Grateful Dead

Dick's Picks 29 (Grateful Dead)

Dick's Picks 31 (Grateful Dead)

There comes a time when every boy must ask himself this existential question: How many versions of "Playing in the Band" does any reasonable human need to hear?

Granted, guitarist Bob Weir's signature tune is one of the most enduring items in the Grateful Dead songbook, perhaps because it's a microcosm of everything right and wrong about the band in question. It's part road allegory, part southern-fried rock romp, part baroque fantasy, and part launching pad for cosmic improvisation; it features some of lyricist Bob Hunter's better borrowings from the Bible, and, more often than not, some of backup vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux's worst singing. And on the 10 CDs that make up these two recent installments in the Dick's Picks concert series (Volume 30, a four-CD set from 1972, somehow failed to make it into my mailbox), there are no fewer than five renditions of the song, with a total running time of 75 minutes and 11 seconds.

In the interests of research, I thought I'd listen to them all.

The versions found on Volume 29 were both cut at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 19, 1977, with the first emerging from the final chords of a muscular "Terrapin Station" before melting into a beautiful and otherworldly jam session. Weir's in good voice, Godchaux is not too obnoxious, and angels seem to be directing lead guitarist Jerry Garcia's fingers. Although the take clocks in at 11 minutes and 43 seconds, that's obviously not long enough for the Dead, who decide to end their show with a 10-minute reprise. This begins as a meandering bass solo for Phil Lesh, almost loses its way, and then rises into a full-on acid flashback before thundering to an ecstatic close. It's the kind of performance the Dead's legend was built on.

Volume 31 trips back in time to August 1974, a period when the Dead apparently thought nothing of opening a Philadelphia Civic Center show with a nearly-26-minute-long improvisation on Weir's theme. The rhythm player is not as convincing a singer as he would prove three years later, and Godchaux sounds like an ailing cat, but her piano-playing husband, Keith, is uncharacteristically aggressive on Fender Rhodes. Garcia, meanwhile, is flying, bending two or three strings at a time like some lysergically enhanced blues god.

Two days on and the band's in Jersey City, playing a makeup date for a show that had been rained out the week before, and Weir's feature runs later in the set. But something's changed: this is the bar-band "Band". Everyone's working too hard and there's not enough space, until Garcia decides enough's enough and turns on the afterburners. You can almost see Lesh's grin as he goes all atonal on his bass, and Keith Godchaux sounds like he spent the pre-show hang listening to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. This music is out, in as jazzy a way as I've ever heard from the Dead. Just to show they can play things straight they come back to the bar-band version later on, but only briefly; the tune's been wrung dry.

And so am I, after this marathon listening session. But there's one thing I can report: when it comes to "Playing in the Band", a little's not enough.