The Grateful Dead’s archive series Road Trips has evolved considerably since it was inaugurated in 2007. Originally conceived to focus on notable eras from this iconic band’s history, the early releases included highlights rather than complete shows, in marked distinction from its renowned predecessor Dick’s Picks.
Perhaps in response to fan demand, but just as likely because so many worthwhile Dead concerts exist in their entirety in that vaunted vault, Road Trips like Vol. 4 No. 3 are now invariably comprised of whole shows, rounded out with comparable recordings from the same venue or the same tour.
Denver ‘73 includes all the recorded performance at the Colorado coliseum on December 21th and familiar material like “Truckin’” “Uncle John’s Band” and “The Other One, virtually all in extended renditions. Astutely produced by David Lemieux and Blair Jackson, the only material duplicated within the three disc set is the venerable “Truckin’”, which should placate those music lovers who rue the availability of bonus discs with such packages (now only available with a subscription to the Road Trips series). The self-referential travelogue from American Beauty serves as the launchpad to a brave series of segues including “The Other One” and “Stella Blue.”
At the outset of the first disc, the Grateful Dead slowly but surely generate momentum by alternating Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir sung tunes including “Black Throated Wind” and “They Love Each Other.” There’s an effortless air in their playing that suggests just how deep was the band’s collective comfort zone at this juncture in their career: no doubt that ease has something to do with the sense of accomplishment derived from getting their independent record label off the ground earlier that autumn with the release of Wake of the Flood, but more probably it’s the group’s standing opportunity to pick from the most diverse and high-quality choice of in their history to that point.
Accordingly, new selections from the aforementioned album like “Here Comes Sunshine,” “Weather Report Suite” and “Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodleloo” introduce additional improvisation to the set as it progresses, the band created high peaks and wide valleys appropriate to their geographical location that night.In the conclusion of the regular setlist “Playing in the Band” is interwoven to the subdued yet dramatic climax of “Wharf Rat” and “Morning Dew.”
Jeffrey Norman’s mastering captures fine detail of Kid Candelario’s original recording.The Grateful Dead’s singing and playing evinces an ease born of being able to hear each other increasingly well in their continually evolving sound system (yet, as Blair Jackson notes in his wide-ranging historical essay, the Wall of Sound was a year away).Perhaps just as importantly, in this streamlined alignment Bill Kretuzmann’s contributions are as noticeable and vital as pianist Keith Godchaux’;the two are heard equally on the snappy likes of "Big River" and the gorgeous balladry of “Brokedown Palace.” As usual bassist Phil Lesh anticipates the bands every move, felt as often as he’s heard, except on his bone-rattling intro to “The Other One.”
On par with the musical concepts, the graphics for Road Trips have grown in sophistication as the series has evolved and those of Vol. 4 No. 3 feature almost as much colorful artwork as varied action photos of the Grateful Dead on stage.Ultimately, the evolution of the content and the packaging only mirrors the development of this group as a musical unit and that reflection’s particularly clear on Denver ’73.