‘Dick’s Picks Volume 1’ – Tight jams from a pivotal time for the Grateful Dead

by Jacob Sutton

In my initiative to explore more of the Grateful Dead’s extensive catalog of performances, I decided to listen to Dick’s Picks Volume 1. The Dick’s Picks series is a series of official live Grateful Dead bootlegs named for Deadhead and tape archivist Dick Latvala, who selected which shows to archive up until his death in 1999.

            The album, comprised of an assortment of songs chosen from a December 1973 show in Tampa, Florida, runs for over two hours. Per usual, the album features lengthy jams of some of the band’s most endearing material. 

One of the most notable songs is opener “Here Comes Sunshine,” the Dead taking a midtempo soft rock track from that year’s Wake of the Flood and transforming it into an acid-tinged 14-minute jam.

            The first disc, overwhelmingly populated by mid-70s Dead cuts, leaves a bit to be desired, with weak vocals and songwriting from rhythm guitarist Bob Weir on “Weather Report Suite.” I often find myself asking myself why some of these performances were chosen over beloved songs like “Casey Jones” or their cover of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.”

It is not until the final song on this disc, the gargantuan 20-minute version of “Playing in the Band,” that I remember why I love this band so much. The way the band manages to completely fall apart during the instrumental sequence before slowly working their way back to the central motif simply must be witnessed.

The second disc, unlike the scattered pickings of the first, is mainly comprised of a near hour-long jam on several incredible classics. 

After a particularly mournful rendition of “He’s Gone” and a 9-minute take on truck-driving country with American Beauty’s “Truckin,’” the Grateful Dead launches into a rare cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s blues standard “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”

Following this, the band travels through a 16-minute odyssey mixing jazz, rock, pop and country in a blisteringly tight jam built around motifs from 1968’s “That’s It for the Other One.” 

At this point, it’s hard not to get lost in the madness of the effortless playing, and it only gets harder with Jerry Garcia’s stunning performance of the ballad “Stella Blue,” a showstopper moment that, perhaps, would have been a fine closer to the album.

Odd sequencing aside, there’s so much to fall in love with this side of the Grateful Dead, captured at a pivotal point in their history right before their touring hiatus. 

If you’re going to give this a listen, I would recommend trying out “Playing in the Band” or “Stella Blue” first to get a sense of why the Grateful Dead deserves to be in the conversation for the best live band of all time.

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