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Awesome Music / The Grateful Dead

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Given the Long Runner status of this San Francisco psychedelic band, they've produced their share of Awesome Music.


Studio Works
  • American Beauty is usually cited as the band's best, with Workingman's Dead and Anthem of the Sun being close behind. Their best-known and best-loved studio songs include cuts like "Truckin'", "Touch of Grey", "Casey Jones", "Sugar Magnolia", "Box of Rain", "Uncle John's Band", and "Ripple"; there are plenty of other lesser-known gems like "That’s It for the Other One", "Dire Wolf”, and "Black Peter" as well, though. ("That's It" is an interesting example, since it comes from Anthem of the Sun, which was partially compiled from live recordings; however, since it’s mixed from several different performances in a manner that could only have been done in a studio, it’s usually counted among their studio discography.)
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  • Bob Weir's solo debut, Ace, is one all the members of the Dead (at the time) played on, and is as such considered a Grateful Dead album in all but name. Many Deadheads have a soft spot for this album, particularly the studio recording of "Playing in the Band" for its atypically strong studio jam, and "Black-Throated Wind" for its blazing horn section.

Live Shows

  • Deadheads generally consider the band’s studio output not to be particularly representative of their work, since the extended improvisation that earned the band its reputation wasn’t often captured on its studio records. As a result, live recordings are generally more highly prized than the studio discography, with a few notable exceptions. As would be expected with a band that toured as long and was as thoroughly documented as the Dead (the band played some 2,350 shows and has been documented to have performed over 500 different songs throughout its existence, with around 100 in rotation at any given time), fan opinions are divided, but frequently cited contenders for Best Show Ever include:
    • Live/Dead isn’t actually compiled from a single show, but it was the first live Grateful Dead recording a lot of people heard, and many fans still have a soft spot for it; in fact, it’s arguably one of the few releases in their canon that isn’t subject to a Broken Base. While not definitive, it remains a strong document of the Dead in concert that showcases a lot of their strengths, and it’s fairly accessible to newcomers (though probably not as much as the Cornell ’77 gig). Most of the shows from which the album was compiled (the exceptions being “The Eleven” and “Turn On Your Love Light”) were later released in their entirety in the Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings box.
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    • February 13–14, 1970 at Fillmore East, New York, NY: A particularly well-loved pair of gigs that are considered to showcase the band’s improvisational talents at their finest; they’re considered the Dead at their most experimental and cohesive. Parts of these concerts have been officially released, first on Bear’s Choice and then on the more comprehensive Dick’s Picks Vol. 4, though neither show has yet been released in its entirety; the 13th is usually cited as the superior show due to the half-hour-each versions of “Dark Star” -> “That’s It for the Other One” -> “Turn on Your Love Light”, which made up the entire third set of the show, but the 14th has a killer version of "Dancing in the Streets," a heart-wrenching acoustic "Uncle John's Band," and an 8-song close-out medley, so it's worth your time too. Dick’s Picks Vol. 4 features the third sets of both shows in their entirety, plus “Casey Jones” and “We Bid You Goodnight” from the Valentine’s Day show.
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    • May 2, 1970 at Harpur College, SUNY, Binghamton, NY. Almost the entire performance was released as Dick's Picks Vol. 8 (“Cold Rain and Snow” was omitted because the band felt it was sub-par; "St. Stephen" is missing the first two verses), but both electric sets are unfortunately in mono; often cited as highlights are the show’s nearly forty-minute “St. Stephen” -> “That’s It for the Other One” -> “Cosmic Charlie” jam, fifteen-minute “Dancing in the Streets”, twelve-minute “Morning Dew” and seventeen-minute “Viola Lee Blues”. Note that Dick’s Picks divides “That’s It for the Other One” up into four tracks for some reason (“Cryptical Envelopment” -> “Drums” -> “The Other One” -> “Cryptical Envelopment (reprise)”. “Cryptical Envelopment” is labelled as the first movement of the song in its Anthem of the Sun version, while “The Other One” is the shorthand usually used to represent its other movements, chiefly “The Faster We Go, the Rounder We Get”; later on, the band often dropped “Cryptical Envelopment” from live performances except for a few shows in 1985, but at this point, they usually performed the whole song). A curiosity about this show is that it is one of the rare cases when “I Know You Rider” was performed by itself (without “China Cat Sunflower” preceding it). It’s also performed at a slower tempo than usual.
    • April-May 1972, European tour: The entire tour is widely considered to be a high-water mark for the band, and selections from several shows were compiled into their best-selling triple album Europe '72. All 22 dates were released in 2011 as the 73-CD set Europe '72: The Complete Recordings.
    • August 27, 1972 at Old Renaissance Faire Grounds, Veneta, OR: Can be found in full on Sunshine Daydream. Fans who don’t consider the Cornell or Fillmore East ’70 shows listed here to be the band’s single best show usually pick this one. Particularly notable for its half-hour-long “Dark Star”, which then segues into “El Paso” and “Sing Me Back Home”, and superior renditions of “Casey Jones” and “China Cat Sunflower” -> “I Know You Rider”.
    • May 7, 1977 at Boston Gardens, Boston, MA: The immediate predecessor of the famous Cornell 5/8/77 gig, this one is often cited for its second-set “Eyes of the World” -> “Drums” -> “The Wheel” -> “Wharf Rat” -> “Around and Around” jam, “Terrapin Station” -> “Samson and Delilah”, and the first-set rendition of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” -> “Big River”; some of these versions are considered the definitive takes on these songs. The band’s playing was unusually tight at this point, probably as a result of Terrapin Station producer Keith Olsen having insisted upon their rehearsing the album’s songs meticulously; the 5/7–9/77 trio is pretty often cited as the single best three-show run of the Dead’s entire career. Wasn’t officially released until 2017’s eleven-disc May 1977: Get Shown the Light box set, where it is accompanied by the May 5, May 8, and May 9 shows from the same tour.
    • May 8, 1977 at Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: A highly popular pick among fans for the single best show the band ever played, and as such it’s probably the one concert that casual fans know by date alone. Despite its reputation - the soundboard tape was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2012 - it wasn’t made officially available on compact disc until its (almost) fortieth anniversary for the Cornell 5/8/77 three-CD/five-LP set and Get Shown the Light eleven-CD box. Compounding this show’s reputation is the fact that it was the first A+-quality soundboard bootleg many fans heard. It's also just a great performance from one of the band’s best years, and contains what are widely considered to be the definitive versions of both the band's famous “Scarlet Begonias” -> “Fire on the Mountain” coupling and their cover of “Morning Dew”.
    • May 9, 1977 at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, NY: The concert held the very next night after Cornell. It’s popular with Deadheads who believe that the Dead were on a roll in spring 1977 and that every concert they played on that tour is worth your time, or those who think that the Cornell show is good but overrated, or those that enjoy it for its strong performances of “Estimated Prophet” -> “The Other One” -> “Drums” -> “Not Fade Away” -> “Comes a Time” -> “Sugar Magnolia” and the “Help Is on the Way” -> “Slipknot!” -> “Franklin’s Tower” medley. Again, this wasn’t officially available until it was released as part of May 1977: Get Shown the Light. All four shows are held in high regard by Deadheads. (The five shows immediately following this one are also available on the earlier May 1977 box; they also are well-regarded, though somewhat less so.)
    • September 14–16, 1978 at Giza Pyramid Complex, Giza, Egypt. These three shows are considered to be particularly noteworthy and important in the band's history; less for the actual music - which includes perfectly decent versions of "Stagger Lee", "Stella Blue" and "Shakedown Street" and the accompaniment of local oud player Hamza El Din - but more for the grand spectacle of the band playing in front of the pyramids during a total lunar eclipse, which became one of the most visually spectacular sights of their entire career. As a result, the shows are fondly remembered by Deadheads and the band themselves, who were particularly struck by the gathering of nomadic desert Bedouin horsemen, who stayed for all three nights to dance to the music in the distance. They are among the band's best known concerts to casual rock music fans, more so than shows with better reputations. As a result, the Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978 2-disc set is typically a popular selection with newer fans.
    • January 1, 1979 at Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, CA: The final concert to be held at the vaunted Winterland Ballroom, a venue that the band played often. Notable for being one of the longest shows the band ever played, clocking in at over four hours, during which they played several fan favorites. Particularly notable are the second set’s marathon “I Need a Miracle” -> “Terrapin Station” -> “Playin’ in the Band” -> “Rhythm Devils” -> “Not Fade Away” -> “Around and Around”, which lasts for almost 85 minutes, and the third set’s “Dark Star” -> “The Other One” -> “Dark Star Jam” -> “Wharf Rat” -> “St. Stephen” -> “Good Lovin’”, which went on for 47 minutes and brought its opening number out of a four-year retirement. The show was professionally filmed, and the footage was released in full on The Closing of Winterland DVD in 2003. There’s also an intriguing fan-created DTS mix downloadable from the Internet Archive, though you will need a special plugin to play it (foobar2000, for instance, has a DTS plugin that will enable it to read the files).
    • March 29, 1990 at Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY: The Spring 1990 tour is held in high regard by Bob Weir, and also by fans who enjoy late period Dead - and in particular, their virtuoso penultimate keyboardist Brent Mydland, who would die that summer. This show featured jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis joining on the second set. It's available in the Spring 1990 box set and separately as Wake Up to Find Out.

Others

  • A unique entry in the discography, not fitting exactly into either the live category or the studio one, is Grayfolded, a nearly two-hour-long remix album created by John Oswald of “plunderphonics” fame. The album is compiled from over a hundred performances of one of the band’s Signature Songs, “Dark Star”, from between 1968 and 1993. As a result, it is one of only a handful of Grateful Dead releases to feature performances by every single member in the band’s history. It’s a truly unique, rewarding listen, and it’s unlike anything else in their catalogue.
  • The 1977 concert film The Grateful Dead Movie captures highlights from five October 1974 shows, and is widely named by Deadheads as the best video release by the band. The film was a pet project for Jerry Garcia, who directed and edited it himself; He had conceived it as a way to replace the band on the road while they took a hiatus in the mid-70s. Unfortunately, due to a stretched-out production, the band was already touring again when the film hit theaters. However, it grew a cult following and has earned a reputation for being an entry point for new fans, particularly for the solid performances of "Eyes of the World", "Sugar Magnolia" and "One More Saturday Night".

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