20 Essential Grateful Dead Shows
20 Essential Grateful Dead Shows
Choosing and justifying a list of essential Grateful Dead shows – 20, 200 or even 2,000 – is treacherous work. Passionate challenge from fans, especially hardcore Deadheads and veteran tape traders, is guaranteed. Endless debate over set-list minutiae is inevitable. In fact, there is only one definitive list of the Dead's greatest concerts – and it includes every show they played, in every lineup, from their pizza-parlor-gig days as the Warlocks in 1965 until guitarist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. That long, strange trip was a continually unfolding tale of highs and trials, dedicated evolution and surrender to the moment, often caught vividly in therecording studio but told most immediately each night (or day) onstage. This list jumps and dances through the story, but it's not a bad place to start, if you're not in deep already: more than 40 hours of performance from key runs and one-nighters in every decade, drawn from archival releases, the vast amount of circulating recordings and my own good times with the music. These 20 shows are genuinely essential in at least one way: If I had no other live Dead in my collection, I would be happy and fulfilled with this. Luckily, there is more. I already have lots of it. I will never have enough.
The Matrix, San Francisco
December 1st, 1966
In late 1966, more than a year into their evolution, the Grateful Dead were still in the early stages of their psychedelia: an acid-dance band with bar-band aggression, tripping in its jams but just starting to write and largely reliant on folk and blues covers. These three sets at the Matrix – a club founded by Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin – catch the original quintet in primal, exuberant form, slipping early originals such as "Alice D. Millionaire" (a pun on a newspaper headline after Owsley, the band's sound man and resident chemist, was busted) amid R&B-party favors (the Olympics' 1960 hit "Big Boy Pete") and future cover staples including the traditional "I Know You Rider" and John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle." In a spirited thrashing of "New Minglewood Blues," guitarist Bob Weir sings like a hip, brash kid, which he was (Weir had recently turned 19). "Welcome to another evening of confusion and high-frequency stimulation," Jerry Garcia announces in the first set. The long, strange trip was under way.
Winterland, San Francisco
March 18th, 1967
Warner Bros. Records released the Dead's debut album, The Grateful Dead – a sonically brittle, high-speed version of the group's stage act and songbook – on March 17th, 1967. That evening and again on the 18th, the Dead opened for Chuck Berry at Winterland, performing much of that record's material on the second night with more natural vigor and plenty of room for Garcia to go long and bright on lead guitar. His fusion of folk guitar and bluegrass facility with blues language and Indian modality, shot forward in a clean, stinging treble, is on dynamic display in a rightly extended "Cream Puff War" (cruelly faded out after two minutes on the LP), Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" and the Dead's signature rave-up on "Viola Lee Blues," originally cut in 1928 by Cannon's Jug Stompers. Also note the thrilling, slippery surge underneath – bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann pushing and tugging at the beat – as Garcia affirms his nickname, "Captain Trips," overhead.