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Grateful Dead – 12/2/73 (Review)

For the past week or so I’ve been digging into some Grateful Dead shows from 1973 and 1974. The period is noted as one of the major peaks of the band, and the tour in particular that caught my attention was Fall/Winter 1973. Dick’s Pick’s Volume 14 is a sampling of shows from 11/30/73 and 12/2/73, both at the Boston Music Hall, and I gave it a spin. I was pretty impressed on the whole, but moreso with the stuff that came from 12/2/73. So for this review, my first review of pre 1975 hiatus Grateful Dead, I’ve decided to zoom in on the show from December 2nd, 1973 and review the whole thing.

For context, this show is only about 9 months after the death of founding member and keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. They’ve got Keith Godchaux on piano, who had been filling in on and off during Pigpen’s increasingly frequent absences from the road due to his deteriorating health (he was busy drinking himself to death).

Keith officially joined the band in 1971, along with his wife Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals. Donna was absent for this particular run of shows because she was pregnant. So we’ve got a rare absence of Donna Jean vocals, which many people might be happy about, along with the relatively new absence of Pigpen. Despite the death of their close friend and their notorious increased partying, the band were seriously on point during late 1973. This show is often cited as the best of that tour, though the validity of that claim is often debated online simply because this whole tour is hot as hell.

Set 1 kicks off with a mellow “Cold Rain & Snow” that will hook you right away if you’re anything like me, and enjoy the slow tempos. This tune was generally played with a lot more gusto, but here the boys dial it in for a chilled-out rendition that instantly caught my attention. This entire first set delivers the beautiful slow nectar that manages to pack a punch despite moving at a snail’s pace.

While the slow tempos and loose energy do continue through most of the first set, Bob’s vocals seem a bit off on this particular evening. They are never really all that great, but this show has him at times singing with a piercing, uncomfortable affect. He’s just singing too damn loud and it doesn’t fit in with the mellow vibe that the rest of the band is curating. This is really noticeable on “Beat It On Down The Line” but can be an issue at other points as well.

The third song, “Dire Wolf”, joins “Cold Rain & Snow” in the slow-burning heater category. This version really brings the country twang, especially in Jerry’s voice and the deep hum of Phil’s rolling bass. If you have access to a soundsystem with a lot of low end, I recommend you crank up “Dire Wolf” on that thang and just bounce along with this one.

The rest of set 1 is solid, but nothing that will really blow you away. There are nice chilled-out renditions of “Brown-Eyed Women”, “Ramble on Rose”, and “Row Jimmy”, plus a rootin-tootin “Big River” that many call the best of this tour. Still, though, it’s just “Big River”, and even the best one of a tour won’t be all that interesting.

Closing out the first set is the Bob Weir-led “Weather Report Suite”, a song that the Dead only played, for the most part, in 1973 and 1974. The entire suite was used as a jam vehicle and often led into “Dark Star” (not tonight). It could be nice at times but as I’ve mentioned before Bob’s vocals here are just a bit too piercing for my tastes. They ended up dropping the full suite and just keeping “Let It Grow” in rotation after 1974. Here it’s alright, with some nice harmonies and they’re really locked in, but I do wish Weir would lower his voice a bit.

Reading my thoughts on set 1 might have you wondering why I even chose to review this show in the first place. Well, my friends, let me introduce you to a wild, quirky, and inspired set 2 that takes the mellow, loose vibe curated through set one and smacks it with a baseball bat far into the ether, taking the slow tempos out there with it.

The second set kicks off with a rather melty “Wharf Rat” that seems innocuous enough, but at times shows hints of face-stealing. Jerry’s warming up his fingers with this one, and you can feel the reality begging to slip back with each successive riff. It never quite gets there, though, as it’s just the first song, and the band transitions right into a “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, which is again lackadaisical but you can tell where they’re itching to take it.

Again, they don’t stop at all before going straight into “Playing in the Band”, and here they finally do take it off the rails and into the unknown. The innocent, basic rock structure that starts the song quickly devolves into the mush and the band rolls into psychedelic freeform.

For the next twenty minutes we’re exploring the depths with the Grateful Dead while they poke themselves in and out of every corner looking for the light. It goes slow at first and builds in intensity until they enter “Mind Left Body Jam”, which for a moment sounds like they’re going to jump right into Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See”, but instead they leave space with “He’s Gone”.

You might think they’ve had enough of the cosmos for one evening, but “He’s Gone” rolls into “Truckin'” and before long we’re back in jazzy deep space, which culminates in a gorgeous, peaceful “Stella Blue” and then a party of a “Sugar Magnolia” (albeit piercing Bobby vocals where he tries to fill in the gaps where we’d normally hear Donna) with a ripping “Morning Dew” encore.

The second set of 12/2/73 is a true rollercoaster that knocks it out of the park in terms of exploratory 70s Dead. The band is clearly feeling good this night, and they line up one of the better second sets that I’ve heard to come from an era that is totally known for second set face-melters. Top it off with some mellow, laid-back grooves throughout and you’ve got yourself a solid all-around show, even considering Weir’s vocal issues that put a strain on part of set 1.

I’ll give this show a 7.5/10 overall. Listen to the soundboard recording from the Archive below.

Boston Music Hall – Boston, MA

Set 1:
Cold Rain And Snow
Beat It On Down The Line
Dire Wolf
The Race Is On
Brown-Eyed Women
Jack Straw
Ramble On Rose
El Paso
Row Jimmy
Big River
WRS Prelude
WRS Part 1
Let It Grow

Set 2:
Wharf Rat
Mississippi Half-Step
Playin’ In The Band
Mind Left Body Jam
He’s Gone
Stella Blue
Sugar Magnolia

Morning Dew