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Roy Henry Vickers
A new archival box set from the Grateful Dead collects six shows recorded in the Pacific Northwest during 1973 and 1974, including a pair of Portland shows recorded at Memorial Coliseum. Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: The Complete Recordings Boxed Set is a massive thing, 19 discs of Dead-y jamming at what some consider one of their peaks. This was toward the end of their first run—the Dead took a hiatus at the end of 1974—and these six shows capture a band whose experience and familiarity resulted in incredibly tight (and, simultaneously, appealingly loose) interplay, while also in the process of running out of creative steam.

I haven’t found much contemporaneous information about the two Portland shows (June 24, 1973 and May 19, 1974) that suggests much in the way of historical significance, apart from the music itself. The 1974 show in particular has a high reputation among Deadheads and tape traders, and to that end, Rhino Records have released it as a stand-alone vinyl set spread out across six(!) LPs. Meanwhile, a three-CD consolidation of the box set, called Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: Believe It If You Need It, is also being made available, so that those without the means to throw down for the gargantuan (and priced to match) 19-disc version are able to enjoy a well-picked compilation of highlights.

I’ve never been a Deadhead, but I took the opportunity to listen to a download of the two Portland shows, as their official release carries substantial local significance (even though rawer versions of the shows have been long been available to tape traders and internet streamers). These might be the only occasions in my life I’ve ever listened to an entire Dead show (or two) all the way through on purpose, and good lord, it is a lot of Dead—six and a half hours’ worth for the two Portland shows. Even in MP3 format, the recordings, taken from two-track soundboard tapes, sound remarkably clean and balanced—who would have thought anything recorded in Memorial Coliseum could ever sound this good?—and were restored using the Plangent process, which digitally stabilizes tape fluctuation. It's a controversial technique among analog-minded audiophiles, but its digital trickery seems to have worked wonders in this case.

The Grateful Dead and their famous Wall of Sound PA system, Vancouver 1974.
The Grateful Dead and their famous "Wall of Sound" PA system, Vancouver 1974. © Richard Pechner

I started with the highly regarded 1974 show, which comes from the famed "Wall of Sound" era (the Dead had a ginormous sound system that earned the name), and sounds great despite a few vocal microphone problems during the first set. The band is solid, with drummer Bill Kreutzmann turning in an especially strong performance. I’ve read online that ’74 Dead has been described as “jazzy,” but I’m not hearing any of that—the Dead really just seem like a good-time party band, playing rock and country and ragtime with the primary objective of giving the crowd easygoing sounds to boogie to. The problems I've always had with the Dead are, of course, in full force—namely, every other song being sung by Bob Weir, who drives me absolutely crazy, and a hesitancy in the jamming that always stops short of really conjuring any spontaneous, dangerous fire. Deadheads tout the band’s improvisational prowess as one of their magical qualities, but I’ve never been fully converted: Despite his reputation for issuing godhead from his guitar, Jerry Garcia usually only moves up or down the scale one cautious note at a time, and the band seems content to volley the metaphorical ball of music lazily over the net, instead of landing any game-ending spikes.

That said, there are some noteworthy highlights in the ’74 Portland show, including a really nice, gentle rendition of “Peggy-O” and some solid playing during a lengthy “Wharf Rat.” Aficionados tout the second-set extended jam of “Truckin’” into “Not Fade Away” as one of this era’s best moments, but I failed to recognize any exceptional off-the-cuff sorcery being spun. Also, backing vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux has a few really sour moments, including some speaker-splitting screeching during “Scarlet Begonias,” and Weir, too, goes off the rails a bit on “Bertha,” doing more barking than actual singing. The Dead would need to take an extended break a few months after this show, and I can hear the first inklings of why: There is a vaguely plodding sense of going through the motions that Deadheads probably don’t mind but non-initiates may react to. (Of course, this deluxe box set is really only designed for diehards.)

I ended up surprising myself by preferring the 1973 show, recorded 11 months earlier in the same cavernous arena. The band is that much closer to their 1972 live apex, and sounds happier and more comfortable with the material. The highlights include “Sugaree,” “Bertha,” and a really nice “Looks Like Rain,” despite that last one having a reputation among Deadheads as a bathroom-break song. Weir is a little less irritating, and his eat-shit cowboy songs are a bit more amusing in this context, for whatever reason. This show also includes a “Dark Star,” the heavenly body of avant-garde jamming that many Dead sets rotate around. This version achieves its goal of intermittent cosmic liftoff, and it's the only “Dark Star” in the entire box (although the Seattle ’74 show includes a 45-minute-plus “Playing in the Band,” one of the longest renditions of any song the Dead ever played in their entire history).

The 19 discs come housed in a replica of a traditional Native bentwood box, designed by British Columbia-based First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers. Sales for the limited-edition item are rumored to have been slower than past archival sets from Rhino and the Dead, but devoted Deadheads who live in the Northwest are probably going to require this puppy taking up a full square foot of their homes, and the three-disc distillation has potential to be one of the most consistent Dead compilations out there. Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: The Complete Recordings Boxed Set comes out tomorrow (Friday, September 6) and is available at Dead.net. It includes the following shows: P.N.E. Coliseum, Vancouver, BC, June 22, 1973; Memorial Coliseum, Portland, June 24, 1973; Seattle Center Arena, Seattle, June 26, 1973; P.N.E. Coliseum, Vancouver, BC, May 17, 1974; Memorial Coliseum, Portland, May 19, 1974; and Hec Edmundson Pavilion, University of Washington, Seattle, May 21, 1974.

Grateful Dead, Vancouver, 1974.
Grateful Dead, Vancouver, 1974. © Richard Pechner