Introduction to Grateful Dead

So, you have a new friend, and one day she says, “You should burn me a Grateful Dead CD because I’m really not familiar with anything they’ve done.” You say, “Sure,” and a few minutes later your head explodes as you reel from the possibilities. It takes a week of full-time leisure-thought to sort it all out and find an entry point….
The catalog is vast. 30 years of concert performances. Over 3,000 shows, most of them available as recordings! Hundreds of songs in the repertoire. Dozens officially released concert CDs. Thousands upon thousands of authorized private non-commercial concert tapes and discs. The Internet Archive has 2,854 multi-hour downloads online, and it’s certainly incomplete.
You start by wondering how your friends might answer this question. So you ask a few, and their first response is to laugh. “Wow, not sure. I don’t know….” is the typical response before their voice trails off.
Do we start with the old experimental shows? (No.) Or the most modern powerhouse shows? (Maybe.) The middle years, at the peak of their creativity? (Possible.) Pigpen-era? Keith-ear? Brent-era? We certainly know enough not to start with the Vince era.
Do I burn something I like? Or something I think she will like? Do I pick something with clean sound, or something gritty, real, and otherworldly? Do I choose an official release so it’s nicely edited, or a tape I recorded myself in the ’80s?
When people asked this during the college years I’d just give them a copy of whatever I was listening to at the time. It was always changing, there was always more. If they liked it, or even if they didn’t, we’d just bring ’em along the next time the Dead were playing nearby and see if they caught the live magic lightening. Or maybe they liked it a lot, and wanted to drink from the fire hose – they’d bring over a tape deck and spend the weekend copying cassettes. Tape flip every 45 minutes. Oh, the slow lazy days of real-time dubbing. Roll another one.
Today, virtually none of this is possible. We have only the recorded legacy, and a lot of it. Today, we burn 70-minute CDs in 14 minutes.
For starters, let’s eliminate the studio albums. Although there are some worthy of listening, there’s no sense in starting there. The Dead experience revolved around live performance. Maybe a Dick’s Pick concert release? But then what to say? That 1971 show that turned Donni into a raving Deadhead? The 1983 one with a chunky Scarlet Fire? The ’77 Fox Theater shows? That weird ’74 Alexandra Palace show that makes you feel like you’re tripping just listening to it? Maybe that ’73 Oklahoma show because it has such a hot summer beer-drunk lazy vibe?
Dick’s Picks narrows it down but doesn’t really help the selection process. Maybe we should just have an all-Dead weekend and see how that goes….
How about if I just burn the five-disc chronological set, So Many Roads? This was put together by scholarly Deadheads, with carefully selected songs and thorough liner notes. It flows well, and you can start in the middle and work out toward the early and late years. But you don’t want to overload. She just asked for a sample, a taste, you don’t need to deliver a box-load of discs to paw through.
Maybe Dozin’ at the Knick, that’s a pretty safe bet. The playing is quite tight; the polish meets anyone’s standards, and it’s from a good era. But somehow, no. Can’t tell you why. Probably a good second round offering.
What about an audience recording, like Lewiston 1980? Well, that was a short-lived thought. It is a rockin’ fantastic show, and it seems like every Deadhead I know was there, except for me. And the audience recording on is a fantastic representation. But, man, that show is dead to the core. I think it’s best left to round three or four.
What about a multi-track release like Go to Nassau? This was a contender, and I listened to it on my commute for two days. Strong contender. But, like Dozin’, not quite right. A little too rock ‘n roll, not enough representation of the thoughtful, mellow side. Yes, I know that High Time is rarely played and it’s well-played on this release, but still.
It came down to eras. Late ’70s, early ’80s, or late ’80s/early ’90s. Each has their charms—and there are other options but these seem best for introductory material—and it depends a lot on what the prospect likes and listens to already.
In the end, I decided on the remastered versions of Reckoning and Dead Set. Two live recordings from 1980, when Brent was new but settled in, and highly polished in production. Reckoning is all acoustic, so you get the Folkie Country Dead, and Dead Set is electric, with the more typical sound. The innovative recording technique pioneered new ground, and the band, rarely allowed to play sophisticated and intimate venues like the Warfield Theater in SF and Radio City Music Hall in NYC, rose to the occasion with fresh, tight ensemble playing. The remastered versions are two discs each, with a lot of bonus material. It’s still four discs – what can a deadhead say? – but split in half by the acoustic/electric difference.
I figured if that floats then round two will be a single show (complete experience), from the west coast (home field advantage), in a small venue (raise the stakes), from the Dan Healy era (psychoacoustic sound effects). So we’re talkin’ probably the Greek or the Frost, maybe Ventura, from the 1980’s.
On a plane to Detroit I listened to a soundboard from 6/19/1989 (Greek Theater). It’s a serious contender. The headphone experience was something else. The harmonic vocal processing, the stereo exchanger effects, the setlist, Garcia’s heartfelt Candyman, Crazy Fingers, and Knockin’ – really brought me back, I tell ‘ya, even on a plane.
I think a full survey of the late-eighties Greek and Frost shows is in order, but if you had to choose today you could do a lot worse than the 6-19-89 at the Greek.
[I wrote this in August, 2006, but never posted it. I think I had intended to link up a lot of the text and never got to it. Decided to post it today without the link farming.]