This Grateful Dead era punctuates a time when the band was in a downward spiral. Addictive drugs were taking their toll especially Garcia’s, Keith Godchaux’s piano playing was swiftly declining. Garcia’s biographer Blair Jackson opined that “the quality of Keith’s playing in the Dead fell off in ’78 and early ’79. It no longer had that sparkle and imagination that marked his best work of the early seventies. Much of what he played in his last year was basic, blocky, chordal stuff. I don’t hear many wrong notes but he’s not exactly out there on the edge taking chances and pushing the others, as he frequently did, in his own quiet way, in his peak Grateful Dead years. I guess the worst thing you could say about later-period Keith is that he was just taking up sonic space in the Dead’s overall sound. Did this affect the others? No doubt…” According to Donna Jean Godchaux, “Keith and I decided we wanted to get out and start our own group or something else – anything else. So we played that benefit concert at Oakland [2/17/79] and then a few days later there was a meeting at our house and it was brought up whether we should stay in the band anymore…and we mutually decided we’d leave.” So less than thirteen months after this “Dave’s Picks 23”January 22nd, 1978 concert performance and subsequent three-disc album release: the Godchaux’s were no longer a part of the Grateful Dead.
With these remembrances in mind, I had minimal expectations about this 3 CD release, but promised myself to keep an open mind.
Disc 1: Also by this time I’d grown weary about Grateful Dead first sets, looking only for (diminishing) clues about how the band interacted with each-other hoping for a memorable second set. Highlights from this first disc (which is the entire first set) start with the third song “Cassidy” that works pretty well during the intro and the short instrumental passage, but there’s an abrupt miscue out of the jam when they suddenly switch back to the concluding vocal theme. (*) I never understood why the Dead never attempted to lengthen the “Cassidy” jam, or include it as part of the second set repertoire. The traditionally arranged and pretty “Peggy-O” is performed more spiritedly than usual but is unnecessarily lengthy at nearly seven and a half minutes. “Jack Straw” bristles with energy, but “Row Jimmy” sleeps through the alarm-clock and snores clocking in at a mind-numbing ten and a half minutes. But it’s “Row Jimmy” redemption with the set closing “The Music Never Stopped,” offering a spacey instrumental interlude segment that superbly sets up the rocking and rolling outro jam, nice. First set is done, and I’m actually looking forward to the second set.
Disc 2: Timewise is light at just about thirty minutes in length, with just four tunes. It opens with a leisurely paced “Bertha” where Garcia’s vocal mic is lost in the mix for the opening lyric though it’s quickly rectified. This “Bertha” has been modified and is not the kicking versions heard earlier in the decade, but it’s delightful enough when it strolls into a strident (not akin to Pig Pen versions) “Good Lovin’” that’s pretty okay. Midpoint on this second disc I’m wondering where this “Ship of Fools” goes, but I want to jump ship. The second disc concludes with the traditionally arranged “Samson and Delilah” percolates well enough but isn’t memorable, but at least the band sounds motivated.
Disc 3: Seemingly needing a life raft the band turns to (not one of my favorites) “Terrapin Station” that rambles on repetitively without rudder and uninspired for over eleven minutes segueing into the dreaded drum segment that seemingly goes on and on and on for nearly eight minutes! So it’s (seemingly late in the game) fourth down and very long to save this second set, out from the drums it’s “The Other One” okay! Lesh roars with his well-known lead in bass intro and seems intent to refocus the band; though their re-found energy is hijacked into deep space and they’re now completely lost in space. Weir returns (seemingly to settle down the proceedings) with a lyrical vocal passage, but immediately following it’s off to the weirdness again which Garcia’s solo guitar eeriness that’s not tasty at all. Undaunted the band plays on in nonstop fashion making their way from “Space” to “St. Stephen.” This “St. Stephen” ain’t your crazy uncle/Fillmore patron “St. Stephen” this one’s on Quaaludes! Knee deep in quicksand the band manages to paddle to a tasty instrumental sandbar that attempts rescue with a plodding “Not Fade Away” possesses several fiery moments and okay interplay. Though the finale portion with redundant vocals by Weir and Donna Godchaux is ill-conceived, yet in a flash its Chuck Berry time for a set closing “Around and Around.” You’d think after an nearly two-hour second set, “Around and Around” would be enough, but they return and encore with a ragged “U.S. Blues,” that gets a boost from Garcia’s final guitar solo of the evening.
The third disc of seventy minute uninterrupted jam piece is impressive for its length, while there are fine moments; it’s marred by odd musical decisions with periods of lackluster stimulation and direction. But hey this is 1978 the beginning of ’78. In a little over a year (thirteen months) Brent Mydland would come to the rescue and replace both Keith and Donna Godchaux; a period that forever drove me away from Grateful Dead concerts, but I digress. It was also around this time that Garcia’s guitar tone went from super-clear and sugar sweet to a grittier edged style which rarely worked for my ears. Need I say more?
Final Notes: The Dead recently acquired soundboard recordings made by Betty Cantor Jackson. These recordings often referred to as “Betty Boards,” are all extremely well recorded and are pleasurably remastered by the Dead’s in-house specialist: Jeffrey Norman.
“Dave’s Picks 23” was issued in limited quantities (like recent vintage “Dave’s Picks”) of just 16,500 copies. This 23rd edition is completely sold-out at www.Dead.net and will become (like all of the preceding “Dave’s Picks” series) highly collectable at the usual Amazon, Ebay and related Internet marketplaces where it will soon fetch lofty prices.
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