“There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” became a truism long ago and it might well also be stated “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert in Boston.” The hub of the northeastern United States became one of this iconic band’s favorites stops over the course of its career and. in turn. the venue that was known as “the Garden” became the site of more than one extended run of shows.
Dave’s Picks Volume 21 comes from that very place on April 2, 1973, the unique excellence of this concert presented here in its entirety over three CDs in the custom limited edition package. Archivist David Lemieux adopts a decidedly fan-oriented tone in his short essay within the enclosed booklet, but that only consolidates the attraction of this edition of the now long-running series: it derives from a period of the Grateful Dead’s career that followers and band members alike speak of in the most hallowed tones.
This final stop of a spring tour, interestingly enough, contains thirty-four selections, an unusually high number for a group that thrived on lengthy improvisations. Not that such extended jamming, or provocative segues, are absent altogether: “Playing in the Band” is close to eighteen minutes in duration, while the ‘Jam” evolving from “Here Comes Sunshine” extends a performance clocking in at approximately twenty minutes with the two selections combined. And that interval is just the beginning of a mammoth series of segues in an out of “Me And Bobby McGee” to “Weather Report Suite: Prelude” and, finally, close to sixteen minutes of “Eyes of the World.”
The latter number is notable too as it’s just one of a half dozen numbers that comprise practically the entirety of the Dead’s Wake of the Flood album that came out in October of this same year (notable as the debut of their independent record label). The tally of tunes so observantly noted by Lemieux in his fairly straightforward prose—as deceptively informative as the cover art is detailed: see the Charles River in front of the city skyline beyond the rudimentary skeletons?- is one of the main distinctions of Dave’s Picks Volume 21. The Grateful Dead were distinguishing itself as a songwriting collective around this time and a prolific one at that.
In addition to drawing on the wealth of material composed earlier in the decade, in the form of “Brown Eyed Women” and “Jack Straw,” here also are compositions in early formative stages-”Wave That Flag” became “U.S. Blues” before it appeared in studio form on From The Mars Hotel in June of 1974, along with “Loose Lucy” and “China Doll.” This growth of the original repertoire had much to do with how The Grateful Dead maintained a perpetual hold on their roots, on this triple set in the form of three Chuck Berry songs, plus “Beat It On Down the Line” and ”Don’t Ease Me In,” from their early days as the Warlocks.
Just as the songwriting teams of Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter and Bob Weir/John Barlow transcend their influences, so does the Grateful Dead rise above adversity at this juncture of their career some two decades plus before their demise: founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had died before this spring tour commenced, while the titular leader of the band was busted on the way to another stop in the Massachusetts commonwealth even closer to this very date. But if this group had proved anything up this point, it was they were a hardy, resourceful bunch and it’s a crucial point reaffirmed with the deceptive vigor of this performance, the collective musicianship of which, like the immaculate sound derived from engineer Jeffrey Norman’s mastering, is tempting, but ultimately impossible, to take for granted.