America’s most expansive band — from kaleidoscopic psychedelia to homespun country rock to epic live jams and beyond
The ultimate live document of Grateful Dead v1.0, and candidate for the best live rock album ever, is this double LP made during the distended Aoxomoxoa sessions. It has the definitive reading of “Dark Star,” the holy grail of Dead set lists, along with “The Eleven,” a head-spinning Phil Lesh composition in 11/8 time. “Turn On Your Lovelight” is the consummate document of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s hippie-biker R&B, and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is Jerry Garcia at his dark-bluest.
Leaning into their love of country music and the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Dead make the perfect Americana LP, years before the genre was coined. In a largely unplugged set, the songwriting partnership of Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter is at its peak. “Uncle John’s Band” celebrates the group’s persona and community. And the cokehead cautionary tale “Casey Jones” even got them, for the first time, some significant radio play.
The sister LP to Workingman’s Dead, released just over four months later, rode the songwriting bonanza, with new influences digested. The result is a slightly fuller sound, a brighter vibe, and maybe, song-for-song, their strongest set ever. “Ripple” and Lesh’s breakout “Box of Rain” are the Dead at their deepest, and “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’,” both delivered by band young’un Bob Weir, nailed the noodle-dance boogie style that took them from collegiate cult band to stadium-filling phenomenon.
Having perfected their stage game, the Dead take it overseas, with trusty 17-track studio in tow. The result is that rarest of things, an essential triple LP. It mixes reshaped faves (an exploded “Morning Dew,” the paradigmatic melding of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider”) with top-shelf new material (“Jack Straw,” “He’s Gone”), all with improvisatory fire and near-studio-quality sound. And it captures the band’s shift from hard-tripping psych blues to the kinder, gentler, dancing-bear-ier music that would come to define their shows.
The band’s first attempt to capture its head-exploding concerts on tape resulted in this wild ride — a collage of studio and live tracks epitomized by “That’s It for the Other One,” a suite that’s part tribute to Merry Prankster bus driver Neal Cassady. Its coda foreshadows the Beatles’ “Revolution #9,” and its raging center section would become a concert staple. Meanwhile, the kazoo-powered “Alligator” is a spectacular train wreck of Pigpen’s earthy electric blues and his bandmates’ jazzy lunar spelunking that anticipated the Allman Brothers, whose debut dropped the following year.
Recorded after the implosion of their San Francisco scene, the peak of the Dead’s experimental phase mirrored an LSD trip in miniature. Fittingly, it’s a swirl of dazzling lights (side-openers “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower”) and darkness (spooky denouements “Mountains of the Moon” and “What’s Become of the Baby”), driven by Hunter’s sly, pie-eyed poesy and a playground of cutting-edge 16-track recording landscapes. Still one of the most satisfyingly bonkers rock LPs ever made.
Another live set (known alternately as Skull-Fuck and Skull and Roses), this one came with some overdubs, and furthered their tradition of introducing songs they would never bring to the studio, such as the rollicking “Bertha” and the soulful panhandler’s lament “Wharf Rat.” It established “The Other One” and tag-team covers like “Not Fade Away”>”Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” as beloved jam fulcrums. And the Kelley-Mouse art is one of the most iconic album covers in history.
The Dead’s muso masterpiece, perhaps their jazziest and most virtuosic set, was made during a rare hiatus from the road, at Weir’s home studio. The catchiest songs are “Franklin’s Tower” (whose central riff may or may not be an intentional echo of the signature “doo-doo-doo” reprise on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”) and “The Music Never Stopped,” a funky strut with duet vocals by new band member Donna Jean Godchaux. But half the fun is the LP’s spate of instrumentals: the curlicue speed trial “King Solomon’s Marbles,” the twining “Help on the Way” coda “Slipknot!” and the pastoral “Sage & Spirit.”
Veteran hitmaker Clive Davis signed the Dead to his Arista label, and this was the first fruit: a polished LP built on a sidelong title suite, an epic fireside tale penned by Hunter and crooned sweetly by Garcia, and buoyed by the Aaron Copland-esque orchestrations of Paul Buckmaster and gleaming production by Fleetwood Mac wingman Keith Olsen. Even Garcia’s guitar morphed, via burbling envelope-filter effects, on “Estimated Prophet,” a sound that would become a latter-day staple.
At their label’s behest, the Dead cut their debut at RCA Studios in Hollywood, instead of their San Francisco home base, and the result was a set of electrified folk-blues covers that suggest a band gulping amphetamines. (They were.) Standouts are a roaring reboot of the 1930 Mississippi Sheiks single “Sitting on Top of the World”; the soon-to-be-signature cover of “Cold Rain and Snow”; a 10-minute unpacking of Gus Cannon’s 1928 disc “Viola Lee Blues”; and a couple of almost-there originals: “Cream Puff War” and “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion).”
The band’s self-produced debut release on its own label is laid-back, occasionally to a fault. But the songs are largely primo, many already concert highlights. Foremost is the dilated dance-jam supreme “Eyes of the World.” Runners-up: “Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo,” with Vassar Clements’ swinging hot-club fiddle, and the exquisite stoner-philosophical reverie “Stella Blue,” namesake of innumerable boats, bars, and puppies.
Unusual for not one but two songs written and sung by bass magician/AWOL classical-music student Lesh — the woozy “Unbroken Chain,” with its spaceships-landing synths, and the swaggering “Pride of Cucamonga.” Skirt-twirling fave “Scarlet Begonias” would be the keeper. Other highlights: the post-Watergate “U.S. Blues,” which still feels timely, and the shade-throwing “Ship of Fools,” soulfully covered years later by Elvis Costello.
The Dead’s Arista deal was in part a band-endorsed attempt to “sell out.” They succeeded with the irresistibly avuncular “Touch of Grey.” The writing is solid throughout, with the Hunter-Garcia ballad “Black Muddy River” being the downtempo standout. It channels a recurring nightmare of Hunter’s with a tapestry of Dead symbology: mountains, moons, stars, sunshine, ripples, and “the last rose of summer.”
The various Dead archival series — including Dick’s Picks, Dave’s Picks, and From the Vault — are a universe unto themselves. On the basis of a widely circulated bootleg, this midlife show in Ithaca, New York, was for years considered by some the greatest-ever Dead concert. That standing is debatable, but there’s no arguing with the immolative “Scarlet Begonias”>“Fire on the Mountain,” or the phoenix-rising majesty of “Morning Dew.”
This eulogy for Janis Joplin on Garcia’s debut solo LP doesn’t feature the full band. But it would become a gorgeous staple of Dead sets henceforth.
Weir’s solo debut is a Dead LP in all but name, and this would be a familiar second set jam-launchpad for the rest of the band’s career.
A roaring Otis Redding cover delivered by Pigpen, recorded live in 1970 and released on this tribute-of-sorts to the singer-keyboardist, who died in 1973.
An aching, eight-minute-plus live reading of this ruefully ruminative Wake of the Flood gem.
The pinnacle of what fans and critics alike dubbed “disco Dead,” aided by crisp production by Little Feat linchpin Lowell George.
The highlight of an inexplicably pale document of this marvelous curveball tour.
This outtake from the Workingman’s Dead sessions alludes obliquely to the horror show of Altamont, according to Hunter.
A weary blues about the follies of man, and with specific references to Southeast Asia and El Salvador; one of the band’s more political songs.
The last Garcia-Hunter masterpiece: a dark, gorgeous meditation on life’s arc.