In any extended run, no matter how famous or epic or whatever, there are going to be ups and downs. That being said, I can see why these shows have been so talked-about. The band is at a real turning point between the Other One / Lovelight style and the more lyric-driven material that would get them a more mainstream audience in the American Beauty/ Workingman's Dead years.
They pull out fantastic improvisational jams. There are a few Other Ones at Port Chester and they're dynamite; they know the layout, they're comfortable with it. We're seeing the end of the Cryptical years though; they omit it on the 23rd, going straight in from Truckin,' and there is no Cryptical reprise at the end at all. The final Lovelight, closing out the run, is a real treat, as close to "definitive" as I can think of. Pigpen asks about four guys if they are with someone before finding a girl who's alone. He calls her up and finds a guy to join her on stage... As they're leaving together pigpen yells: "Say man, that'll be ten bucks...!"
The new material is a big part of the overall relevance of the run, tunes that would stay in the repertoire for ever. Hearing the evolutions is interesting. Listen to the first and last Berthas, or, even better, each one; there's a real evolution in the arrangement and solidity. The "quasar" line in Greatest Story comes on the fifth night; Playin gets a bit more relaxed...
The repertoire now boasts a diverse selection, and, aside from the Pigpen material, by and large original. From short, conventional favorites like Casey Jones to 20-minute Good Lovin' suites with extended drum solos, there was a lot of room for growth. They played 90 different tunes in 1971 (though down from 119 in '70), a number that would not be beaten again until 1979. Phil wrote that his favorite year was 1971, and this run was really the beginning, barring four West Coast shows in late January. Looking at the geographic spread of '71, one gets the sense they were building and capitalizing on a national audience. There were four separate trip to the midwest, three to the east coast, including a 20-show tour in April, one run to the southwest, and, of course that one gig in French wine-country at the Château d'Hérouville in June.
There are seven other official releases from '71, aside from Three from the Vault; only '77 has more than that. Maybe that doesn't mean anything objective, but I found this run very rewarding. They're young as hell (Weir was 23!) but they've really got a professional thing going on. Owsley and his acid-impaired sound work had skipped town (or been arrested?) and Betty Cantor had taken over. The soundboards are crisp and balanced and a pleasure to listen to, and I don't remember a single technical issue, other than that high-pitch whine that had to be taken out. Things are a bit more professional, around the Dead organization and they sound like they're having a really good time, still joking and bantering with the audience, but serious about developing musically.
I'm really glad I listened to these.
PS: switching gears (a lot), I'm going to listen to RatDog's short October east-coast tour; two nights in PA and five in New York; I'll be posting within a few days. After that, the Spectrum run from March '86 (no idea what to expect). Feel free to request anything else. Cheers!