Fifty years on, the Grateful Dead’s debut gets the deluxe reissue treatment along with an early, previously unreleased live performance.
Had their eponymous release been the only recorded audio document to their name, it’s likely the Grateful Dead would’ve ended up as little more than a trivial footnote in the history of San Francisco music and culture. So innocuous is the album that it barely resembles the group who would one day command an entire subculture devoted to the band, its music, and the accompanying lifestyle. Listening to The Grateful Dead now, it sounds every bit the moldering product of its time and geographic point of origin. Coming on like a ramshackle garage band, the Dead come tumbling out of the gate with opening track “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)", sounding very much the '60s head group they were and virtually nothing like the purveyors of Americana and godfathers of the entire jam band nation they would eventually become.
To be sure, The Grateful Dead is a fine album for what it is, it’s just that, when taken within the context of the band’s oeuvre it simply fails to resonate (not to mention when stacked alongside the myriad landmark releases and performances 1967 had to offer during the storied “Summer of Love”). To be fair, the Dead’s overall aesthetic at the time of their debut recording was based almost entirely on a live setting. Because of this, their particular brand of appeal remained more experiential and in the moment than something that could easily be captured and conveyed on record. And this remains the album’s biggest flaw. Sure their performances are competent enough: “Beat It on Down the Line” is an enjoyable rave-up; “New, New Minglewood Blues” is a fine take on psych-blues. But the rest of the album seems to simply exist in a haze of smoke having emanated from some elicit substance.
Any criticism of the Dead has been and always will be met with the counter argument that you really need to hear them live to gain a better appreciation for long-running appeal. And as if anticipating this, the newly-issued 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of the proves just that in the inclusion of a complete, previously unreleased show recorded at P.N.E. Garden Auditorium in Vancouver on July 29, 1966. This alone should tell you what to expect from the crowd as the band’s eponymous debut would not be released until the following spring. “We’re going to start off the evening with a group from San Francisco, they’re called ‘The Grateful Dead’.” This stage announcement is met with nothing but silence, to which one of the band can be heard to quip, “Ah, our fame has proceeded us.” It’s exactly the type of response you’d expect from a crowd faced with a non-entity performing far from their home turf.
And yet they still manage to deliver a fine, if rather serviceable, performance of tracks from their forthcoming release and a handful of other early staples. This second disc is clearly set up to be the hook for hardcore fans as the studio release is not among their most well-regarded recorded examples. Listening to this early incarnation of the Dead, it’s easy to see how in a live setting they could quickly win over an otherwise reticent crowd. Admittedly it takes them some time to do so but after a particularly fiery rendition of “I Know You Rider” the applause begins to grow from a mere spattering to that of a crowd suddenly gaining interest in that which is transpiring before them.
On stage, the band is locked into their own world, playing off one another largely without regard to the more or less indifferent crowd. There are energy and intensity on songs like “You Don’t Have to Ask” that show them to be, unlike many of their contemporaries, capable of an engaging stage show that served as a showcase for each member’s individual instrumental talents. Nothing here stretches out quite as much as it would within the coming years, but this allows for greater focus and solid instrumental interplay from a band who could be either the best or worst musicians one had ever seen depending on the night. Here they happened to be very much ‘on’ and showing themselves to be a band to watch.
Though they never elicit the response here they one day would from the faithful Deadhead nation, this early live recording helps illustrate the point that, yes, the Dead were better suited to the wild unpredictability and fluidity of a live environment than the sterile confines of the studio (just compare the studio jam of “Viola Lee Blues” with that of its far more thrilling live counterpart). Because of this, The Grateful Dead (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) offers modern listeners a chance to experience this long-standing argument firsthand as it makes clear that even in their earliest days, the Dead were a far better live act than they ever would be in the studio.