Guide me through the Grateful Dead canon...
April 17, 2010 3:42 AM   Subscribe

Guide me through the Grateful Dead canon...

The Dead never took with me. Instead, I gravitated towards reggae, international and classic American R&B. Recently, though, I heard a bunch of Grateful Dead songs and was immediately smitten with their easy, country-rock groove. I purchased American Beauty. I love it and want to buy more, but am having trouble finding my way through the massive Grateful Dead canon. What are the must-haves? Which albums best represent different periods or evolutions in the band? Help me figure out the lay of the land.
posted by keith0718 to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
If you like American Beauty then Workingman's Dead would be the next logical choice. The two albums are really a pair.
posted by fixedgear at 4:14 AM on April 17, 2010

Those are both great records, but in general, the Dead were less about "albums" than live performance. That said, and although many 'heads probably won't agree with me, I've found the eponymous first album "Grateful Dead" (1967) interesting in proto-punkish-hippie way. Some of those songs were performed in concert right up to the end, and some disappeared never to be heard again.
posted by telstar at 5:16 AM on April 17, 2010

Not being snarky, I promise, but being guided through the Dead is a bit of an oxymoron. I'm sure Jerry would think so! Just grab the two mentioned here, and don't pay too much attention at first. It's like it's supposed to be in the background, you start to slowly hear it, and then there it is, all up in your ears, bloodstream, bones, so to speak. It kind of never goes away, either.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:44 AM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with Telstar that to really appreciate the Grateful Dead, you have to listen to the concerts. Back in the day, this was accomplished by trading tapes of authorized and bootlegged recordings. These days, you can just listen on's Grateful Dead page.

I would point you to Grateful Dead Live at Barton Hall as a prime example of great live Dead. But you can find great concerts from the early 70s through the early 90s. The fairly recent article "Bring Out Your Dead" from the New York Times is a good place to start.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:51 AM on April 17, 2010

Starting fresh, I would work through the archive by year. The stream-only recordings (sound boards) start in 1966. Find a couple shows with lots of downloads, listen to them for a week, then move on to the next year.

My favorite stuff is when American Beauty and Workingman's Dead are fresh, in 71 and 72, but other people prefer 74.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 6:13 AM on April 17, 2010

Europe 72' and History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. I (aka Bear's Choice). Both are brilliant and must haves.
posted by CoinOp at 6:31 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try "Wake of the Flood" and "Blues for Allah". Those are the next two best studio albums in my opinion.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 6:42 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Listen to the albums to get the gist of the songs if you like, but just go pick any Dick's picks and start listening...get an idea of who was in the band when, and who you're listening to and just enjoy. Dick's picks are all you need, though the live albums are really, really good want anything live. Also catch a Phil show if you can, it's still really fun.....
Oh the good old days :) :) :)
posted by starfish at 7:19 AM on April 17, 2010

Beauty and Working Man's are great albums but if you want to grok The Dead, it's really the live stuff that counts. The Barton Hall show linked above is really one of the best ever but most of the early to mid-seventies stuff is good. Raceway Park from 1977 is one of my favorites. They're all up on in for least streaming access, just dig around and start listening.
posted by octothorpe at 7:57 AM on April 17, 2010

It seems like Colin Meloy is also in your position. Recently, he was tweeting about getting into Wake of the Flood.

There is a Sirius Radio Dead channel, that pretty much covers everything, scattershot.

Also, in addition to the above, In The Dark was perhaps their most successful album, and lead to their rebirth in popularity. They were playing theaters, and often not selling out, before this album, and afterwards they were selling out stadia.

It is also quite good, recorded live in an empty theater then mixed.
posted by Danf at 8:48 AM on April 17, 2010

If I may add a bit here, there are a few fine points that can make understanding what you are listening to in a live show a bit 'easier'.
Typically, and believe me everything that follows is broad strokes, the shows are divided into two sets. the first set were often simply songs, catchy danceable tunes, or ballads, played through without much 'jamming'. Most often the frontmen, Bob Weir and Jerry, would alternate songs. Jerry mostly goes off on the songs he sings. Brown-eyed women would be an example. Cassidy is a good example of the contrast between a Jerry tune and a Bobby tune. Other members of the band have beloved songs, but this first distinction is important.
Next comes the second set. this contains more of the iconic jamming and melting of songs one into another and another and sometimes in and out and back again(when you see setlists or songlists for shows, these songs will be connected by arrows to indicate that there is no break between them). China cat sunflower>I know you rider is an example of this. second set tunes tend to be longer in form, contain much looser arrangements, and lead to the drum solo and 'space', the free-est of all portions of a show. many casual Dead listeners get lost or turned off by these moments because they are much more a part of the experience of a show itself than a fun or easy thing to listen to on a recording. feel free to skip this, or as others have suggested, just let it be part of the backround.
Most of the Dead's best songs are not on studio recordings, so working through live shows by 'era' will also show you how certain songs evolved and how the band changed.
Most of all ENJOY the ride.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:52 AM on April 17, 2010 done deal.
posted by Freedomboy at 9:02 AM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I view the Dead as different bands in different time periods. I saw my first show in 1978 and my most recent two months ago. Obviously, with Jerry being dead, they are not the same band now, but I think they are sounding better than they had through the last 5 years of Jerry's life. I would actually start by downloading one of the recent shows from They are playing songs from their entire catalog of music. This will give you a great introduction to what songs strike you and then you can go to the time period when that song was written and played. I happen to like the early 70's from Europe '72 as well as the late 70's. I thought they were crisp and clean sounding. The early 80's had their moments too. And the late 80's as well. Ok, each era had its highlights. (I would avoid the '66-68 time period as being heavy on the organ and not so easy sounding, but that is a personal preference not shared by all.) I am also a fan of Bob's cowboy songs such as Me and My Uncle, Mexicalli Blues and Big RIver, but there is a whole swath of Dead fans who mock Bobby and his cowboy tunes.

The other thing I would do is simply put on the Dead channel on satellite radio. They play some terrific stuff. There is a talk show on Sunday's called The Golden Road and it is a treasure of information and musical direction. One other thing I found is that they are a great cover band. They play everything from the Stones, Dylan, Johnny Cash to Kris Kristoferson.

If you like the Barton Hall show mentioned above, they played a show at Boston Gardens a few nights before that is arguably a better show, just not as well known. One of the arguments about Barton Hall is that while it is a great show, (Scarlet->Fire!!) the reason it is so well known is simply that it was one of the tapes that was a sound board and was traded freely so more folks got to hear it. If Raceway Park (mentioned above) is Englishtown, it is a great show as well. THe Dick's Picks and From the Vault shows are usually outstanding shows. I tend to collect shows I went to and ones with clean sound from the 70's or early 80's.

For the easy country rock grove you described, the early 70's are it. After 20 years, I am just now starting to appreciate the new stuff from Touch of Grey. Throwing Stones live is a great song when Bob lets the audience sing the chorus, but the sound is different from their earlier stuff. I also love Terrapin Station.

Lastly, listening to all era's you can hear how certain songs evolved. Friend of the Devil went from a 3 minute single to a 15 minute sssllloooowwww song.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:34 AM on April 17, 2010

One more thing. . .Ace by Bob Weir is a Dead album, but with all Bobby songs. A lot of the later "canon" were first recorded on this record. Also, very good, and it highlights the difference between Weir and Garcia, as mentioned above.
posted by Danf at 9:54 AM on April 17, 2010

Oh yeah, also check out JGB, the Jerry Garcia Band, they're releasing that stuff too, called Pure Jerry or something like that, killer stuff, same but way different.
Mmmmm JGB shows!!
posted by starfish at 10:58 AM on April 17, 2010

I am a huge deadhead so I like it all. American Beauty was my first dead album, btw.

But the one album that all of my non-deadhead buddies universally like is "Reckoning". If you like the country rock thing, you can't go wrong with Reckoning. Dark Hollow, Jack-A-Roe and Deep Ellum Blues are my favorites on that album.

Get it, listen to it, love it.
posted by murrey at 1:40 PM on April 17, 2010

Absolutely check out David Gans's syndicated radio show: The Grateful Dead Hour! He's been hosting it for over 20 years, I think. (And, DG is an awesome musician in his own right, I might add...)
posted by ourroute at 2:11 PM on April 17, 2010

I am of the opinion that the shows that were done in the Spring of 1977 were among the very best and you can get a good idea of what they are like from Dicks' Picks 4 and the Grateful Dead Download Series Volume 1.
posted by pasici at 6:47 PM on April 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to all! I've learned a lot. I totally misunderstood everything about Grateful Dead recordings. Thanks for all the great resources with which explore this great music!
posted by keith0718 at 8:27 PM on April 17, 2010

Had to post as I thrilled to see the Raceway Park show as someones highlight. That was my first Dead show and I was 11 years old. I still remember it, sort of.

As has been outlined, the Dead canon is hard to decipher, there are many periods and many outstanding albums and of course thousands of live shows to enjoy.

But, the challenge was to pick some albums, here are my all time favorite studio Dead Albums:

Workingman's Dead
Wake Of The Flood
Mars Hotel
(and the two pivotal and clearly Dead albums)
Garcia (First Album)

My desert Island pick would be Garcia's first album, I feel it has everything to offer. The Workingman's influence of Deal to the space age groove of The Wheel.

Live albums would have to be Live Dead for me, one of the greatest moments of hte 20th Century was being able to listen to the CD and finally not be interrupted from the transition form side two to side three of the LP (The Eleven->Lovelight)
posted by silsurf at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2010

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