Stormy Mondays | Grateful Dead 1974 Retrospective Part 1

This week we begin a Stormy Mondays retrospective on the Grateful Dead in 1974. It’s always been my favorite year, a culmination of sorts of the first decade of Grateful Dead music, where all the elements in play come together in new ways to create a distinctive sound that unfolds over night after night of long, long shows.

1974 immediately conjures up certain words and phrases: the Wall of Sound, "Mind Left Body Jam," "Weather Report Suite," "Playing in the Band," "China" > "Rider," and justifiably so. It should come as no surprise that when the band unleashed the famed gigantic sound system, the likes of which had never been seen, and would never be seen again, they also pushed themselves into new territory in terms of both epic jams and stand alone songs. As much as 1969 offers primal psychedelic energy in its "Dark Stars" and "Elevens;" and 1970- 1971 delves into a heavily Crosby influenced, Americana-tinged bout of songwriting and singing; and 1972 is, well, golden; it’s only in 1974 that the band seems to relax into their own special groove in order to stretch out and make use of all that’s come before to create something that is uniquely Dead. Each of those stages has its part to play, each is undeniably special and Dead in nature, but 1974 has them all, and makes of them something more, and is so special because of that.

The Wall of Sound also offers shockingly clear sound, allowing every voice to shine through. One of my favorite parts of the year is how balanced but distinct Bob and Jerry’s playing and sound are, and how much room there still is for Phil to permeate everything. To my ears, Lesh is another lead instrument for the first time in 1974, or at least is consistently and undeniably so. It’s easy to be entranced by the vast soundscapes the year has to offer, all those sprawling 20+ minute "Playings" to close the first set, and the way those individual voices interact when free from song structures; but those same interactions are there just as strong and bright in the other traditionally first set material. For my money i’ll take a '74 "Black Throated Wind" over just about anything: Bobby singing proud, Jerry piercing out leads at the climax while Phil snaps out basslines, clearly feeling and loving everything in the song.

There’s so much to consider, but we should understand where we are by the spring of 1974. There were three killer nights at Winterland in February (2/24/74 being a true gem in any collection), and the band did “The Sound Test” for the Wall of Sound on March 23, which was released as Dick’s Picks Vol. 24 (with great liner notes by Bear). During these four shows the band debuted "US Blues," "Must Have Been the Roses," "Ship of Fools," "Scarlet Begonias" and "Cassidy," along with a bunch of "Slipknot!" teases (more on that in the coming weeks). It’s worth noting that 1974 is heavily represented in official releases but not often with full shows, the recent Dave’s Picks Vol. 9 (5/14/74) being an exception. Regardless, it’s certainly worth checking out all those Picks and Road Trips, and I’ll comment on them as the year continues.

It’s another six weeks or so before the group hits the road for not quite a week’s worth of shows on the west coast (Dave’s Picks Vol. 9 being the second night), which brings us to one of my all-time favorite shows, 5/19/74 in Portland. The idea with this week’s episode is to capture a bit of the first set vibe and a bit of the second, even though most of the material actually comes from the second set. We open with "Big Railroad Blues," a minor tune to be sure, but one that totally bursts with energy in 1974; followed by "Black Throated Wind," and "Ship of Fools" and "Peggy-O," both of which have beautiful playing from Keith, and both of which come from the second set. The meat of the mix comes from a long suite of an upbeat "Truckin’" > a screechy slick "Mind Left Body Jam" (the second of five that year, although the preceding four all took place in the fall of 1973) > a funky "Not Fade Away" > "Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad." It is great stuff, some of the best, and it’s only just the beginning. Turn it up loud, as the Wall demands, and get on the bus because we have a long five months ahead of us. And, as always, enjoy!


Written By: Dan Alford

[Published on: 5/19/14]

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