This seventeenth chapter of Dave’s Picks is resurrected from the Selland Arena in Fresno, CA recorded on July 19th, 1974. The performance occurred at a time when the Dead nearly bankrupted themselves hauling around their massive Wall of Sounds System which was one of the most impressive sound systems I’ve ever heard. Additionally the band had just released their latest album “From the Mars Hotel” weeks prior to this concert and were out test-driving new material you’ll hear here like “Scarlet Begonias,” “China Doll,” and “U.S. Blues.” It’s also important to note that the band disbanded approximately three months after this Fresno gig, and no one was certain if they were going to regroup again.
Disc one: Strolls out the typical first set (now beaten to death) regulars like “Bertha,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Deal,” “Beat It Down the Line,” “Row Jimmy,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “El Paso,” and “Tennessee Jed,” none of these renditions will leave lasting impressions. But the newly minted “Scarlet Begonias” is impressive even though it’s not paired with its album partner “Fire on the Mountain.” Soon hereafter this segue long became a fundamental segment of future Dead sets that were often propulsive and enormously popular. This early/live version of “Scarlet Begonias” is pretty impressive as are the fascinating rhythms conjured up by drummer Bill Kreutzmann and the persuasive gyrations from the entire band.
Disc two: Still in the first set; opens with cavernously lengthy “Playing in the Band” that’s nearly thirty minutes long but it fails to generate any noteworthy fireworks or intuitive jamming. As the band takes their break bassist Phil Lesh and keyboardist Ned Lagin showcase their centerpiece (I cannot call this a tune) “Seastones” from their lone album of the same name – it’s nothing more than fifteen minutes of rumbling electronic tinkering that even the most devoted Dead-heads would find challenging to enjoy. Now that the “Seastones” experiment is over the band opens their second set with tunes that are also mostly relegated to their first sets: “Brown Eyed Women,” “Me and My Uncle,” “It Must Have Been the Roses,” and “Jack Straw” close out disc two that I will kindly call; filler material/music that leaves plenty of time for a bio or joint break.
Disc three: Opens with a lazy-hazy “He’s Gone” (14:55) goes on for too long segueing to “U.S. Blues” a tune they had been tinkering with for some years prior as “Wave that Flag” is reminiscent to the swinging “Truckin’.” But this “U.S. Blues” doesn’t truck-on for long (even though it’s swinging,) ending quickly at just short of six minutes. Seemingly needing to pull a rabbit out of their hats to save the show they deliver a full (18:48) “Weather Report Suite” with “Prelude,” “Part I,” and thankfully “Part II (Let It Grow,”) where there’s some creative enthusiasm. Out from “Let it Grow” the titled “Jam” offers more uplifting moments that sound like their later day “Spanish Jam” instrumental passages that could have also been titled “Garcia’s Bolero.” This Latin-tinged segment leads to an expansive (16:32) “Eyes of the World” where Lesh stretches out with illuminating lead bass playing that sparks Garcia’s interests with his own creative flares firing off of Lesh’s mind provoking notes. Unfortunately they decide to land this solid “Eyes of the World” onto a too lengthy (6:33) and lame “China Doll,” crashes to the floor like broken porcelain. It’s time to go home with a ho-hum “One More Saturday Night.”
In summary: While there’s some fine moments on this three CD set, you might wander elsewhere for a jolted dose of live magical Grateful Dead, or look forward to their next “Dave’s Picks Vol. 18” release. My last observation derives from my opening paragraph about the Dead breaking up three months after this concert: As this recording demonstrates some of their previous fire had dwindled, it was either time for a touring break or for the musicians to move onto to diverse musical projects. While some band offshoots were already in progress, we now know that in ’76 the Grateful Dead regrouped and had a twenty year run. But for my ears they never fully recaptured the telepathic interplay and flow they previously had from their lofty heydays of 1970, ‘71, ‘72, ‘73 and part of ‘74.
For 17 years Bob Putignano has been pivotal at WFDU with his Sounds of Blue radio show (Wed. & Fri. 9am-1pm) www.SoundsofBlue.com – http://wfdu.fm Previously a contributing editor at Blues Revue, Blueswax, and Goldmine magazines, currently the Music Editor for the Yonkers Tribune www.YonkersTribune.com & www.MakingAScene.org Bob was also the 2003 recipient of the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award (given by the Blues Foundation in Memphis) for his achievements in radio broadcasting. Putignano can be contacted at: BobP@SoundsofBlue.com