History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear's Choice)
Warner Brothers, 1973
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/30/2010
The release of History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) (hereafter referred to as Bear’s Choice) served two purposes for Jerry Garcia and crew. First, it completed their initial contract with Warner Brothers, enabling them to release future albums on their own label – an experiment that would not be as successful as they had hoped at the time. Second, it acted as a tribute release for Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who had died in March of 1973 from gastrointestinal bleeding.
Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea comes off as a halfhearted effort, one merely undertaken to free them from the shackles of the record company. Taking performances from the legendary February 1970 stand at the Fillmore East (as well as some bonus tracks from the Fillmore West on the reissue version), The Dead create, essentially, a covers album, with only one original song in the entire mix. The end result comes off as a little sluggish.
The entire first side of the disc is strictly acoustic, and, save for one song, is basically a Garcia and Bob Weir show, as no other member of the band takes part in the performances. (The sole exception is the opening track, “Katie Mae,” which features McKernan on guitar and vocals – a surprising thing, as he was known for his work on keyboards and harmonica, but an entirely appropriate way to open the disc.)
The biggest complaint is that, with just two guitars and vocals, this feels less like a Grateful Dead performance than it does a “guest appearance” by two members of The Dead. It’s performed in good spirits, albeit a bit sloppy at times (as evidenced on “Wake Up Little Susie”), and the audience does seem to enjoy it, but I still have a hard time understanding just why this particular run is seen as being so groundbreaking in the history of The Dead.
The second side of what would have been the album features the entire band, and is turned into a McKernan showcase, as the band trudges through a nearly 18-minute version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” before the energy does finally rise with their cover of “Hard To Handle.” Pity that, at this stage, the original album ends, just when things were starting to get interesting.
The reissue of Bear’s Choice (originally part of the box set The Golden Road) tries to add to the tribute nature of the disc, but ends up just bloating it terribly. I understand that the reissue producers wanted to keep the focus on McKernan, but did they really have to include a second version of “Smokestack Lightning”? In addition, “Big Boss Man” had just been on Grateful Dead (knowing full well that this song wasn’t part of the original release of Bear’s Choice), and past reissues featured covers of “Good Lovin’,” so why did they have to be featured again? Was there so little variety in the McKernan catalog that they couldn’t have discovered something that only the diehard tape-traders knew about? (Why, for example, couldn’t a live version of “Operator” have been featured instead? It was performed live a few times, and would have been an interesting nugget to include.)
I understand the reasons for The Dead wanting to put this one out, and it does have enough of a draw that Deadheads would want to add it to their collections. But Bear’s Choice, to the average music buyer, is one you’ll want to pick up only if you want a complete collection of The Dead’s music.