Given the thousands of hours of music stockpiled in the Grateful Dead vaults, the archivists have had no trouble zeroing in on the best of it. So far, the Dick’s Picks series and the Arista releases that have focused on late-’60s and early-to-mid-’70s Dead material have been uniformly top-notch (later selections of performances from the ’80s and ’90s are more uneven).
This latest entry doesn’t blot their stellar record. Culled from the same English tour that birthed the tedious, meandering Europe ’72 (Warner Bros.) and the superior 100 Year Hall (Grateful Dead/Arista), the songs on this four-disc set are largely perfect; the playing is energetic, efficient, and adventurous but still down to earth. And the most powerful material here — "Sugar Magnolia," "Greatest Story Ever Told," and "Wharf Rat" — is heavy, rhythmic, and bluesy, always tuneful, but never content to stay within the boundaries of a pentatonic scale and a basic rock beat. Vocalist/organist Pigpen, supplemented here with the percussive jazz shadings of the late pianist Keith Godchaux, would die before another year was out, so this budget-priced set captures the band (sans Mickey Hart, unfortunately) at a creative peak.
(Jonathan’s review of Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead is in the Books section.)