Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Album Review: Grateful Dead - June '76 Box Set

Grateful Dead 
June '76 Box Set
****and1/2 out of *****

Box sets from any group are for the hardcore fans and this gorgeous release from the Grateful Dead highlights a period which the band has not showcased much in the past. June '76 is a perfect combination as hardcore fans will eat it up and the music presented is wonderful to get lost in even if you are not super familiar with the group.

1976 was a transitional year as the group was getting back on their feet after taking most of the last year and a half off from touring. The band also welcomed Mickey Hart back to the fold solidifying it's late 70's powerhouse lineup of Jerry Garcia – guitar, vocals Donna Jean Godchaux – vocals Keith Godchaux – keyboards Mickey Hart – drums Bill Kreutzmann – drums Phil Lesh – bass Bob Weir – guitar, vocals. While 1977 gets discussed as one of the strongest years in the band's history, the ground work for that was laid right here in the loose, warm and experimental days of Spring '76.

The group played smaller venues than they had before their hiatus as this set takes shows from Boston Music Hall, New York's Beacon Theater and The Capital Theater in Passiac New Jersey. Unlike some other box sets these shows have not had wide tape trading release and the revelations contained within will thrill long time fans (like RtBE).

While he is the leader and the focal point, Jerry Garcia seems to be especially on his game throughout  this run and sports a new guitar tone from the earlier days of the band. Also it should be mentioned that Donna, who can be divisive among fans, never sounded better with the band than she does on this box set. The band in general is loose, jazz influenced, sporting an unhurried vibe throughout while listening to each other, allowing all voices to be heard while slow waltzing through the songs.

If there is a complaint to be found, it is in the shallow song selections, with repetition of many songs like "The Music Never Stops", "Brown Eyed Woman" and "Dancing In The Street", but each plays so strongly that picking a compilation or a scaled down release would not do this run justice. Some fans may not love the languid pace that the band locks into for these rare theater shows,the Dead are even slower than usual. However, the warmth and tone with which they play, especially Garcia, is intoxicating and adds a new dimension for the band which should be listened to and appreciated; they never sounded like this before or after.

The two Beacon Theater shows are dynamite and the main draws for this set as all four sets are fantastic. 6-14-76 from top to bottom is stunner starting with solid versions of "Mama Tried" a dynamite rendition of "Cassidy", a soulful "Row Jimmy".and Bobby's "Lazy Lightning > Supplication" which was debuted just a few days before and is fluid as all hell. The set wrapped up with the jazz fueled, experimental "Playing In The Band" which recalled the excursions of "Darkstar's" past.

The second set opened with a stand alone "The Wheel" which was just finding traction as Lesh leads the way with his bass, Donna basically takes the lead vocals on the funky "Dancing In The Streets" while the band breaks out "Cosmic Charlie" (to audible fan approval). One of the highlights of this box set arrives via "Help On The Way>Slipknot!>Franklin's Tower" run which is jaw dropping. This combo has a few versions released in this set, but none come close to this night as the band finds the balance between exploratory, grooving and all out awesome. A double shot of Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" and the singalong "US Blues" seals the deal for this killer show.

Not to be denied the second Beacon show has an OK to good first set ("Candyman" and "It Must Have Been The Roses" are standouts) but it is during the first notes of the second set where things shoot to the moon. "St.Stephen" is a blast, edging up the list of all time best versions before moving into a jammed out "Not Fade Away" that cooks before a blissful gorgeous delivery of "Stella Blue"; a gorgeous three set run on par with any in the bands career.

Things barely settle down with bouncing Hart/Kreutzmann drums leading "Samson and Delilah", a gorgeous "Friend of The Devil" with Godchaux's keys shining, and another damn fine rendition of "Dancing In The Streets" with Billy and Mickey again leading the rhythmic charge. Wrapping up with a ripping "Johnny B Goode" the band puts a rock and roll stamp on their only trip ever to the Beacon with gusto.

The first two Boston shows presented here are also very worthy of your time. The first night in particular 6-10-76 has many interesting motifs from the group that they would continue to work on over the year. Look no further than "Sugaree" (the best of the versions presented here) as Jerry makes his guitar sing with passion, this tune in particular fits the bands '76 style like a glove. The set drags a bit in the middle but ends on a high note with a pumping "Big River" led by Lesh, the ultra rare "Mission In the Rain" and a slow/dramatic "Looks Like Rain" sang with desire by Donna and Weir.

The second set displays perhaps the funkiest version of "Samson and Delilah" from this offering but a reserved offering of "Help>Slip>Frank". Where the band really shines on this night is the epic "Let It Grow" led by Weir and Donna vocally, and Garcia's dynamite leads mixing with Keith's cool piano. The tune is majestic then dips into a short drum solo before returning with power, climbing the list of our personal favorite renditions of this song. '76 was also a great year for "Friend Of The Devil" as another sweet piano based version drips out before a spaced out "Playing In The Band" morphs (after a few hints) into the funky "Dancing In The Streets".

The second night in Boston delivers a solid first set with offerings like a dynamic "Cassidy" (every version from this box set is strong) a stand alone "Scarlet Begonia's (which Keith leads) and perfect versions of "It Must Have Been The Roses" and "Brown-Eyed Women" (two songs suited for '76's languid pacing) solidify this set.

The second set shows the Grateful Dead's faults and strengths as things never truly sync up but also show the heights the band can reach.  The misses are the slow moving  stuttering "St. Stephan", a bland "Sugar Magnolia" but then when the jam to start "Eyes Of The World" begins the band clicks into gear. The Eyes and the following gorgeously majestic "Stella Blue" are prime Dead as the band close out their two night Boston run.

The box set ends with the 6-19-76 show from the Capital Theater in Passaic New Jersey and while the weakest of the bunch it still delivers a few stunning highlights. Versions of "Help>Slip>Frank" "The Music Never Stopped" and "Tennessee Jed" are presented in the first set, however all songs have better renditions elsewhere in the box set.

The second half of the show recalls the first Boston night with a great "Let It Grow" complete with drums in the middle and yet another funky "Dancing In The Street". The band returns fan favorite "Cosmic Charlie" to the forefront while the show highlight is a speculator "High Time" with Garcia playing and singing with immense passion. 

After a molasses slow version of "Around and Around" the show and the box set as a whole ends on a positive note as the band digs into another fan favorite"Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" seguing into a pumping version of "One More Saturday Night" and wrapping the whole experience up with their version of "Not Fade Away".

The Grateful Dead have our vote as the Best American Band of All-Time and as a long time fan of this outfit, releases like this reinforce their majesty. The different eras, sounds and styles from the group over it's almost 40 year career are simply amazing and June '76 yet again showcases new things that the band do well. Like anyone the Grateful Dead changed over the years, to have one of those transitional times like June '76 captured so perfectly is a real treasure for fans and a must hear.
Support the band, buy the album and peep some video below:

Unboxing of the Box Set: