houseboat Tapes
Hollywood - San Diego - Chicago
[August 6, 7 & 24, 1971
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2005, Volume 12, #7
Written by John Metzger
Compiling music from three separate shows performed by the Grateful Dead in August 1971, Dick’s Picks, Volume 35 is full of fits and starts. Its high points are further proof as to why the band is so exalted by those who had the opportunity firsthand to witness its magic, and if the collection’s low points — which, for the record, are far from being the worst examples of what the group had to offer — fail to blossom into a kaleidoscope of color, they do provide insightful glimpses into what made the ensemble tick. Culled from a treasure trove of tapes left on a houseboat belonging to the parents of then-keyboard player Keith Godchaux, the recordings that were used to make the set sound remarkably crisp, especially considering how long they were stored in less than ideal conditions. Encompassing the entirety of the Grateful Dead’s August 7 performance in San Diego as well as portions of its August 6 and August 24 concerts in Hollywood and Chicago, respectively, the four-disc package offers an alternative examination of the collective that was featured on the double-LP Grateful Dead as well as the box set Ladies & Gentlemen.
Dick’s Picks, Volume 35 commences with material from the show in San Diego, and typically slow to start, the Grateful Dead delivered a sturdy suite of eight tunes, all of which provided tight-knit examples of its burgeoning emphasis upon song structure. Intermixing original compositions such as Sugaree and Bertha with selections penned by the likes of Chuck Berry (Promised Land), Noah Lewis (Big Railroad Blues), and Merle Haggard (Mama Tried), the group set sail in solid, if unremarkable fashion. Still, the gritty, grinding chug of Mr. Charlie and a sluggish cover of Marty Robbins’ El Paso, which was salvaged by the aqueous undercurrent of guitar provided by Jerry Garcia, certainly hinted at the sublime possibilities that lurked within the realm of the Grateful Dead’s multifaceted existence. By the time it dove into the funky strains of Hard to Handle, the constraints of its approach had begun to dissipate, and as a result, the tune was transformed into a riveting, acid-drenched tribute to the late, great Otis Redding. Further fueling the band’s cosmic journey, the subsequent Cumberland Blues was a supercharged fireball of country-laced rock, and Casey Jones was the epitome of an out-of-control freight train.
As for the second set of the San Diego concert, it featured a similar ebb and flow of intensity. Although Me & My Uncle, Johnny B. Goode, and Sugar Magnolia were discharged solidly and energetically, they also felt perfunctory. On the other hand, the Grateful Dead unleashed the full force of its fiery fury by roaring through the raucous blues-inflected groove of Truckin’, while Next Time You See Me assumed an additional poignancy, especially considering that Pigpen’s health soon would be in serious decline. Elsewhere, the hushed fragility of Sing Me Back Home was mournful and haunted, and it hinted at the gospel-tinged hue that increasingly would adorn its future incarnations; the fusion of Not Fade Away and Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad was anchored by its Bo Diddley beat, but between Garcia’s screaming lead guitar, Phil Lesh’s elastic bass patterns, and Bob Weir’s jangly rhythm guitar sequences, the band achieved levitation; and even if its pairing of China Cat Sunflower with I Know You Rider wasn’t quite of the same caliber as the renditions that surfaced during the collective’s European tour in the spring of 1972, the dynamic range of its intricate interplay was clearly on display.
The second portion of Dick’s Picks, Volume 35 features most of the Grateful Dead’s concert in Chicago on August 24, 1971, and much like the San Diego segment, the band intermixed its diametric dispositions in ways that sometimes undermined the pacing of its performance. Even so, Chicago played host to the better of the two shows. True, Uncle John’s Band and Playing in the Band were ragged and listless — especially in comparison with the later, more robust versions of these songs — and an embryonic rendition of Brown-Eyed Woman understandably had yet to hit its stride. The remainder of the set, however, was stuffed with impassioned moments that included a quartet of soulful offerings from Pigpen: a jaunty romp through Big Boss Man; the anguished and heartbroken strains of Hurts Me Too; the swirling, darkened edges of the rarity Empty Pages; and a playfully exuberant excursion through Good Lovin’. In addition, the band — which, at this point, was led as much by Lesh as it was by Garcia and Pigpen — rumbled through a raging rendition of Cumberland Blues, tore through a rambunctious Beat It on Down the Line, and presented in pristine and celebratory fashion its crowd-pleasing medley of St. Stephen, Not Fade Away, and Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.
The final 68 minutes of Dick’s Picks, Volume 35 is devoted to the tape reels that survived from the Grateful Dead’s August 6, 1971 concert in Hollywood, and it’s here that the most significant material of the four-disc package resides. From its introductory interlude of percussion, The Other One exploded in a blast of driving rhythms and blazing guitars. Yet, as quickly as the song emerged, it also dissolved as the band guided its interstellar starship through a free-form jam that not only enveloped a forceful Me & My Uncle but also hinted at both Dark Star as well as the yet-to-be-unveiled Weather Report Suite Prelude before returning to the wild rampage of The Other One. Other highlights included a stirringly jubilant Sugar Magnolia, a devastatingly apocalyptic Morning Dew, and a raving finale of Turn on Your Lovelight. Indeed, while the April 1971 collection Ladies & Gentlemen covers similar ground and understandably boasts superior sound quality, those seeking more material from this transitional era of the Grateful Dead’s extraordinary history certainly won’t be disappointed with the contents of Dick’s Picks, Volume 35, some of which is positively mind-bending.
Dick's Picks, Volume 35 is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box