I can’t say too much for old Bear’s taste, considering the wealth that must exist in the library of Dead concert tapes. But Volume One of The History of the Grateful Dead consists of selections from a pair of late 1970 dates in which the band was still making the transition from acidic filmstrip music to Merle Haggard style countrified truckinisms. Workingman’s Dead had just come out and the band’s live performances included tunes from every corner of the American pop songbook.
So Pigpen’s rasping and thoroughly boozed rendition of the hoary idiot’s lament, “Katie Mae,” ain’t much of a treat and reflects how oiled the cat was most of the time. “Dark Hollow” continues the side’s acoustics with Lesh and Garcia on cracked harmonies. Not a whole lot happens. Pig takes the mike again for the agnostically numbing “I’ve Been Around This World,” surpassed in boredom only by the following track, a lame, comically painful version of “Wake Up Little Suzy.” I always got a little erotic hit when I thought of the social implications of the Everly Brothers’ original, but Bob (Bobby Ace) Weir comes off a li’l smarmy in the Don Everly parts.
Garcia’s “Black Peter,” a beautiful tune in the best Workingman’s spirit, ends the side on a suitably depressing note. If it was meant as a memorial to the Dead’s perpetually crapulated organist, harp player and resident shaman, the side doesn’t really make it. The Pig was at his height from ’66 to ’68, and there must be some funky tapes in the can to document it.
Side two is worth the price of the LP if you fancy longer deadly rambles. “Smokestack Lightning” is a 20-minute chugger that starts out real slow, like a locomotive, like the band on hot nights in 1970 when they were dropping in on various college gyms during the post-Kent State student strikes and playing benefits for whatever movements happened to be in the right place at the right time. Pigpen’s on harp, Lesh’s wolfian howls are cute in their California punyness and Garcia is forever noodling around for new ways out of his guitar vocabulary. The crazy old blues becomes truckin’ music in this incarnation, complete with the typical hush-up trick of everyone slowing down and listening to long doodled one-note guitar thoughts, petering out to the eventual soporific standing ovation. At least it’s electric.
But “Hard To Handle” is a classic in a terrific deadly way, one of the perfect exasperating hustling shuffles that the band began to excel in after most of the acid wore off. Garcia is at his best, the vocal cooks and the band is tight and quick. Not worth the whole four bills that Bear’s Choice lists for, but it’s a solid 89¢ worth, at least. Volume Two should be better.