These two shows at Hill were the apogee of the December ’71 tour, which was itself brilliant and explorative. With that tour, Pigpen returned to the band after serious health problems had sidelined him since August. And Pig was back in full force on vocals, taking over as the bluesy, vaguely dangerous front man and, occasionally, adding work on the harp and organ. Keith, who had stepped into Pig’s role as keyboardist in his absence, was coming into his own more and more everyday as the others in the band figured out how they could jam off him. Since Pig’s organ playing had been regressing the past year as he dealt with health issues, Keith’s keys provided a huge lift to the band’s sound and spurred on many a jam. So, here in December of 1971, the band had both Pig’s vocal power and stage presence along with his occasional musical additions and Keith’s heady, increasingly explorative keys. It was in this crucible that the boys birthed a new sound, which would be refined into the quintessential Europe ’72 magic. But as the sound matured in venues across Europe, the Dead lost something of the rawness of the original and, sadly, Pig’s vivaciousness. No doubt, December of ’71 was a special time for the boys, and this two-night run at Hill was at the center of it.
As the Dead get things going with a rocking Truckin’ you will probably notice, along with Bobby’s vocal flub, the depth and palpable sense of space in this crystal clear soundboard. That lovely sound is a testament to the brilliance of Betty Cantor and the outstanding acoustics in Hill Auditorium. After the Truckin’, the Dead head into a brilliantly executed Sugaree with the entire band pleading musically right alongside Hunter’s lyrics, creating a palpable tension. The Mister Charlie that comes next sets the place on fire with Jerry’s wavy, electrifying guitar, Phil’s earth-shattering bass lines, and Pig’s inimitable vocals. The rest of the set continues in amazing fashion, but the Jack Straw is truly exceptional even in this crowd. Another treat comes a little later, as the band rushes off into Run Rudolph Run, with Pigpen on vocals giving a perfect Dead take on the Chuck Berry holiday classic. Of course, the Black Peter, Playin’, and Casey Jones that see out the set are each tasty as well.
Even after that fine first half, the second set does not disappoint, especially when the boys get to The Other One suite. The Cryptical starts off in its usual eerie, haunting manner before Billy tears up his drum solo. Then the rest of the boys come back in, scorching off down the path of The Other One. Before too long, though, they slow down and paint a magnificent, spacey landscape, only to start off again. The playing continues like that with deeply searching interludes followed by roaring runs. It is truly an Other One for the ages, storming forward in the end before dropping into a steamy Wharf Rat. Then Sugar Mags takes a turn, throwing off sparks in a joyous rocking romp. A bit later, following You Win Again, another incredible hard-driving section comes with the NFA> GDTRFB> NFA that takes the set out. Afterwards, people must have poured out of Hill Auditorium into the cold Ann Arbor night beside themselves at what they just heard, especially knowing they had another Dead show coming at them in the same venue the next day.