At this point, are there any creative insights left to reveal about the Grateful Dead that haven’t already been exhumed in the hundred or so concert recordings released since the band’s demise following the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995?
Probably not. But when additional relics surface from the Dead’s youth, we are nonetheless reminded of an adventuresome spirit, an extraordinary performance intuition and, yes, a few creative imperfections.
The sixth and latest offering in the Dead’s mail order Dave’s Picks series does all of that and then some. It covers, over three very long discs, a pair of concerts given only two months apart – in December 1969 and February 1970. But the performances often differ in temperament with the Dead opus Dark Star at the center of each show.
The ’69 outing is far more playful. Dark Star is dispensed with at the onset as a spacious, animated jam framed equally by Garcia, the puncturing bass of a young Phil Lesh and organ lines that dance with snakecharming flexibility in the background from Tom Constanten. Such looseness dominates the entire show, from the rubbery bounce of New Speedway Boogie to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s 35 minute tent revival recasting of Turn on Your Lovelight How wild is to hear him continually shout “Wait a minute,” undoubtedly knowing that the band and the audience weren’t about to heed the call.
There is also a lovely take on High Time that foreshadows the exquisite balladry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter would fully unleash just a few years later in songs like Stella Blue and To Lay Me Down. The real surprise, though, is Me and My Uncle, where Bob Weir’s pre-outlaw country sensibility is transformed into a neo go-go party tune.
The 1970 set (cut after Constanten left the band) is considerably more solemn with Dark Star standing as a monument of everything the Dead did will – light, effortless improvisation that intensifies and subsides with Garcia’s brief vocals to reflect just a hint of desperate fancy. A few cracks surface, especially on the harmony support during a shorter, more subdued Lovelight. But the stark musicianship on Cold Rain and Snow and Black Peter (both of which set up Dark Star) beautifully compensate.