Thursday, March 4, 2021

Beginners Guide To The Grateful Dead - Part One

There is a lot of music out there and some artists have massive catalogs which can paralyze new listeners with overwhelming choices. This Beginners Guide series will attempt to give those new listeners entry points to some of these artists. Today we will look at: The Grateful Dead.

This post became very long so we are breaking it into two parts. This first offering will discuss the five places RtBE feels are the best entry points to the band. The follow up post will dive into the different eras of the Dead and pull out some well known and underappreciated shows for further listening. 

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic here in NYC the soothing sounds of The Grateful Dead helped ease my mind during a tumultuous sense of loss and uncertainty. Shortly after lock down, a co-worker reached out and mentioned they wanted more information on the band as they were just discovering them. 

That request led to this series, so it makes sense that the good ol' Grateful Dead should be the first group we discuss when it comes to Beginners Guides. RtBE will take an extensive look into their career with a focus on new listeners and will provide links to youtube when possible, but feel free to buy all of the albums from the band themselves. We also wrote about the band in our Masters series previously ranking our favorite studio albums, official live releases and more

Also feel free to check out the amazing Internet Archive with its phenomenal collection of Grateful Dead shows.  In the early days of this site (2010-2011) we wrote on most Monday's about random Dead shows, we covered 46 of them, and they are in a list on the archive here and you can scroll back and read our takes if you want

Almost everything you could want is on the archive and usually with multiple recordings from the groups insanely dedicated fan base. The truth is the band could hit amazing highs any night they played and while they have the reputation of drugged out hippies, the quality of their musical output remained incredibly consistent and excellent for the majority of their careers.  

We will dissect the bands shifting sound in part two of this post, for now let's start with the basics. Click the read more button: 

TL:DR Version:
Start with, in order: 

Throughout their history The Grateful Dead are, Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (drums). Over the years the keyboard/piano player role changed with the unfortunate early deaths/leaving the group. In order they were Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, and Vince Welnick. Bruce Hornsby also toured with the band in late 80's/90's, Donna Jean Godchaux provided vocal support in the 70's and Robert Hunter and  John Perry Barlow wrote the majority of the bands lyrics and were sometimes credited as band members. 

While truly a group in every sense, there was a musical/spiritual leader and it was Jerry Garcia. An amazingly creative guitarist, who fused jazz/folk/rock better than almost anyone out there, Garcia's desires steered the band along and at times derailed them. His legacy casts a long shadow and thankfully there are thousands of hours of his inventive playing for future generations to enjoy.  

The Dead became famous by performing constantly. From their early acid tests to the later days traveling circus, they spent many days on the road playing very long shows which crystallized into a format of two sets a night with (usually) a first set focusing on shorter songs and second sets being platforms for experimentation. The band would (again usually) alternate between Garcia/Weir sung tunes with others chiming in (Pigpen in the early years, Mydland/Welnick in the later). The beautiful thing was that anything could happen on any night.  

It should be stated that RtBE loves The Dead and have written about them extensively on this site including in our Masters series. RtBE also knows lots of other people have very strong opinions on the band and that is great, feel free to agree/disagree and post comments below.   

One of the best things about the Grateful Dead is how they morphed and evolved over the years from psychedelic freak-out pranksters on acid in the late 60's, to cosmic cowboys in the early 70's, to powerful rockers flirting with disco in the late 70's to messy years of the early 80's, to comeback kids in the late 80's and aging hippies trudging on and on in the early 90's. You may love one era and loath another but great shows to be found throughout.

RtBE will discuss the best entry points then break out shows from each year/era that are worth listening to for further joy (this will be part discussed in part 2). As a general rule, we usually suggest starting with shows from 1977, then moving to 1972, the band really was in top form both years and almost any shows from these years are good examples of their sound. Our suggestions, in order:

Cornell 1977:

Perhaps the most famous show the band ever played is Cornell 1977. It became famous primarily through tape trading circles and the glorious quality of both the playing and recording but even in light of all of the modern releases from the band, this show still holds up as a fantastic entry point into the their tye-dyed world. The night's dynamite group interplay, excellent singing and flowing song selection proves it's long lasting greatness and it remains a perfect gateway for new listeners to the band. 

The live setting shows the band in its natural state with fantastic versions of "St. Stephan", "Jack Straw" and "Loser" as well as all-time best versions of "Brown Eyed Women", "Jack A Row", "Dancing In The Streets", "Morning Dew" and the glory that is the transition between "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain".  While all of May 77 is powerful, RtBE still suggests starting with Cornell for a great entry to the full Dead live show experience, enjoying the band at its peak.   

Workingman's Dead/American Beauty:

While live shows/playing in the moment is what really sets the Dead apart, the band also did excellent studio work and their two classic albums Workingman's Dead/American Beauty were both released in 1970. The records are worlds away from the craziness of their '60's sound. Both of these are worth hearing early on in the process of discovering the band as they host some of their best/most loved songs, as well as a focus on intricate musicality and vocal prowess.     

Sunshine Daydream 8/27/72:

The early 70's was a ripe time for the band and in particular 1972 found the group exploring Europe with dynamite results (Europe 72 could easily be on a beginners list of albums). The band was experiencing its first major lineup change as keyboardist/front-man Pigpen was reaching the end of the line and pianist Keith Godchaux was finding his way in the band. That summer found the band playing Ken Kesey's dairy farm on 8/27/72 and the resulting show is RtBE's personal favorite from the band. It was released officially as Sunshine Daydream and while Cornell and the studio albums are better first introductions to the band, this show gives the full scope of the bands prowess. There is glorious experimentation ("Dark Star"), pristine singing ("Sing Me Back Home") and many all-time great versions of tunes ("Bird Song", "Playing In The Band"). Once a new listener has their Dead legs under them, this is THE show to RtBE's ears.     

Dick's Picks Volume 8 5/2/70 Harpur College Binghamton, NY:

On a journey into the Dead you can't go much further without checking out their early days and we chose to highlight Dick's Picks Volume 8 5/2/70 Harpur College, Binghamton, NY which contains an acoustic set and some explosive live playing including monumental versions of "The Other One", "St. Stephan" and the best "Viola Lee Blues" the band ever played. The group's first official live album also covers this time well. Live/Dead took the band's elusive stage presence and grooved it into vinyl, expertly capturing the San Francisco scene and could be a choice here, but RtBE feels the Dick's Picks selection is easier for new listeners to grasp. 

Without a Net

Once people experience the early years, the later era of the band should get some airing as well, there are a few choices but RtBE will suggest Without A Net for beginners as it is a loving tribute album to the band's keyboardist Brent Mydland as well as a great capturing of a rejuvenated outfit touring in 1989/90, laid out like a complete show. The album pairs a crisp, well played first "set" with a spaced out second complete with dynamite versions of "Help On The Way>Slipknot!>Franklin's Tower" and a glorious "Eyes of the World" augmented by Branford Marsalis on saxophone.   

This should get you started, part two will dive into different years and shows with even more suggestions. Feel free to leave you thoughts and feedback below.

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