Volume 3 Number 2 is one of the best of the Grateful Dead’s Road Trips and augurs well for the redefinition of this archival project. Originally conceived to highlight particular phases of the band’s career, this series has more recently come to reflect its esteemed precursor, Dick ‘s Picks, in offering complete performances from the group’s history.
As has been the case with so many such titles in recent years, including but not limited to Road Trips (Winterland ’73 and Egypt ’78 come to mind), the bonus disc included here presents a consolidation of the strengths of the package (though not so much in sound quality, curiously, as the main CDs). Justifiably flush with confidence during this Ft Worth show, and having recently learned the wisdom of economy as well as expansion (via the two splendid studio recordings Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty), the group pulls from a wealth of material illustrating how dexterous, versatile and fearless they were as a five-piece ensemble.
At this point of their career, the Grateful Dead were almost equally skilled at composing expertly and choosing wisely the material they performed. The sum of those choices, threaded with just the right mixture of abandon and delicacy, contained its own logic. Thus, the poignancy of "Wharf Rat" plays off beautifully against the jubilance of "Sugar Magnolia," while the narrative of "Me and My Uncle" gains clarity appearing within the decidedly more amorphous atmosphere of "The Other One."
On these Texas recordings from November 1971–the two main discs come from a night in Austin, its geography as well as its culture, vividly described in Blair Jackson’s liner notes–the Grateful Dead were accommodating the piano of Keith Godchaux on one of his earliest tours. He adds spirited barrelhouse boogie as deftly on "Cumberland Blues" as he patiently explores space within "Dark Star" (where "El Paso" appears out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly!). The snappy playing of Bill Kreutzmann, drumming on his own after the somewhat abrupt departure of Mickey Hart earlier in the year, prompts Phil Lesh to play more aggressively; even so, the bassist is no less sensitive to the presence of guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, whether stretching out on "Playing in the Band" or remaining within the structure of a set piece such as the latter’s "Mexicali Blues."
Pigpen was forced to stay off the road due to health concerns at this juncture too, but in adopting the streamlined approach to material and musicianship featured on Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 2, (first introduced to the world by the ‘Skull & Roses’ album earlier that autumn), the Grateful Dead proved how effectively they were learning to turn such potentially tumultuous transitions to their advantage.