Choosing and justifying a list of essential Grateful Dead shows – 20, 200 or even 2,000 – is treacherous work. Passionate challenge from fans, especially hardcore Deadheads and veteran tape traders, is guaranteed. Endless debate over set-list minutiae is inevitable. In fact, there is only one definitive list of the Dead's greatest concerts – and it includes every show they played, in every lineup, from their pizza-parlor-gig days as the Warlocks in 1965 until guitarist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. That long, strange trip was a continually unfolding tale of highs and trials, dedicated evolution and surrender to the moment, often caught vividly in the recording studio but told most immediately each night (or day) onstage. This list jumps and dances through the story, but it's not a bad place to start, if you're not in deep already: more than 40 hours of performance from key runs and one-nighters in every decade, drawn from archival releases, the vast amount of circulating recordings and my own good times with the music. These 20 shows are genuinely essential in at least one way: If I had no other live Dead in my collection, I would be happy and fulfilled with this. Luckily, there is more. I already have lots of it. I will never have enough.
The Matrix, San Francisco
December 1st, 1966
In late 1966, more than a year into their evolution, the Grateful Dead were still in the early stages of their psychedelia: an acid-dance band with bar-band aggression, tripping in its jams but just starting to write and largely reliant on folk and blues covers. These three sets at the Matrix – a club founded by Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin – catch the original quintet in primal, exuberant form, slipping early originals such as "Alice D. Millionaire" (a pun on a newspaper headline after Owsley, the band's sound man and resident chemist, was busted) amid R&B-party favors (the Olympics' 1960 hit "Big Boy Pete") and future cover staples including the traditional "I Know You Rider" and John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle." In a spirited thrashing of "New Minglewood Blues," guitarist Bob Weir sings like a hip, brash kid, which he was (Weir had recently turned 19). "Welcome to another evening of confusion and high-frequency stimulation," Jerry Garcia announces in the first set. The long, strange trip was under way.
Winterland, San Francisco
March 18th, 1967
Warner Bros. Records released the Dead's debut album, The Grateful Dead – a sonically brittle, high-speed version of the group's stage act and songbook – on March 17th, 1967. That evening and again on the 18th, the Dead opened for Chuck Berry at Winterland, performing much of that record's material on the second night with more natural vigor and plenty of room for Garcia to go long and bright on lead guitar. His fusion of folk guitar and bluegrass facility with blues language and Indian modality, shot forward in a clean, stinging treble, is on dynamic display in a rightly extended "Cream Puff War" (cruelly faded out after two minutes on the LP), Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" and the Dead's signature rave-up on "Viola Lee Blues," originally cut in 1928 by Cannon's Jug Stompers. Also note the thrilling, slippery surge underneath – bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann pushing and tugging at the beat – as Garcia affirms his nickname, "Captain Trips," overhead.
Dance Hall, Rio Nido, California
September 3rd, 1967
Time was an elastic concept on a Grateful Dead stage – a song ended only when every possibility embedded in the structure and set loose by the group's improvising empathy was tested and fulfilled. Lesh thought enough of this night's 31-minute stretching of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" – most of it given to Garcia and organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's hard-lovin' vocal charm – to include it on his 1997 live anthology, Fallout From the Phil Zone. "Song" is a loose word here: Choruses and chord progressions are departure points. "Viola Lee Blues" is epic, rude hypnosis, twice the length of the version on The Grateful Dead. The accelerating instrumental break is a glorious connected fury – five voices racing in parallel but jamming as one. The long, early roll on "Alligator," a chugging, spaced-blues feature of 1968's Anthem of the Sun, was further evidence that the Dead's rapidly advancing idea of dance music on that album – a combination of acid, freed rhythm and no fear – was on its way.
Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco
February 14th, 1968
Anthem of the Sun, the Dead's second album, may be the most authentic musical document of the San Francisco renaissance: a union of interior psychedelic exploration and truly liberated rock & roll; a continuous drive to light via mad studio alchemy and the Dead's already proven specialty, live performance. Elements of this show – the official opening of the Carousel, a collective attempt by the Dead and other local bands to mount an alternative to the Fillmore's dominance – were used on Anthem; the show was also broadcast live on the radio and officially issued, at last, in 2009 as Road Trips Vol. 2 No. 2. It is basically Anthem as it happened every night, on the way to vinyl. The weightless rapture of "Dark Star" – recorded in studio miniature the previous year, released as a single in April 1968 – is already in mutating bloom, segueing into the dadaist funk of "China Cat Sunflower" and the elliptical rhythm of "The Eleven," while the second half of the show is every song on Anthem live, in sequence and excelsis.
Dream Bowl, Vallejo, California
February 22nd, 1969
This show, on the eve of the long weekend at the Fillmore West that was taped for 1969's Live Dead, is a beautifully recorded artifact of the Dead at a different, simultaneous juncture: during a break from the studio sessions for 1969's Aoxomoxoa, where they were spending a fortune crystallizing the cryptic but compelling lysergic romanticism of the songs Garcia was writing with lyricist Robert Hunter. The first set opens with two songs that would appear on that album: the outlaw ballad "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and the delicate "Mountains of the Moon," the latter sung by Garcia with a brave (for the stage) vulnerability, framed by spidery guitar. The "Dark Star" that follows is arguably an equal – in spatial elegance and endearing, monkish vocal harmonies – of the one immortalized on Live Dead. Add a hellbent second set (starting with the choppy cheer of Aoxomoxoa's "Doin' That Rag") and astonishing fidelity, and it's hard to believe this night is not yet an official live album.
McFarlin Auditorium, Dallas
December 26th, 1969
The addition of acoustic sets to the live experience, at the end of the Sixties, was a characteristically eccentric progression for the Dead: a smart step back – to the group's folk, bluegrass and roughed-up-country origins as the Wildwood Boys and Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions – on the way to a great leap forward as songwriters and vocal harmonizers. The unplugged set in Dallas opens with a song from the Mother McCree days – "The Monkey and the Engineer," by the Bay Area-based bluesman Jesse Fuller – and includes the traditional "Little Sadie" and the country mourning of "Long Black Limousine," recently cut by Merle Haggard. The psychedelic-ballroom era is still here in "Dark Star" and "Turn on Your Love Light." But in between the two is crackling proof of the group's emerging voice, along with emphatic notice of utopia's end: "New Speedway Boogie," Garcia and Hunter's memoir of the death and debacle, only three weeks earlier, during the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont.
Fillmore East, New York
February 13th, 1970
Topping a bill that included Arthur Lee's Love and the Allman Brothers Band, the Dead played with superlative consistency across this entire engagement: two concerts each on the 11th, 13th and 14th (with a club date squeezed in on the 12th). Guitar nirvana arrived early, when Duane Allman and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green joined the band on the 11th for "Dark Star." Owsley drew tracks from the 13th and 14th for his 1973 anthology, Bear's Choice, and additional material from those nights was released as Dick's Picks Volume Four. But the three-set late show on the 13th, which didn't start until after 1 a.m., is a popular contender for the holiest of holies – the greatest of them all. "Dire Wolf," in the first electric set, has the deft balance of earth and electricity the Dead were negotiating in the studio for Workingman's Dead. A winding passage through another "Dark Star," then "The Other One" and a rousing "Turn on Your Love Light" finally ended near daybreak – a fitting hour for a band always driving through space, to sunshine.
Harpur College, Binghamton, New York
May 2nd, 1970
For the Grateful Dead, touring wasn't just a living – it was an imperative. Performance was their primary form of expression and sharing. In taking their version of the San Francisco experience on the road, especially to colleges, the band exposed greater America to the ferment and possibility born in the Bay Area, converting the nation one campus at a time. This show is routinely cited as one of the Dead's best – ever. It is easy to agree. The acoustic set – a warm, beguiling preview of the country and pathos on the imminent Workingman's Dead and American Beauty – includes the traditional spiritual "Cold Jordan" and a version of the Dead's rare, first single, 1966's "Don't Ease Me In." When the amps go on, the Dead play like they're working at a college mixer, jamming on their Young Rascals and Motown covers, with McKernan unleashing his inner James Brown in "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," a unique feature of this year. Get the whole night, across three discs, on Dick's Picks, Volume Eight.
Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, New York
February 19th, 1971
The dead's fabled six-night stand at this small hall, a short train ride north of New York City, opened with great promise and unexpected trial. On February 18th, the group debuted five new songs, all destined for permanent high rotation: "Bertha," "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Wharf Rat," "Loser" and "Playing in the Band." But after that show, drummer Mickey Hart – devastated by revelations the previous year of embezzlement by his father, Lenny, during a spell as manager – went on a personal hiatus. The group responded to the loss the following night (issued in 2007 as Three From the Vault) with determination, opening with a vigorous "Truckin'," and McKernan's growling sympathy in the Elmore James blues "It Hurts Me Too." The streamlined propulsion recalled the Dead's dance-band days; the repertoire and instrumental cohesion showed the band at a freshened high. That March and April, the Dead would record the shows featured on their Top 30 live album, Grateful Dead, a.k.a. "Skull and Roses."
Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
April 16th, 1972
On their 1972 european tour, their first major trip abroad, the Dead – with the husband-and-wife team of pianist Keith and singer Donna Godchaux fully integrated into the lineup – were "laying down the framework of what we were up to, to a brand-new, cold audience," Weir said in 2011. This show is a delightful example of that salesmanship held in close quarters: a college cafeteria. The material goes back to the first LP and thoroughly covers the reinvented Americana initiated on Workingman's Dead before the Dead unleash a climactic blast of Fillmore dance-floor action: a nonstop set of spirals and slaloms that starts with "Truckin'," melts into "The Other One" and comes to Earth via Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly. Nothing here made it to the triple LP Europe '72. But the performance – included in the sold-out 2011 Europe '72 box and available separately – is solidly transcendent: a characteristic good time at a true peak in the Dead's concert history. Check it out. It could be your next favorite Dead gig.
Bickershaw Festival, Wigan, England
May 7th, 1972
This was a day made for "Cold Rain and Snow": wet, chilly and muddy, typical English festival weather. The Dead did not play that song during this legendary near-four-hour appearance. Instead, the group, halfway through its European tour, gave the huddled masses at Bickershaw something more heated and unforgettable: the '68 trip at '72 strength in an hourlong sequence of "Dark Star" and "The Other One," the latter then easing into the wistful country pining of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home." Bickershaw (also in the Europe '72 box and available separately) was the Dead's truncated, underwhelming show at Woodstock in 1969 made good, a memorable reward for an audience sabotaged by the elements. McKernan, in particular, was in defiantly strong and comic vocal form. It was one of his last performances. The singer-organist, suffering from liver disease, played his final show with the Dead a month later in Los Angeles, and died in March 1973. He was 27.
Civic Center, Philadelphia
August 5th, 1974
The dead played two concerts in this cavernous arena on August 4th and 5th. I worked at both of them, as part of the security team. My station was in the left-side bleachers, near the stage – the press section, where I spent a lot of time talking to Deadheads without passes who told me, "Hey, man, I'm Jerry's cousin" and "Bobby said it was cool to sit here." After the lights went down, it was easier to just let them through and concentrate on the shows: prime nights delivered through the Dead's visually breathtaking concert-audio miracle, the Wall of Sound. Choosing one of these two dates is tough. The second set on the 4th has a full rendering of the pensive-to-urgent "Weather Report Suite," from 1973's Wake of the Flood. I've gone with the next night, for the prolonged elevation in "Truckin' " and the dazzling descent into "Stella Blue." Excerpts from both shows are on Dick's Picks, Volume 31. Alas, the live intermission performance of Seastones, Lesh's electronic collaboration with Ned Lagin, is not.
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
August 13th, 1975
Exhausted by the logistical and financial strains of touring with the Wall of Sound, the Dead stayed away from the road in 1975 – playing only four shows that year, all of them at home. This was one: an intimate record-release party for Blues for Allah, one of the Dead's best studio LPs. Their pride in the new music and the healthy effect of their break from the grind are evident in the relaxed, textured swing of this performance. The contagious gait and sparkle of "Help on the Way," "Franklin's Tower" and "The Music Never Stopped," all from Allah's first side, stayed in the live sets for the rest of the Dead's touring life. The night, released as One From the Vault, also featured a buoyant "Eyes of the World," some Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry, and the deep space and abstract magnetism of Blues for Allah's title track. The Dead never played that one live, in full, again. "That song was a bitch to do," Garcia noted in 1991. "In terms of the melody and phrasing and all, it was not of this world."
Beacon Theatre, New York
June 14th, 1976
The Dead ended their 20-month hiatus from touring in June 1976. The Beacon was the third stop on the tour. This concert was the first of two there, and the recording from that generously long night confirms the relief and satisfaction I felt a week later, when I saw one of the band's four shows at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. The Dead were rested and rejuvenated, already playing with an excited momentum and clarity that would carry into the nightly perfection of their spring '77 tour. "Cassidy," in the first set here, is an exemplary snapshot. Weir and Donna Godchaux harmonize in easy, bracing formation across Kreutzmann and Hart's polyrhythmic carpet; Keith Godchaux laces the twin-guitar rain with gracefully executed saloon-piano flourishes. In the second set, Garcia sings the reflective irony of "High Time" with plaintive force, before the real high times start: long, assured expeditions through songs from Blues for Allah and Aoxomoxoa. Another golden era was under way.
Winterland, San Francisco
June 9th, 1977
For sublime singing, instrumental union and sequencing bravado, there may be no greater sustained run of shows, certainly in the Keith-and-Donna years, than the Dead's spring '77 tour. Highlights are plentiful: Five concerts from one week in late May have come out on archival releases, and the May 8th show at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is often cited in greatest-ever terms. But I keep coming back to this valedictory blast on home ground – the end of a three-night stand and the final gig of the tour – because of the second set. It has the jagged acid-flavored reggae of "Estimated Prophet," from the Dead's next album, Terrapin Station; passes twice through "St. Stephen"; includes all of Terrapin's seductive title suite; and ultimately lands, an hour later, in "Sugar Magnolia." I described that medley, in my liner notes to the 2009 box set Winterland June 1977, as "all of the Deads in one – the lysergic delirium; the country-rock comfort; blues-party time; the electric seeking." I haven't changed my mind.
Civic Center, Augusta, Maine
October 12th, 1984
The Eighties were an uneven decade for the Dead. There was new blood: keyboard player Brent Mydland. But Garcia was in perilous health, and studio recording lapsed after 1980's Go to Heaven. There was a Top 10 single at last: "Touch of Grey," from the 1987 LP, In the Dark. But that success brought an explosion in numbers on the road, overwhelming the parking-lot scene and the dedicated pilgrims following the band from town to town. Through it all, the Dead toured as if their survival depended on it – which it always did – and played fondly remembered gigs, often off the beaten track. After a summer of amphitheater dates, the band sounds cozy here, loose and swinging indoors, especially at quicker tempos. Mydland plays a brawny organ solo, evoking the Hammond-jazz master Jimmy Smith, in the cover of the Rolling Stones hit "It's All Over Now," and the Dead bend "Uncle John's Band" into a spirited, improvising vehicle with a detour into "Playing in the Band," another great song about this way of life.
Madison Square Garden, New York
September 18th, 1987
The Dead dutifully played their hit "Touch of Grey" twice during this five-show New York run – but not tonight. They start with a wry laugh over their improbable, complicating success, plunging into "Hell in a Bucket" from In the Dark, with Weir belting the chorus line at a shredded pitch: "I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe/But at least I'm enjoying the ride." Garcia seconds that motion, turning to his 1972 solo effort, Garcia, for luxuriant readings of "Sugaree" and "Bird Song." The second set is classic contrarian Dead: urgent and unhurried with a crisp, long stroll through the durable title track from the 1978 disappointment, Shakedown Street (produced to surprisingly bland effect by Little Feat's Lowell George). The baroque drama of "Terrapin Station" is the last stop before the open waters of "Drums" and "Space"; "Good Lovin' " comes in two parts with Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" shaking in the middle. The Dead's spell as pop stars would soon be an anomalous memory; they kept playing like it never happened.
Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia
October 9th, 1989
You didn't need an advanced degree in Dead lore to decode the name on the tickets for the two '89 shows at this 13,000-capacity arena. The group was billed as "The Warlocks," a thinly veiled attempt to avoid overcrowding and security problems. Hampton Coliseum was a favorite East Coast stop for the Dead at the time – they performed there 21 times between 1979 and 1992 – and these concerts sold out fast, mostly to local fans who got two of the band's best shows of the decade. The Dead were about to release what would turn out to be their last studio album, the ironically named Built to Last, and they played the title track in the first set on the 9th along with a Brent Mydland showcase, "We Can Run," written with Weir's composing partner, John Barlow. The second Hampton show, issued with October 8th in the 2010 box Formerly the Warlocks, is most notable for the return of "Dark Star" after five years, and in the encore, American Beauty's "Attics of My Life" – its first time out since 1972.
Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York
March 29th, 1990
There was something about springtime that brought out the verve, fraternity and experiment in a Dead tour. The group's six-city, 16-date East Coast trip (with a stop in Canada) in March and April of 1990 was so strong that Weir remembered it years later as "the high point of that era. We were hot, feeling our oats and surprising ourselves onstage." Spring 1990, a multi-CD survey of the tour released last year, includes the March 30th show at Nassau Coliseum. But the 29th had a special guest: saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who slipped into the lineup for the whole second set with ease and a challenging fire. His keening phrases in "Eyes of the World" – alternating with, then dancing alongside, Garcia's teardrop runs – edge the song toward the progressive-soul temper of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Marsalis also enjoys the blowing room in "Dark Star" and fires up some R&B honk and squeal for "Turn On Your Love Light." That "Eyes" came out on the 1990 live release, Without a Net. But the whole set is a gas.
Madison Square Garden, New York
September 14th, 1991
This was my next-to-last night with the Dead. There would be a solid send-off, also at the Garden, in '93. But I think of this show more often, for the good feel running through it and the rebirth that appeared to be in reach again after Brent Mydland's death in 1990. The Dead were working with two keyboard players, Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby; the latter's singing also added pinpoint heft to the harmonies. From this show, I particularly recall the call to disorder – the Shirley and Lee hit "Let the Good Times Roll," taken at a measured Sam Cooke-like pace with a gospel call-response finish – and the way Garcia, looking like everyone's grandfather, soloed like his much younger self in "Jack Straw." This was not a historic gig. It's a treasured piece of my connection to a band and infinitely evolving mission that seemed, at that moment, without end. Bill Graham famously said of the Dead, "They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do."
This story is from the special Rolling Stone edition Grateful Dead: The Ultimate Guide, available now