[Review] History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. I (Bear’s Choice) (1973)

Another live album, this time featuring handpicked selections from the band’s (chemical) engineer, Owsley “Bear” Stanley.

Kronomyth 9.0: A Bear’s hits in the woods.

The third live Grateful Dead album released in a row, this one features primarily Pigpen (who had recently passed away) at a handful of shows in February 1970 at the Fillmores East and West. Bear’s Choice is otherwise notable for being the first Dead live disc to focus on their acoustic show; the amps aren’t turned on at all until the second side. Now, you don’t really give a crap about my Grateful Dead reviews and I’m not a Deadhead, so let’s not lie to one another: this is not the first Dead live disc you need to own. And the death of Pigpen, while tragic on a personal level, didn’t represent a crippling blow to the Grateful living. You don’t need to be a Deadhead, however, to appreciate the history lesson.

The original elpee is light on material, but the 2001 remaster adds four more tracks and contains some smokin’ playing, now anchored by two weighty versions of “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Pigpen, apologetic on guitar and unapologetic in his howlin’ delivery, is the bluesiest of the bunch, a point underscored on the twin smokestacks and the classic “Hard to Handle.” There’s plenty of amazing picking and drumming behind it all, from the early version of “Good Lovin’” to the electric solo on the second Smokestack.

Since I find the electric Dead more interesting, I wouldn’t bother much with the original elpee version, which is half acoustic curios and half Pigpen tribute. The expanded remaster has a better balance and gives a more accurate impression of the Dead’s live show around 1970. If you’re looking for classic Dead tunes, though, you won’t find them here; only “Black Peter” will be familiar to the casual fan. Otherwise, this is part of the great, revolving American songbook that the Dead hauled with them from place to place, which on a given night could range from Bill Monroe to the Everly Brothers. Bear’s Choice is better than I expected, but in the wake of so many archival live releases it’s really your choice.

Original elpee version

A1. Katie Mae (Sam Hopkins) (4:44)
A2. Dark Hollow (Bill Browning) (3:52)
A3. I’ve Been All Around This World (Traditional, arr. by Jerry Garcia/Mickey Hart/Bill Kreutzmann/Phil Lesh/Ron McKernan/Bob Weir) (4:19)
A4. Wake Up Little Susie (Boudleaux Bryant/Felice Bryant) (2:31)
A5. Black Peter (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter) (7:28)
B1. Smokestack Lightnin’ (Chester Burnett) (17:59)
B2. Hard To Handle (Otis Redding/Alvertis Isbell/Allen Jones) (6:15)

CD reissue bonus tracks
8. Good Lovin’ (Arthur Resnick/Rudy Clark) (8:57)
9. Big Boss Man (Al Smith/Luther Dixon) (4:54)
10. Smokestack Lightnin’ (version two) (Chester Burnett) (15:11)
11. Sitting On Top of The World (Walter Jacobs/Lonnie Carter) (3:20)

The Players

Jerry Garcia (acoustic guitar, lead guitar, vocals), Mickey Hart (drums), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Phil Lesh (bass), Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (acoustic guitar, organ, harmonica, percussion, vocals), Bob Weir (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, vocals) with Bill Graham (introduction on track 10). Produced and engineered by Owsley “Bear” Stanley.

The Pictures

Poster by artist David Singer, who did a lot of the Fillmore West concert posters.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and reel-to-reel tape on July 6, 1973 in the US (Warner Bros., BS/WST-2721), the UK and Italy (Warner Bros., K-46246) and Japan (Warner Bros., P-8362W); reached #60 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1978 in the US (Warner Bros., BS/M5-2721) {palm tree label}.
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in the US (Warner Bros., 2721-2).
  3. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc in 2001 in the US (Rhino, RA 74401) with 4 bonus tracks.

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