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By Tom Murphy
One of the enduring myths about the Grateful Dead is that they were better live than in the studio. According to their legion of fans, the cultish Deadheads, the best way to experience the band was in concert, where, depending on the vibe -- and the acid -- anything might happen. On a good night, they were magical.
But their live shows were notoriously inconsistent. On some nights, the group -- lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, among others -- couldn't stay in tune to save their lives, and their singing could be painfully off key. Their jams often descended into mindless noodling, and Kreutzmann and Hart's extended drum excursions were usually good opportunities to head for the bathroom.
Their studio offerings, too, were uneven, but two of them -- Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970 -- are arguably their best albums. There's no denying that there is (or rather, there was) nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. But despite the abundance of live Dead recordings now available, these two remain the Dead's most essential albums.
Both are included in Grateful Dead: The Golden Road (1965-1973), a massive new boxed set from Rhino Records. In addition to all nine of the Dead's Warner Bros. recordings, it features nine hours of previously unreleased material, including a two-disc set of the band's earliest known studio tracks, from 1965, and some stellar live cuts from 1966. There's also a 76-page booklet with rare photos, a discography, and a lengthy essay by longtime Dead publicist Dennis McNally. The newly remastered discs are much improved sonically over their previous incarnations; for the moment, though, Rhino has no plans to release them individually. Considering all the goodies you get, the $150 list price isn't bad. It'll make a fine Christmas present for your favorite Deadhead.
From the beginning, the Dead were eclectic -- and fickle. Originally called the Warlocks, they cut their teeth playing an amalgam of folk, country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Pigpen, a White Negro steeped in the blues, handled the vocals on the more rock-oriented numbers, while Garcia, who once dreamed of playing banjo with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, sang the folkier ones. (Weir, at least in the early days, didn't seem to do much at all.) No one had an especially strong voice, and in the 1965 demo recordings, the bandmembers often struggle to nail the harmonies (a problem that never really went away).
But there's something fresh and compelling about the band's sound from this period. Most of the songs are covers, but you can hear the group putting its cosmic stamp on the material. Several numbers, including "I Know You Rider" and "Cold Rain and Snow," would become Dead staples. Too bad the chilling "In the Pines," a song that dates back to the '20s, never did. Recorded live, it's sung by Garcia in a quivering voice while Pigpen plays spooky, minor-key riffs on his Vox Continental organ.
Signed by Warner Bros. Records in 1966, the Dead spent four days in Los Angeles making their first album, The Grateful Dead. Given the circumstances -- Garcia, Lesh, and Kreutzmann were jacked up on Ritalin; the straitlaced Warner executives found the band downright scary -- it's a surprisingly good album, full of wonderful songs and tight playing, particularly by Garcia (though he later complained about the record's rushed tempos). Admittedly, it didn't quite capture the band's full-blown live sound, but it proved the Dead were quite capable of making a solid studio album.
For Golden Road, Rhino has extended several of the disc's songs beyond their original fadeouts, with nearly a minute added to Pigpen's take on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." Bonus cuts include four unreleased songs from the Los Angeles sessions (Pigpen's twelve-bar blues "Tastebud" is especially good, and so is Garcia's reading of "Death Don't Have No Mercy") plus two versions of "Viola Lee Blues" -- a three-minute edited one and a 23-minute live one.
Of the Dead's second album, Anthem of the Sun, Garcia once said, "We weren't making a record in the normal sense." That's an understatement. It's a musical train wreck, a pretentious pastiche of live segments and studio noisemaking. Even Deadheads have long had mixed feelings about this one.
Axomoxoa holds up somewhat better, partly because Garcia's old folksinging partner Robert Hunter had become the band's primary lyricist by the time it was recorded. "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and "Cosmic Charlie," in particular, are rootsy, character-driven slices of Americana, and they hint of good things to come. But "What's Become of the Baby," recorded and mixed, according to Garcia biographer Blair Jackson, on nitrous oxide, is unlistenable. Three of the album's four bonus tracks are lengthy studio jams; the sublime "Clementine Jam" has hints of John Coltrane, an obvious influence on Garcia's free-form guitar work. Apparently it wasn't necessary for the band to play before a live audience to reach dazzling improvisational heights.
Recorded at various San Francisco venues in 1969, Live/Dead plays today like a musical time capsule from those drug-induced times. Always a favorite among Deadheads, it catches the Dead at its psychedelic peak, with some old-fashioned rhythm and blues thrown in for good measure. It sold well and, more than anything, firmly established the "better live than in the studio" myth of the Grateful Dead.
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