The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Live/Dead, The Grateful Dead (1969, Warner Bros./Seven Arts)
In the 2014 Netflix documentary The Other One, there’s a moment when the film’s subject—walrus-bearded Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir— speculates that he’s (probably) spent more time on stage performing music than any other human being who as ever lived. At first when I heard this I thought, “Oh fuck off, Bob Weir.” Because surely not, right?
But then I started doing the math. And you know what? We’re talking about a 50+-year career, multiplied by a consistently high-volume touring schedule, and multiplied again by how absurdly long a lot of those old Grateful Dead concerts were. Bob Weir probably has logged more hours onstage than literally any other human. I mean, it’s not like the Great Caruso played the Kaiser Center seven different times in 1988 alone, you know?
We’ve dipped our toe into the jam band waters before, to discuss Phish’s 1994 compilation A Live One. And I’ll make the same point here that I did there: that despite superficial similarities (and large fan overlap) Phish and the Grateful Dead are two very different bands. Phish’s DNA is rooted in the prog rock and hard-edged funk of the 1970s, while the Dead are more rootsy and more delicate, pulling more directly from classic blues and folk traditions.
There’s obviously no shortage of live Grateful Dead recordings for us to talk about. And forget about bootlegs—over the course of its lifespan the Grateful Dead put out a whopping 10 officially-released live albums, to say nothing of everything that’s trickled out since Jerry Garcia’s died in 1995. But today we’re taking it all the way back to the very first: Live/Dead, released in November of 1969—just five months after Aoxomoxoa, the band’s acid-test psychedelic peak, and five months before 1970’s back-to-basics classic Workingman’s Dead.
The lineup: Garcia on lead guitar and vocals; Weir on rhythm guitar and vocals; Phil Lesh on bass and vocals; Bill Kruetzmann on drums; Mickey Hart on (more) drums; Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on organ, congas, and vocals; and Tom Constanten on (more) organ. The record was, per Wikipedia, “recorded over a series of concerts in early 1969” and “was the first live rock album to utilize 16-track recording techniques.” And the technological innovation shows in the final project. Each instrument sits perfectly clear and balanced in the mix, creating a dense forest of overlapping and intersecting sonic branches that—for those who are inclined to like it—are just so much fun to get lost in.
Originally released as a double LP, Side One of Live/Dead is swallowed up in its entirety by a far-ranging 23-minute version of “Dark Star”—the Dead’s perennial launch pad for “Far out, man” cosmic jamming. At their self-indulgent peak, the Dead could stretch the song out for literally hours. But the sitcom-sized version available here is still plenty epic.
The song begins tentatively, the band’s instruments at first surfacing like skittish hobbits from their hobbit-hole. It’s unclear if the song has started or the band is just tuning up. A groove soon emerges, and Garcia and Weir’s guitars chase each other, like koi fish playfully nipping at each other’s fins. Around the six-and-a-half minute mark Garcia finally begins singing Robert Hunter’s inscrutable head-trip lyrics. But rather than this being the moment the song finally kicks into high gear the beat instead drops out, replaced by the subtle wash a Chinese gong. Gradually, the rest of the band joins back in—each instrument tasked with its own discreet list of action items to perform.
Side Two opens with a catchy, six-minute “St. Steven,” stately as an English country garden and as comparatively lockstep as the ramshackle late-‘60s Dead usually dared to get, Weir’s workmanlike vocals front and center bolstered by some perfectly imperfect harmonies from Garcia and Lesh. “Steven” then flows, imperceptivity, into another six-minutes of jamming: “The Eleven,” increasing in intensity until it eventually becomes a sort of Sabbath-ish proto-metal headbanger around minute three, only to quickly brighten up into what could best be described as sassy lifestyle music for committed hacky-sack enthusiasts. Vocals finally pop up toward the end of the track, and when they do it’s as a playful incantation—like if Paimon were actually super chill.
“The Eleven” itself eventually turns into a 15-minute rendition of “Turn on Your Love Light,” featuring the soon-to-be-deceased McKernan on vocals. Here, I’ll admit that one of my least favorite parts of jam rock is its frequent collapse into what I’ll semi-dismissively call “boogie-woogie-roadhouse-bullshit.” You know the type of music I’m talking about: like the Doobie Brothers, except worse. Luckily, just enough of “Love Light” is turned over to a Whiplash style drum duel between Kruetzmann and Hart to keep things palatable.
The last “real” song here is a 10-minute “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”—a moody bit of funeral blues most recognizable to me as the title sequence song from Long Strange Trip, last year’s four-hour Grateful Dead career-retrospective documentary on Amazon (I watch a lot of Grateful Dead docs.) It’s a great comedown, finding beauty and transcendence in the inevitable fact of mortality. Live/Dead concludes with two interesting but inessential tracks: an eight-minute collection of squelching atmospheric noise simply titled “Feedback” and the 37-second a cappella trifle “And We Bid You Goodnight”—half lullaby, half something scooped out of T. Bone Burnett’s waste paper basket after picture lock on O Brother, Where Art Thou.
When the Dead emerged, there had never been anything remotely like them before. They invented an entirely new paradigm and in doing so, created the closes thing pop music has to a real religion. And the benefit of the Grateful Dead’s religion is that there’s no shortage of primary text documents to refer to. But Live/Dead is one the earliest and most foundational—a true artifact of spiritual nourishment.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)