There are more than a few notable aspects to the second entry in Dave's Picks‚ the Grateful Dead archive series inaugurated in January 2012. In keeping with the concept of the series as successor to Dick's Picks‚ the colorfully designed and detailed package contains the entire concert from Dillon Stadium in Hartford‚ Connecticut on three CDs‚ each of which comprises a separate set.
The band sounds relaxed and confident throughout and rightly so. With their own record label firmly established -- the second title from the band themselves‚ From the Mars Hotel‚ had just recently been released at the time of this show -- and the visionary technical project that was the Wall of Sound now a functional reality‚ the Grateful Dead could also feel sure of themselves on this summer day because the personnel of the group had been stable since late in 1971‚ when keyboardist Keith Godchaux and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux had joined the lineup.
Godchaux' presence is formidable here whether using an electric piano‚ which on "China Doll" and "Scarlet Begonias‚" adds a crisp but ethereal quality to the music‚ or an acoustic instrument (an actual grand piano as pictured amongst the variety of photos in the booklet here). The whole septet floats as gracefully through "Row Jimmy" as they gallop vigorously through Marty Robbins' "Big River‚" in part because drummer Bill Kreutzmann occupies the sole percussion seat (his rhythm partner Mickey Hart would not return till the following year).
Phil Lesh forges a solid underpinning with Kreutzmann that allows the bassist to maintain an unusual prominence within the instrumental interplay of the quintet. The cleanly executed intro to "Eyes of the World‚" for example‚ is indicative of Lesh's crucial role within the mechanics of the Grateful Dead‚ as is the alternately contrapuntal and complementary figures he plays during so many of guitarist Jerry Garcia's solos: this might well have been the role the latter envisioned when he invited Lesh to join the fledgling group‚ knowing that‚ never having played the bass‚ the classically-educated musician would‚ by default‚ bring an unorthodox approach to his instrument.
The Grateful Dead had already mastered a remarkable range of material during the course of their career to this point. Whether drawing on the wealth of original songs they had developed or the selection of de rigueur covers in the repertoire‚ the band never dated themselves‚ despite the stereotypes thrust upon them from outside their community. In fact‚ "Ship of Fools" makes a comment on the political turmoil of those early 70s times even in retrospect‚ precisely because it is not overtly topical.
The group's original compositions‚ most written in collaboration with lyricist Robert Hunter‚ achieved a keen economy in the form of such tunes as "Brown-eyed Women" and "Uncle John's Band." Yet this discerning craftsmanship only facilitated the Dead's expansive improvisational inclinations as represented by the increasingly lengthy jams‚ "Mind Left Body" and "Spanish Jam‚" that appear as these three-plus hours evolve.
As noted by Blair Jackson in his unusually pithy liner notes‚ this July 31‚ 1974 show was one of the few such extended concerts in the iconic band's history‚ a reality dictated in part by the use of their now mythic audio system. The author debates if the necessary delay in frequency of the band's shows due to its complex logistics was an advantage or disadvantage to the group‚ but Dave's Picks Volume 2‚ even with its minor blemishes in recording and performance -- a mysterious disappearance of the vocals on "Beat It On Down the Line‚" the strident tone in the wordless singing from the female Godchaux' during "Greatest Story Ever Told" -- suggests in no uncertain terms the Grateful Dead were at one of the apogees of their thirty-year history on this summer day.