Not one of the Grateful Dead’s “holy grail” performances, but the band is definitely on and the sound is as pristine as anything the band has released.
Recorded at the band’s February 19, 1971 show at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, this HDCD release taken from the original multi-track tapes was ready to go back in 1993 before inexplicably being put back in the vault. While many Deadheads will argue that numerous other shows should have been released ahead of this one, the fact of the matter is that this pristine recording sounds absolutely amazing and also documents a key turning point in the band's history.
Second drummer Mickey Hart had just left the band due to some shady financial transactions by his father, who had been the band’s manager. This show marked the beginning of the band’s “turn-on-a-dime” phase, as original drummer Bill Kreutzmann was left to go it alone for the next few years, which led to some of the band’s jazzier and most exploratory material. This show also features the second-ever performances of “Loser”, “Bertha”, “Playing In The Band”, “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Wharf Rat”, plus the world premieres of “Bird Song” and “Deal”, all of which became staples of the Grateful Dead repertoire for the next 24 years.
A “Truckin’” opener gets the band warmed up and doesn’t quite catch fire, but my ear was immediately taken with how good the sound is, particularly the warm and clear resonance of Phil Lesh’s bass. The band is still feeling their way around in “Loser” and “Cumberland Blues” before starting to ignite with keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan stepping up on the vocal of “Hurts Me Too”, a slow, simmering blues. Liver failure from heavy drinking would cause Pigpen to depart the band in 1972 and the planet in 1973, but he is in classic form at this show.
The energy soars with “Bertha” and “Playing in the Band”, two of the band’s catchiest numbers that would become fan favorites for the next three decades. “Playing” isn’t yet receiving the full jam treatment here (a 45-minute version would occur on May 21, 1974) but the playing is crisp and well-developed. Folk classic “Dark Hollow” receives a rare electric performance here, as the band usually only played it in acoustic sets. The harmonies between Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia are truly heartwarming. But the highlight of the first disc, and a large part of what makes this show worth releasing, is the first set-ending troika of “Smokestack Lightnin’”, “China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider”.
Pigpen gets his mojo working with his cosmic blues rendition of the Howling Wolf classic. The band would continue to occasionally play the song with Weir on vocals after Pigpen’s departure, but it was never the same. Pigpen’s deeply soulful voice, sharp harmonica playing and ability to ad lib on the lyrics demonstrate an authentic immersion in the blues that is hard to match. The band also jams it out in classic fashion -- this version clocks in at almost 15 minutes, with Garcia mixing hot blues licks in under Pig’s harmonica, and with Lesh holding down a steady yet still walking low end.
The classic “China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider” combo absolutely soars; you can hear it in both the music and the crowd’s fervent reaction. The chemistry ignites as Garcia dazzles with both his guitar and voice. The euphoric jam takes off as Lesh demonstrates his unique ability to help drive a song with his lead bass style, while Garcia and Weir engage in some of their best guitar interplay. It all comes together here as the elusive “x-factor” kicks in.
“Greatest Story” and “Johnny B. Goode” kick off the second set in high-energy fashion before giving way to the debut of “Bird Song”, an airy and elegant tribute to the recently departed Janis Joplin. Pigpen steps back up for a hard driving “Easy Wind”, with Kreutzmann snapping the beat back and forth in masterful fashion as Pig lays down the blues, including another smoking harmonica solo. An extended jam gives Garcia a chance to shine as well. “Deal” is delivered crisply, with Garcia clearly in good spirits for the debut of a song that was destined to become one of the most played songs of his career.
But the highlight of the second set comes with the soon to be classic trio of “That’s It For The Other One”, “Wharf Rat” and “Good Lovin’”. A stupendous drum solo from Kreutzmann leads into the heart of “The Other One”, a full on psychedelic mind-melter that features some of the band’s deepest jamming. The Lesh/Kreutzmann rhythm section becomes an absolute monster, while Garcia delivers some of his most psychedelic guitar licks and Weir some of his most memorable lyrics about the headier days of the San Francisco scene -- “The bus came by and I got on / that’s when it all began / it was Cowboy Neal at the wheel / the bus to never-ever land.”
This interstellar foray drops into a beautiful sophomore rendition of “Wharf Rat”, a powerful ballad about a man who’s become down and out from drink and drug problems but who vows to “get up and fly away.” The set is capped with Pigpen taking command again for a rousing rendition of “Good Lovin’” that clocks in at over 18 minutes. The band brings it down while Pig improvises a rap about looking for love, and Garcia delivers some funky wah-wah guitar before the band roars back to the finish. They cap it off with a raucous “Casey Jones” encore that gets the crowd going wild once more. This isn’t one of the Grateful Dead’s “holy grail” performances, but the playing is crisp and tight throughout, the band is definitely on and the sound is as pristine as anything the band has released.