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Grateful Dead's Essential Bootlegs: David Fricke on Three Key Gigs

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As a pair of Grateful Dead members plot their first trip back to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park since 1991 for this summer's Outside Lands Festival, Rolling Stone takes a look back at the band's best bootlegs.

Winterland, San Francisco
March 18, 1967

The Grateful Dead are the most thoroughly documented band, in performance, in rock & roll history. They recorded virtually every note they played on stage for 30 years — and have officially released much of that music since the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. And whatever the Dead didn't tape themselves, someone else did — and shared. There are great tapes that predate this one, from the group's garage-band beginnings and early ballroom appearances. But this show captures the Dead in early cohesion, shortly after the sessions for their self-titled Warner Bros. debut album. They cut that record on speed; it sounds here like it hasn't worn off. The John Phillips song "Me and My Uncle," taken at a medium gallop on the live 1971 album, Grateful Dead (a/k/a "Skull and Roses"), bolts out of the gate here in double-time. But Garcia is in his first flush of greatness — dazzling and concise at high speeds ("Cold Rain and Snow," the supersonic section of "Viola Lee Blues") and low-down gear ("Morning Dew," "Death Don't Have No Mercy"). Of special note: his extended furious-treble soloing in "Cream Puff War."

Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco
February 14, 1968

This show was one of the source tapes which the Dead edited and transformed in the studio, to build their 1968 bent-mind dance party, Anthem of the Sun. But to hear the whole thing is to catch the band in its first pivotal leap to greatness, out of gin-and-acid jamming into trance-rock action, polyrhythmic exploration (with new second drummer Mickey Hart) and free improvisation. "Dark Star," not yet out as a single, is taken at a crisp gait but already turning galactic. Then it swings directly into cockstrut previews of "China Cat Sunflower," from next year's Aoxomoxoa; the jolting time of "The Eleven," eventually on 1970's Live Dead; and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's lascivious showpiece, the Bobby "Blue" Bland cover "Turn On Your Lovelight." On their way to Anthem, the Dead were laying out the loose maps and transformative energies that would ultimately climax with the 1969 Fillmore West shows on Live Dead. That album and its companion sets, issued in 2005 — the limited edition 10-CD beast, Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings, and a three-CD distillation, Fillmore West 1969 — are just as essential. By then, the Dead were in full late-Sixties orbit. But the Carousel was liftoff.

Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (Grateful Dead)
Winterland, San Francisco
June 7-9, 1977

Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for this box set. But among the mountains of live Dead, this is a universally acknowledged peak. Until their official release in the fall of 2009, tapes of these three nights were among the most prized from that year among traders. Coming home in eager, confident stride at the end of a spring run, a month before the release of their ninth studio album, Terrapin Station, the Dead — with the husband-and-wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux on keyboards and vocals — arrived at Winterland fully recovered from the retirement of 1974-75. They were a leaner touring entity — wiser in the business of the road; chastened by expensive adventures like the legendary "Wall of Sound" PA — and focused on performance.

The quality of these shows — in sound, songs and delighted attack — is consistent; at the same time, the music, at every listening, never loses its capacity for surprise. Terrapin songs such as "Passenger" and the title suite get robust previews. And the last hour on June 9th is sixty minutes of the best live Dead ever: a continuous spin through "Estimated Prophet," "St. Stephen," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," a huge chunk of the "Terrapin Station" suite and, finally, into the "sunshine daydreams" of "Sugar Magnolia." The Winterland shows became the template for Dead shows — in repertoire, two-set architecture and the bold swings and segues through phases and stages — until Jerry Garcia's passing. But the most important thing about those gigs, at the time, was quite simple: "We're having fun again," Garcia told Rolling Stone. Here is the proof.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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