Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks 35 – The Houseboat Tapes

As Grateful Dead scholarship goes, the summer of 1971 presents an eye-popping, mouth-watering slice of Dead history in transition, and until the unearthing of these “Houseboat Tapes” a short while ago, there was little in the way of circulated fan tapes, let alone official releases, to capture this thrilling mini-period.

There is, of course, The Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses) (more commonly known among the faithful as “Skullfuck”), which portrayed early 1971 and remains one of the band’s most compelling official live efforts, and then the gallery of already-released Dick’s Picks offerings that seem to line up and surround 1971 without ever actually hitting its fascinating middle. That’s all different now, as the four discs selected to commemorate the successful series’ 35th release confirm: the full show from August 7, 1971 San Diego, and ample slices from both 8/24/71 Chicago (all that could be salvaged) and 8/6/71 Hollywood.

The story, for those not already in on this exciting bit of God-winking: in the summer of 1971, the Dead were readying for the arrival of Keith Godchaux to the keyboard seat – he would play his first show with the band that October, and Jerry Garcia gave him a box of tapes that charted that summer’s performances in order to get his head and hands in the right place. No one’s really sure whether or not the late Godchaux ever sampled the goods, but he did leave them on his parents’ houseboat in Alameda, where they would remain for more than three decades, relatively undisturbed.

This past spring, GD archivist David Lemieux received a frenzied call from erstwhile band member Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay, indicating that the Godchauxs’ son, Zion, and Keith’s brother, Brian, while doing a bit of household maintenance, had stumbled upon the box of tapes while cleaning out the boat. Knowing instantly what she had – no soundboard copies yet existed of the 1971 summer efforts – Donna arranged to have the goods sent over.

The results are legitimately astounding. According to Dead publicist Dennis McNally, the tapes contained everything from recordings of April 28 and 29 at the Fillmore East in NYC (already released as the four-disc Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead) straight through the end of August. Many of the tapes, alas, were either blank or badly ravaged by the effects of having been stored in a damp and less-than-climate-controlled place for more than 30 years, but the best has already been salvaged, and is the meat of Dick’s Picks 35. God loves the Grateful Dead, and all that jazz.

Deadheads are indeed aware that 1971 was a seriously transitional year for the band, but the summer of 1971 essentially whittled the lineup, at least instrumentally, to four. Mickey Hart had already left the group in February, and Pigpen’s health was in decline, with keyboard fills that were minimal and often barely noticeable if he could even muster them. So it was up to the core four – a truly raw and intriguingly stripped down, momentary incarnation of Jerry, Bobby, Phil and Bill – to keep things rolling.

Apart from the lineup, the music itself was in gradual stylistic shift. With the 1970 releases of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty – a legitimate move into an Americana-hewed, song-oriented country rock territory, away from the wildly untamed, psychedelic experimentation of the late 1960s. As on Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s of course no shortage of supple grooves and whipcrack, exploded-nuance jam segments – Garcia’s visceral soloing and guitar leads throughout these August ’71 shows are as scintillating as one would expect – but the band is also one more tour removed from the late 60s, with much of the newer Workingman’s/Beauty material by far the dominant strain, and shaggy readings of “Sugaree,” “Bertha,” “Casey Jones,” “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider” are the pronounced aftertaste when one finishes the four discs.

The thrilling and beloved “Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” progression appears in both 8/7 and the section of 8/24, taut and rollicking, morphing expertly into “Johnny B. Goode” in the former show and returning to “Not Fade Away” in the latter, and the country covers – “Big Railroad Blues,” “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home” – stand out. In the Hollywood segment of Disc 4, there’s a nifty progression of “The Other One > Me & My Uncle > The Other One” that seems to epitomize the feeling of setlists in the period: country and song-oriented breaks in the psychedelic action.

If there’s a singular reason to procure Dick’s Picks 35, however, it’s to sample the best of the final days of Pigpen. His keyboards were waning, but his vocals were still earthshaking – limited ever-so-slightly by his declining health, but also infused with a soulful vulnerability that gave him but one more edge. He would go into the hospital that September, and though he would come back to the stage three months later, he’d never come close to scaling the same vocal heights, and many of his beloved showstopper blues would gradually be shelved for at least the rest of the 70s. But here, vocal swan songs: a sizzling, all-time-worthy “Hard to Handle” and a filthy “Mr. Charlie” from 8/7, and a pair of top-dogs, “Big Boss Man” and “It Hurts Me Too,” from 8/24. The bite on his major-league closers, “Good Lovin” (8/24) and “Turn On Your Lovelight” (8/6) isn’t what it once was, but the versions roar all the same.

Last, a legitimate rarity: Pigpen’s own “Empty Pages,” whose 8/7 appearance was one of only two or three (McNally claims two, Deadbase three) that the song ever made. It’s a heartbreaker, and an all-in-all stunner.

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