Studio album purists might have a sound argument when it comes to certain rock acts, but few Deadheads would ever argue that the quality of the Grateful Dead's studio work superseded their live recordings. Most of their studio albums we’re muddled down by the likes of Warner Brothers, big time L.A. record executives that wanted a four minute track, or just poor planning and execution. Only the Terrapin Station studio suite superseded its live performance. Without going into the dozens of sound wizards that revolutionized the band’s concert sound and recording capabilities, we have the shows as a testament to their hard work. Heads in the 70s had only LiveDead (1969) and Skull Fuck (1971) very abbreviated but still important live releases to satisfy their fix. Most Heads traded within the community for tapes, scouring the scene for a perfect low-generation master reel transfer. Times have obviously changed. In addition to the Grateful Dead’s lifetime deal with Arista Records to have the right to release their live material at their own discretion, many lost tapes have emerged thanks to the help of loyal devotees that kept the reels safe and eventually got them into the right hands.
With the U.C. Santa Cruz Grateful Dead archive blossoming into a historical marvel, many other discoveries of lost music and memorabilia make it a very exciting time to be a Deadhead, eighteen years after the passing of Jerry Garcia and the disbandment of the Dead. Vault-master David Lemieux and sound master Jeffrey Norman have perhaps done more to restore unheard live Dead than anyone else preceding, including original vault-master Dick Lavata (whose thirty-six release series Dick’s Picks was and is the cornerstone of quality live-Dead.) Dave Lemieux’s Dave’s Picks series is entering its third year of circulation, putting out roughly three releases a year (on top of other quality multi-show box sets) much of which is curated from previously unheard material. Not even on audio-community sites like btree or Internet archive.
The newest release is the most exciting of the series thus far. Dave’s Picks Volume 6 is curated from two complete shows (with a few tracks switched around for continuity and for the sake of fitting onto three discs). The Fox Theatre, St Louis show from February 2nd, 1970 followed chronically incorrectly by a Fillmore Auditorium S.F. show from December 20th, 1969. Having the two shows in that order highlights a vital personnel change in the band; the departure of keyboard/organist Tom Constanten who joined the band in late 1968 on behest of old schoolboy friend Phil Lesh and left performance proper after the January 1970 New Orleans drug bust. Life with the Dead contrasted Constanten’s religious and personal ethics. More importantly the band was evolving beyond his psychedelic sound-scapey electric keywork. Though his contributions to 1969 Grateful Dead, in particular earlier in the year, were vital to the bands maturation and musical ideal, the rest of the boys were venturing into country-western music, as well as ballads and laments that T.C. didn’t have much to contribute to. The parting was certainly amicable, and T.C. remains a friend/collaborator of the bands to this day. The brilliance of Dave’s Picks 6 lies not only in the performances captured, but the contrast of a six-piece band with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan handling vocals and keys, to the psychedelic-69’ seven-piece band with T.C.’s keywork leaving Pig as only a strong vocalist. The differences are far from subtle, and both shows, only two months apart are drastically different.
The release presents a series of repeating songs to illustrate the differences with and without Constanten. We have repeats of the quintessential ‘Dark Star-> St. Stephen’ suite, two entirely different approaches at ‘Turn on Your Lovelight’, a contrast between an early version of ‘Mason’s Children’ and it’s rip-roarin’ 1970 counterpart displaying a song exploding with heavy focus and jamming. The band only played Mason’s for this very short amount of time that Dave’s Picks 6 documents. Two extremely different renditions of ‘Cumberland Blues’ display a shaky 69’ Fillmore rendition with heavy T.C. keys and uneven vocal work (still jam-satisfactory) to a much more developed version at the Fox. These two shows side-by-side document how much creative energy was going into Dead music at the time. The newer material would come to fruition with “Workingman’s Dead” which would be released later in February and hailed as one of the band’s greatest works. This is such an exciting release in the band’s history considering the amount of then new material being performed and their change in musicality. The Dead, who had been known as psychedelic improvisers with long ponderous passages, were now concentrating on songwriting thanks to the help of lyricist/band-member Robert Hunter, and improving their harmony vocals thanks to help from David Crosby and Neil Young.
The structure of this release couldn’t be more valuable to Head’s wanting to discover how quickly the band changed their sound and ultimately built their huge repertoire that would grow and grow in coming years. So many highlights make these two shows release worthy. The Fox St. Louis show took place right after the famous New Orleans bust (immortalized in the lyrics of “Truckin’”,) and is their first show without Constanten. With Pig back on organ with his usual rave-up front man presence, it’s apparent that he’s healthy and ready for the challenge. February 2nd’s “Hard to Handle” features a climactic final Garcia & Lesh solo that is simply beyond description. An abbreviated version of “Good Lovin’” (sans the jam) also displays Pig’s adventurous nature at this show. Not to undersell the December 20th Fillmore Auditorium show. This tiny auditorium held about 1,000 folks and must have been a huge treat for Heads to witness all these new songs in such an intimate space. The thirty-five minute “Turn on Your Lovelight” features one of the raunchiest Pig-raps of all time, with hilarious results. An early version of “China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider” is in its baby stages compared to performances in coming years. It’s great to hear this quintessential paring developing and building.
Plainly put, you need to release. Unfortunately for those who missed out it sold-out in the presale, which is not uncommon for Grateful Dead releases of this caliber. Never has primal Dead been represented so thoughtfully by an official release. This serves as a vital history lessen for Heads who want to know how the band got from sounding like they did between LiveDead and Skull Fuck. Also, many folks know the sad story of Ron McKernan’s health and eventually untimely demise, so its great to hear him represented so interactively. It’s clear that the Dead was never the same after loosing him, for better and worse. The release is accompanied by some great original artwork by Timothy Truman, a note from Tom Constanten, and the whole story from David Lemieux about how these tapes were recently discovered and brought back to life thanks to a lot of hard work from the folks at Grateful Dead Productions. Another article included originally dates back to April 4th, 1973, shortly after Pigpen was found Dead. Columnist Harper Barnes reflected fondly on Pig’s better days, in particular highlighting the Fox St. Louis performance and his physical stage presence that had to be seen in person to be understood. This was what set Pigpen apart from the rest of the Dead, and why their performances changed so much after loosing him.