With three decades of hindsight, it’s well worth asking if the Grateful Dead’s One From the Vault (released 4/15/91) actually initiated the concept of archiving as we know it today. Certainly, before its release in 1991, the assemblage of so-called ‘Greatest Hits’ collections had long been a staple of music merchandising and marketing. But such anthologies usually (always?) consisted solely of previously-released material, not rare content unavailable prior to its formal, authorized issue.
Yet this early exhumation from the iconic band’s archive was comprised of exactly that. A recording of an August 13, 1975, presented at The Great American Music Hall by, the late Bill Graham, in the Dead’s home town of San Francisco, this concert occurred right on the heels of the studio sessions that produced Blues for Allah. For the purposes of this event, broadcast on FM radio and subsequently circulated under various titles in bootleg form, the band played all the new material, interwoven with songs in their repertoire for some time.
Interestingly, apart from the opening intro offered by the promoter (a long-time business partner and friendly adversary of the Grateful Dead’s), there are no overt explanations of this just-recorded material, at least as contained on the two CDs here. It is delightful to hear how the group falls into some nifty instrumental accompaniment to those spoken words, but that short interval is hardly so insightful as noticing the panache by which the septet renders fresh likes of “Help On the Way”/”Slipknot”/”Franklin’s Tower.”
To the Dead’s great credit, the precision there isn’t markedly less pronounced than the ease and surety by which they sail through vintage material such as “Sugaree” and “Big River.” And the otherworldly likes of the just-completed album’s title song is the closing to the show, integral to the pacing of this overall presentation (unlike the arbitrary inclusion that such ambient interludes titled “Space” became some two decades later.) The overall conception and execution of the setlist is, in fact, stellar, all of it benefiting from remastered sound by Joe Gastwirt that is full, deep, and broad.
Not only does the interspersing of old and new material placate the audience, but songs like “Crazy Fingers” also illustrate how far the band had come in terms of composition, arrangement, and performance. And that’s not to mention the overarching ambition in play here: sandwiching the two-hours plus with brand-new offerings, plus inserting the earthy likes of Chuck Berry’s “Around & Around,” the Grateful Dead only highlights how they remained grounded in the midst of pre-ordained flights of fancy such as “King Solomon’s Marbles.”
As inaugurated two years prior, the group’s foray into independent record distribution ultimately did not flourish to the same degree that the archiving campaign has over the years. Still, the bravery and ambition of that earlier business enterprise set the tone for future fusions of creativity and commerce: endeavors such as Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings are marked by the same continuity reaffirmed with this title and its immediate successors.
The latest packaging of the Vault editions is virtually identical to the original CD digipak. Yet each of the direct successors to this set possesses its own unique character: with Pigpen prominent, the second is something of an alternate version of 1969’s Live/Dead, while the third, from February 1971 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, ties directly to bonus material issued as part of the 50th Anniversary releases of 1970’s studio pieces Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.
The reissues of the Grateful Dead’s archive titles hardly ever fail to remind how endlessly fascinating it is to follow this band. And that’s taking into account how high a bar this title set upon its release. Still, like the overall legacy of the group, its significance has only grown exponentially over time, and rightly so.