Grateful Dead, 1970
Photo: Herb Greene - Billboard | Public Domain

In the Wake of the Grateful Dead in 1973

Looking back after 50 years at the Grateful Dead’s pivotal year of 1973, including Wake of the Flood and three November nights at Winterland.

Wake of the Flood
Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead
15 October 1973
Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings
Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead
1 April 2008

It’s been 50 years since Grateful Dead reached the tipping point on their winding path from an eccentric and locally popular San Francisco rock band to the most lucrative touring act in the world. The band’s popularity spawned a nomadic Deadhead culture complete with hermetic codes, rituals, and artifacts capable of overwhelming the infrastructure and everyday operations of all but the largest and most welcoming cities. Even nearly 30 years after the untimely death of their lead guitarist, lead songwriter, and musical lodestar Jerry Garcia, the latest incarnation of the band, Dead & Company, sold out major stadiums for multiple nights across the country the summer of 2023 in what was announced as their farewell tour. In the wake left by the passage of a show business behemoth this vast, variegated, and durable, it’s easy to lose sight of the surprisingly influential music they (mostly) somehow managed to create at the heart of the beast.

It would have been difficult to see this 60-year run coming back in the 1960s. The Grateful Dead broke into rock music, masquerading as what was popular at the time: a straightforward ’60s garage-rock band. Until 1970, their palette remained mostly confined to blues-based garage and psychedelic rock, even though they stretched those confines temporally and dynamically well beyond the singles format or the heavy blues jamming typical of their peers. The pared-down 1970 albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty reintroduced a powerful thread of roots-based folk and blues forms. But 1973 was a turning point for the Grateful Dead professionally and personally, as the loss of vocalist and keyboard player Pigpen shifted emphasis away from blues and fully into the band’s idiosyncratic cornucopia of forms. They retained key elements of blues and psychedelia, incorporated the roots lessons of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and then kept adding to them from a varied and seemingly endless archive of American vernacular music, both old and new.

The Dead’s Outlaw History

It was not a simple process. The conflict between those seeking to break down political, social, and cultural barriers in the ten years from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s and those reacting against them is the familiar story of those years: antiwar protests and Nixon’s war on drugs; desegregation and resegregation; civil rights movements for Blacks, Indigenous people, women, and LGBTQ+ communities and ongoing discriminatory countermeasures. Whether musicians consciously saw themselves as participating in these movements and whether critics were conscious of the ways their tastes and biases regarding authenticity and formal purity helped to maintain cultural barriers, the music and their writing about it informed these tensions just as they were informed by them.

Certainly, Grateful Dead were no more politically pure than any other social beings. They struggled to cleave to their commitment to countercultural principles of resisting unjust authority, breaking down oppressive social norms, and freeing their minds and bodies even as their lucrative musical performance business exceeded their ability to control it. Their outlaw ethos drove their resistance to mainstream conformity, but it also led them into regrettable associations and actions, none more so than their role in enabling the circumstances that led to the killing of teenaged African American Berkeley resident Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels security detail at Altamont.

Plenty of popular artists bound their movements and ground their authority in outlaw authenticity and musical purity, from the country-western musicians of the Bakersfield sound or the ’50s folk revivalists Jerry Garcia and company grew up with to punk rockers and gangsta rappers during the later decades of the Dead’s career. But there was no essential ‘purity’ or absolute ‘authenticity’ to be found there, either. Delta blues legend Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter crafted his signature song “Goodnight Irene” from a Tin Pan Alley waltz performed at minstrel shows; he preferred suit and tie to the overalls and bandanas in which his manager John Lomax dressed him for the primarily white audiences he played for. Lead Belly’s is first instrument was a button accordion, and he recorded several songs from his earliest repertoire on the accordion rather than his celebrated 12-string guitar.

Before he went electric, “Minnesota Jew” Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, was playing the music of the middle-class Oklahoman son of a Ku Klux Klan member, whose musical roots were in English and Scottish folk songs and vintage African American blues from artists like Lead Belly, whom Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie lived with for a time in a downtown New York apartment around 1940.

There’s little, if anything, sui generis in the history of vernacular music. The dominance of streaming and filesharing, the rise of home production software and hardware, and the mainstreaming of Black, Brown, and non-Anglophone music have gone a long way toward showing how that history can be retold in terms of genre-crossing, chance meetings, collaboration, the constant reinvention of popular music out of a pot that never melted into mainstream white pop—shadowed by a consistently reactionary pushing back against that same historical shift in perspective. Once you tell the story this way, there’s no longer a single chain of breaks and breakthroughs; you’ll see broad and widely varying threads and patterns but never a single overarching story.

As a white rock ‘n’ roll band, Grateful Dead was both typical and wholly exceptional in regard to this broader weave of music history. What’s most striking, revisiting this band’s golden years half a century later, is how early, how long, and how successfully Grateful Dead managed to dwell in a pocket where they could absorb, process, and feedback the extraordinary variety of mainstream and marginalized pop forms that were roiling around the US and beyond in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Perhaps no year exemplifies this thread better than 1973.

1973’s 73 Shows

During this year, Grateful Dead composed and recorded its seventh studio album, Wake of the Flood, released on October 15, the first on their newly created, band-owned label, named (by default) “Grateful Dead”. In July, they pressed their fourth live album, History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1, (Bear’s Choice), to fulfill their contractual obligation with Warner Bros., which signed them to their first recording contract in 1966. Now possessed of their own record company, booking, and travel agencies, they undertook what Jerry Garcia’s biographer calls “an audacious attempt to control nearly every aspect of their working life” and to support the more than 75 people in their extensive “family,” thirty of whom were already on the band’s payroll. In time, their hippie enterprise would develop into “an independent media empire unrivalled in American vernacular music.”

In 1973, the Dead would perform 73 live shows, playing (and filling) large stadiums for the first time. These shows regularly well exceeded three hours in duration, including several of the longest they would ever play. They played more frequently in prior years, but the logistics required to upscale their equipment to the arenas they were now playing necessitated fewer shows weekly during the months they were touring. To reproduce the acoustic qualities and aural experience of the smaller venues they had been playing, their crew worked with their technician and drug supplier Owsley “Bear” Stanley to develop the insanely monumental “Wall of Sound”, which would officially debut the following year.

Any number of the 73 shows would provide insight into what made this such a key year, from the February concerts in Lincoln, Nebraska and Salt Lake City to June in Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, to the incredible month’s run late in the year from Winterland through to Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa, among a number of other dates. The Winterland nights are special because the Dead always went all out for Bill Graham and their home turf of San Francisco and because the three-night run provides a neat glimpse of how much they carried night-to-night and how they varied their performances. The nine-disc limited edition boxed set Winterland 1973 was released exactly 15 years ago, on the 35th anniversary of the performances, with a bonus disc of selections from the 4 December show in Cincinnati.

In addition to these shows, Garcia, whose ideal work week consisted of nightly gigs interrupted by a single day of rest, played an additional 118 gigs in 1973, mostly with keyboardist Merl Saunders in the jazzier precursor to the long-running Jerry Garcia Band or with his newly formed bluegrass band Old & In the Way. He also sat in with country-rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage, with the Allman Brothers (joined by Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann), and (along with temporarily un-Dead drummer Mickey Hart) the electronic music project of Dead bassist Phil Lesh and keyboardist/composer Ned Lagin. Garcia and Saunders also released two albums during the course of the year.

On 8 March, Grateful Dead lost their original frontman, keyboard and blues harmonica player, and guiding spirit, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died of alcoholism-induced liver failure. This traumatic event was not the first loss in their extended circle—that would have been Janis Joplin, Pigpen’s close friend and sometime lover—and it would not be their last. But this one hit especially close to home: “I mean almost nobody was even thirty at that point, so to lose someone was almost unthinkable.” Garcia’s response, one friend put it, was to lean into “tunes ‘so weird’ … that he was able to regain his balance.” He found that balance most frequently in the flow of performance, which noticeably changed with the expanded role of versatile and virtuoso jazz-trained pianist Keith Godchaux.

Although their mainstream popularity spiked as a result of the 1970 release of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty – both managed to crack the top 30 on the charts – led by singles that for the first time charted into the top 100. Grateful Dead always did their best work live. In fact, the live triple-album Europe ’72, composed of mostly new material and including only two songs each from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, would outsell both. Except for a handful of tracks from those two albums, including several that also appeared on Europe ’72, there’s general agreement that these were the only albums where the studio versions were consistently superior to numerous live renditions. Neither intensity nor stretching out could compensate for the loss of the vocal harmonies or the mainly acoustic settings.

The Dead’s Corpus

Over the two decades between 1970 and 1990, Grateful Dead performed nearly 500 different songs, including 350 covers from an archive that ranged from (in longtime chronicler Dennis McNally’s only partial list): “basic rock and roll (Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones), blues (Pigpen’s entire repertoire), jug band music (“Beat It on Down the Line“, “Viola Lee Blues’”, folk (“Peggy-O“, “Cold Rain and Snow“), Stax-Volt (“Midnight Hour“), rhythm and blues (“Lovelight“), rockabilly (“Big River“), country-western (“Mama Tried“), gospel (“Samson and Delilah“, “We Bid You Goodnight“), ’60s garage rock (“Gloria“), calypso (“Man Smart, Woman Smarter“), western swing (“Don’t Ease Me In“), and New Orleans (“Iko Iko“).” Then there was the Bakersfield sound, from the town midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on whichtGrateful Dead modeled much of Workingman’s Dead; they would begin covering Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” soon after in 1971.

The unprecedented range of this list doesn’t even include songs Garcia covered in his other bands, which would often pop up in later Dead sets. Just around 1973, we find reggae (from The Harder They Come soundtrack and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire), Motown (Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Holland-Dozier-Holland), jazz (“My Funny Valentine”), not to mention compositions by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Band, and Van Morrison. Their personal and professional partnership with German-American concert promoter Bill Graham, who booked pretty much everyone that came to the Bay Area, meant they shared the stage with all manner of acts. Among others, they opened for soul legend Otis Redding in 1966, played for three nights with Chicago blues star Junior Wells and the still-unknown Doors, and paired with pop stars the Mamas and The Papas. When they weren’t on stage, they would be in the audience or backstage at the Fillmore and Graham’s other venues, soaking in performances by artists ranging from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone.

This myriad of influences can be heard in their own compositions and covers, whether deeply embedded in the psychedelia of the late ’60s or more prominently foregrounded in the ’70s. Nor were they callow borrowings or casual appropriations. They’d learned the blues from Pigpen, whose father was an R&B and blues radio DJ and immersed himself in African-American blues’ history and performance. Lesh was trained in classical composition and obsessed with avant-garde music and jazz, especially Davis and Coltrane, whom he first heard live in 1957.

Garcia began as an acoustic player—guitar in folk and jug bands and banjo in bluegrass ensembles —before Pigpen persuaded him to start an “electric blues band.” Hart was fluent in multiple jazz and pop forms and claimed to have sat in with jazz greats, including Gerry Mulligan and Count Basie, while stationed in Europe in the early ’60s as a drummer in the US Air Force Band. He was a fan of iconoclastic Argentinean tango composer and bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzola. Bill Kreutzmann learned R&B drumming before expanding to jazz and funk. Of their two primary lyricists, Bob Weir’s high school friend John Perry Barlow was a veteran of Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York City, a student of theology, and a failed novelist; the equally literate and more prolific Robert Hunter was Garcia’s early bandmate and would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the performing members of the band in 1994.

Dead Sets

Set lists would vary from night to night, often at the moment. By the end of 1969, they settled on the basic pattern that structured their shows. The first set would be composed of shorter songs, mostly performed discretely one after the other, originals and covers drawing from a wide range of genres, with any jamming and stretching contained within the conventional verse/chorus/verse song structure. Connections and contrasts usually came from sequencing rather than linked combinations; cohesiveness and variety arose from the songs’ arrangements and the alternating vocals of Garcia and Weir.

Grateful Dead didn’t really have any hit singles to offer at their performances or even a typical band’s judicious selection of their most popular album tracks with a few deeper cuts and new songs. Instead, first sets would trace a deeply informed, idiosyncratic, and rambunctious tour through the Dead’s version of musical history, heavily emphasizing what cultural critic Greil Marcus famously called “the old, weird America.” This tour was not always coherent lyrically or thematically, but nevertheless somehow musically cohesive, and always a wild ride, especially when Grateful Dead was on, as it was on many nights in 1973. Nor was it a static tour of that history; the Dead cycled songs in and out of rotation nightly, retiring some, reviving some, debuting others, and when they seemed to be settling into a fixed pattern if not an actual rut, they would change it up.

Their first sets often lean heavily into country-western and stadium rock, including the casual misogyny of Weir and Barlow’s “Mexicali Blues” or Garcia and Hunter’s “Loose Lucy”. But there could also be an exhilarating rush from an opening run of songs like the one at Winterland on November 11, beginning with the dual openers of Weir’s cover of Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll meditation on the Great Migration and Hollywood fame, “Promised Land”, and “Bertha”, Garcia and Hunter’s swinging romp through the cycles of life.

These are followed by the rocking biblical ranch song “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, Hunter and Garcia’s neo-folk-blues story song “Sugaree”, Weir and Barlow’s hitchhiking blues “Black Throated Wind”, Hunter and Garcia’s gospel-tinged love song “To Lay Me Down”, Marty Robbins’s outlaw ballad “El Paso”, Hunter and Garcia’s Dylanesque name-dropping old-timey romp “Ramble on Rose”, and Kris Kristofferson / Janis Joplin’s country-pop classic “Me & Bobby McGee” before they drop into their first extended jam, the oft-performed pairing of 1969’s trippy, funky “China Cat Sunflower” (the lone studio album track of the set so far) and the traditional blues “I Know You Rider”.

The set rounds off with one more cover—the outlaw ballad “Me and My Uncle”, arguably the darkest song the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips ever wrote—and two original compositions—Garcia and Hunter’s hard-rocking urban vignette and ’73 debut “Loose Lucy”, where sexism provides surface cover for what’s probably a drug song, and Weir and Barlow’s magnum opus, “Weather Report Suite”, fresh off of Wake of the Flood, its meditation on the seasons a fitting cap to the opening set’s tour through Americana, and its extended outro jam a prelude to the second set to come.

While the second sets would mix in a few shorter covers and originals, these mostly came as breaks from or extensions of the major set pieces where one song would dissolve into the next—sometimes almost imperceptibly, sometimes abruptly—creating a flow of music that linked often disparate forms and genres without compromising the integrity of any individual song, even when it was literally split apart by other songs. This investment in preserving the form of each song while weaving them into a seamless whole was essential to their identity as a band because the Dead were surprisingly adventuresome and voracious in their musical tastes and interests.

Set pieces could last an hour or more: extended linked combinations of songs or sometimes so-called “sandwiches”, where they would open up key jamming vehicles like “Playin’ in the Band”, “The Other One”, “Dark Star”, or Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to segue into and back out of additional songs. At the November Winterland show, for instance, they opened the second set with a chiasmatic run of “Playin’”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “Morning Dew”, “Uncle John’s Band”, and “Playin’” extended over 40 minutes before Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and the Garcia/Hunter “Stella Blue” led the way into a second run of four Dead originals.

The following night they opened the second set with Wake’s “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and “Big River” before launching into an epic rendering of their signature space-jam “Dark Star” dissolving into Wake’s “Eyes of the World” and “China Doll”, before closing on “Sugar Magnolia” and a three-song encore of “Uncle John’s Band”, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and the a cappella gospel standard “We Bid You Goodnight”, which regularly ended their late ’60s shows.

In contrast to Dylan – one of their few peers in the range and variety of musical genres, he composed in as well as covered or adapted, but who regularly reinvented himself whole cloth over the years – Grateful Dead evolved slowly around a much less varying musical core. Listen to the same Dylan song in a selection of performances spanning the last seven decades, and odds are that sameness will often be practically unrecognizable. That is, if he even continued to play it. Listen to almost any of the songs Grateful Dead performed throughout their career, and they’re always recognizably the same song, even as each performance is discernibly different, year to year, decade to decade, and concert to concert.

Wake of the Flood

In the first Grateful Dead show of 1973, they premiered seven new songs, including three that would end up on Wake of the Flood. All seven songs on that album would be performed live in advance of the October release; five were road-tested for months before recording. In their studio versions, they come off as pretty and mellow. The album makes effective use of the studio setting: there’s an extended saxophone solo by Indigenous Mexican American jazz artist Martin Fierro late in “Let It Grow”, fiddling by Old & in the Way member and bluegrass virtuoso Vassar Clements on the old-timey “Mississippi”, and pedal steel guitar by Garcia on “Row Jimmy”. Lyrically, “Eyes” follows the hippie mysticism of American Beauty’s “Ripple”. But although Garcia takes a ringing 20-second solo leading into the third verse that continues as fills under the chorus, the free-flowing jam already extending past 19 minutes in live performance fades out so precipitously that Lesh can’t even finish his turn in the lead.

“Mississippi Half-Step” makes an energetic album opener, Clemens’ fiddling heightening a country vibe, with honky-tonk piano from Godchaux, a slowed-down outro, and a down-home feel like nothing on the prior two albums. Hunter’s lyric slyly reminds the audience that what sounds old-timey is not so old after all (“Cue balls made of Styrofoam”: polystyrene foam was first patented in the ’40s). Equally up to date was the hypnotic “Row Jimmy”, with typically ambiguous lyrics underpinned by what Kreutzmann characterized as its “reggae groove layered over a ballad.” “Stella Blue” has the fatalistic downer-ballad vibes of American Beauty’s “Brokedown Palace”, but its lyrics are elusive and narrative as opposed to “Brokedown”’s soulfully direct meditation on mortality.

The song’s title is an homage to the 12-string guitars played by blues giants Lead Belly (whose guitar he named “Stella”), Blind Blake, and Blind Willie McTell, with allusive asides to Wallace Stevens and Vladimir Nabokov. The blues guitar subtext to what presents as a loser’s love ballad makes the studio version’s loss of the searing outro solo Garcia would tear off in concert versions, especially regretful. “Stella” closes the album’s first side; in concert, it nearly always arrived later, in the “ballad” slot late in set two, bringing the band and audience back down to earth after extended jamming in space, often emerging out of a 20-minute “Eyes of the World”.

“Here Comes Sunshine” opens the second side with the setting that gives the album its title, combining a historic disaster with Hunter’s childhood memories (he was born in 1941): “the great Vanport, Washington, flood of 1949, living in other people’s homes, a family abandoned by father; second grade.” Garcia gives the guitar lead a tinny music-box effect; Godchaux’s calliope-like keyboard fills neatly capture the child’s perspective of the lyrics. Played live, the music box sounds more like a rock guitar, and the sun aurally rises in the course of the extended jamming, which starts before the three-minute mark, builds for five or more minutes, and bursts open into the third verse and chorus before the breakdown jam into a final closing chorus. “Weather Report” closes the album as an epic studio cut, the nearly 13-minute duration well short of many concert versions that year, but the duration here is taken more by Barlow’s cosmological-cyclical lyrics than with band noodling, employing Fierro’s sax to hold audience attention where apparently the core band feared it wouldn’t on its own.

Wake of the Flood is a sparkling studio album that makes clear what’s also evident from their 1973 shows: that the Dead were coming to grips in a new way with the kind of music they wanted to make—not just blues rock and psychedelic jams, not just rootsy folk blues and hippie folk rock, but an unprecedented mix of every form they knew, loved, and wanted to make their own while still paying homage to their influences and predecessors. Like the mammoth state-of-the-art 11-track sound system they would be touring with, no single thread of influence would be lost in the mix. The sounds may sometimes be mixed in unexpected ways, but each thread can still be made out on its own terms. 

Five of Wake of the Flood’s seven tracks would remain staples in live shows. By 1995, they would have performed “Eyes” 382 times, “Stella” 328, “Row Jimmy” 273, “Mississippi” 236, and “Let It Grow” (part two of “Weather Report”) 234. During their Winterland run, Grateful Dead played all five of these songs among the 42 different compositions (out of 70)—14 covers and 28 originals—played over the three nights. It was not just their repertoire overturned by Pigpen’s death, with a long hiatus for most of his signature songs; it was also the changed way they played the updated repertoire. As Garcia put it, “And we missed all those songs. It was like operating with a broken leg. So we went to our next strong suit, which was a country feel: the American mythos, the Hunter songs. And our other strong suit was our [musical] weirdness. So we went with our strong suits that didn’t involve Pigpen.”

Winterland 1973

The Winterland shows are not of equal quality, although the 9th of November concert was more or less a solid outing. The standout of the second night is one of only a handful of times the Dead ever played the potent second-set nested combo of Playin’/UJB/Morning Dew/UJB/Playin’—not quite as good as the version they did the following week at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, but still a lesson in the alchemy of their improvisations. The third night was the show for the ages. From the get-go, they don’t even pause for breath, segueing seamlessly from Weir’s vocal opener, “Promised Land”, through Garcia’s alternate opener, “Bertha”, and back to “Greatest Story.”

They finally take a breather before launching into Garcia’s heartfelt “Sugaree”, the best version they would do before reimagining the song as an extended first-set jam vehicle in 1977. An invitation to dance at the jubilee in the face of an unspecified but life-erasing disgrace, “Sugaree” in this earlier incarnation evenly alternates Garcia’s aching tenor with his looping solos over its four verses and choruses before both singer and band burst open in passionate regret in a brief but intense finale.

Then there’s the first set, “China Cat Sunflower / I Know You Rider”, in which, as one critic put it, “Garcia attacks this ‘Cat’ as if he’s painting on a fresh canvas,” despite having played the song already hundreds of times live. By the time they close the set with a 15-minute “Weather Report Suite”, they’ve neatly laid out the full road map of their musical landscape moving forward: covers and originals, hippie anthems and outlaw ballads, shredding rock ‘n’ roll and slow-picked folk and blues, gnomic aphorisms and lovelorn pledges. They’ve seesawed between Weir’s country-rock growl and Garcia’s folk-blues yearning. They’ve shown us the concentrated intensity of the pop song form (“Promised Land”, “Me and My Uncle”), the stretched-out narrative vista of “Weather Report”, and the improvised jam linking “China Cat” with “Rider”, a foretaste of the second set to come. Every player has laid down his own marker of virtuosity in each form they’ve touched upon.

However good the first set was, the second set was where Grateful Dead showed off its full range, depth, and will to experiment. Looming over this entire show is a majestic “Dark Star” and “Eyes of the World” pairing, the very best of the versions (19 and 50+, respectively) that they performed that year, 13 of them paired like these two. After only six performances in 1974, they would not play “Dark Star” again until 1978. They would retire it completely between 1984 and 1989, and never again would they play it so often or transcendently as in the peak years of 1969 through 1973. It was the only song during which they always strayed fully away from the pop song form and the only song that never fully abandoned the tripping heydays of the band’s earlier peaks.

Grateful Dead taught themselves how to improvise early on, both within song forms and far outside them, and collective improvisation would always be the core component of the band’s identity. According to Phil Lesh, they learned from watching John Coltrane at Winterland, and “It was the simplest thing to do … because you didn’t have to remember any chords.” But improvisation also required enormous work and practice, as Garcia emphasized. McNally explains that they took from Coltrane’s live performances the lesson of “a collective improvisational approach, with every musician improvising, not just the soloist.” And it was not until 1972 and 1973, with Godchaux on keys, that their extended improvisations regularly shifted out of blues space rock and into the territory of hard bop and free jazz, with Garcia’s guitar taking the place of the typical jazz ensemble’s saxophone. Playing together “like fingers of a hand,” it was “as if each of the band members was soloing simultaneously.”

You can hear these five fingers in the long opening segment of 11 November’s “Dark Star”, an intricate quarter-hour conversation between the players from when it delicately emerges from the minute-and-a-half of tuning and musical throat-clearing that follow “Big River”. Lesh’s bass hints at the theme for a few seconds, then insistently returns, followed almost immediately by Garcia’s guitar. The drums, rhythm guitar, and keyboards pick up the theme for about 20 seconds when Garcia leads them into an improvised melodic exploration that he will slowly resolve a quarter of an hour later into an ethereal psychedelic pop song, not much changed from the core of the brief single Grateful Dead released in 1968 (like all six of their singles before 1970, “Dark Star” failed to chart).

Two verses and a chorus later, sonic booms from Lesh’s bass lead the players into free jazz space. Kreutzmann returns from a break at 23:12 and is quickly joined by Godchaux to lead Grateful Dead back into the physio-temporal world while Garcia continues to pluck notes out of space. Garcia applies the wah-wah pedal around the 28th minute before giving over to Lesh, and they slip back into space, except for Weir’s subdued hints at the next song eventually to emerge. As the jam passes the half-hour mark, the band catches the groove of four descending chords that Deadheads call “Mind Left Body Jam”. “MLBJ “Mind Left Body Jam” brings the band to a soaringly lyrical approximation of an in-song rather than outer space jam and creates the musical weave from which they will piece out the beat and tune of “Eyes of the World” just after the 35-minute mark. The second set’s precipitous but inevitable drop from the New Orleans swing of “Mississippi Half-Step” and the intense rockabilly of “Big River” into the deep space of “Dark Star” and back out into the flowing lyricism of “Eyes”, the aching suicide ballad “China Doll”, and the shredding solo that leads Weir’s adolescent flower child paean “Sugar Magnolia” into its Sunshine Daydream” coda—only one band could hold this all together, and none other back then would even have considered trying.

It’s fair to say, surprisingly enough, especially in later years, that a Dead show was designed like a trip, but if we lean into not only the hallucinogenic sense of the word but also the musical journey every Dead show painstakingly unfolded—each one unique but just familiar enough not to unmoor its audience completely—it becomes a bit easier to understand the intense devotion Grateful Dead inspired over its various incarnations since it was formed in Palo Alto nearly 60 years ago. Many bands are insanely ambitious, composed of virtuoso musicians deeply versed in the myriad forms of popular music, and many bands have made terrible, sometimes fatal errors over the years of their existence, whether briefly flaring or long and winding. But few have promised so much, and none has consistently lived up to those promises as Grateful Dead.

When we imagine the wake of a flood, we tend mostly to see the flotsam, jetsam, death, and destruction it leaves behind. That devastation permeates the music and lyrics of a band that lost three keyboard players over its history, was steeped in the long-suffering popular traditions of blues and folk, and named itself (unknowingly, it seems) after an archaic ballad form about “karma, and assert[ing] that acting from soul and the heart guarantees that righteousness will result”. Just as the popular forms that provided the bedrock of their sound would find temporary respite and enduring solace in the shared space of performance, Grateful Dead strove repeatedly to create that space, if on an increasingly untenable scale.

They never looked away from the damage wrought by the flood, but neither would they relinquish their hold on everything that might grow only in its wake. No surprise, then, that they pulled their 1973 album’s title from the opening line of its first song: “Here Comes Sunshine”. It reminds us there was always a complementary and contradictory pair of words in the band’s name, not just the one solitary noun stuck to the post-Garcia incarnations of Grateful Dead.

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