The Grateful Dead
Reviewed on this page:
Anthem Of The Sun -
Workingman's Dead - American Beauty - Grateful Dead - Europe '72 -
Blues For Allah - Terrapin Station - Shakedown Street - Go To Heaven
Let me get everything out in the open: I grew up despising this act, and in some part I still do. Yeah, millions of loyal fans followed these guys around for three decades. Yeah, the Dead lasted longer and sold more records than any other 60s West Coast hippy rock band. And yeah, this is the band led by Jerry Fuckin' Garcia - I've got to admit that he was an outstanding guitarist and versatile to boot. But they're a drag; none of the original members could sing worth a damn, they've got nothing to say lyrically, the only musical innovation they can lay claim to is Mickey Hart's internationalized drum noises, and their sprawling live jams are an affront to rock 'n' roll.
Now that I've got all that off my chest, I'll try to kiss and make up before my mail box gets bombed by 10,000,000 Deadheads. There is something to be said for persistence. The Airplane were great and everything, but they couldn't keep their act together either literally or figuratively, and they couldn't make their minds up about whether to lead the revolution or soak the public with commercialized corporate rock.
Janis was a fine singer, but her miniscule corpus (ahem) of original song material hardly puts her in the first rank. Quicksilver had a pile of great musicians, but they never shook out of their stoned slumber long enough to record a great album.
Santana is Santana, and Sly is Sly; the comparison isn't fair. And other San Francisco bands like Moby Grape didn't last long enough to make a difference. So the Dead eventually triumphed just by trudging along as one fad after another passed them by - ironically, only disco really seemed to grab their attention. If anyone's still a hippy all these decades later, it's got a lot to do with their efforts. And in my mind that's definitely a good thing.
Before I let you move to the reviews, I'll apologize in advance for not being able to offer full coverage of the Dead's catalogue. I'm working on it; give me a break. (JA)
Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, pedal steel, vocals, some keyboards), Robert Hunter (lyrics), Billy Kreutzmann (drums), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals, some guitar, keyboards), Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan (organ, harmonica, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals). Mickey Hart (percussion, drums) added, 1968. Donna Godchaux (vocals) and Keith Godchaux (keyboards) added, Pig Pen died, 1972. Godchaux and Godchaux dropped, Brent Mydland (keyboards) added, late 1970s. Mydland died, 1990, replaced by Bruce Hornsby and later Vince Welnick.
The Grateful Dead (1967)
There are a couple of covers here: the Yardbirds' "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," Howlin' Wolf's "Sitting On Top Of The World," and Tim Rose and Bonnie Dobson's "Morning Dew," also covered at about this time by Jeff Beck. But there are a bunch of originals, one of which is a ten-minute monster ("Viola Lee Blues"). The album eventually went gold after the Dead captured a mass audience with their two 1970 studio albums. (JA)
Anthem Of The Sun (1968)
Early 1968 was the peak of acid rock experimention, so the Dead tried to keep up with a seriously "far out" album.
It's tough going: they drown the catchiest tune ("Cryptical Envelopment") in an eight-minute collage of random noise and live jamming ("That's It For The Other One").
Side 2 has a 15-minute cut-and-paste compendium of dull soloing and odd, aimless percussion ("The Alligator"), plus a blues-like, semi-improvised story-song with a long coda of random, sputtering feedback noise ("Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)").
The band's liberal use of 60s gimmicks - harpsichord, kazoo, stero panning, heavy guitar distortion, spliced musical segments - does result in some pleasant, if incoherent hippy-dippy melodicism ("New Potato Caboose," which drags on into another lengthy live jam).
But the songwriting is really weak; the only other real tune is an elaborately-arranged, two-minute acid rocker with interesting harmonies ("Born Cross-Eyed") that's unfortunately forgettable.
It's thin, sloppy, and indulgent compared to contemporary records by the Airplane, Big Brother, the Doors, Frank Zappa, etc.
Produced by the band with help from David Hassinger. (JA)
Suddenly the band snapped out of its militantly anti-commercial avant garde pose and started writing solid tunes.
Everything's by Garcia, Lesh, and lyricist Robert Hunter, and they're clearly trying hard even when they don't fully succeed ("Doin' That Rag," where they at least nail down their soon-to-be-famous country-blues-rock formula; the sluggish and goofy "Cosmic Charlie," with some blistering slide guitar; the lethargic but brief acoustic folk song "Rosemary").
You can see why several compositions became concert staples: there's the pretty, harpsichord-augmented, Donovan-style folk ballad "Mountains Of The Moon"; a mid-tempo rocker that spotlights their famous dueling lead guitar sounds and some relatively ambitious vocal harmonies ("China Cat Sunflower"); a rootsy story-song that sounds like the Band, complete with banjo and pump organ ("Dupree's Diamond Blues"); and a swinging country-western number with an engaging sea chantey melody and an unintentionally laughable "Eastern" break ("St. Stephen").
They do still make a point of dressing up every track with studio effects and
oddball instrumentation; the performances are a bit roughshod; they blow eight minutes on a trip-out studio experiment (the inaudible solo vocal "What's Become Of The Baby"); and none of this stuff ranks with their very best.
But it is a big step up that points to the hugely successful hippy cowboy approach of the next two studio albums.
A bunch of vaguely credited guests here including New Riders leader David Nelson. (JA)
Live Dead (1970)
The first of many live double albums, this one recorded at several shows in early 1969. There's an entire side worth of "Dark Star," and none of the tracks finish under six minutes. (JA)
Workingman's Dead (1970)
Said to be a classic, and, well, it's a damn good record no matter what I might complain about. Many of the songs have gone on to become concert and AOR favorites, including "Uncle John's Band" (practically the Dead's own jingle); "High Time" and "Dire Wolf," both with Jerry's excellent pedal steel guitar parts, and the latter with a weird "please don't murder me" refrain.
And of course, this is where you'll find the smile-inducing "Casey Jones." There isn't a sprawling jam anywhere to be found, and the sound is bare, acoustic, and frequently as close to real country as any California band ever got. Although a few other contemporary rock acts had a similar interest in traditional American music (The Band, Poco), this album's slightly stoned, slightly bluesy take on country-western is a unique contribution. The lyrics here are by Hunter and the music mostly by Garcia. (JA)
American Beauty (1970)
A second disc in the country/bluegrass mold of Workingman's Dead, complete with occasional mandolin (courtesy of guest David Grisman) and plenty of Jerry's tasteful pedal steel. Still, the record is set apart by its even more laid-back, prettily swaying vocal harmonies, and its unobstrusive, but slightly more varied instrumentation - and the ten songs are better on balance than the eight on Workingman's. Robert Hunter collaborated again on almost all the songs, but this time a few other band members get their own tunes in: Phil Lesh with "Box Of Rain" (recorded with two of the New Riders), Bob Weir with the nicely harmonized, melodically interesting "Sugar Magnolia," and Pig Pen with a less ambitious, but still entertaining country blues ("Operator").
And there's also the famous, self-referentially titled "Truckin," a band effort. Garcia dominates elsewhere, with loads of memorable tunes like the upbeat, down home country-western anthem "Friend Of The Devil," the sleepily psychedelic six-minute "Candyman," the harmony-soaked "Attics Of My Life," and the feel-good hippy singalongs "Ripple" and "Till The Morning Comes." This and the last album are each solid all the way through, and together they became the source for much of the band's live set. But those who are looking for spacey jams should look elsewhere; American Beauty is a well-tailored and economical rock record in spite of its own sweet lightness. (JA)
Grateful Dead (1971)
Also known as Skull & Roses, this is a live double album on one CD. It's padded with an offensively lousy 18-minute jam ("The Other One") and plenty more rambling incoherency. None of the fine material from the preceding two studio albums is used, and there are a bunch of wooden cover tunes ("Me & Bobby McGee"; "Not Fade Away"; "Johnny B. Goode"), ancient blues numbers ("Big Railroad Blues") and instantly ancient originals (the auditory catatonia known as "Wharf Rat").
There are also plenty of ragged lead vocals, deadly dull drum solos, and generic lead guitar noodling - Garcia's good, but repetitive. This is just the kind of thing stoned-beyond-functionality Deadheads thrive on, and was thankfully kept off of the contemporaneous studio records. The good news is the relatively crisp and concise first side, with decent new tunes like "Playing In The Band" and especially the lead-off "Bertha," a little gem that gets your hopes up for nothing. Avoid: Europe '72 is a heck of a lot better... (JA)
Europe '72 (1972)
A triple record on two CD's recorded at numerous shows during a two-month tour of Europe, this is probably the best place to start with live Dead. There are a few space jams toward the end, but they're brief and sometimes pretty ("Epilogue"). The quota of predictable hits is just about right, including "Sugar Magnolia," done with great verve; "Truckin'," a bit long but okay; and a nice "Cumberland Blues."
There's a shimmering "Morning Dew," a good "Jack Straw," and only one really lame blues cover (Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too"). The lineup is a little unusual here; Mickey Hart wasn't on the tour, and the pianist/singer husband-wife team of Donna and Keith Godchaux made its first appearance. Probably the best of the original live Dead albums, this was their only live offering to go gold - it also climbed well into the Top 40. (JA)
Bear's Choice: History Of The Grateful Dead (1973)
This is a live single album recorded at two shows in February, 1970. The track listing has an endless "Smokestack Lightning," plus a half-dozen more economical tunes. (JA)
Wake Of The Flood (1973)
This was the Dead's first recording after the death of Pig Pen and their first studio album in almost three years. I have it and I find it really dull, just not up to the level of the preceding and succeeding studio albums.
The group was in a commercial slump at this point, which only ended with Terrapin Station. (JA)
From The Mars Hotel (1974)
Blues For Allah (1975)
At least at this point, the Dead were still trucking along with their mellow, melodic vibe, adapting a little but not yet losing their collective cool.
So they do employ that omnipresent mid-70s chorus effect on the guitars, but it's barely audible; when they work a reggae rhythm into "Crazy Fingers," it still sounds like one of their signature ballads; they capture their American Beauty-era magic on the shuffling, anthemic "Franklin's Tower"; and their two stabs at slick, slightly funky, R & B-flavored California pop both evolve into hazy guitar workouts ("Help On The Way"; "The Music Never Stopped").
The less ambitious stuff is just as interesting.
An abstract, but tightly arranged jam sounds like slo-mo Santana ("King Solomon's Marbles"); an acoustic instrumental is pretty, but academic art-folk early-70s Joni-style, complete with flute ("Sage & Spirit"); and the long album-closing suite is so flaky and full of quasi-mystical, pan-Asian atmosphere you barely notice the clumsy, aimless jam in the middle (title track).
Donna's occasional soul-mama vocals and some intrusive sax point to their late-70s sell-out formula, but don't worry about it and you'll enjoy this most of the way through.
Entirely by Hunter and Garcia, except "Never Stopped," co-authored by Weir and John Barlow. (JA)
Steal Your Face (1976)
Looks like yet another live double album, this one recorded in 1974. (JA)
Terrapin Station (1977)
Produced by Keith Olsen, this was their first gold album of new material since Europe '72, and it also cracked the Top 40. Reggae tributes were all the rage in the mid-70s, but the Dead do it well here, with a slighly creepy, carefully produced tune called "Estimated Prophet" that remains a radio favorite two decades later.
Interestingly, the recording features Tom Scott on both distorted sax and a gadget called a lyricon. The other big number is an entertaining, insubstantial, and disco-ized cover of Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancin' In The Streets," complete with groovy sax.
The rest of the first side sports a terrible orchestrated ballad that mercilessly spotlights Donna Godchaux ("Sunrise") and a few pedestrian 70s rock tunes ("Passenger"). Not a lot to brag about, but then there's the second side: a sprawling, yet highly entertaining suite called "Terrapin Station Part 1." Paul Buckmaster contributed the orchestral arrangement, which sets up a bizarre conflict between his brassy British bombast and the band's mellow, tuneful, shuffling late 70s groove. That makes it a unique period piece; you might hate it, but you certainly won't forget it. Personally I think it's grand fun, but of course I'm an Elton John fan anyway... (JA)
Shakedown Street (1978)
The Dead's last gold album for a decade, and the last appearance of Donna and Keith Godchaux. Donna gets a couple of vocal spotlights on pop songs like "From The Heart Of Me," and although she's competent she's indistinguishable from other late 70s female soft rock vocalists like Eric Clapton's backup singer Marcy Levy. For the most part, though, the band sticks with accessible rock arrangements graced by blues and country-blues influences, like "I Need A Miracle" and their blatant rip-off of "Crossroads" ("All New [sic] Minglewood Blues"). Plus there's some amateurish aping of disco like the title track.
All of it is so mellow it's little nauseating. But there is some good news - the percussion: steel drums, African drums, you name it, there's something interesting happening on almost every track. For example, the percussion is the only thing saving their inexplicably popular, ultra-slick cover of the Rascals' 1966 #1 hit "Good Lovin'" from utter lameness. (JA)
Go To Heaven (1980)
The Dead were really in trouble here, grasping at passing fads in an effort to keep up. But unlike more savvy rock dinosaurs like the Stones and Pete Townshend, the Dead completely failed to notice the punk revolution going on right around them. The last record's funky percussion is mostly gone, except for the short instrumental "Antwerp's Placebo." There's only one of their patented, good-timey, up-tempo traditional blues numbers ("Don't Ease Me In," one of the most entertaining Dead songs ever).
The lead-off track "Alabama Getaway" was a big-deal AOR hit, but like all its predecessors it got nowhere near the Top 40, and it's a generic, Eagles-inspired 70s rock song that barely sounds like the Dead at all (at least it's fun and short).
And there's only one other Garcia-Hunter tune (the long, slithering, groovy "Althea"). As a result, half the record was written by either Weir or new member Brent Mydland, both of whom worked with Barlow. Mydland's schmaltzy tenor and whitebread California soft-rock songwriting are a disaster, but the worst moment is Weir's laughable disco tune "Feel Like A Stranger," whose Kenny G-like sax, Bee Gees-like backup vocals, and burping synth guitar makes it seem like one big put-on. An embarassment to the band, the album is still a perverse, campy pleasure. (JA)
And another live double album, recorded at several shows in late 1980.
This one is all-acoustic, which makes it stand out from their other live discs. (JA)
Dead Set (1981)
Wow. As if fans hadn't gotten enough already, the Dead promptly turned around and spat out another double live album, this one drawn from the same shows heard on the record they'd just released a few months before - only including electric material. And then all of a sudden the group stopped cutting studio albums for most of a decade, with band members like Garcia working on assorted solo projects. (JA)
In The Dark (1987)
This was the Dead's big comeback record, complete with a big-time single ("Touch Of Grey") that even had its own music video. It ended up being their biggest seller ever - their only album to crack the Top 10 on the charts. (JA)
Dylan & The Dead (1989)
This is more of a Dylan record than a Dead record, since it features his tunes. Recorded at several shows including one in Eugene, which I remember because I was living in Portland at the time. (JA)
Built To Last (1990)
Must be the world's most ironic title - this of course was the last studio album the band released. (JA)
Without A Net (1990)
A live double CD from the 1989 tour. (JA)
One From The Vault (1991)
At this point he Dead finally decided to really start cashing in on their vast vault of recorded concerts, starting here with two CD's worth from a single 1975 show. (JA)
Infrared Roses (1991)
From what I've heard, this is one to definitely avoid: a compilation of late 80s live performances focusing exclusively on the marginally musical "space" jams that the Dead were famous for. (JA)
Two From The Vault (1992)
Another single-show live release, this one from 1968 and therefore the earliest-recorded official release of a live Dead show. The track listing is frighteningly packed with quarter-hour track times. (JA)
Dick's Picks Volume... (1993...)
The cash-in intensified even before Garcia's death, with a long string of single-show tapes from the 1970s being released under this title (I think they're way past five by now). (JA)
Hundred Year Hall (1995)
Just another "from the vaults" release, this one from the same spring 1972 tour that gave rise to Europe '72; the difference is that this release is all from a single show in Germany. (JA)
Don't ease me in...