Jerry Garcia - lead guitar, vocals; Bob Weir - guitar, vocals; Phil Lesh - bass, vocals; Keith Godchaux - electric piano; Donna Godchaux - vocals; Bill Kreutzmann - drums; Mickey Hart - drums, percussion; Guest: Merl Saunders - organ; Guest: Ned Lagin - keyboards, electronic effects
Although short by normal standards, this is one of the most extraordinary sets of the Grateful Dead's entire career. This unexpected set was a big surprise, not only for its highly unusual musical content, but simply for the fact that the Grateful Dead performed. It's all ancient history now, but in October of 1974, the Dead officially retired from live performance, after filming the Winterland run that would comprise The Grateful Dead Movie. Few expected to ever see them perform live as a band again, so when they showed up in full, with keyboardists Merl Saunders and Ned Lagin in tow, as well as former drummer Mickey Hart, it was a major cause for celebration.
The Dead, who ended up only playing four shows in 1975, could have easily satisfied the Bay Area crowd, both Deadheads and others, with a collection of their straight-ahead classic rock songs. Instead they pulled a truly punk move before the punks were even around by playing a lyric-less, melody-evasive jam that draws on material from their 1975 Blues for Allah album.
The set showcases the Grateful Dead's instrumental prowess, especially their mid 70s penchant for jazz-inspired jams. Alternating between intriguing free-jazz abstractions and deep jazz-funk grooves, the Blues for Allah suite surprisingly avoids gratuitous noodling; which is quite a feat considering the double guitar and drums attack and the triple keyboard onslaught. Garcia's sharp, incisive guitar runs lead the instrumental wolf pack with the two electronic pianos providing complementing lines just beneath the surface. Lesh's bass and Kreutzmann's drums provide the backbone of the grooves while Saunders's organ, often low and drone-like in the mix, quietly ties everything together.
The "Johnny B. Goode" closer, coming in just under four minutes, wraps up the set with a rock n' roll burner. The band's clever one-two punch is a hit with the audience and they roar loudly after each song.
Fans of the Grateful Dead will appreciate this show as a fine example of the band's improvisational dynamite while fans of jazz-inflected rock will be impressed with the fusion leanings of the music. Nonetheless, all music enthusiasts should give this set at least one listen for historical reasons. It shows how a band, at the drop of a hat, can successfully defy expectations ten years deep into their career. But after all, that's the charm of the Grateful Dead - even they didn't know what to expect all of the time.