Dead Relics: Brian’s Pick (3/23/74- Cow Palace)

Brian Stollery on May 8, 2015

In this week’s installment we visit the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif. on March 23, 1974…

Art by Gary Kroman

It’s spring of 1974, Daly City, Calif., at the famed Cow Palace where Ken Kesey and many Dead associates piled into the psychedelic Furthur bus to see The Beatles in Tom Wolfe’s famed novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The date is March 23rd, and LSD guru, obsessive soundman, and all around freak Owsley “Bear” Stanley’s vision of a kaleidoscopic skyscraper of speakers is coming to fruition. Even for seasoned roadies RamRod and Kidd Calendario, positioning the roughly 50 JBL speaker cabinets was grueling, backbreaking labor, but it paid off. Not only in the several ounces of premium weed that would fill their cubbies at the office each month, or the eternal throngs of beautiful hippie girls thrown at them from every direction, but in the band’s sound, which attained a dynamic so clear and sustained, that each note was as clear as a freshwater stream or a blue sky of deepest summer. On this night, Owsley’s Wall of Sound would propel the evening’s proceedings, which included debuts of nascent material, some hints of the forthcoming records Wake of the Flood and From The Mars Hotel, and most importantly, absolutely ineffable improvisation.

Set one starts with a very strong “U.S. Blues,” before channeling Chuck Berry via Bob Weir via “The Promised Land.” After an exemplary “Brown-Eyed Women” and a happy-go-lucky-cowboy-Bobby “Mexicali,” the band takes a step back, and lets the music relax and open wide for a mellow, downright sexy “Tennessee Jed.”

The key word in this set is patience. While many 60s, 80s, and 90s Dead shows featured a non-stop percussive assault from dual drum sets with very little space or room to breathe, the early-to-mid 70s had very precise, carefully emphasized, beautifully understated drums, as Bill Kreutzmann adapted and grew more comfortable holding the percussion reins following Mickey Hart’s departure three years prior. The fairly new keyboardist, Keith Godchaux, also revved the band up in a powerfully uplifting way. Nearly every song from this show is a near-perfect, key version, the band’s persistent work and time on the road clearly apparent.

European tour staple “Black Throated Wind,” which would leave the repertoire later that year and would not reappear for two decades, followed, and then the first “Scarlet Begonias.” A strong, yet elementary version, the cadence and rhythm would develop further with time, however the choppy-yet-symmetrical vibe and danceability were certainly present. “BIODTL” nods to the Dead’s earlier days, with Donna Jean Godchaux, belting her heart out more-or-less in key (Although Phil is actually more in key.) A delicate “Must Have Been The Roses” takes us back to cowboy town with “El Paso.” Both were strangely omitted from the official live release of this show, Dick’s Picks Volume 24. Jerry digs into his solo repertoire for “Deal,” followed by the debut of  “Cassidy,” the Weir-Barlow ode to their fallen Prankster brother Neal Cassady.  Next up is a baby-making sequence of “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” in which Jerry and Bobby’s guitars offer a sprightly dance that mimics the early spring weather and surely reflects the loving vibe of the crowd and the early 70s in general. The major descending riff that often pops in “Dark Star” also makes a brief appearance here. A lovely “Weather Report Suite” and “Let It Grow” cap the first set, with pedal steel from Jerry sounding not unlike Zappa’s “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” and with four part harmonies, due in part to the band’s recent vocal work with Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Set two has a very rough but turbo-charged beginning. “Playin’ In The Band” has a false start, as if the band is so eager to dive into the colossal jams of the evening that they trip over themselves in a jumbled rush to the goal line. A mere five minutes in, the deep, psychedelic underbelly of this set begins to show, via fervent, wah-infused cyclical Garcia licks, perfectly articulated in context by a road-hardened beast of a band and the superb clarity of the Wall of Sound. Around 10 minutes, the musical quilt thickens, as each member’s thread intertwines deeper and further into the song, like the roots of a tree extending and braiding, giving a stronger form and stability to the music. “Playin’” also begins a type of passage that the Dead inadvertently pioneered: the musical palindrome.

In a recently refined ability, the Dead effortlessly morph into “Uncle John’s Band,” which in turn delves into the post-apocalyptic “Morning Dew,” before the final phrases of “Uncle John’s” resurface, along with frenetic dashes of guitar from a buzzing Garcia. The music gradually spaces itself out, with emphasis coming from different directions and hitting varied, sporadic intervals, as the “Main Ten” riff (As it was called before “Playin’” was built around it) emerges, before some Donna howling signals the refrain and the gorgeous sequence of “Playin’ In The Band” > “Uncle John’s Band” > “Morning Dew” > “Uncle John’s Band” > “Playin’ In The Band” comes to its beatific conclusion.

Set two finishes in a rather straightforward manner, hardly approaching the energy or all-encompassing depth of that first hour. Crooner Jerry and cowboy Bobby switch off one-after-another for the remainder of the set, with “Ship Of Fools,” “Big River,” “Ramble On Rose” > “Me and My Uncle,” more Chuck Berry with “Around and Around,” a particularly emotional, lilting “Wharf Rat” into a raucous “Sugar Magnolia.”

The band brings it home for a slow, sultry encore of “Casey Jones” followed by a shit-kicking “One More Saturday Night.” The Wall of Sound looming behind them like a massive robotic tower, it must have been clear to see that the Dead were no longer a group of acid-loving California hippies from the cozy Bay Area. Rather, this was a finely tuned machine; a behemoth rock band with a painstakingly and expertly developed sound and ethos that exuded sheer excellence.