Live Dead explains why the Dead are one of the best performing bands in America, why their music touches on ground that most other groups don’t even know exists.
A list of song titles would mean very little in terms of what actually goes on inside the album. Like the early Cream, the Dead in concert tend to use their regular material as a jumping-off point, as little frameworks that exist only for what can be built on top of them. In “Dark Star,” for example, they give a token reading of the song itself, waiting patiently until the vocal drops and Garcia’s guitar comes out front to begin the action. About ten minutes later, if you can manage to look up by then, you might realize that what is happening bears as little resemblance to “Dark Star” as all that rollin’ and tumblin’ stuff did to “Spoonful.” But of course, by that time, it just doesn’t matter, and when the Dead slowing bring the song back around to “Dark Star,” each change made with care and a strange kind of tact, you can only marvel at the distance you’ve traveled in such a short period of time.
Live Dead also exhibits the group’s quite considerable ability in tying together differing song-threads, letting them pass naturally into one another, almost if they had been especially designed for such a move. A jamming band (and the Dead are that, if nothing else) has to rely on its sense of Flow, on its talent in taking that small series of steps which will ultimately bring it to some entirely different place from where it started. On side two, they begin with “St. Stephen,” working at that until they magically appear in “The Eleven,” and then, just before the final tape cut-off, you can hear them changing again with “Turn On Your Lovelight.” It’s beautifully conceived and done, each piece clicking together perfectly.
One of the finer things about the record is that the cuts seem to have been chosen with a great deal of care. Even on the best of nights, the group as a whole has a tendency to be spotty, with the many good moments intermingled with the bad. This is not necessarily a minus factor; when you work on such tenuous ground as the Dead, where each note means holding a balance between seven very different people and a less concrete mass out front, it’s only logical to expect a large number of misses. If you’ve ever seen them live, you know that there are times when they simply can’t do it, when the thread that has been so carefully nursed is suddenly snapped apart, when they amble around, trying to find the key that will unlock the door again.
Live Dead contains none of this searching. It’s all there, up moment after moment, everything snugly tucked in place, “Turn On Your Lovelight,” the usual Pigpen show-stopper, is right to the point here, all the different sections coming together in a nice ripe whole, moving quickly with nary a jerk or piece left hanging. Even a long eight-minute section of feedback on side four is handled well, each individual howl pinpointed with unerring accuracy. And as in concert, a piece from the Incredible String Band’s “A Very Cellular Song” is a perfect way to close out the show.
I’m not going to end this by using some overworn phrase about how this is possibly the best live album ever a must for your record collection something no fan should be without etc. etc. But if you’d like to visit a place where rock is likely to be in about five years, you might think of giving Live Dead a listen or two.