Say what you will about The Grateful Dead – heaven knows I’ve been harshly critical of them, and stand by every one of my written remarks – even at their worst, they possesses an undeniable charm. And no matter what era of the band one focuses upon, there’s always something there to recommend. But then it’s just as reliably saddled with some sort of flaw that keeps things from being perfect (and yet of course that’s an unfair standard). So it is with the latest reissue of a Dead archival set, Dick’s Picks Volume 24: Cow Palace, Daly City CA 3/23/74.
First the upsides: the sound quality is stunning. The band was debuting its use of the “Wall of Sound,” a massive array of speakers designed to deliver the cleanest, most precise live sound imaginable. (Photos of the wall are included in the CD set’s liner notes.) And equal care went into capturing that sound onto tape; few live recordings from nearly forty years ago sound this clear.
Another (qualified) plus: though Donna Godchaux is with the band at this point, for the most part she doesn’t seem to do much. And that can only be good; in retrospect one cannot help but wonder what they were thinking letting her onstage. Bad-bad-bad, like a Bonnie Bramlett minus any sense of pitch or subtlety (which of course leaves nearly nothing).
Beyond all that, it’s standard-issue Dead. They start strong and relatively tight (tightness is measured on a sliding scale when we’re talking about The Dead) with “U.S. Blues,” and for most of the first hour they play actual songs. Only “Weather Report Suite” goes on over ten minutes.
By the second disc (second set) it’s noodle time. An aborted take of “Playing in the Band” (the mics were off, it seems) leads into a few moments of aimless fiddling, but then the band drones into an equally aimless reading of the song. That, however, segues into a surprisingly Just Like the Record reading of “Uncle John’s Band,” followed by a string of longer pieces. Then back to jamming; it’s probably transcendent if you’re a deadhead; it’s dull otherwise.
1974 was a period of Mickey Hart‘s estrangement from the band, so this is one of relatively few tours during which the band had only one drummer (Bill Kreutzmann). So if you don’t count Donna (and I don’t), the band is a mere five-piece here. One might think that would make them a bit more musically straightforward, but close your eyes and the difference isn’t measurable.
Like most every other Grateful Dead show recording, it’s ragged-but-right, rarely rocking, and relentlessly redundant. Not for nothing did the band title one of its live albums For the Faithful. As the saying goes, if you like or love The Grateful Dead, you’ll enjoy this one, especially for the sound quality. If you find them monotonous and lacking in energy, there’s little within the grooves of Dick’s Picks Volume 24 to change your mind.
I came away from the hours spent listening to this set – nothing to dislike here, really, and plenty of enjoyable moments – with one major thought: It’s too bad that any number of other bands — far better ones, in my estimation — couldn’t have had (and used) such stellar mobile recording equipment to capture their shows. Instead we get out-of tune guitars, croaky vocals and Donna Godchaux in brilliant, top-notch audio quality.
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