This 1973 release was the very last collection that the Grateful Dead authorized during their tenure with Warner Bros. in the late '60s and early '70s. However, this live disc was a sort of melancholy affair, as it centered on material featuring Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (guitar/vocals/mouth harp), who had left the band due to illness in June of the previous year. History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear's Choice) is somewhat misleading, as a follow-up never came to pass. Band historians, however, claim that this release was optimistically titled because the label had hoped to issue a series of live recordings (à la Dick's Picks) containing highlights from a variety of vintage Dead performances. Alas, with the formation of the group's own label it was not to be. The single disc includes performances from a highly touted series of shows held over two nights (February 13-14, 1970) at the Fillmore East in New York City. While most assuredly not the finest example of the Dead's formidable acoustic sets, the platter opens with a quartet of cover tunes -- many of which had been entries in Jerry Garcia (guitar/vocals) and McKernan's folky jug band repertoire prior to ultimately forming the electric, psychedelic Grateful Dead. McKernan's playful cover of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Katie Mae" is a somewhat lightweight affair. He counterbalances ad-libbed lyrics with his own very sparse solo guitar picking, which is in perfect keeping with the lonesome nature of this blues. Garcia and Bob Weir (guitar/vocals) join in on the remaining "unplugged" tracks. Both the affective and noir "Dark Hollow" and "I've Been All Around This World" reveal the command of this highly under-utilized sub-division of the Dead. Clocking in at seven-plus minutes, the album's sole original composition, "Black Peter," is masterfully executed. It ultimately bests the original Workingman's Dead (1969) version in sheer emotive realization. The two electric offerings -- a cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'" and Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" -- are full-blown rave-ups allowing the entire band to weave their collective R&B-influenced psychedelia, unedited and in real time. Both tracks had become assertive vehicles for McKernan's no-nonsense R&B sensibilities. In 2001, History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear's Choice) was included in the 12-disc Golden Road (1965-1973) box set. The remastered edition comes replete with a newly inked 16-page liner notes insert containing an essay from the "Bear" (aka Owsley Stanley) himself. The expanded track list yields four additional performances from the same cache of shows: the McKernan-led "Good Lovin'," "Big Boss Man," a second and equally scintillating version of "Smokestack Lightnin'," as well as an up-tempo "Sitting on Top of the World," the latter of which keeps the frenetic spirit of the reading from the Dead's self-titled debut firmly intact.
AllMusic Review by Lindsay Planer