The Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks 15 (1999; 2014 reissue)

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Real Gone Music has returned to the now out-of-print Dick’s Picks series to present one of the finer offerings from the Grateful Dead’s extensive vault collection.

Dick’s Picks Volume 15, hailing from September 3, 1977 in Englishtown, N.J., has long been a favorite of Deadheads — deriving, as it does, from one of the Dead’s most beloved and discussed touring years. As such, 1977 is very well represented with numerous official releases, most coming from the legendary spring tour.

This particular concert followed the Grateful Dead’s June Winterland shows, and an unplanned three-month break that followed when Mickey Hart was injured in an automobile accident. Their return was met by a collection of rabid fans that numbered between 100,000 and 150,000. Contrary to the band’s penchant for failing to live up to large concert expectations, on this particular night the Grateful Dead matched the crowd’s energy — and then surpassed it with an performance for the ages.

For the astute listener, Dick’s Picks Volume 15 features the huge electric orchestra aesthetic that would carry the band through the end of the 1970s. During this period, the Grateful Dead gained a kinetic edginess to their performances, the improvisations became somewhat truncated, but the energy was dispersed in such a way that all of the songs performed contained a concentrated power. Bombastic drumming and crushing instrumentation was the hallmark of the Dead during the late 1970s. I believe that this Englishtown, N.J. concert is a high water mark for the second phase of the band’s touring career, and a hallmark for their new approach and continued relevance. Dick’s Picks Volume 15 contains some of the finest versions of the Grateful Dead’s most beloved songs, many arguably the best they performed in the post-1974 era. “Eyes of the World,” “Not Fade Away” and “Truckin'” all feature unique and inspired playing, as well as instrumental passages never to revisited again.

The enormous raceway was lassoed by tractor-trailer boxes to help reign in the swelling crowd, as they enjoyed preceding Indian summer sets by the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Marshall Tucker Band. When the Dead finally took the stage, they revealed a dominant and authoritative first set where they played like a steel jack hammer shaking off the rust from a three-month respite. In fact, the Grateful Dead explodes right from the beginning — starting with a stone-cold rock and roll “Promised Land” and do not let up for the remainder of the set.

Even the usually calm and collected “They Love Each Other” displays an aggressive embrace and tight squeeze. The first set features heavy-footed stomps through the flower bed, highlighted by a titanic ‘”Mississippi Half Step” that reached its musical maturity during this era. The concluding “Music Never Stopped” revealed a small glimpse into what awaited the crowd in the upcoming second set.

Phil Lesh is especially “on” this evening, detonating charges throughout the performance and driving the drummers into thunderous exclamations. The second set illustrates this perfectly as the band sprints into an incendiary pairing of “Bertha” and “Good Lovin.'” From there, the set continues building in momentum, stretching and expanding like a water balloon about to reach its nexus. The first example of this is the following “Estimated Prophet/Eyes of the World” pairing.

“Estimated” has an exploratory, but compact, outro jam that suddenly dissipates into one of the finest takes on “Eyes of the World” you will ever hear. Featuring an extended introduction, Jerry Garcia in particular elicits a melodic expressiveness that inspires chills in the listener. Each solo segment is highlighted by exclusive guitar excursions where Garcia slowly constructs a musical story, building in dynamics and culminating in all proponents of the band gathering in celebratory expression. This version spotlights some of Garcia’s most inspired guitar playing ever on the song.

Another highlight featured in this special second set follows a window smashing and brick throwing “Samson and Delilah.” The Grateful Dead takes a brief breather, before embarking on a 40-minute segment of music that once again finds members mining and then revealing some of their finest playing. The segment of music begins auspiciously with a slightly confused version of “He’s Gone.” Garcia humorously mixes up the verses and the drummers plod along tentatively, until just following the vocal reprise the musical stew begins to thicken. The band coagulates and drifts away from the song form before locking into a distant relative of the Bo Diddley beat. The musicians’ mirror statements from each other before merging in a glorious improv.

What happens next is the stuff dreams are made of. A long introduction to “Not Fade Away” develops and eventually becomes a strummy, scrubbing percussion driven extravaganza. Segments of this 20-minute version elicit The Who with big Bob Weir chording and a driven Garcia ringing big bells by hitting extravagant chords. Similar to the preceding “Eyes,” Garcia is a wealth of melody, pulling out endless variations on the theme. The band moves deftly through a syncopated Lesh/drummers breakdown where Garcia completely unravels in a multicolored rainstorm of phased notes. The Grateful Dead is balancing on the edge of magic and is no longer in control: The muse is driving the ship.

After this extraordinary reading of “Not Fade Away,: which could very possibly be the best of all time, where else could the band possibly go? In typical mind-blowing Grateful Dead fashion, an on stage whistle blows and the band as one, turn the key and enter the first take on “Truckin'” in some three years. The crowd erupts and the band responds in kind bringing the “Truckin'” jam not one imposing explosion, but to multiple peaks so raucous that it seems the group may fall apart from the power dispersed.

Following such a legendary display, both Garcia and Lesh thank the crowd — a somewhat rare occurrence — with both men usually quiet from the stage. Lesh introduces the rare encore choice as “a ditty from our new record,”: and with that the band leaves the swelling crowd with a perfect and regal “Terrapin Station.” The song is a fitting send off, and this majestic rendition caps off one of the most special evenings in the Grateful Dead’s long and storied touring history.

Now available for purchase and saved from out-of-print status, Real Gone’s reissue of Dicks’s Picks 15 is a second chance to add a definitive live performance to your own collection. Rediscover peak Grateful Dead from arguably their finest era and one of their greatest shows.

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.
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