"After all, Dead shows were always rituals at heart, not just events but ceremonies—gloriously unspecific, perhaps, but still deliberate, still designed to court the muse of improvisation and explore her gifts anew each night."
Dive in deep with PACIFIC NORTHWEST '73 - '74: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS scribe Nick Meriwether. We'll be sampling tidbits from the liner notes all the way up to release day.
[The Pacific Northwest] was a region that exercised a powerful sway over the band, eliciting some of their best work and linking it indelibly to the place, making it a part of the literary and artistic heritage that defined the Pacific Northwest. There has always been a kind of literary quality to the best Dead shows, not only intrinsically, in the stories told by the lyrics and their interpretation told by each show, but as a whole, providing a text that gave listeners insights into their own lives. The Dead attracted writers, befriended them, read them, set their words to music. Jack Kerouac inspired them and so did Beat poets like Gary Snyder. Ken Kesey helped to define their project as it first took shape. The band’s lyricists viewed their work as a part of literature, as oral poetry, and that can be seen in the songs they wrote and sung in 1973 and 1974, especially those with lyrics by Bobby Petersen and Robert Hunter. And all of these writers shared deep connections to the Pacific Northwest.
In a late interview, Garcia and Hunter mused about the power of the historical consciousness in the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and its effect on their own songwriting. History is shaped by geography, though, and the shows in this box get at the counterpart to what Garcia and Hunter were discussing: geographical consciousness. That is the idea behind this release: a close look at three of the Dead’s enclaves, bound by a specific, vital geography, over two consecutive, critical years, 1973 and 1974. Those were peak years for the Dead: a time when they were flexing their prowess, exploring their limits on every front— musically, organizationally, technologically. And geography grounded those explorations in a place, providing another limit to explore and challenge and interrogate.
...Portland was a Dead Head stronghold, having hosted the band ten times already; when this show was announced, fans responded quickly, selling out the Coliseum in record time. On the day of the show, journalists were amazed to see thousands of fans braving the Portland drizzle to stand in line for hours to stake out a good spot. One reporter marveled at the distances some fans had traveled. “The Grateful Dead are hard to explain,” he wrote: “just what brings the people out time and time again?” His more experienced colleagues knew. “The scene is always the same with the Grateful Dead,” the Oregonian reporter wrote. “No super-hype vibes and a laid-back feeling that brings immediate rapport between stage and audience.”
That was obvious from the first note. “Promised Land” made a nice nod to Portland and the effort that locals had made to welcome the band, with “Looks Like Rain” and “Box Of Rain” both referencing the climate. A strong first set, it covered a wide sweep, fifteen songs drawn from every era of the band’s career, and all of their influences. Critics were surprised at the relaxed but warm reception. “I don’t think there was any overpowering need to hear any particular song all night,” one reporter observed. “It was enough that the Dead were playing, and playing well.” That changed in the second set. The Oregonian thought it had been a “mellow” concert until then; then it “slipped out of that laid-back, informal mood and turned the velocity around” in the second set. The heart of the set, and the core of the show, was the “Dark Star” > “Eyes Of The World” > “China Doll,” universally hailed as “an incredible medley,” and “the must-hear territory” of the show, with each segment full and beautifully developed. The most restrained description hailed it as simply “quite unique, and worthy of multiple listens.” Others were more vehement: “It’s not exactly perfect—but it’s pretty damn close.” There were worlds within the space it covered, carved out by what one fan called “what may be the best recorded and lengthiest extended dual guitar interplay” in the band’s collected record. When that finally gave way to “Eyes of the World,” one fan there thought it felt “like a sweet breeze blowing from the stage.” And when that finally, beautifully, easily became “China Doll,” everyone knew that they were hearing history, with a performance that experienced Dead Heads hailed as “among the most confidently played versions ever ...” A nicely executed “Sugar Magnolia” picked up the pace to end the set, with a rousing “One More Saturday Night” encore to round out what one reviewer called “a grand night for the rock culture.”
Seattle had been a Dead Head haven since the 1960s. When the band played there in 1969, even a mediocre show didn’t faze locals: calling them “one of the most important bands in the US,” the reviewer noted that “they have refused to recognize any limitations in their lives, their relationship with the audience, their music; they are exploring uncharted territory and bringing back maps.” By 1973, Seattle’s hip community boasted a local pedigree that dated to the late 1940s, renewed in the 1960s by its own hippie scene, replete with its own bands, ballrooms, and poster artists. That community had survived the turn of the decade, fueled by simpatico émigrés, many from the Bay Area, who brought their own love of the Dead. They snapped up tickets quickly, selling out the show and leaving latecomers to contend with scalpers, who did a brisk business, charging three times face value by the night of the concert.
No one complained about the ticket prices afterwards, though. One critic opened his review by saying, “One of the most important cultural events of Seattle’s year took place last week at the Seattle Center.” The more than four-hour show wound through nearly thirty songs, which flabbergasted one reporter, who had been expecting the typical 45-minute set padded with a couple of forgettable warm-up acts. The first set focused on songs, with a few hints of the spaces to be explored in the second set, notably in “Row Jimmy,” “China / Rider,” and, of course, “Playing In The Band.” There’s a relaxed quality to the set, though that gives way to superb ensemble punch in a number of places, propelling “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Mexicali Blues” into wonderful dimensions. Weir’s work is especially noteworthy: as one seasoned fan noted, “it’s evident that Weir is in a special place; he could earn a stack of patents for the multitude of inventive licks he plays at this show.”
The buzz from those who saw the Northwest mini-tour in 1973 still echoed through the Dead Head underground telegraph in 1974. When new Northwest shows were announced that spring, fans were ecstatic. At first glance, the run felt like a replay of the previous year: the sequence was the same, the venues were the same (except for Seattle), even the days were the same—Friday in Vancouver, Sunday in Portland, Tuesday in Seattle, though everything was pushed back by a month to mid-May, instead of late June. All of the surrounding contexts had changed considerably, however.
As 1974 dawned, the Dead found themselves in an interesting position: a growing base of operations, several years of solid work and impressive accomplishments behind them, and an ambitious and exciting slate of projects ahead. On January 2, they held a band meeting that mapped out the challenges they faced. The PA dominated the discussion, driving the decision to send an advance man ahead of the gigs to make sure that the promoter was in compliance with the contract rider. This didn’t focus on backstage amenities. It was a massive technical brief that spelled out every detail for mounting a show, up to the kind of forklift required, along with a multi-page questionnaire that promoters had to complete and return to the band with a complete set of architectural plans.
The PA was still very much in development: three days of shows at Winterland in February were designed to soundcheck the system, after three full days of site testing, with the promise of a final public test to follow, possibly in Portland. Even more revealing was the comment that the second sound test would also be “for Phil & Ned.” This was the first mention of Lagin’s ambitious electronic music project, eventually called “Seastones,” which Lesh always credited as Lagin’s. Its discussion reveals that the project was far from ancillary to the band’s work that year. Indeed, as an expense, the equipment cost for the project was significant: proceeds from the Winterland shows were earmarked for two expenses—a down payment for the Godchauxs’ house ($19,000) and a whopping $27,500 for a computer devoted to the “Seastones” concert segments.
By 1974, the University of Washington had a cadre of devoted Dead Heads who were fiercely proud of the band’s Seattle performances, but this was a special honor: the band’s first visit to the campus. Edmundson Pavilion was named for legendary coach Clarence Sinclair Edmundson (1886–1964), nicknamed Hec, after a childhood penchant for muttering “oh heck.” The roadies charged with erecting the Wall within its unforgiving confines would utter stronger expletives, as they shoehorned a somewhat smaller version of the massive structure into the arena’s 1927 architecture.
The Pavilion may have been built as a multi-purpose venue, but music was not one of those purposes, and its acoustics were atrocious. Journalists familiar with the hall were amazed at what the band’s PA accomplished. The “459 speakers and several hundred amplifiers and other electrical doodads on stage” created sonic perfection for one reporter. “Everybody in the hall last night literally felt the music. You don’t just hear it,” he wrote. “You feel its vibrations ...”
The music the PA presented was even more impressive. Dead Heads have admired the show for years, and not just for the epic “Playing In The Band.” For many, it remains “The best Grateful Dead show I have heard,” often prompting more colorful descriptions, such as “primordial, acid jazz drenched mind melting music.” Every member of the band earned top marks, from Lesh’s inventive bass work to Weir’s energy and color to Keith’s counterpoint and fills, all driven by Kreutzmann’s extraordinary octopal assault; and everyone sang Garcia’s praises, calling his guitar lines “fluid, effortless, accurate, astounding.” Even Donna had admirers, one critic noting that “she knows how to scream incredibly,” which fans called “authentic and powerful in a Ma Rainey kind of way.”