“Shall we go/you and I/While we can?” Those lines, written by lyricist Robert Hunter and sung by guitarist Jerry Garcia, are from the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star.” They’re an invitation to a journey that began in the mid-Sixties, when the Dead first started playing together in San Francisco, and they’re also the key to understanding the runaway train known as Dick’s Picks, a thirteen-volume (and counting) ride through the Dead concert-tape underworld, conducted by archivist Dick Latvala.
The series touches on every significant incarnation of one of the psychedelic era’s most cherished bands, from the legendary Fillmore East shows of 1970 to the beginning of the Dead’s final era, a 1990 performance just weeks after the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland. The thirty-six discs contain more than forty hours of music, none more challenging than that found on four epic versions of “Dark Star.”
The song is the acid test, if you will, of Dead-dom, both the defining work in the canon and the most demanding. It was among the first Hunter lyrics written for the band and the centerpiece of countless concerts with its open-ended, modal-jazz structure. To the faithful, there’s never been an uninteresting version of “Dark Star.” To the naysayers, it represents all that is stupefying about ‘shroom-induced psychedelic noodling. What Dick’s Picks affirms is that “Dark Star” isn’t really the apex of the Dead experience but the beginning, a door to the unknown from their foundation in jug-band blues, country and rock & roll. The beauty and the bane of “Dark Star” were that none of the members of the Dead, let alone the listeners, knew quite how it was going to turn out each time they performed it.
The Dick’s Picks versions all begin in roughly the same place — with the instrumentalists swimming around in the same thick, soupy murk stirred by such contemporaries as John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar and the “Eight Miles High”-era Byrds — and end about a half-hour later, with Garcia dropping Hunter’s lyrics into the mix at random intervals.
The Holy Grail wasn’t always within reach. The band plugs away earnestly on the Volume Two “Dark Star” (Columbus, Ohio, 1971) but never quite manages to punch a hole in the sky. In contrast, the “Dark Star” on Volume Four (Fillmore East, New York, 1970) — punctuated by gongs and rattling percussion — sounds effortless, as the group explores its quietest, most introspective side with an eerie, liquid grace. Just as stunning, but in a completely different fashion, is the “Dark Star” on Volume Eleven (Jersey City, New Jersey, 1972), with Phil Lesh’s deep, primordial bass tones escalating the tension until the bottom drops out completely and leaves the band floating in a deep space that the Miles of Bitches Brew would have appreciated.
That sense of adventure guided the Dead until their demise, in 1995, following Garcia’s death; every concert found the band walking out on at least one shaky musical limb, brandishing hacksaws. If Dick‘s Picks sometimes doesn’t know when to say “cut!,” it’s because the series is aimed at Deadheads who want to savor every note. But for the less-committed fan, the giddy crescendos of “Here Comes Sunshine” hardly compensate for the otherwise routine jams on Volume One (Tampa, Florida, 1973). And the sometimes disjointed interplay heard on Volume Two is fascinating only because it represents one of the first concerts by pianist Keith Godchaux after he replaced ailing keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. (McKernan died in 1973 at age twenty-seven.)
But when the early Dead were at their best, few American bands were better in concert. Exhibit A is Volume Four, which culls highlights from two masterly 1970 performances at the Fillmore East. Here the full range of the band’s arsenal is represented: the luminous “Dark Star,” a raging “Not Fade Away,” the sheer nastiness of McKernan on his showpiece, “Turn on Your Love Light.”
A few months later, the Dead nearly topped that performance; their Harpur College concert in Binghamton, New York (Volume Eight), should give pause to anyone who buys into the Dead’s reputation as “mellow.” Fresh off recording its studio masterpiece, Workingman’s Dead, the band opens in acoustic mode, which brings a more melodic concision to the arrangements and a bite to the voices that carries over to the electric set. Garcia and Lesh slug it out on a majestic “The Other One,” while “Viola Lee Blues” and “Morning Dew” build to howling climaxes. The group even wages war on Martha and the Vandellas’ ebullient “Dancing in the Street,” transforming it into a freakish, funky meltdown. The remainder of Dick’s Picks charts the impact of lineup shifts on the Dead’s music. After McKernan’s departure, Godchaux brought a bebopping musicality, which had flowered by the time of the inspired 1974 London concerts documented on Volume Seven. Second drummer Mickey Hart quit in 1970, but by 1974 he was back in the fold, and two 1977 shows (volumes Three and Ten) show this incarnation of the band in fine form. Volume Five (Oakland, 1979), Volume Thirteen (Nassau Coliseum, New York, 1981) and Volume Six (Hartford, Connecticut, 1983) trace the development of the post-Godchaux sextet, with newly enshrined keyboardist Mydland. Unlike his predecessor, who preferred a more percussive, piano-based style, Mydland opened up the Dead’s sound with his synthesizers, bringing marimbalike textures to “Scarlet Begonias” (Volume Six) and swirling organ embellishments to a thundering “The Other One” (Volume Five). But by the early Eighties, the band’s vocals were showing signs of irreversible decline.
A last gasp of sorts is heard on “He’s Gone” (Volume Thirteen), its gutsy call and response dedicated to Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands. Contrast it with the plodding, echo-enhanced version on Volume Nine (Madison Square Garden, 1990), which captures the band trying to reinvent itself yet again — this time in the wake of Mydland’s death — with newcomer Vince Welnick augmented by guest keyboardist Bruce Hornsby. Even in these lesser moments, the Dead brought a sense of possibility and freedom to the rock-concert experience that makes most bands seem static and unambitious by comparison. Which is why for most other bands, a Dick’s Picks series would be a massive, unwarranted indulgence. But for the Dead — who played 2,300 shows in thirty years — it’s like a treasure hunt.