What can you say about the Grateful Dead? Starting in '65, they were the Warlocks before settling on Grateful Dead. Guitarist and group muse Jerry Garcia found the name in the Oxford Dictionary, while at a pot party at bassist Phil Lesh's house.
As the San Francisco scene developed the Dead found themselves at the nexus of the action. They garnered well-deserved positive vibes for playing numerous free concerts in S.F. parks, including Golden Gate. They also ran headlong into Ken Kesey's "Acid Tests." At that time, LSD was legal and Kesey, an author whose works included "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," was "experimenting" with the drug. LSD had been developed by the U.S. Army as a mind control substance.
Later the U.S. government declared it illegal on the grounds it was far too dangerous for general consumption. The experience proved profound with the Grateful Dead moving away from straight Country/R&B toward free-form jams. They also cranked the volume.
The Grateful Dead hit the Fillmore West with Jefferson Airplane and Canned Heat. Those appearances, along with the free concerts, made up the Dead's early performing itinerary. They released a couple of songs on small local labels that went nowhere but did get the band noticed by Warner Records. Warner president Joe Smith seemed to view the Dead as a charity project. The band's records failed to sell but the label "bravely" stuck by them.
"Working Man's Dead" with "Casey Jones" finally pulled the group out of the red. The follow up "American Beauty" in '70 had the ever-popular "Truckin'." Both "Casey Jones" and "Truckin'" ("What a long strange trip it 's been") had heavy drug references that yielded underground acceptance but kept the mainstream at bay. In the Dead's case, that was probably fortuitous.
The Grateful Dead's recordings were all over the place. Considering the times, where they were from and what they'd gone through you'd expect Acid Rock demons. But they played a combination of Country, R&B and Blues, occasionally tinged by Acid Rock influences. It was an odd combination that worked great live.
There are two ways to look at Dead concerts. In nearly three decades of performing they played before millions of people. Or they found an audience of approximately forty-two thousand (affectionately known as "Deadheads") who followed the band from show to show. Take your pick.
The Dead managed to survive (even if members like Ron "Pigpen" McKernan and Keith Godchaux didn't) and prosper (while their manager robbed them blind). The band got together with Bob Dylan for the "Dylan and Dead" live album in '87 (released in '89). In the late '80s, the Dead had a hit record with "Touch Of Grey" even though "Hell In A Bucket," also from the "In The Dark" album, was a better song.
The trip ended when Garcia died (8/9/95) in his sleep at a drug treatment facility (where else?) of a heart attack. The group did some memorial and farewell shows and that was it... for awhile.
But in '08 there was still life in the Dead. "Rocking The Cradle: Egypt 1978," a CD/DVD package was in stores. It contained highlights from three shows in Cairo, Egypt, near the Great Pyramid. In addition, ex-Dead members Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart reunited for a concert in State College, PA, to support of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Allman Brothers Band's Warren Haynes filled in for the late Garcia.
The Dead, the group featuring the four main surviving Grateful Dead members, launched their first tour in five years. The '09 trek started in Greensboro, NC. The Dead's touring lineup included Haynes again.
Later in the year, the Grateful Dead were honored with an exhibit at the New York Historical Society. Aptly titled "The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New York Historical Society," the display featured "an array of original art and documents related to the band, its members, performances, and productions. But the really trippy thing happened a few days earlier when Empire State Building was adorned with psychedelic lights to give it a tie-dye appearance in honor of the show. Groovy man.
On 08/09/10, to mark the 15th anniversary of Garcia's death, Weir sang the National Anthem prior to the San Francisco Giants game against the Chicago Cubs. Garcia's daughter Annabelle threw out the ceremonial first pitch. During seventh inning stretch, Hart and Kreutzmann led the crowd in a kazoo version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The Giants, who were truckin', won 4-3.
Deadheads had a reason to celebrate with the '12 launch of The Grateful Dead: The Epic Tour online video game. It was based on 10 especially memorable Dead shows staged between '70 and '90. "What we're doing is creating an adventure by traveling through Grateful Dead history, Grateful Dead time and space …," stated Adam Blumenthal of Curious Sense, the digital media company that created The Epic Tour. "The objective is to keep having fun rather than get to the end." But the end does come.
Is it possible to chronicle the final performances by the surviving members of the Dead without saying, "what a long strange trip it's been?" No.
The relatively brief "Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead" tour concluded with three shows at Chicago's Soldier Field. Hart, Kreutzmann, Lesh and Weir were joined by Phish's Trey Anastasio and pianist Bruce Hornsby (who toured with the Dead in '92). The Soldier Field concerts set venue attendance records.
Fare thee well.
Studio Albums plus Selected Live Sets and Compilations:
1967 The Grateful Dead
1968 Anthem Of The Sun
1970 Workingman's Dead
1970 American Beauty
1971 Grateful Dead (aka "Skull And Roses")
1972 Europe '72
1973 History Of The Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear's Choice)
1973 Wake Of The Flood
1974 From The Mars Hotel
1975 Blues For Allah
1976 Steal Your Face
1977 Terrapin Station
1978 Shakedown Street
1980 Go To Heaven
1981 Dead Set
1987 In The Dark
1989 Dylan & The Dead
1989 Built To Last
1990 Without A Net
At last count there are no less than 3,573,512 bootleg Grateful Dead albums. Seriously, the Dead was one of the few groups that not only allowed but encouraged bootlegs of their live performances. You can go online and sell, trade or barter. That Dead industry aside, the Grateful Dead's reputation as a live act rarely translates to CD. However, "The History of the Grateful Dead Vol. 1 (Bear's Choice)" catches the band during some early '70s shows when they're arguably at their prime. Also, "Live Dead" coming from roughly the same period, is another strong option.
As one of the main San Francisco bands of the late '60s their first two albums "Grateful Dead" and "Anthem To The Sun" are very good. But they hit their studio peak with "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty." These two albums were also the group's first commercial successes.
Though the Grateful Dead continued to produce so-so albums through the remainder of the '70s and into the '80s it was obvious their main concern was working live before an adoring audience. Still, "In The Dark," rolling out in '87 has enough to recommend it including the tongue-in-cheek "aging" song "Touch Of Grey" and the much harder edged "Hell In A Bucket."
There are numerous compilations including the "Dick's Picks" series. Also, Garcia, Weir and Hart have released solo albums with Garcia's being the best overall.