I am a lover of the Grateful Dead. Since that first night in 1967 when they did for me what acid was to do some time later, I have considered them the best rock band in existence and much else besides - the guardian angels or spirits of the Grail - so it was not without a certain circumspect caution that I approached this concert, the reason being various reports of mediocre performances, and their last three albums, which had forced me (and others) unwillingly to the conclusion that like many of us, the Dead had begun to settle for tasteful dabbling with traditional musical forms at the expense of more risky, but potentially much more rewarding excursions into a higher level of consciousness. I was prepared to hear an impeccable set of beautifully played short numbers, with little of the kind of incredible sonic sunburst explosions for which the Dead are rightly valued above all others as the ultimate musical guides to the vast, joyful potential of (why not say it?) acid rock, of which only they are truly capable. That is why Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist, is called "Captain Trips," why the band has the most devoted following of any rock band in the world, why a Dead concert is a special event in the freak calendar, and why everyone braved the rent-a-cops with bullhorns and barricades outside to get into the Felt Forum a week ago Tuesday night. We were stoned and ready to go.
After their traditional half-assed country numbers, the New Riders of the Purple Sage wound up their set as usual with two superfine rock numbers ("Willie and the Hand Jive" and "Honkey Tonk Women") which, as usual, made me wonder why they bother with their standard routine of country doodles, since their rock is so superior. But that's all the Flow, I suppose - the build-up for the moment when the first Dead chord comes jumping out of [the] superb sound system, and convinces you that these dudes just bear no comparisons with anybody.
Bill Graham, doing his first concert since he closed the Fillmore, had set the scene to perfection. The sound was clear and loud and pure, the lighting tasteful and brilliantly timed, the stage a carefully composed visual treat, with huge banks of multi-colored tie-dye-covered speakers and a single red rose sitting on Pigpen's organ, stage left. All it needed was the music, and on Tuesday night the Dead proved themselves as magnificent as ever. It was the kind of concert that leaves you stunned and happy, ready and willing to dance all night, and then do your best to find pleasure in the smallest things of everyday as long as the feeling lasts. In short, it was inspiring, and it was even consistent, for there were none of the usual aborted attempts to take-off, no uneasy fumblings for a riff to fly on. It all came together on the first note, and stayed that way to the last. If anything, the Dead have improved.
"Ladies and Gentlemen - the Grateful Dead!" Bill Graham in cloth cap. Tradition. The first note resounds deeply with that special familiar beautiful deep crystal bell sound which cannot possibly be recorded properly, and the spotlights blind on simultaneously. Tradition. "Rain and Snow," fast and jumping and so full of life, a good hard opener with long brilliant meshing of guitars and drums and organ and piano (a new member) in mid-stream, and then back down into liquid steam-train rock again. Tradition. Hot-damn, they're on the old ball tonight, yessir. Every number is long and perfect. Jerry sings, then Bob Weir, then Pigpen, and tonight they all sound good. The audience is ecstatic, jumping and clapping and stomping and dancing in the aisles and singing along when they know the words. (Time has gone on; this audience only sings along with the numbers from "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty," their mass-market albums. There were five before them, and "Rain and Snow" is from the first, some say the best. So is their second number, "Beat It On Down the Line").
They do "Mister Charlie," Hank Williams's "You Win Again," "Cumberland Mine," "Laredo" (Marty Robbins's biggest hit), "Casey Jones" (drivin' that train, high on cocaine...), "Brokendown Palace," and then they leave with a mumbled word about technical problems, which Weir admits later is a lie, 'cause Bill Kreutzman had to take a piss (and you can bet your life that Bill Graham told him to own up. Technical problems are in his department.) By this time, a mood of spaced tranquility holds sway, and the refreshments line is curiously civilized.
"No more whistling from the cheap seats," says Weir, and then they roll into "Sugar Magnolia"; after that, my notes were forgotten and they carried me away to all kinds of wondrous places - but I do remember that they closed it all out with "Not Fade Away" and "Goin' Down the Road, Feeling Bad," and that for the first time in my memory they did an encore, "Saturday Night." So good, just absolutely deelicious. They done it again.
"Is the world ending? Oh, there's the world" - a grateful Dead fan, blitzed on acid.
(by Patrick Carr, from the "Riffs" column, Village Voice, December 16 1971)
See also Robert Christgau's more distanced, sociological report on a Dec '71 Felt Forum show here - it ran in the same issue of the Village Voice: