on 9 January 2014
This is a strangely unrepresentative recording, showing a side of the Dead that had little exposure, amazingly, given the hundreds of concerts they gave over the decades. I first heard "Reckoning" in the early 1980s on vinyl, and loved it long before I understood the band's main appeal - the long passages of electric weirdness. As other reviewers have said, these edited snippets come from a series of 1980 gigs when they briefly went back to the 1970 format, preceding the long electric set with a shorter acoustic one. The best known example of that era is the epic Harpur College concert of May 1970, preserved on Dick's Picks volume 8. But the playing in 1980 bears little resemblance to that of 1970. On "Reckoning",they aim to recreate elements their electric set but without electric guitars, and with Brent Mydland limited to piano and harpsichord. The result is strangely moving. As people have said before me, the versions of "Bird Song" and "China Doll" are hushed and intimate - and I've never heard better takes on either of those songs. "Bird Song", only recently restored to their sets, sounds as fresh as if its subject, Janis Joplin, had only just gone to her grave, while "China Doll" has the sound of a song at last fulfilling its potential. The same could almost be said of "Cassidy", here a rushing, tumbling ride, coming off the crest of Lesh's electric base to burst joyously into its final "flight of the seabirds". Even with all those wonderful "Cassidys" of 1976 and 1977, the "Reckoning" version remains the one I go back to. On top of that magical trio, there is a wonderful, whispering "It Must Have Been the Roses" and a beautiful "Ripple".
Alongside these originals are the traditional numbers, including a tense, urgent take on "Jack-a-Roe", one of those folk songs that Garcia makes his own, whatever his limitations as a singer. But it's misleading to say that the Dead were "going back to their roots"; the sound is not primitive or sparse, and is certainly a long way from the sweetly ramshackle sound of 1970, when players seem to stop mid-solo to pass the joint. It's still a campfire sound, but full and warm, with all the intricacy you would expect of Garcia and Lesh in tandem, and not unlike the balance created for MTV Unplugged some years later. The remastering has added to its clarity, without taking anything away from its natural mute, a quietness that makes you lean in to listen.
As an afterthought, I have to say that "Reckoning" is, to my ears, greatly preferable to the electric companion discs of "Dead Set", where the band sound - for the first time - simply slick. Tight is one thing - slick is another. As the decade wore on, they alternated between slickness and sloppiness, suffering also through their ageing repertoire. With the exception of the unfailingly mysterious "Althea", the relatively small number of new songs they wrote together after 1978 were inferior to the "Row Jimmys" and "Jack Straws" of the early 70s. Rather than vamping the blues - a job largely left to Bob Weir - or traipsing through Dylan, it's a shame they didn't make up the shortfall by adding in more American folk songs, and folk songs in general. "Reckoning" shows how that might have played out.