This nine-disc box set gathers music from a trio of consecutive Grateful Dead gigs -- November 9 -- 11, 1973 at their hometown hockey rink Winterland Arena. At the time the band consisted of Jerry Garcia (lead guitar/vocals), Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals), Keith Godchaux (keyboards), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Phil Lesh (electric bass/vocals), and Bob Weir (rhythm guitar/vocals). In 1973, they atypically played a mere handful of gigs in San Francisco. According to Dennis McNally's liner notes, the run represented within could be considered over half of their Bay Area appearances for the year. That shouldn't suggest that the combo weren't keeping a full calendar, as they played about every five days or so for a total of 72 live shows. As the overwhelming bounty of strong performances on 2008's Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings substantiates, the combo were operating on all cylinders and -- when applicable -- at full velocity. Hearing the natural ebb and flow inherent in the concerts themselves reveals the Grateful Dead's singular ability to effortlessly vacillate between a multitude of styles. Among them are straight-ahead vintage rock & roll -- namely Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and "Around and Around" -- to covering country & western troubadours Johnny Cash ("Big River,") Marty Robbins ("El Paso"), and George Jones ("The Race Is On"). An amalgam of these artists would heavily influence the writing of Weir and John Barlow as the originals and Grateful Dead songbook staples "Mexicali Blues" and, to a more refined degree, the tales-from-the-road sensibility of "Black-Throated Wind" and "Looks Like Rain." Another facet of the hydra-headed Grateful Dead reaches back into their formidable psychedelic past, while Garcia, Keith Godchaux, and Kreutzmann are simultaneously aggressive in their pursuit of a jazzier grade of instrumental improvisation. Nowhere is this as evident as during the multiple stretched-out epic and exploratory readings of "Playing in the Band," "Eyes of the World," and "Weather Report Suite." Likewise, each night brought a host of undeniably special musical moments.
Friday (November 9) contains a seminal "fast" "They Love Each Other" with a few lyrical rearrangements by Garcia, the return of the far-too-infrequently played ballad "To Lay Me Down," and the tight segue between the fiery "Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Bertha." Saturday the 10th is marked by a simple and lovely "Brokedown Palace," and the not-to-be-missed medley linking a spacy "Playing in the Band" to "Uncle John's Band" to a note-perfect "(Walk Me out in The) Morning Dew" that briefly revisits "Uncle John's Band" before returning, bookending the whole affair with a reprise of "Playing in the Band." Plus, the stand-alone "Stella Blue" is well worth mentioning for inclined minds. Seasoned listeners might find that the elements seem to align perfectly throughout the Sunday night outing. The centerpiece is a half-hour-plus "Dark Star" that weaves in and out of the melody before connecting to an incisive "Eyes of the World" and concludes nearly an hour later with a poignant "China Doll." The slinky and appropriately ribald rhythm pulsating through "Loose Lucy," and arguably the best "Weather Report Suite" (of the three found in the this box), are other highlights from the 11th. In terms of fidelity, the project incorporates the Plangent Process, which has unquestionably produced the finest sounding two-track project to have come from the always quality-conscious Jeffrey Norman during his tenure as the Grateful Dead's sonic restorationist. Norman also says that the only song to be M.I.A. is an "encore that wasn't recorded on the 9th." Parties who pre-ordered Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings online were also supplied several premiums: a postcard reproduction of a Grateful Dead mass-mailing from the early '70s and a "Good Ol' Grateful Dead" pin (read: badge) are but a few of the goodies. The icing on the cake is the nine-song "bonus disc" of excerpts from a few weeks later on December 4, 1973 at the Cincinnati Gardens, more information about which can be found on the 2008 bonus edition of Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings.