Grateful Dead

Truckin’ from 1972 and Bertha from around 1989.

I’ve spent more time listening to the Grateful Dead than anyone else.  There’s so much great music and so many great moments.  They covered more musical ground in a concert than most artists do in a career.  Rock, folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass, country, experimental music, cowboy songs, covers of oldies (Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Motown) and a whole lot more.  Over the course of their career, they played over 500 songs.  In my mind, the quintessential Stand There And Play band.

The core of Jerry Garcia (lead guitar), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar), Phil Lesh (bass) and Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (drums and percussion) played with several keyboard players – Rob “Pigpen” McKernan (1965-72), Tom Constanten (1968-70), Keith Godchaux (1971-79), Brent Mydland (1979-90), Vince Welnick (1990-95) and Bruce Hornsby (1990-92), plus Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals from 1972-79.  Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow wrote a lot of the lyrics.  I won’t attempt to summarize the band’s history; there are plenty of resources out there.  Start with the basic biography, the band’s website, and this Grateful Dead chronology.

The Grateful Dead are the most-recorded band in rock history.  They were together from 1965 until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, and the vast majority of their shows were recorded.  They usually provided for a taper section in the audience near the sound board, so that fans could record the shows (pretty much the opposite of most concerts, right?).  There was a very active tape-trading community before the internet made it easy.  Now you can go to the Grateful Dead Internet Archive and choose from approximately two zillion concerts available for free download or streaming.  You’ll hear some crowd noise but the sound quality is usually very good.  For a great example, check out the second set of May 8, 1977 Barton Hall – Cornell University (starts with track 15 – Scarlet Begonias).  A show that’s special to me is April 17, 1971 Dillon Gym – Princeton University, because I was there that night.  If you ever wondered what’s the deal with Pigpen, here’s the answer.

Because of the improvisational nature of their playing, no two shows were exactly alike.  They generally didn’t have a set list; they just made it up as they went along.  It has been said they never played a song the same way twice.  I really enjoy listening to alternate versions of their songs – what did Jerry do on his solo this time, how did it sound when they changed the tempo.  They also liked to segue from one song to the next, sometimes stringing several songs together and playing for 30 minutes or more.  (That’s why the Truckin’ video above ends abruptly — they were going in to another song.)  As a result, a lot of their best stuff goes way past the YouTube time limit.  I was still able to find some things for your enjoyment:

This one’s a trip – on January 18, 1969, they appeared on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy After Dark, playing Mountains of the Moon and St. Stephen, along with some interview footage and a bit of Turn on Your Lovelight at the end:

Two of their songs that became fused together are Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain, because the segue between the songs worked so well. The following audios are their performances of these two songs, from the May 8, 1977 Cornell concert mentioned above:

Scarlet Begonias Fire on the Mountain

They played many acoustic sets over the years.  Here’s a nice version of Bird Song from October 1980.  I have another version of this song from March 29, 1990 when jazz saxophone great Branford Marsalis played with them (from the So Many Roads (1965-1995) box set).  This was literally the first time they ever played together, and you can hear them figuring it out.

March 28, 1981 Not Fade Away with Pete Townshend of the Who.

June 21, 1989 Touch of Grey. I really like Phil Lesh’s bass in this one.

There are a number of Gratateful Dead concerts available on DVD.  My favorite is The Closing of Winterland (December 31, 1978), the last show at the legendary San Francisco music venue.  The show is great, including some jamming with John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service.  The extras include two songs from opening act the Blues Brothers (Soul Man and B Movie), with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn from Booker T. & the MG’s in the band.  Dan Aykroyd of the Blues Brothers does the countdown at midnight while Bill Graham, dressed as Father Time, floats down from the ceiling in a giant joint, and then the Dead start Sugar Magnolia while dodging balloons on the stage.  There’s also a great documentary on the history of Winterland.  The poster for this show is in our poster collection (#8 on the east wall — click here to see it).

There is so much material it was hard to choose what to include — I’ll have to leave the rest to you. I’m sure I left out something important.

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