Dick's Picks Volume Five
Grateful Dead Records, 1997
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/17/2002
Some time ago, I used to be the director of communications for a suburban Chicago Catholic high school. It was pretty common knowledge, among the faculty and some of the students (especially those I mentored with the school newspaper) that I was a Deadhead - I liked to call myself a nouveau Deadhead, since I've never done drugs or followed the band around the country. One of the coaches at the time, Bill Lech, asked me for fun if I knew how to get my hands on a particular show - one he said had amazing energy, as well as a version of "Uncle John's Band" that was left unfinished in the second set, only to be returned to at the encore to wrap things up.
Several weeks later, Bill was surprised when I handed him a cassette tape of that set he was looking for - December 26, 1979, a show at the Oakland Auditorium Arena. Of course, I kept a copy for myself to see just how magical it was.
You no longer have to be in the taping or trading scene to hear this particular show - in 1996, Dick's Picks Volume Five was released, featuring the entire concert. As far as Dead shows go, it's kind of a mixed bag, but it does indeed have that energy that I was told about. (While this one was available in stores a few years ago, it appears you can only order it through the Dead's Web site right now.)
1979 was a year of transition for the Dead; Keith and Donna Godchaux had made their exit from the band, and new keyboardist Brent Mydland was still finding his place with the group. This particular show, on the surface, has some unremarkable moments - Jerry Garcia committing one of his famous lyrical flubs during "Brown-Eyed Women", both Garcia and Bob Weir missing vocal cues more often than usual. But these were almost expected parts of Dead shows, so I'm not necessarily knocking them.
But there are times where I'm wondering why the band sounds lethargic. I'll be the first to admit I never warmed up to the ballad-like delivery of "Friend Of The Devil"; I always liked the livelier, bluegrass delivery that you can find on American Beauty. But two of the Dead's late-'70s staples, "Alabama Getaway" and "Shakedown Street," are surprisingly sleepy in their performance. Granted, Mydland's willingness to use more keyboards than piano (which allegedly was the big disagreement Keith Godchaux had) does add a new level of interest to "Shakedown Street," a Dead song I've always liked. But one would have expected these to absolutely sizzle, especially with new blood injected into the lineup.
Indeed, Mydland's presence is strongly felt in this show. He is given ample room to display his talents through keyboard solos - and sometimes it seems like he's been miked up in this particular recording. (That, by the way, is not a complaint.)
Lest someone think I'm slamming Dick's Picks Volume Five, of the first sextet of releases from this series, this is the volume I continually find myself drifting back to. The versions of "Dire Wolf," "Estimated Prophet," "He's Gone" and "Brokedown Palace" are easily enough to recommend this set to those wondering what the live Dead experience was like. And, yes, the way the band is able to move out of "Uncle John's Band" into "Estimated Prophet" - and later, out of "Shakedown Street" back to finish "Uncle John's Band" - is amazing. This was the Dead's skill at its best.
There's a reason why someone like Bill had me looking for this show through the tape trading network, and there's a reason why mystique still surrounds the show captured on Dick's Picks Volume Five. Although it's occasionally lethargic in its delivery, the heart of the Grateful Dead is still beating strong in this show, and this concert captures the Dead at an interesting time in their career which must be heard to be understood.