Pacific Northwest ’73-‘74 boils down a larger, limited-edition box set from the Grateful Dead to a three-disc release that pairs two runs of shows, one from June ’73 and the other almost a year later in May ’74. It was a fertile time for the band. New recruits Keith and Donna Godchaux had not yet reached their late ‘70s excesses, and they melded into the core group quite nicely. Drummer Mickey Hart had bowed from the ranks in 1971 and would not return until late 1974, making for a leaner-sounding group. More than that, the Europe ‘72-level of playing remained largely intact through these two runs, making for some excellent listening.

The usual set suspects are here: “Truckin’” (twice), “I Know You Rider,” “The Other One,” et al. If there’s nothing that rises to the same heights as any 1972 reading of “Morning Dew,” the opening “China Cat Sunflower” (Portland, Memorial Colosseum, May ’74) sets a lovely pace and tone for the rest of the record. There’s also a somewhat wobbly (if still affecting) “Box of Rain” (same venue, same town, one year earlier) that rubs shoulders with a life-altering “Brown-Eyed Woman” (Seattle, May ’74). This first disc leans overwhelmingly into the Portland dates, especially in ’74, and rightfully so. A 10-minute jam sandwiched between “Truckin’” and “Not Fade Away” yields some particularly promising improvisation and shows that, above all else, the group could thrive in the moment virtually anywhere, anytime. And the closing “One More Saturday Night,” a Bob Weir staple, proves rousing.

As has become the norm with these archival efforts, the second disc packs on the weird, expansive moments, doubtlessly designed to find both performer and audience reaching some sort of peak. A 46-minute “Playing in the Band” might stretch the patience of even the most seasoned Deadhead, though its musicality proves that the members could raise each other up at unexpected moments, taking the average to the sublime. That rendition comes from a Seattle ’74 gig, as does a slender “China Doll,” while “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Eyes of the World” were taped in Vancouver, British Columbia in ’73 and ’74, respectively.

A collection of delightful performances from the P.N.E. Coliseum in Vancouver, culled from both years, comprises the entirety of the third (and best) disc. “Sugaree” has an appropriate bounce and although “Truckin’” gets stretched to 26 minutes, it doesn’t test the patience, breathing as a thoroughly vital rock ‘n’ roll organism. Meanwhile, the closing “Sugar Magnolia” is every bit as vital as anything else here.

By October ’74, the group would perform a series of “final” dates in San Francisco and, with the reemergence of Hart, would never exude the same vitality in the 1970s. Jerry Garcia was eager to get off the road by the end of that year but, as these performances reveal, still had plenty of music in him. His voice was still in good shape and his ability to blast heavenly leads from his guitar was as intact as it ever was.

Missing from these discs is a sense of the Dead at its most playful, with its tendency to toss in country and western covers (“El Paso,” “Big River,” “Sing Me Back Home”) or its own flirtation with Band-style music (“Tennessee Jed”), though those tendencies are on full display in the larger box. Though this won’t serve as a good primer for non-Deadheads (it runs deep, man), it gives the rest of us access to a show that never was, one that still had all the best moments one could ask for in a Dead show: the sense that band and audience members were on some kind of mystical journey that takes them one step closer to enlightenment. Not even the best jam bands reach such heights these days, making this three-disc set an important glimpse at what made the Dead great when the Dead was at its greatest.

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