Digging Into The Dead

A few months back, a colleague asked me where to start with the Grateful Dead. I thought about it for a while and realized I didn’t have a very good answer. So, I thought about it some more until I could give him something concrete to consider as to inroads into the massive world that is the Dead.

I tend to think there could be three various inroads into the catalogue. This is my own opinion, but I don’t know if any of them are the “right” route in, but, I also think it depends on your POV and your attitudes towards music, in general.

Starting with Studio Albums

I think the best Dead is live Dead, but there are four studio albums that I think are the core of their live shows, at least the work during the early 70’s and then from about ’84 to ’94.

  • American Beauty: This is sort of the default Dead studio album and a really good starting point. It really gives a mix of the country, folk, blues and rock that make up the pillars of the Dead’s repertoire. It also gives a good selection of the paces of the Dead’s songs, so you’ll get the ripping and roaring rockers alongside the more mellow-chill tracks. Friend of the Devil is a great starter, but Brokedown Palace is one of the classic end of show tunes for the live set.
  • Workingman’s Dead: This is the other early studio album that frames up the “lesser” known songs that you’ll typically hear as core Dead tunes. Between American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, you’ve got maybe half of a standard Dead live set. Workingman’s Dead is more in the folk-genre of the catalogue, but many of the songs are rocked out from their original formula. Most of these songs are the collaboration between Jerry Garcia and songwriter Robert Hunter. So, you get a lot less variety than on American Beauty, because the creative contributions were so heavily from Garcia/Hunter.
  • Terrapin Station: This album is later ‘70s Dead and represents a lot of collaboration between Bob Weir and John Barlow. This is also the start of a lot of the bigger jammer songs that would fill out the majority of a Dead show. While Estimated Prophet comes in at 5 ½ minutes on the recording, it’ll stretch to a 9-11 minute live jam. Also, with the tracks on Terrapin Station, you start to get a better understanding of how the Dead stitches together tunes in the live setting, often running several songs together in mega-jam medleys.
  • Blues for Allah: I add this one into the mix for the first two tracks – Help on the Way/Slipknot! and Franklin’s Tower. This was a classic live back to back jam and when Dead & Company pulled it out of the bag at Wrigley last summer, the entire stadium shook.

Digging into the Live Recordings

At a glance, I’d classify a few eras of the Dead to get into, with some classic live show records. It’s important to note that the Dead recorded “everything” and if you want to go deep, check out https://relisten.net/grateful-dead. Here are a couple starting points to some of my favorite eras.

Early 70’s: Steal Your Face, Live at Winterland Ballroom, 1974. This is sort of the all-encompassing early 70’s shows. This is the “best of” from a five night run at Winterland – full shows found here – https://relisten.net/grateful-dead/1974/10/16

Late 70’s: I used to pass on most of this era (late 70’s to early 80’s) as I thought for a long time that the band sounded tired. But, the more I listen to shows from this period of time, the more I come to appreciate what would ultimately be a transition from the ballroom/theater circuit to much larger stadiums and venues, including Madison Square Garden and Oakland Coliseum. It could also be that Donna Jean Godchaux really wears on my ears over time (Note for the Haters; you know it is truly abrasive when she’d hit those sometimes off-kilter notes in Playing in the Band). The one that is a good and unique example is the recording of the band on May 15 and 16, 1980 at Nassau Coliseum. It was captured on the live album, Go to Nassau. Here’s the board recordings of the three night run. https://relisten.net/grateful-dead/1980/05/14

Late 80’s (After Jerry’s 1986 coma): The band is in it’s Comeback King phase from ’87 to ’89.

  • 87 in Alpine Valley – In the late 80’s, Alpine Valley becomes an incredible venue for the Dead. Think of this like the Midwest’s Red Rocks. https://relisten.net/grateful-dead/1987/06/26
  • 89 at Cal Expo – Another big fun west coat venue for the Dead. https://relisten.net/grateful-dead/1989/08/04
  • (If you find anything from Cal Expo, Shoreline Amphitheater or Nassau Coliseum, you’re usually in the right ballpark – and speaking of ballparks, some of the Dead’s best shows are at baseball parks. Dead & Company keeps up that tradition with shows at Wrigley and at Dodger’s Stadium)

Early 90’s: Between the end of 90 and the beginning of 94, you can tell the wear of the road is taking its toll on the Dead. Still there were a lot of good shows. In 90, Brent Mydland dies (on tour in July of 1990), and there is a quick hiatus, but when they return, they bring out Bruce Hornsby to play keys, which gives the music a much needed lift. Still, the Dead are running on fumes and by August of 1995, when Jerry Garcia dies, the whole thing just comes to a rumbling halt. (Side note, they were playing up until Jerry’s death and if you have a chance to listen to the last Black Muddy River that Jerry does, it is haunting.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKxHQk2I6h0

Still a concise recap of 90’s Dead can be found on two live collections, both recorded in March of 90 on the East Coast.

Going With the Modern Dead

With John Mayer in tow, the remaining members of the Dead (as well as a few other choice players) hit the road in 2015 in earnest. To date, I’d spend time with the following shows:

Dead Trivia – Most Frequently Played Venues

Q: What were the Top 5 most frequently played venues for the Grateful Dead?

A: According to DeadLists.com, they would be:

  1. Oakland-Almeda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA (66 shows)
  2. Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA (60 shows)
  3. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA (53 shows)
  4. Madison Square Garden, New York, NY (52 shows)
  5. Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA (51 shows)

The Album That Started It All

It was probably 1989, when I saw an ad for 8 CDs for a penny. It seemed too good of a deal not to bring it up to my parents. I was ten years old and music was really just hitting its stride with me. For the most part, it was MTV’s influence on an impressionable young Midwestern kid, who had a lot of time on his hands, as a single child. Weekend nights were almost always dedicated to watching Yo MTV Raps or Headbangers Ball, but slowly, my taste in music was expanding.

Somehow, I think Dad figured out that we could order a bunch of CDs and then cancel the subscription. So, off I went, perusing the fold-out ad with the stickers that you’d place over the eight boxes to finalize which albums you were going to get for free. To appease my folks, I’m pretty sure that four of those boxes were filled with CSN, James Taylor and other light folk stuff from the 60s and 70s. Then, I ran into album covers for the Grateful Dead. I remember thinking how cool the album art was. But, at this point in my life, I didn’t have anyone around me who was into the Dead. At some point, I think I asked my Dad for advice, and he suggested picking up a copy of the “Best of” album and see if I really liked it. Then, I could work on tracking down more music.

So, “Skeletons from the Closet” it was. My first Dead album. Not exactly the most Deadhead initiation into the world, but it worked. A few weeks later, our newly acquired collection of albums arrived and I tore into it like a kid in a candy store. I knew hardly anything about the Grateful Dead. Occasionally, MTV or VH1 might air the “Touch of Grey” music video, which stood out in comparison to the overly produced music videos of the era. But, this was before the Internet, so word of mouth was about the only way to get good info, and living in Des Moines, Iowa, that was often dodgy information, at best.

Initially, I gravitated toward “Truckin’,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Casey Jones.” I think “Sugar Magnolia” and “Uncle John’s Band” were the next tracks to catch on. I find it ironic now, that my favorite Dead recordings are live versions of the band’s catalog, rather than the studio track, but I suppose whatever gets you in, gets you in.