More and more, the Grateful Dead just seem tailor made for this era of free music streaming we’re living in now. They were always a great touring band, with incredible musical chops, as this new abridged version of the Pacific Northwest box set of this year will indicate. They seemed to never get sick of touring, which apparently today encompasses an increased importance in making money as a musician. Also, they would even let people take out recording devices and bootleg their shows to sell them, professing something like “We could either be cops and stop them from doing that, or go ahead and let them.” So there: they’ve always been giving their music out for free. Free streaming? Bring it on!
And freely stream this sucka I did, which is a good thing since being a hipster and getting the vinly doesn’t look like an option (Wikipedia only reports of it as a “three-CD live album”). Just to review, the original box set was only six CD’s, so in their “pruning,” so to speak, their discarding of the unneeded material for this three-CD abridged version, you might say they didn’t do too well, or just got sentimental and found a lot of tunes they weren’t willing to leave out.
Well, it’s gotta start somewhere. No pressure there. Opening with a bluesy number seems to be the usual approach with live Dead (except of course in the case of the actual Live/Dead colossus which boasts the 23-minute “Dark Star” as its introduction), as in the case of Dead Set and “Samson and Delilah,” which sort of has a similar to feel to “New Minglewood Blues.” The “China Cat Sunflower” version then trots in proudly but leaving a slightly thin impression, as perhaps opening tracks should, to give way to “I Know You Rider,” an old staple of the band’s live albums (the excellent Europe ’72, et. al.) with a gorgeous piano solo and a simple, hypnotic vocal mantra.
The early shocker to be was “Bird Song”: I have no idea if this is even a Grateful Dead original, as I don’t remember it from any of their other releases, let alone a typical song you’d hear at one of their concerts. At 14-and-a-half minutes, its anatomy certainly bespeaks confidence but is hardly too unique amidst this particular collection (I’m hoping this project doesn’t spoil me for regular-length songs), it’s got an incredibly NATURAL feel, full of little Dead-like anecdotes like “I’ll Show You Snow and Rain,” but also seems perfectly poised for explosion into one of their epic jams, which it undoubtedly proves to be. The seasoned Deadhead will especially appreciate the velvety but gritty guitar sound Jerry Garcia musters up here. From what it looks like on jerrygarcia.com, we was at this point still using the Fender Stratocaster that Graham Nash gave him as a gift (Garcia also apparently notorious for giving away axes when he chanced upon a new one), but the sound is incredible so credit whomever was in charge of recording these shows, which I believe would be Owsley Stanley, the British sound man and LSD guru. Without question, Garcia’s guitar takes the lead role on this album and speaks to the listener with a greater luminosity and character than any of the vocals.
After “Bird Song” comes a “Box of Rain” version which is basically too bizarre to even believe, with bassist Phil Lesh, singer and writer of this song, sort of sounding like he’s equally fu**ed up on something and also just sick of performing this American Beauty album opener. Luckily I was drinking and it was the middle of the night when I was listening to this stuff… also luckily it’s only five minutes long, which is like the status of a dwarf compared to most of these gargantuan expeditions.
The “Brown-Eyed Women” chugs along with its usual reliable, catchy regularity but things really get going with the next track, easily the best version of “Truckin’” I’ve ever heard. For how destitute and out of it Lesh sounds on “Box of Rain,” Bob Weir more than makes up for it here by delivering a boisterous vocal performance with pinpoint rhythmic accuracy, even sped up slightly from the American Beauty version but also somehow catered with more ease and even exactness. As if not to be outdone by a bandmate, Jerry Garcia unleashes this solo around the seven-minute mark that is just beyond savage, alternating between regular blues-rock runs and this scintillating eighth-note arpeggio that’s sort of like the piano intro to “Ramble on Rose” on Europe ’72 (awesome, in other words).
In general, while the majority of the rest of these songs wear basically their usual m.o. in terms of structure and energy, without question Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: Believe it if You Need it is firmly placed on the JAMMY side within the gamut of Grateful live (sorry it’s incredibly awkward trying to find terminology for this exact entity I’m handling here). This, then, makes it a perfect compliment to the more songwriting-oriented Europe ’72, on which the songs rarely stretch beyond seven minutes. In the vein of this, the track just titled “Jam” stays fresh, rhythmic and energetic and doesn’t disappoint, and how’s this for weird: the version of “Playing in the Band” is 42 minutes long AND does not even embark upon the primary anatomical theme of the original song “Playing in the Band.” And how’s this for even weirder: I got through the whole thing and didn’t even fall asleep, or reach for that five-strip in the corner. Ok, I did reach for that five-strip a little bit. Especially of note, anyway, adjacent to the typical complete awesomeness of “Sugaree” and “Wharf Rat,” is the rendition of “He’s Gone,” a Europe ’72 favorite here slowed down and made almost ballad-like, with a barely audible drum beat and a somber, reflective mood on vocals. The effect here, especially since “He’s Gone” is placed toward the end here in contrast with Europe ’72, is very much like one of a séance, denoting expert album sequencing and most importantly, a band with a relentless thirst to constantly grow and evolve, never letting a single one of these songs get stale.