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Two new Grateful Dead summer sets take listeners back 40 years

July. It’s a great month to be among the Dead — the Grateful Dead, that is.

While last July marked the official swan song of the fabled jam band after 50 years, lost chapters from its performance past continue surfacing to keep the Dead very much alive.

What has been unearthed for this summer from the Dead’s seemingly bottomless vaults of concert recordings are documents of two Julys in 1976 and 1978. This was an era when the band was especially active in recording new material and maintaining a rigorous road schedule. It was a different time, though. A second wave of acclaim, one that sent concert attendance soaring among a new generation fanbase, was still close to a decade away. Though still popular, the Dead during the late ’70s was often viewed as a relic, especially given the thriving punk movement of the time.

The triple disc Dave’s Picks Vol. 18: Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, Ca. 7/17/76 presents the band back on its home turf of San Francisco roughly 10 months after the release of what was arguably its last truly great studio album, Blues for Allah. The playing crackles with subtle, celebratory fire. Perhaps, unavoidably, it’s impossible not to immediately gravitate toward Mama Tried, the classic by the now-departed Merle Haggard that was long a staple of the Dead repertoire. Garcia simply sings on guitar with animated runs that weave playfully around Bob Weir’s vocal lead. Ditto for Keith Godchaux, whose piano coloring percolates on everything from the Garcia shuffle Deal to the finale of U.S. Blues and its rich guitar gusto.

The Dave Pick’s series is available only by mail order at Dead.net/store.

Fast forward two summers and we have Red Rocks 7/8/78, a more widely available summation of the same Dead lineup in action. Though it lacks the crispness of Dave’s Picks 18 (the opening version of Bertha sounding particularly lumbering), there is much here to enjoy — specifically, a reading of Ship of Fools full of loose, ragged grace and an alert 11 minute version of 1977’s Terrapin Suite that nicely builds off of Garcia’s wistful vocal delivery and quietly rhythmic fragments the band assembles within the music’s orchestral frame.

Just for fun, the show closes with Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London. While pretty coarse when it comes to ensemble harmonies, the slide guitar colors peppering the Dead’s rollicking groove are a joy.

Red Rocks is a distillation of July 1978: The Complete Recordings, a 12 CD set covering four full concerts. Red Rocks should suffice, though. Along with Dick’s Picks 18, we have two very packed postcards from summers long ago when it wasn’t always so cool to bring out your Dead.

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