Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Masters - The Grateful Dead - Best Live Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.

For June The Masters focuses on the great The Grateful Dead.

Live music is the best thing out there. Being caught in the moment is religion. Palpable vibes of healing and energy are transmitted and shit...gets...real. For this month's focus, The Grateful Dead may be more tied to the live show than any other rock band in history. They developed a literal touring mini economy and because of the bands massive structure, had to be on the road almost constantly.

The group had many phases and multiple lineup shifts, but the stage is where they truly succeeded as a collective, playing in the moment and without net. The group soared more than non-fans give them credit for and that thrilling collective experience is what kept fans touring the country with their musical heroes.

For other entries in The Masters, when it comes to live albums there were some limits, with the Dead it is just the opposite, there have been so many live releases it is hard to limit this list to "official" releases as prolific taping, the Internet Archive and tons of other sites have made obtaining a certain night in the bands history incredibly easy.

However, since we have been using official releases for other entries of The Masters, we will stick with that for this post and move to personal "Go-To" shows at a later date. We know that times have changed and while One From the Vault and Hundred Year Hall were instrumental to our love of the Dead, these days people do not need official releases to get soundboard quality and are much more likely to just stream a solid show then purchase an "official release". 

With Dicks/Dave's Picks, the criminally underrated Road Trips series and various completest Box Sets being offered up seemingly every month (their whole history will be officially released soon) it is hard to keep track of which shows are officially out there and which are still in the hands of tapers, so for this list we are skipping all of those and just going with live albums released officially by the band. Going to be tough, but we will give this a shot, below are our top five live albums from the Grateful Dead.

#5 Without A Net - Recorded 1989/90 Released 1990

In going back through these official live albums, there were others which could be considered "better" than this release. Already mentioned One From The Vault and Hundred Year Hall above, Reckoning makes a strong case as well, but the truth is there is a soft spot in RtBE's heart (and ears) for Brent Mydland and Without A Net was a love letter to the Dead's departed keys player.

The band were in a good spot circa '89 and with better digital recording techniques coming out they released this double album recorded from all over the place and sequenced like one show. Mydland's passing truly crippled the group and while '91 had a few good shows, they never fully recovered. On to this album though,"Feel Like a Stranger" "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" is a bright opening pairing which places the keys in the center. 

The end of the first disc has excellent versions of "Althea", "Cassidy", "Bird Song" and probably our favorite "Let It Grow" from the group as Jerry's midi effects substitutes for departed Donna's screams. The second disk has some nice pairings (China>Rider and Help>Slip>Frank) but the true super standout is the over sixteen minute version of "Eyes of The World" with Branford Marsalis contributing on Alto and Tenor Sax throughout, simply stunning. Not going to argue with other selections but Without A Net will always be enjoyed in the RtBE clubhouse with Brent (and Branford) shining bright for eternity when the record spins.

#4 Live/Dead - Recorded/Released 1969

Ahh the beginning of the Dead's live show being exported to more than just those in the know. The band keeps going back and milking this release with Box Sets but the original, seven songs, double vinyl still stands its ground (starting with that amazing album art).

Robert Christgau stated that this album "contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded" and for the era that is hard to argue. Pristine versions of well tested tunes. At the time, while the band explored the cosmos, they did this through the frame work of just a few tunes, "Dark Star", "Turn On Your Lovelight", "St. Stephen" > "The Eleven" but boy were they on in winter of 1969 in their home base of San Francisco. Early Dead is not for everyone, but for an official studio release, especially of it's time and place it doesn't get much better. A must have.

#3 Cornell 5/8/77 - Recorded 1977 Released 2017

Well it took until 2017 for the band's most beloved concert bootleg to get an official studio release and while the sound quality has improved from the tapes (even though the Betty Boards were fucking great to begin with) the playing received a new spotlight and it remains pretty magical.

The perfect entrance for new fans, as well as a solid show at the peak of their prowess for long time listeners Cornell has always hit a sweet spot (as has lots of other May '77 shows) and rightfully been lauded by fans. This newer official release from the band now makes it palpable for all to listen to it.

The warmth which radiates from all involved, but especially Garcia, is instantly noticeable. The first sets highlights are the ballads. "Loser" "They Love Each Other" and "Row Jimmy" are all-time best of versions while "Brown Eyed Women" and the set closing cover of "Dancing In the Streets" hit all the right notes.

The second sets beginning is why this show is so valued; the transition from "Scarlet Begonias" into "Fire On The Mountain" just may be the best thing the band has ever played. It is lead by Keith Godchaux's piano work but the whole band is locked in and soaring. Keith's piano was always stately but could be a bit sleepy to RtBE's ears (we already mentioned we were more Brent fans), but not here, this is a clear peak performance for the group which continues into a stunning "Estimated Prophet".  The warping "St. Stephen >Not Fade Away> St Stephen > Morning Dew" magic continues the bands top flight execution, experimentation and glorious sound.

It is also officially a piece of our nations history now, in 2012 it was selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress A perfect place to start your enjoyment of the band, and a place long time fans should always stop back in and visit.

#2 Europe '72 - Recorded/Released 1972

In going back and listening to these (and a lot more) it struck RtBE how much we enjoyed 1972 form the band. In past years (and maybe future) we have stated our favorite years from the band were '77, '73, '69, even '89-90 at one point, but in retrospect the sweet spot for us is '72. There are so many supporting releases for this, but the top two on our list solidify this.

While Live/Dead captured the band's San Francisco peak, Europe '72 found them in literal foreign lands with a whole new batch of songs as they evolved from LSD mischief makers and background musicians to full on songwriters, performers and artists. Again this has been expanded with box sets, but just focusing on the original still delivers the goodies.

The blast had by the band on this tour seeps onto the record. The transition between Pigpen and Keith Godchaux was a surprisingly smooth one as Pig's tunes on the album are some of the best he ever did and Godchaux plays with a bit more energy than in later years. So many highlights to list, but the raucous "One More Saturday Night" the blues of "Hurts Me too" and the shuffling groove of "Tennessee Jed" are all grade A.

There are also a few 'greatest versions of all-time contenders' on this record as the band put it all out there for "Sugar Magnolia", "Truckin'", "China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider", and our personal favorite on this album "Jack Straw". There is a joy in the playing on this album and the original band (while adding members) was at an emotional and professional high point. All of these versions are must hear, hell all of the box set shows are must hear as this was, in retrospect, the best tour of the groups career. 

#1 Sunshine Day Dream Veneta, OR 8/27/72 - Recorded 1972 Released 2013

The Sun Stroked Serenader's... Rumor has it that the band was dipping heavily into LSD on this night and even though they filmed the full performance they were embarrassed/unhappy about the show and refused to release it. No idea how true these rumors are, but this is the best of the best when it comes to our choice of live dead. It combines it all, gorgeous ballads, easy shuffles, big time rocking out, harmonies, and a psychedelic adventure which to paraphrase a quote about them, "they weren't the best at what they did, they were the only ones who do what they do".

The first set is just supremely solid Dead tunes moving in and out; gorgeous, sunshiny, sweet and rolling. Each song in the opening stanza is excellent but the second and third sets send this show rocketing up our list. Each song is either our favorite or top three version of that particular song the group has ever played...they are that locked in.

"Playing In the Band" gets freaky, "Bird Song" is stunningly beautiful, "Greatest Story Ever Told" blows out into the sky "Sugar Magnolia" rages as does closer "One More Saturday Night" as it wraps things up.

The trio of "Dark Star > El Paso" and "Sing Me Back Home" show the wide range of this band and are the Grateful Dead in a nutshell. From a half hour of exploratory playing which is some of the best free jazz/jam rock ever recorded which seamlessly melts into a country ballad before soaring group harmonies and passion come alive in a wrenching tune; pure magic.

RtBE returns to this album and it has supported us mentally through tough times. One of our favorite recorded pieces of music and just one more reason we love this band.

How'd we do? Agree? Disagree?  Feel free to state your choices in the comments.

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