With his picks from the vault, Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux has certainly done justice to the legacy of his predecessor Dick Latvala. Of course, that man who shepherded the initial series of concert releases under his own name collaborated with his successor toward the end of that thirty-six title run, so it should come as no surprise that the quality of the current choices, not to mention such practical aspects of the releases such as the packaging, etc, would compare so favorably.
The late lamented Latvala frequently chose to fill out complete sets of CD’s with related content and Dave’s Volume 26 follows in that tradition. Featuring recordings from the fall tour of 1971, including one with Pigpen and one without (but both with keyboardist Keith Godchaux comfortably ensconced in the lineup), this three-CD contains the complete concert recorded on November 17, 1971, at the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico as well as bonus tracks recorded on December 14, 1971, at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For subscribers to the archive series, and those who seek out the extras elsewhere, a bonus disc is also available that includes most of the rest of the December 14 concert.
There’s more than a few interesting points of comparison within this package, even aside from Lemieux’ essay (lightheartedly using ‘Latvala’ as a sign-off) and the more creative than usual Tim McDonagh graphics. The aforementioned bonus disc begs the question of whether there are two more similar Grateful Dead setlists in such close chronological history as these; chalk it up to the band knowing what works, but perhaps just as importantly, the further entrenchment of Keith Godchaux’ in his keyboard position on his second tour and what amounted to the the wild card presence of Ron McKernan on the December date.
Further distinctions regarding the content of Dave’s Picks Volume 26 are similarly noteworthy, and not just in terms of the performance either. As the curator notes, these recordings, are among a treasure trove returned to the Grateful Dead organization in recent years (duly noted in credit listing in the enclosed booklet). In addition, it’s a viable illustration of the truism (which may have actually originated in examination of this band’s stage work) that a setlist hardly tells the whole story; in the case, these two concerts roughly a month apart, the differences are subtle but significant.
And they are rooted in the contributions of the fairly new enlistee Godchaux as much as the aforementioned co-founder of the Grateful Dead. The health issues that would claim the vocalist/harpist/keyboardist’s life within two years were incipient at point, but nevertheless precluded the extended rave-ups that in earlier years consumed lengthy intervals of Grateful Dead shows; clocking in between approximately four to seven minutes, Pig’s lead vocal spotlights “Mr. Charlie,” “Next Time You See Me” and “Big Boss Man” are, like most of the surroundings of 12/14/71 (and its companion piece), economical and to the point.
The band’s most extended improvisational excursion of this night, a progression similar to that of 11/17/71, is roughly an hour removed from the seasonal inclusion of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” another abbreviated spotlight for Pigpen that suits his persona, the jocular likes of which permeates this show in other ways: for instance, the sublime back and forth of “Not Fade Away” and “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” that ends the first set sounds poignant in a way it might not have otherwise, almost as if the band had premonition of their ailing comrade’s eventual demise.
The late Rex Jackson’s recordings of these two shows boast a stark realism in contrast to the warm all-enveloping quality of engineer extraordinaire Betty Cantor-Jackson’s. But that’s in line with a certain no-nonsense quality in the musicianship of the earlier show: this lineup sounds determined to solidify its bond with Godchaux, even on the jaunty likes of “Tennessee Jed,” as if such unity provides a means to the end of prolonged segues including “Cryptical Envelopment” and “Drums,” just prior to about nineteen minutes of “The Other One.” Interestingly, the latter receives something of a boost via “Me And My Uncle” before an ever so deft transition into the cinematic likes of “Wharf Rat.”
The emphatic tone is also apparent in guitarist Jerry Garcia’s solo on “Big Railroad Blues,” from the later of these two dates (a much more playful version of which appeared on the double live Grateful Dead released earlier this same autumn), But, that said, there is a certain familial informality in the air with Pigpen onstage with the group in December, rendering easily forgivable the blemishes that can arise even when recording (and, as the group did on many of this autumn’s shows, broadcasting live on FM radio), in this case, the inaudible vocal passage in “Truckin’,” as well as feedback intruding on “Sugaree.”
It may be overstating the obvious, but, as fascinating in their own way as are each of these near fifty-year-old performances, their deceptively complementary nature, as juxtaposed for Dave’s Picks Volume 26, clearly reiterates the ever-so-rare nature of the Grateful Dead in concert.