One of the many things that I love about the Grateful Dead is the band’s ability to play together while playing apart. In the early 70’s, the band’s power to do this reached its height, as the Wall of Sound (and the systems which led up to it) enabled the Dead to not only clearly hear themselves play but to control the volume of each individual instrument without a sound engineer adjusting levels at the board. When the band was dialed in properly, each member controlled his own destiny (and I say his on purpose here because Donna Jean, notably, was not given this level of control over her vocals or her monitors). If the stars aligned, and everyone was on his game, the result would be a mind-bending calliope of sound, with all of the band members tuned together around the same basic melody but playing it in totally different ways.
In my opinion, the best shows of 1974 represent the Grateful Dead’s achievement of this ideal in a way that no other year can quite reach. When things were working right, Grateful Dead shows in 1974 are dripping with this jazzy, profoundly disorienting goo. When things weren’t exactly dialed in (here’s looking at you, 1974 European tour), it could get messy. But for the most part, 1974 was the peak of the multi-headed beast of the Grateful Dead.
Tonight’s show was the middle show of a three-night run at Winterland, the band’s first shows of 1974 and sort of a preview of what was coming. Not everything is going to work well tonight (and how could it during a 28-song marathon performance) but when the band clicks into full 1974 form, heads are going to explode.
You can feel a groove starting to develop right from the very beginning, with a slow burning Dire Wolf leading the way and Sugaree following closely behind it, but nothing truly exceptional takes place. However, on song number six, everything changes when the band dips into a simply massive Here Comes Sunshine, the Grateful Dead’s last performance of this song until 1992. They give it a good going away party here, with some swirling runs and a monster, chugging jam towards the end. They close out the first set thirty minutes later with an absolutely full throttle version of Greatest Story Ever Told that rattles the Winterland rafters.
It’s the second set that really gets out there, opening with a crisp Row Jimmy into a full version of Weather Report Suite and then a fantastic Stella Blue. But the beating heart of this 1974 evening is He’s Gone>Truckin’>Drums>The Other One>Eyes Of The World, which is every bit as good as you think it’s going to be. All of the planets align here for one ridiculous hour long journey (yup – just this sequence is an hour long). So put your feet up and stay a while, because you’re going to hear Phil running around Jerry, with Bob filling in the blanks and Keith providing the perfect amount of color as Billy holds down the beat behind them. This is the roadmap for what 1974 was going to become – all of the pieces are here and they’re coming together. Please, enjoy responsibly.