The latest and final installment of this year’s Grateful Dead Dave’s Picks subscription series hails from the under appreciated year of 1976. Dave’s Picks Volume 4 is from the Grateful Dead’s concert on September 24, 1976 at William and Mary college in Williamsburg, Virginia. This is the first time that this concert has circulated in its entirety in soundboard quality. While the “Playin In the Band” suite was released on the “Spirit of 1976” bonus disc, the rest of the show is new to our ears. Fall 1976 is the twinkling dusk before the legendary sunrise of 1977. 1976 is a year often discussed by discerning Deadheads as being a “so so” era for performances. It is true that this is the year the beast shook off the rust and came roaring back to relevance after a year of rest. It is also true that the Dead were reintroducing Mickey Hart to the repertoire and band after a five year absence. The set lists were revamped, some the songs were slowed down to great effect, (depending on who you ask) and the band was sliding into the formats that would shape the next twenty years of their career.
I am of the opinion that 1976 holds some of the Grateful Dead’s best performances of the era. There is a loose improvisational quality to the shows that by late 1978 had slightly slipped away. There is an eagerness and excitement to the shows that translates well to the recordings and is not lost in the translation. New instruments for the band members is also cause for the new direction and unique sound of the 1976 shows. Garcia started to play an aluminum necked Travis Bean guitar which gave him a softer more slippery attack, Phil Lesh also started to play his Alembic “Mission Control” bass full time and retired “Big Brown” for a bit. In addition to these changes is the aforementioned return of Mickey which completely changed the tempo and overall design of much of the repertoire. After a summer of touring the Dead came back in the Fall tight, rehearsed,and breathing fire, which takes us to the 9-24-1976 performance. This concert comes from a month full of well played shows with unique song combinations and decent sounding recordings. Both the Landover (9-25-76) and Syracuse (9-28-76) shows are immortalized on Dicks Picks 20 if you want to dive into this month in more detail.
The recording of the show sounds nice, while not as “crisp” as other vault releases, it does have a fuzzy warmth to it and the listener should have no complaints. There are audience splices during some songs, but for the most part these are non intrusive and fit almost perfectly with the soundboard portions. This release is a compact, satisfactory sounding snapshot of the Grateful Dead in action during a pivotal and underrepresented time in their history. The show opens in full gallop with a “Promised Land” opener that shows the band means business. The same goes for the following “Deal” which is not as jammed out at later 1980’s versions, but swings with a reckless abandon like a drunk holding onto a swinging saloon door. One of the critiques of 1976 is the first sets often sound over rehearsed, and contain no adventure. I can tell you that is not the case with this show. I am of the opinion that by the Fall the boys were back to taking chances, and feeling a bit more loose. I have no issue with the band sounding practiced, the vocals are on key and crisp, and the group sounds very slick.
The show really takes off like the “flight of a seabird” with a early but kinetic version of “Cassidy”. Jerry’s deft touch during the middle solo is like multicolored feathers falling from the ceiling after a band pillow fight. The band hits the changes together, and with feeling just like the following “Sugaree”. While not even close to the majestic versions to come in 1977, this infant “Sugaree” has a charm all of its own as Keith and Jerry wrap around each other in a musical embrace. It’s amazing to track the evolution of “Sugaree” and to watch this song grow into itself. The 1976 versions are on the cusp of greatness and set the stage for what is to come. The next two songs in all honesty seem like they would be a “lull” in the proceedings because of their quiet and oft played nature. “Looks Like Rain”, and “Row Jimmy” are both tracks that have to contain an attentiveness to detail and on key vocals to be successful. The 1976 attitude puts both these songs in a positive spotlight as the vocals are right on, and the instrumentation is patient and tasteful. “Row Jimmy” if not played well can be a dirge and somewhat painful to listen to, as I’m sure well listened Deadhead’s can attest. This version is full of elegant and subdued playing by both Jerry and Phil, and I can feel myself slipping away as the track plays. I think to myself that this has been a well played set, but I still am waiting for that “moment”. The “moment” that takes the show from good to great, from great to transformative, and from transformative to legendary. That moment occurs after a smoking “Big River” and textbook “Tennessee Jed” set the stage for the set closer.
1976 was beginning of the end for epic stand alone “Playin In the Band’s”. By the end of the 1970’s “Playin’s” were often tied into a suite of songs or separated to open and close a set to great success, but with less jamming. The epic Playin’s that closed the first set throughout the early 1970’s are the standard that all must be judged. At this time the band was still closing first sets with extended versions of the song which I believe culminate in the grandiose version played on 12-31-1976, but that is another story for another time. This “Playin” is special in its own unique way, and is a wonderful example that when the “music played the band” anything could happen. This “Playin” starts off with a slow exploratory float with all band members on board. Jerry has his “underwater” envelope filter on and stirs the intensity with delicate cascading riffs. At five minutes the drummers start to push the tempo forward and the band starts to gain momentum as one musical organism. The slightly “tropical” sound of the Grateful Dead shows its face throughout this show. The addition of Mickey’s tribal drums, Garcia’s flamingo guitar styling, and Godchaux’s electric piano give some of these fall 1976 instrumental passages a groovy island feel. As the jam reaches seven and a half minutes there are slight glimpses of the “Wheel” passing by the window as the band swells and moves.The band seems to be levitating weightlessly over the venue in a sparkling orbit as Garcia’s sweeps flash and then disappear like dying stars. Phil Lesh at this point is the man responsible for the organic pulse of the improvisation. The jam soon starts to peak with Garcia throwing out muted lightning bolt licks as he climbs the psychedelic ladder rung by rung. Keith is on Garcia’s scent as he follows, echoes, and replies to every idea Jerry throws his way. Garcia takes the jam to its summit then quickly back to earth as Bobby starts to strum the chords to enter a full blown “Supplication” instrumental, and eventually leading the band into the song proper.
The “Supplication” is a powerful edition with the entrance to the verse punctuated by two beautiful Godchaux glissando’s down the length of his piano. Keith is really shining during this segment of music and he and Jerry share in the glory. Special notice to the Jerry melody at around four minutes as “Supplication” eases back into “Playin”. It’s one of those unique fragments that Garcia would compose in the moment, on the fly, and just brings a smile to your face. Beautiful stuff. The band takes their time easing back into the “Playin” reprise and hits the note in every way. The band gallops through the reprise and closes the set with a tasty sandwich. End of set one.
The second set starts with the band pleading with the crowd to give the people in the front a break and “take a step back”. Bobby at one point tells the crowd that if they wont move back to, “jab the person behind you with your elbows!” and that should do it. After the thick experimental “Playin” suite that closed set one, I’m sure the crowd is euphoric with excitement. The second half of the show starts with a loud and raucous “Might as Well” followed by a standard 1976 “Samson and Delilah”,which is to say it is full of funk, fire and Phil. The set moves with a workman like attitude through a dark and intense “Loser” that is well sung by Jer, and finally into a “Minglewood” that sets the stage for the magic that will end this performance. The “Loser” is a fine version full of detail and shade that is sometimes lacking from the later versions. The “Minglewood” is solid, but as you know there are hundreds of versions of this song to choose from. I’m sure “Minglewood” fans will find something in this one to make their day.
Similar to the “Playin” that closed set one, the “Help On the Way, Slipnot, Franklin’s Tower” triad that is featured in set two is the second crowned jewel of this performance. Started in the instantly recognizable tempo setting introduction accentuated by Phil’s husky lead lines, this version bubbles over with substantial additions from all the band members. Moving at a faster tempo than some other versions the drummers are deep in the pocket, and lead the group into special version of this triumvirate. There is a cut in the soundboard during this performance, but don’t worry the audience splice during “Slipknot” is not as painful as it may seem, and sounds just fine. The “Slipknot” opens like an early morning flower, with Garcia’s guitar bellowing like a horn and wrapping its self around Godchaux’s piano in an erotic dance. Immediately the jam grows and with intensity with Lesh and the drummers shifting the tempo in many directions at once. Weir slashes his sharp razor riffs across the shuffling base set by the rhythm section like a vandal on a midnight spree. Jerry and Keith start to escalate their interaction, and at around four minutes Jerry finally unties the “knot”, and hits the magic spot, dropping the band into a mid jam drum interlude. The drummers slam around their kits in a drama fills drum partnership that eventually finds the rest of the band slowly coming back together one at a time to enter back into “Slipknot”. At one point during the return to “Slipknot” Jerry is peeling off so many riffs the band almost loses control. The drummers are finding it hard to keep up with Jerry, and for a brief second I feel like the band is going to careen into a crashing stop. Thus the fun of a Grateful dead concert, always a certain element of danger, and of the unknown. Again, the band is tuned right in to one another during this performance and every note is measured and placed in its correct location. Not an easy feat when a group of six is improvising at such a furious rate.
After the speedy outro from “Slipknot” the band slips into a compact and swinging “Franklin’s Tower”. I especially like these 1976 versions because they have not yet grown to redundant proportions, nor have they lost the unique original shuffling groove. The band is aware at this point that they have the crowd in their pocket, they have blown their collective minds, and now are going to take it home. Without being redundant I must say that a big part of what makes this show a solid Dave’s Pick is the attentiveness of the band to one another. There may be other shows that are longer, contain better set lists, or have some other interesting criteria we use to judge performances. But during this late 1976 era the band was really interested in what one other had to say musically. They were back to really enjoying playing together. The “Franklin’s Tower” is a impeccable display of this idea as tempos are changed, riffs are shared, and the joy is infectious. “Franklins” segues without pause into the well timed and perfectly placed “The Music Never Stopped”. The band struts its way through “Music” with every change hit perfectly, and Donna sounding in good voice. The jam hits a well timed peak and deftly slides into a “Stella Blue” that contains as much silence as it does music. These 1976 performances of “Stella” are so amazingly delicate and tasteful that its hard to find a bad version. At this point in the show any miscues can be forgiven anyways, after such a plethora of intense tunes. This one will not disappoint, and is an appropriate chaser to the marathon that proceeded it. The band then sends the crowd off on a rock and roll stomp through the always exciting “Around and Around” (before it got WAY overplayed), and the patriotic encore of “US Blues”. Again both versions are strong, rocking, and well played with all band members equally invested.
The ‘US Blues” ends the show on a high for the assembled crowd, and sends everyone into the brisk fall night satisfied and exhausted. This performance was a wonderful pick for official release, and one of those shows that does not contain one moment of transcendence, but a consistent level of band interaction, and playing that makes every moment worth savoring. While some may not pick 1976 as their favorite year of Grateful Dead music, the fall of 1976 is full of performances such as the aforementioned that contain absolutely unique playing not found in any other year. I am of the opinion that 1976 contains the improvisational skill displayed in 1974, but housed in a package of power and glory that epitomized so many 1977 concerts. This release finds the Grateful Dead on a uphill climb, still approaching heights other bands would not dream of reaching. It finds the band still searching, creating, and continuing the ‘long strange trip” that would last for another 20 years.