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Thrilling, incomparable, and utterly rewarding, there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.

There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. There are imitators, sure. There have been tighter live acts, certainly. There have been more consistent performers, absolutely. But, no other band has ever achieved the kind of devoted following that trailed the Grateful Dead’s live tours. Thousands, indeed, tens of thousands of people spent weeks, months, years and even decades following this storied band around the U.S., moving en masse from concert hall to concert hall, sleeping in RVs and tents, living on parking lot grilled cheeses, ziplocked mushrooms, and tailgate beers.


From 1965 to Jerry Garcia’s sudden death in 1995, the Dead covered the United States back and forth dozens of times, and so did their unwavering fans, friends, and the moveable feast that was their scene. They tripped, show to show, like a traveling circus of weirdos, poseurs, fun-loving partyers, and 1960s refugees, all of them hoping that this time they’d get to hear their favourite tune, or maybe catch a really hot Playin’ jam, or find that crystalline moment of pure, unadulterated bliss, usually hidden somewhere in the middle of a “Dark Star”, a “Terrapin Station”, or a lonesome “Stella Blue”. They didn’t follow the Dead, as the saying went: they toured with them. In a philosophy harkening back to the early San Francisco Acid Tests (when the Dead served as the house band at Ken Kesey’s wobbly Haight-Ashbury happenings), the audience was always just as important as the band. The music was integral, sure, but it was the people who made the scene. If the Dead were at the centre, the Deadheads were the Universe that gave the centre meaning. In every way, this is the key to understanding the enduring fascination with the Grateful Dead concert: everything about it was designed to reinforce the relational, community-focused ethic of the Deadhead community.


cover art

The Grateful Dead

Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings

(US: 1 Apr 2008)

But doesn’t every band do this? Try to “give the people what they want”? Sure. But, the vast majority of bands do this by labouring to nail down the tightest, most intense, most complete concert experience they can. They compile a carefully thought-out setlist, and stick to it most every night (with a few provisions for spontaneity, usually around the encore). They tell similar stories most evenings, and even jokes that they’ve worked out to a comedian’s timing and precision. The result is a hot show, night in and night out, but also (even if it’s working gangbusters) a generally surprise-free experience.


And herein lies exactly what is so hard for non-Dead fans to get their heads around. Tightness, perfection, mistake-free execution, all that stuff, is anathema to the Grateful Dead experience. Not that the Dead were sloppy, or lazy, or didn’t give a damn about the kind of performance they put in—a casual look at interviews or biographical material on any member would quickly put that assumption to rest—but they understood that, for the benefit of both their own aesthetic interests, and their audience’s continued curiosity and participation in the tour, they had to work without a net. They had to take risks, try new things, switch up the setlists every night, dive into lengthy freeform jams, slow tempos to a crawl, speed up to a breakneck pace. There was no other way to get there.


Indeed, they had to do these things, night in night out, because this was the very essence of the Grateful Dead thing. In the early 1970s, while contemporaries like the Band worked their stage shows down to a pencil-point precision, sometimes reproducing live versions of songs so cleanly that they were near note-for-note matches of their studio versions, the Dead went out there and stretched three-minute songs to 20-minute jams. They offered radical reinterpretations of numbers they’d been playing another way for years. They let Donna Jean Godchaux sing even though she couldn’t hit any of the goddamn notes! (This is, incidentally, a totally acceptable reason to detest the Grateful Dead. She was married to their ‘70s-era pianist and, even though she had no voice for the stuff, they let her join the band, and step all over some of the tunes. Indefensible.) What it comes down to is that the Grateful Dead didn’t hesitate to try something on stage that they had never discussed, and their audience respected them all the more for it.


Don’t get me wrong. Very often these risks didn’t exactly pan out. There is no Dead show that I have ever heard—and I’ve heard hundreds—that doesn’t have a few scratches here and there, a few bad notes, a few forgotten lyrics, a few missed cues. But—and this is again the thing that you only get if you get—that’s the point. At their very best they were risking it all out there and their audience was responding with joyful appreciation. Even when they royally blew it (which happened all the time, let’s face it) the audience would generally express encouragement rather than frustration. They actually cheered when Bob Weir forgot the words to a song, Jerry Garcia hit a bum note, or Phil Lesh hammered a way-too-loud bass bomb. This was partly about being supportive and expressing some good-vibey hippie idealism, but it was more importantly about the collaborative understanding about what the Dead were trying to do, and where the audience knew they could go when it all started to happen. They knew that when it was working, when it all came together, when that engine of theirs was firing on all cylinders, there was little more thrilling in the world of live rock ’n’ roll.


This is the basic point behind the bootleg thing. I remember as a teenager my father commenting on the growing collection of Maxell tapes I had amassed, all of them Grateful Dead shows, legally recorded by “bootleggers”. (Taping at Dead shows was encouraged, which was another huge factor in the development of the shared understanding that united much of their touring audience.) “Why would anyone want fifteen versions of ‘Friend of the Devil?’” my Dad demanded. It’s a good question. In fact, it’s probably the key question: if you have a good version of a song, why look for another? Why would you want to hear an inferior version, or a merely OK one, or really any other than the one you already have and love? And this is where we get down to subtleties, energy, performance, and all kinds of other stuff that just dies on the page in explanation. But, if every night the Dead are out there trying old things in new ways, if one night the drummer is a bit jazzier and the next more rocking, the rhythm guitar is one month a bit more fluid and then the next month maybe more crunchy, the lead guitarist is loud and fast one night but soft and groovy the next, then every Maxell tape conveys a whole new series of meanings. Night to night, this was a different band. So, night to night, it was almost a different song.


This is especially true of the longer, more jammy numbers, but even an ostensibly tight, go-nowhere tune like “Me and My Uncle” can sound completely different depending upon the tempo, the intensity of the bass lines, or the passion of the vocal performance. This is why those apparently insipid debates about which was the best year for the Grateful Dead—as though folks are talking about fine wine or Vincent motorcycles—actually make perfect sense. Every year for the band marked a new approach, a new series of tours, and a new list of concert-ready songs. While the band was all about psychedelic rock in 1969, by 1973 they were more of a country-rock outfit; by the late 70s they were delving into bigger sounds, exploring progressive arrangements and even reggae and disco; by the mid-‘80s they were revisiting early-‘60s Motown and soul numbers, reinventing them for a new generation of Deadheads; by the early ‘90s they were more formulaic, for sure, but still introducing new songs, textures, and approaches (like Garcia’s MIDI which made his guitar sound like, well, like not a guitar).


Ultimately, what I am trying to say is this: The Dead can be appreciated—indeed, probably must be appreciated—as a kind of continuing, evolving, shifty performance of “The Grateful Dead”. Every night delivered a new version of the band, a new skin for the old ceremony, as (in bassist Phil Lesh’s famous phrase) band and audience alike continued “searching for the sound”.


How else could a music reviewer introduce a nine-disc box set chronicling three consecutive nights at San Francisco’s Winterland arena in November, 1973? Nine discs! Retailing for around a hundred bucks! I could tell you that the set is packed with extraordinary music, sure. But, let’s face it, no one is buying this thing unless they are a) already a serious fan and get the whole there’s-always-more-to-hear thing, or, b) they want to massively jumpstart their Dead collection by making a weird, risky purchase. If you are reading this and fall into category b), then I’m here to tell you: enjoy. And, for those folks in category a), who’s kidding who: you already ordered this beast off of Dead.net.


Either way, buying this box is generally a good idea. For every reason listed above, this set demonstrates the very essence of the Grateful Dead thing. It is vast—72 songs over nine discs—and it is particularly volatile. The band, only six months after losing their beloved keyboardist and vocalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan to alcoholism (at the holy shit age of 27), is brimming with tumultuous energy, driven by a reinvigorated repertoire dominated by country-rock and spacey excursions, and buoyed by the recent completion of one of their best records to date, the jazzy Wake of the Flood. In every way, this box set represents the Grateful Dead in top form.


From wild takes on fan favourites like “Sugar Magnolia”, “Bertha”, and “Truckin’”, to powerful renditions of some of their darkest, most enduring ballads like “Black-Throated Wind”, “Stella Blue”, “To Lay Me Down”, and the incomparable “Loser”, the setlists sparkle with excellent songs. The years 1972-73 represent the Dead at the height of their songwriting power, and it is everywhere on display, with Robert Hunter’s perpetually underrated lyrics spinning evocative Americana throughout this entire set. Occasional, well-chosen covers (of Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”) pay tribute to the forebears of this earthy approach to American music. And, when they experiment (during the first half of the second set each night), they demonstrate an intense commitment, a vital yearning for transcendent musical release, that is unparalleled on many of their other officially-sanctioned live collections.


Highlights are many, and varied. If the first night is somewhat less memorable than the second, it still boasts some gorgeous guitar work from Garcia on a funky “Here Comes Sunshine”, and a hot bit of band interaction on the first of three Weather Report Suites over the three nights.  The second night (so, discs 4 through 6) offers the first ever attempt at one of their most exciting suites, the rare, nonstop performance of “Playing in the Band”/“Uncle John’s Band”/“Morning Dew”/“Uncle John’s Band”/“Playing in the Band”. This extraordinary run of songs, segueing seamlessly into each other to what must have been the delight and fascination of the no-doubt rapt audience, is as fine as it looks on the page, and as good a reason as any to pick up the whole set. Still, the third night does boast an uncanny version of what was the Dead’s most coveted number: a blissful take on “Dark Star” that stretches beyond the 25-minute mark before sliding into an epic, and deeply moving, “Mind Left Body” Jam.


Slipping from here into “Eyes of the World”, perhaps the best new song in their repertoire (and a highlight of the Wake of the Flood LP), the band moves into an extended encore set, seemingly unwilling, unable, to let this top-flight three night stand come to an end. The spooky, soft-textured “China Doll” gives in to an unhinged “Sugar Magnolia”, which in turn moves through an “Uncle John’s Band”, and into a boisterous take on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. The screaming crowd is finally carried away home to the strains of a sweet a capella version of Garcia’s favourite lullaby: “And We Bid You Goodnight”.


Thrilling, incomparable, and utterly rewarding. There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.


Rating:

Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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