On Second Thought: Grateful Dead – Dave’s Picks, Volume 1 (2012)

And so a series of live archival Grateful Dead concert releases begins under the moniker of Dave’s Picks. Named after David Lemieux, the keeper of the Grateful Dead’s musical vault, this collection is the follow up to the popular and original 36-volume Dick’s Picks collection and short-lived Road Trips sequence.

Fans never really latched on to the piecemeal Road Trips, which offered musical selections as opposed to full concert recordings. Dave’s Picks subscribes to the vision of original and famed Grateful Dead archivist Dick Latvala, who initiated the idea of releasing the most transcendent Grateful Dead performances to the public — regardless of some minor sonic anomalies that may have previously prevented their release to the general public. These collections were originally available to order through the mail and currently can be accessed through the Grateful Dead’s official website.

Volume 1 of the Dave’s Picks series was given an auspicious introduction, starting at the end of one of the Grateful Dead’s most popular tours in May of 1977. That legendary month, containing some of the band’s finest musical moments, has now been mined for a box set, an official release and three Dick’s Picks. The premiere edition of Dave’s Picks pulls from this spring 1977 tour a performance that in some ways equals or surpasses any of the previously released and aforementioned shows.

Dave’s Picks, Volume One brings us back to May 25, 1977 in Richmond Virginia at the ornate musical venue, the Mosque. Two shows would remain until the conclusion of the storied Spring ’77 tour. and this concert finds the Grateful Dead playing at a consistently levitated level. The group is listening intently to one another, playing variable and extended set lists — and developing the songs that would become important jam vehicles and cornerstones of their catalog for years to come.

The concert’s first set is a typical of 1977’s extended performances, which is to say it is brimming with power and grace. The Grateful Dead, by this time in their history, had learned to harness their explosiveness. No longer playing the extended five-hour concerts of the past, they could now sustain a steady level of intensity for an entire evening.

Opening with the pairing of “Mississippi Half Step” and “Jack Straw,” it’s obvious that the Grateful Dead means business from the get go. Pairing together two usual openers into one package, “Mississippi” and “Jack Straw,” by this point in the tour, have been cracked open enough to reveal a multitude of sunny musical horizons — and the same holds true here. One major highlight of this opening set of music includes the usually poignant “Peggy-o,” which in 1977-78 reached a place of refinement and dignity that the group would find hard to surpass in future years. The same applies for a well-jammed “Cassidy,” and a charged version of “Lazy Lightning/Supplication” that acts as a set closer — but in typical 1977 fashion is followed by more music represented by crushing versions of “Brown Eyed Women” and “Promised Land.”

The real wizardry occurs in second set, when the band opens with the 14th version of the “Scarlet/Fire” pairing of the tour, and arguably the best. While there is a reasonable argument for previous versions containing the same alchemy as this particular one, notably May 8, 1977, this particular rendition contains a forward-moving assertiveness that forsakes dreaminess and drift for a current of percolating sonic foam. Phil Lesh and the drummers are particularly spunky, grumbling under Jerry Garcia’s phased explorations that eventually construct an orchestrated and seamless transition into “Fire on the Mountain.” The Grateful Dead is “on” this night and they know it.

Garcia freaks out on the fret board for “Fire,” playing hot potato with multiple melodic constructions, while the drummers willfully enthusiastic exclamations are the impetus for much of the excitable jamming. The hallmark of this performance for me is the melodic sensibility and original creativity by all of the players, in addition to the aggressive and musical drumming for this show. Obviously these elements equate to a top performance in a respected era by the entire group.

Following a compact “Estimated Prophet,” a notable take on “He’s Gone” appears and then morphs into a stout blues groove. The swamp-stepping jam that follows illustrates the contagious playfulness exhibited by the Dead on this evening. The band slowly crest the hill and then fade into an imposing double drum breakdown that explodes in a series of percussive bombs. Out of the remnants of the war drums comes the finest “Other One” of the tour.

Garcia is again, offering a wealth of melodic ideas, blowing the psychedelic horn and building the song to a series of dramatic swells that elicit cosmic response from the entire group. Following the first verse the drummers keep the jam bobbing for life, never letting it disappear under the surface. This musical excursion that follows features some of the finest jamming you can uncover in this month. Unique here is that the version of the “Other One” is split, straddling a typically cinematic 1977 version of “Wharf Rat.” The Grateful Dead plays this one like they mean it, and in the context of the show it feels just exactly perfect. After completing the regal “Wharf Rat,” the group returns to sing verse two of “Other One” completing the version — but not finishing the tale. A perfectly placed “Wheel” rolls in from the road, bringing with it a cool breeze after the preceding half hour of heavy musical exploration.

Seizing the moment to take it home and satisfied with the evening’s discoveries, the Dead blast through the Chuck Berry songbook with a heavy and extended double time “Around and Around,” just like they used to build ‘em. Following this is a rip snortin’ encore of “Johnny B Goode.” played with a duck walkin’ fervor and closing the evening definitively.

When the Grateful Dead play at their best, it feels trite to try to explain it in words. Dave’s Picks, Volume One comes from what many feel to be the band’s finest era, so its choice is not a surprise. What may be a surprise is how such musical quality and continued improvisation could be accessed easily on a nightly basis. This recording contains one of these evenings, filled with numerous unique and delightful passages now forever immortalized. Unfortunately limited to 12,000 copies, this release is now in the hands of flippers and gougers — but it can be found for those willing to search.

Stephen Lewis

A creative writing major at SUNY Brockport and freelance writer from Upstate New York, Stephen Lewis maintains a music-focused site called Talk From the Rock Room: thefrodisroomrockblog.blogspot.com. He has also written for UpstateLive Music Guide and Ultimate Classic Rock. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.