The Grateful Dead's most exciting stuff is born of some pretty daring work on the high wire. They certainly fall from time to time, but not nearly as often as they might.
As an avid and decades-long and clearly incorrigible Grateful Dead fan, I have spent a great deal of money (but significantly more time, if we’re thinking in terms of overall expenditures) on this band’s music. Does that make me more or less qualified to come up with an objective opinion on these two releases (re-releases, actually, put out by the commendable troupe at Real Gone Music)? I dunno. Sorry.
But since I sort of have to assume that anyone who has clicked on the link to this review is either A) like me, already afflicted or B) looking for a place to start listening to this band’s fairly daunting catalogue of hundreds of commercial releases, this review will try to place these two concert albums into some kind of framework that’ll help you decide whether to buy them or not. Because as the folks in the A) camp already understand, and the folks in the B) camp are soon to discover, there is so much amazing stuff already available, one needs a bit of a roadmap to make decisions about what to pick up and what to leave out. But, let’s face it, most of the ensnared folks in that A) camp are going to buy these anyway, no matter what I say, because this is their lot in life it would seem. So, B) people, take some heed, I guess?
Anyway. As the Grateful Dead’s merchandising arm embarks on its new series of concert releases from its voluminous vaults – now named Dave’s Picks after Dave Lemieux, chief musical archivist for the band since the 1999 death of Dick Latvala, namesake of the first series of such releases – Real Gone Music has dug up and repackaged two excellent volumes from that first run.
Both #s 32 and 33 went out of print very quickly despite the fact that they contain between them some pretty extraordinary stuff from two very popular and famous shows in the Dead’s touring history. As with any Dead concert, there are moments of utter calamity – flubbed lyrics, weak vocals, Donna Jean Godchaux, and weird experiments gone awry – but also as with any Dead concert, there are moments of pretty thrilling musical synchronicity. The mark of a great, rather than a simply good, Dead show is in the ratio of these mishaps to these thrillers; it is my contention (and was certainly theirs as well) that the band needed to risk the fall in order to climb to the highest heights. Working “without a net” is how they often put it. It isn’t for everyone (obviously), but listening to these three performances spread across six discs, it is clear that their most exciting stuff is born of some pretty daring work on the high wire. They certainly fall from time to time, but not nearly as often as they might.
Dick's Picks #33 captures two of the most famous shows in the Dead’s career, and it's basically a must-own for any serious fan of the band. Sharing a weekend double bill with The Who (of all bands!) in early October 1976, energized following a lengthy one-and-a-half-year retirement from the stage and buoyed by the return of second drummer Mickey Hart after his five-year absence, the band put together four lengthy and vibrant sets featuring a trove of their best and most enduring songs. While both shows feature strong, hard-rocking first sets with little overlap (There are two tries at “Promised Land” and “Cassidy”), in both cases, it is the bravura second sets which will attract the most attention. The Saturday show – They opened for The Who and, by all accounts, blew Pete Townsend away, since he demanded that his band open for the Dead the following day so they wouldn’t have to follow them again – features a lengthy suite (“St-Stephen / Not Fade Away / St-Stephen / Help on the Way / Slipknot! / Drums / Samson & Delilah / Slipknot! / Franklin’s Tower / One More Saturday Night”) that ranks among their greatest ever uninterrupted runs of music. The Sunday show’s suite is based on “Playing in the Band” and “The Other One”; it's shorter but more experimental, culminating in a show-stoppingly beautiful take on “Stella Blue”, perhaps the band’s most gorgeous ballad, before finding its way back to “Playing in the Band” and a “Sugar Magnolia” rave-up to close the set. Pretty magical stuff.
Dick’s Picks #32 is good, but it is a significantly less essential show for fans and certainly not the place to start for neophytes. Though among the very best performances from 1982, the early 1980s were not a great period for the group as members battled a variety of addictions, sets often listed between uninspired covers and some weak newer material, and much of the improvisational spark seemed to have faded. But none of the typical early-'80s Dead problems are apparent in this show. In fact, Jerry Garcia’s guitar is in excellent form on this night at Alpine Valley Amphitheatre (though his voice is truly ragged and choked, another common problem for the band in the 1980s and beyond), and there are some truly surprising moments from time to time (such as the odd suite of “Music Never Stopped / Sugaree / Music Never Stopped” which, though it doesn’t quite work, at least shows some daring). But overall, the concert has to be considered for fans or completists only when put into the broader context of the band’s monstrously capacious available oeuvre.
So, verdict: buy #33, and borrow #32. Or, what the hell, buy them both -- because you’re going to do it anyway, you big dumb Grateful-Dead-loving fool.