When I first started listening to this show this morning, I realized that this is the third show that I’ve listened to this week that has also been written about on the Grateful Dead Listening Guide, one of the best sites on the web for learning about individual Dead shows. Which explains why this week’s listening experience has been uniformly good.
If you read the Listening Guide’s review of this 1974 performance from the Hollywood Bowl, you’re going to get a lot of information about the Wall of Sound, the Grateful Dead’s massive PA system that was used during 1974 and promptly shut down due to cost concerns. I’m not going to repeat that discussion here. Long story short, according to the Guide, this audience recording represents a first-class picture of the Wall in action during the Dead’s funky 1974 summer tour. This description is spot on – as a recording and a representative slice of what the Wall could do, today’s show is excellent.
As a 1974 Grateful Dead musical performance, I think that the first half of this show is basically middle of the road. But notice that I mentioned the year – a middle of the road show from 1974 is going to blow the pants off an above average show from almost any other year in the band’s history that doesn’t fall between 1968 and 1974. So even though Sugaree doesn’t really soar here and Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo has no real jam (although it does have a great, quick transition into It Must Have Been the Roses), this first set is worth listening to for the good tunes and the even better vibes from the Wall. Scarlet Begonias is an exception here – this version is pretty great, even though it’s cut close to the end.
The second set is another matter entirely. It opens with a slow burning China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider that just seems to build as it goes. As the Listening Guide points out, the transition here, like many during 1974, is the key. Big River doesn’t do much for me here, but it’s followed by a very powerful Row Jimmy that I encourage you to listen to in its entirety. I know this is a slow-moving song that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but today’s version really shows off what the 1974 Grateful Dead were about. Every member of this band is following his own melodic preferences during this tune and these approaches often vary considerably from one another. Yet, somehow, all of the different lines weave together perfectly and completely envelop the listener. This is the band as a multi-headed single musical unit playing a simple song in an incredibly complicated way. It’s a perfect example of what 1974 has to offer.
The Dead take this same idea to new heights on the very next song, Playin’ in the Band. Freed from the strictures of a “short” tune like Row Jimmy, the band explores similar ideas of collaboration and melody over the course of a twenty minute jam that swings wildly from theme to theme. Sometimes this doesn’t work perfectly – it’s clear that Keith (and Bob, to a lesser extent) really want to move into a Spanish jam, but Jerry and Phil tug the band back and the musical interplay shows off this tension without causing the song to completely break down, as the band plays in and around Keith’s piano. Near the end of the song, the pace changes (I was thinking that maybe we’d hear The Other One), but instead Wharf Rat appears, and it’s a great version, stretching out beautifully at the end into some very delicate places. And then there’s a deep switch into a pulsating Truckin’ that lives up to its name before another ten minutes of Playin’ in the Band concludes the suite. But this doesn’t end the show, which goes on for another 25 minutes, with adequate versions of Ship of Fools, Sugar Magnolia and a U.S. Blues encore.
There are better shows from 1974, but this second set is a very, very good, representative slice of the Grateful Dead at this part of their career and is not to be missed. Listen here: https://archive.org/details/gd1974-07-21.ecm22p.bertrando.motb0056.88979.sbeok.flac16