This is, I hope, the first entry in a series in which shows that are overlooked or less well-known get somewhat detailed consideration. There are no truly reliable criteria for determining which shows meet this description, so a combination of the author’s impressions with the fact that a show has not been officially released shall have to serve. Here I am reviewing 1973-02-22 Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is now, of course, called the “State Farm Center,” since every venue name is a sort of advertisement these days. My thesis is that this is a top-notch show. Although there are no long improvisations (relative to the norms of the era), the playing here is consistently inspired and well-executed, and there are several big highlights which make this a show with which every Deadhead should be familiar.
The show begins with a rousing “Promised Land,” followed by “They Love Each Other.” The latter is a good fast-tempo version; although I prefer the song after they slowed it down and dropped the useless bridge, Garcia is playing aggressively and well here, and the “El Paso” that follows demonstrates this nicely—Jerry’s punchy accompaniment makes this one of the better renditions of this song.
This brings us to the first major highlight of the show: in fact, what follows is one of the best versions of “Bird Song” the band ever played. The more well-known readings from 03-16 and 06-22 are perhaps two of the closest analogues to this version; although Keith Godchaux’s Fender Rhodes is more prominent in the mix on the latter, the arrangement, tempo and feel are very similar. Garcia’s lead playing here is magisterial—as he is wont to do in this era, he employs a lot of bends, sometimes seeming to be enthralled with a single note or pair of notes and constructing licks to surround it so he can return and bend it again and again, weaving a kind of tapestry of sound, and slowly building from there to more elaborate melodic passes. This gradually unwinds into an ascending theme built on descending pairs of notes. This begins at 5:23 with an E on the 12th fret (string/fret numbers in parentheses): . Next, Garcia jumps down to the low E and plays the theme twice more beginning from there, on the second time through repeating the above passage but beginning on the low E instead of the E at the 12th fret, and then the lick is further developed as the third iteration runs E (open), (G)E(9)-D(12), (B)G#(9)-(G)F#(11)), A-(B)A(9bend)-G#(9). Garcia finally winds his way up to the E at the 12th fret at 5:38, as the solo hits its peak on the higher notes around the 12th fret before descending to the riff and the drum break.
This is an excellent example of Garcia’s improvisational mastery: note how this segment is constructed, taking a simple snippet of melody and repeating it with variations, with the introduction of both higher and lower notes in the second and third iterations enabling the melody to build in power as it repeats. This enthralling solo begins with rather tightly grouped series of notes and then expands and ascends, giving it a focus and an almost narrative flow that are worthy of a composed piece of music. Garcia seemingly does this on the fly; the passage does not appear in previous or subsequent versions of the song that I have found. This is fairly typical: Jerry frequently comes up with brilliant improvised passages that appear once and are never heard again but, fortunately, we have the tapes.
A version of “Mexicali Blues” that is typical for the era follows, and then we quickly arrive at our next highlight in one of the best versions of “Deal” from this era. Grateful Dead versions of “Deal” must be divided into two categories: those played before, and those played on or after, September 25th, 1980. It was on this date that Jerry added a second solo, which is played over the chords to the chorus; prior to this, there was only one solo, played over the chords to the verse. This is, in fact, my favorite one-solo “Deal,” although I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t many other worthy candidates. As with everything else on this night, the band sounds really together and inspired, and the solo is excellent. The first time through the changes is a fairly typical, albeit particularly forcefully stated, presentation of the melody with the usual embellishments, and Jerry digs into the second pass extra hard, with double stop bends and pinch harmonics contributing to one of the more memorable solos, and indeed one of the more memorable versions of “Deal,” of the era.
After a brief “Beer Barrel Polka” tuning, Weir sings “Looks Like Rain,” and there is yet another elegant solo by Garcia. An energetic “Tennessee Jed” follows, and then Phil treats us to a horribly-sung, if spirited, “Box of Rain.” There’s nothing new to be said here—some people get a lot of enjoyment out of Phil’s lead singing on performances like this, and they are fortunate in that they can appreciate something that sounds kind of bad to me. I do like the timbre of his voice, but his fluctuating volume and phrasing make it kind of a tense experience for me. However, “spirited” is not just a euphemism; he does put some soul into it, and this (barely) saves the performance from being simply bad.
This brings us to the next highlight of the show, an excellent reading of “Playing in the Band.” The jam in this song is particularly difficult for me to articulate thoughts about, as it cooks along with so much going on at any given time. After the vocals and the “Main Ten” lick, the song drops into the D Dorian modality with Jerry and Phil winding around each other, at first riffing on the “Main Ten” lick as they sally forth into one of those wonderful 1973 jams where the ensemble sounds simultaneously frenetic and smooth. Additionally, this is a great example of the central importance of Keith Godchaux to the band’s sound in this era, as he manages to quite effectively remain in the middle of the proceedings while Jerry and Phil riff away madly, and I have no idea how Weir figures out what to play at such times. Nevertheless, while everyone, as is typical for these “Playing” jams, is quite busy, it all somehow adds up to a cohesive whole. Thus, as is often is the case in this era, “Playing in the Band” is one of the most effective exemplars of the Dead’s unique style of group improvisation.
The second set starts with “Wave That Flag,” which was certainly improved by the lyrical revisions that would see it become “U.S. Blues” the following year. After a tight, rocking “Me and My Uncle,” the show arrives at the “meat” portion with “Dark Star > Eyes of the World.” The aforementioned “meat” is relatively short, which is perhaps one reason this show doesn’t get more attention. In fact, at 13:30, this is the shortest “Dark Star” since 1971-11-07 (although there is an argument to be made about how to track 1972-12-15), and one of the shortest since 1968.
It’s not entirely clear why “Dark Star” is so short this evening, but it would be a mistake to overlook it on account of its length. The interplay between Jerry and Phil is elegant here, as this is one of the most beautiful presentations of the main introductory jam that exists. Garcia begins playing softly but firmly, his playing lyrical and fluid; here (and in early 1973 in general) I think he has some of the best tone he ever got on the Alligator…although this may, of course, be subject to dispute. In any case, at this point I think Jerry is already starting to approach the sound he had on the Wolf, which would supplant Alligator in the Fall. Check out the repeating lick he begins at 4:26, and particularly note Phil’s counterpoint. In fact, it’s worthwhile to rewind this section a few times and focus on a different musician each time. As ever, the way Weir underwrites the musical conversation is brilliant, and his playing in this era, although it’s not often enough stated, is quite masterful. This passage is a great example of how all five musicians play off each other on the spur of the moment, and when Jerry backs off into a more contemplative sequence at 4:50, the response is immediate—so much so that there’s no tangible sense of a transition, as everyone is instantly there.
Everything great about Dark Star (specifically) as a composition is explored and allowed to breathe here, as the band stays with the main jam all the way up to the verse, which arrives at 7:09 (with the verse theme beginning at 6:31, after a feint from 5:21—5:39). With five minutes to go (although presumably no one knew that at the time), the band comes out of the verse, as they so often did, into a spacey jam, with Garcia and Weir echoing each other’s spooky runs, as Kreutzmann keeps us in space as he jingles around back there behind the kit on whatever percussion instruments are involved (I have no idea). Jerry takes the reins at around 12:20 with a percussive series of runs leading to a brief “Tiger” section, and it seems that “Dark Star” is ready to take off again—and then Weir gently begins strumming an Emaj7, and the reaction is a transition so instantaneous it’s remarkable, as the band is off into “Eyes of the World.”
This is the fifth performance of “Eyes,” which debuted just shy of two weeks prior on February 9th, and the band nails it here. At 15:45, there is nothing perfunctory about it, but added to “Dark Star” this puts the total “meat” of the show at less than half an hour, which is fairly short for the era. What I want to emphasize in this review, however, is the quality of the band’s playing, which makes this show stand out despite the relatively short jams. “Eyes” is no exception, as the band turns in an excellent rendition. Although the solos between verses would get longer on some later versions, Garcia is at no loss for ideas, as his guitar soars here. Indeed, it seems likely that, unlike some other songs which had relatively little in the way of lead work or jamming in their earlier iterations, but rather developed over a period of years (“Brown Eyed Women,” “Jack Straw”), “Eyes” was intended to be a second set vehicle from the outset (the debut version on 02-09 is just shy of 19 minutes long). What really stands out here, though, is the end jam. Here Phil distinctly leads them into the jazzy riff that comes at the end of the song in this era, but at least there’s no actual disagreement about when to start it in this instance, which is not always the case! “Eyes” provides another context for the Dead to jam, and another tonal palette for this unique ensemble to explore, and although there have been many great renditions over the years, it was already fully formed in 1973. The song is a platform for more structured jamming than something like “Dark Star” or “The Other One,” which had been the primary jam vehicles in this era, and in that sense it heralds the direction they’d take in the near future, as songs and suites like “Terrapin Station,” “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain,” “Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower,” etc. became the primary focus of second sets, rather than the free improvisation that was still at the center of the Dead experience in 1972-1974.
A beautiful “China Doll” follows “Eyes,” after which comes “Around and Around,” which does what it does. And then we get one final highlight—Garcia just about always rips “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” in this era, and this is no exception, and is indeed a top tier version even for the era. The band isn’t done, although this review just about is—next comes the obligatory “One More Saturday Night,” followed by a solid “Casey Jones.” Thus ends a show which seems to be somewhat overlooked, but which stands with any of the era in its quality of playing. Of course, the qualifier here is that the band does not venture very far out, with the absence of one of the long group improvisations that so often featured in the early ‘70s. Nevertheless, taken for what this is rather than for what it is not, this is essential Grateful Dead.