My mate Adrian recently confided in me that, back in the day, he never ‘got’ The Grateful Dead, by which I took him to mean that he never understood the quasi-mystical regard in which they were held by some people. After all, the band’s music is largely blues- and folk-based, so there’s nothing not ‘to get’ there…..
However, to be truthful, I suppose I never ‘got’ the Dead either at that stage. I knew nothing about their origins in folk & jug bands, then scratchy r’n’b bands in the Bay Area. The Dead arrived on my turntable in the shape of 1969’s ‘Live/Dead’ album. Four sides of vinyl and only 7 tunes, one of which was a 35-second fragment. I was bowled over by the opening 23-minute ‘Dark Star’, which despite its far out title, wasn’t that kind of extended spacey jam as perfected by Pink Floyd. What the Dead did somehow remained grounded solidly in the blues and folk idioms from which they sprang and, at the fulcrum of it all was Jerry Garcia’s extraordinary lyrical guitar playing . Any journeys these guys were taking were inside their own heads rather than to the heart of the sun. Which brings us, inevitably, to drugs. For me, ‘Live/Dead’ was, along with ‘Electric Ladyland’ and ‘Atom Heart Mother’ one of the quintessential acid albums.
Of course, out of all this grew the aforementioned quasi-mystical reputation which baffled some, even more so once the Dead co-opted David Crosby & Graham Nash to help them sing better. By 1970 they had turned themselves into a first-rate country-rock band, releasing, in that one year one very good album (‘Workingman’s Dead’) and one absolute classic and probably their best studio album (‘American Beauty’). I think a lot of people just couldn’t figure this out….who were these guys; were they space cadets or good ol’ boys? Mystifyingly for some, I think the answer to that question would have to be ‘both’.
However, live, the Dead could and did still cut loose. In 1972 they came to Europe for a major tour and it was clear to see that there had been a major change in their attitude to their setlist. Whilst there was still room for extended numbers like ‘Dark Star’, the band were by now also incorporating a substantial number of shorter, more traditionally structured songs from both the 1970 studio albums and elsewhere. These would include ‘Jack Straw’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Big Railroad Blues’, ‘Playing in the band’ and others of that ilk.
Anyway, I’ve been listening to some 1969 Dead and specifically to the gigs from which the ‘Live/Dead’ tracks were plucked. All these early 1969 gigs were recorded at the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore West in San Francisco and over 11 discs of music, the setlists barely vary at all. The backbone of every gig would seem to be the same tracks that appear on ‘Live/Dead’ – ‘Dark Star’, ‘St Stephen’, ‘Death don’t have no mercy’, ‘The Eleven’, ‘Turn on your lovelight’.
Most of these songs clock in at well over 10 minutes and sometimes over 20. The band seem intent on weaving their way in and out of the various themes in each tune and extracting the maximum possible improvisational power from each one. It doesn’t always work; there are a couple of limp versions of ‘Lovelight’ here, so maybe Pigpen was having an off-night, but largely the band are on form and produce some rousing performances.
I’m not sure that there’s anything to ‘get‘ about the Dead…OK, if you walked into the middle of one of the extended ‘Space/Drums’ sequences they built into their 70’s gigs, it might momentarily have seemed a little challenging, but for all that players like Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia approached their playing in an idiosyncratic and highly personal manner, the band’s music was always rooted in folk music, country and blues.