The New York metropolitan area served as the Grateful Dead’s East Coast base as the band rose from humble beginnings in small clubs to larger venues like this theater in the basement of Madison Square Garden to the big house upstairs and Giants Stadium across the river in the great state of New Jersey. If there was a consistent thread that linked all of these shows together, it was “intensity”. The Dead almost always brought the heat in New York, and tonight’s show is one of the hottest ever.
What’s missing from tonight’s show is any semblance of deep space jamming. This is a pure rock and roll show, fronted by Pigpen (newly returned after sitting out the previous month due to health issues) and played with fire by the rest of the band, including the band’s relatively new piano player, Keith Godchaux.
You’ll pick up on the rock and roll dynamic from the first notes of Cold Rain and Snow, one of the best versions of this song that I’ve ever heard. Sugaree, usually a slower song, is forceful tonight and it’s followed by a Jack Straw that sounds very similar to versions from 1972. Since it’s the Christmas season, we also get to hear one of the Dead’s seven attempts at playing Run Rudolph Run. This is not Springsteen playing Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but it’s a fun and unusual romp that would only happen during the 1971 holiday season. To top the first set off, we get a smoldering version of Cumberland Blues that is almost too intense to describe – this is hold on to your seats manic music of the highest order and unlike any Cumberland Blues I’ve ever heard. This is followed by a Casey Jones set-closer that knocks the roof off the joint.
The real Pigpen magic takes place in the second set during Smokestack Lightning. This is a slow burner, but oh boy does it burn. Between Pigpen on vocals and Jerry whittling away behind him, this is a classic take. (And yeah, Pigpen ain’t Howling Wolf – he’s not supposed to be, so don’t compare them, ok)? After a nice Deal, the boys reach into their bag of tricks for Truckin’, which is not an experimental jammed out version but a muscular rock exercise that transitions into a Not Fade Away rave out featuring Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. This whole stretch is peak 1971 Dead, and even though it’s not exploratory, it’s going to peal your ears back anyways.
This is a great first-timer show to play for skeptical folks who don’t think that the Dead can rock. The 40 minute Dark Stars can wait.
The Dead released this as Dave’s Picks Vol. 22, but if you don’t have it already, you’re not getting it (it’s sold out), so listen to the great soundboard here: https://archive.org/details/gd71-12-07.sbd.miller.3375.sbeok.shnf