I’ve gone on record saying this before, but it’s worth repeating: While 1973 is generally my personal favorite year of Grateful Dead music, 1970 might truly be the best year of them all.
The year stands out for me because it is one of convergence – the unanimous kings of pure psychedelic mastery merging with their own soul stirring progress into consummate songwriting which calls to mind a certain timeless Americana/Folklore campfire intimacy. Rooted in 1969, when they first started folding this acoustic element into shows, it reveals the Dead as an even more multifaceted jewel than anyone could have imagined over the previous four years. The Grateful Dead were riding a wave of pure creativity in 1970 which saw them artfully playing well worn strings while also inventing new instruments at the same time.
An evening with the Grateful Dead was now something altogether epic, spanning the relaxed intimacy of an opening acoustic set, followed by the amped up Psychedelic Country twang of a New Riders Of The Purple Sage set (complete with Jerry on pedal steel and Mickey on drums), capped by the Electric Dead at full force. “Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.”
With this multidimensional musical energy at full throttle, 1970 also seems to best encapsulate something of the real roots of the subculture documentation of the band’s musical history. Great swaths of the Dead’s output this year are missing from the Vault completely, due in no small part to soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley ending up in jail (it was he who was so instrumental in all the shows being recorded from the beginning), and the loose and unsecured manner in which the band’s soundboard tapes were protectively archived (master reels had a way of “walking out” of the vault). As the luck of timing would have it, by 1970 the growth of the Dead’s fan base, and audience tapers along with them, meant that even while large chunks of the year were either going absent from the band’s personal archive, or never even making it in, many of the missing holes actually were documented in the organic archiving of the intrepid tapers of that day – the grandfathers of the Dead bootleg audience tape phenomena.
It is no understatement to say that a lot of the audience tapes from 1970 are God awful wrenching on the ears. And sometimes these recordings with the worst sound quality are all we have as a clouded, scratched, and muddied lens into some of the greatest Dead music of all time (check out 04/24/70 Mammoth Gardens sometime to get this point completely – brutal on the ears, yet possessing a Dark Star and Eleven to rival all others).
Defying the odds stacked up by the band’s challenge to record and preserve their own output, combined with the field recording challenges of the era, there are still soundboard and audience tapes from 1970 which serve as shining jewels in the band’s deserved crown. With regard to the audience tapes in particular, they are often all there is on tape from some amazingly pivotal moments in the Dead’s concert history. These aural documents are plentiful enough to bring ample joy to those tape collectors out there who recognize the glory of 1970 Grateful Dead, and whose ears are seasoned enough to be unencumbered by what those perhaps less initiated might find as barriers to the music itself.
No doubt, fully appreciating even the best AUDs of 1970 requires the listener to have traveled a bit down the road of AUD tapes in general. I often mention that an AUD tape can require a bit of time for one’s ear to acclimate – sometime a few minutes, or a song or two. When it comes to 1970, this acclimation process can take a good deal longer, and is not always measured by listening to a single tape. I know for myself, after getting a number of 1970 AUDs early on in my trading experience, it wasn’t until I had gone down a longer road of building an appreciation for audience tapes in general, and came back to these ‘70 tapes, that I found my ears completely open to the music on these recordings.
This apparent rite of passage makes the joy within this music somehow more precious and special – the known futility of thinking we could hand over what we feel are actually good sounding tapes like 06/24/70, or 05/07/70 to a person never before exposed to audience tapes and believe they would be able to fully circumvent the auditory barriers which block total access to the magic within. They can’t. And thus, shows like this takes on an air of existing in some inner circle, or some secret room within the halls of the Grateful Dead tape collector’s mansion. Many people can’t find the room, because they haven’t passed through the outer chambers yet. But, the journey has its rewards, and is worth all the trials one’s ears might face in making it in.
While it had its own roots in 1969, 1970 ushered in the model of musical journeying that embodied the Grateful Dead forever onward. While there is no denying the pure primal pleasure found in the intense uninterrupted psychedelia of the years before, it seems that when the Dead started to spread their wings and explore the accessibility of acoustic roots, their hypnotic connection to the universal musical soul expanded even further.
Not Sure Where To Begin?
my thoughts on Music & Being, which guide my writing.