BY JASON GROSS
Being a Dead Head is kind of like being a wine connoisseur- those in the know speak of certain years as ‘vintage’ and even pair it down further to speak about certain months that were prime. For any jam band haters, not even the most sought-after and loved shows by the band (say, the Cornell ’77 show or the Live Dead dates) will change their mind but for the cognoscenti, it’s always fun to mull through each cycle of ‘new’ releases to see if your favorite or someone else’s favorite has been transformed into a nicely mastered copy out on the market.
In the long-standing ‘Dick’s Picks’ series (named for archivist Dick Latvala), this particular late ’77 date on their home turf (Winterland, San Fran) has been considered one of their classics. Having it now out again (it was originally released in 1998) is a nice addition to the band’s ongoing archives, especially since almost all of their historic work was done in front of stoned fans. The 12/29/77 date (along with bonus material from the next time) had been well-regarded for a while and having it in a 3-CD box w/booklet is more than enough to get you through an evening’s toke session, which is the point, right?
While is it a ‘good’ date that deserves the kudos, it’s not ‘great’ Dead or ‘classic’ Dead per se. The line-up here (with the Godchaux siblings on vocals and keyboards) kicks things off into high gear with a lively take on “Jack Straw” featuring the always nimble Mr. Garcia, but then they soon settle into too-mellow territory for too much of the rest of the first disc until they remember that they’re a rock band when they bounce through Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and their own “New Minglewood Blues.” On the second disc, they cover a lot of the same territory heard on ‘72’s self-titled live album (aka the ‘Skull and Roses’ album), which includes “Bertha,” “Playing in the Band” and “Not Fade Away” (along with what even the fans called ‘a piss break’ in the form of the drum solos). Disc 3 features some highlights from their then-recent album Terrapin Station but that’s upended by the superior live creations on 2009’s To Terrapin: Hartford ‘77, which was recorded about seven months before this album.
Jam band fans- you probably won’t be too sorry for having this in your collection but there’s other archive gems you need in your collection first. Also from that time and also recently released (in 2013) is the eye-popping and fantastic 14-CD, 5-complete shows box set May 1977 which is well worth the C-note investment in it as well as another 2013 archive gem, Sunshine Daydream culled from a legendary ’72 benefit show for Ken Kesey (that’s not even mentioning the beloved Winterland ’77 box set which comes from the same venue several months earlier). It’s a whole weekend of listening but you’ll get a contact high that’ll last you a few months at least.