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Where That Long, Strange Trip Started

Dead boxset captures the legendary band's early years

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When lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the Grateful Dead were one of rock's most successful acts. Their legendary tours were the focal point of an entire subculture dubbed "Deadheads," a complex, frequently misunderstood group studied by sociologists. Consummate musicians, the Dead lived to play concerts, often performing between 200-300 a year, an enduring feat that continued for nearly three decades. I saw them about a dozen times between 1976 and 1985, and their shows ranged from brilliant to unfocused and slightly off-key. They took chances on stage, they improvised, they rearranged songs on the spot -- in short, they played like jazz musicians. When they pulled it off, which they usually did, a Dead concert was a challenging, inspiring musical event.

A collective entity of sorts, the Dead formed in San Francisco in the 1960s. Led by guitarist Jerry Garcia, a veteran of bluegrass bands, the band also included classically trained bassist Phil Lesh, blues aficionado Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann.

Influenced by the modal tunes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, the Dead gained a reputation for playing long, improvised jams. Like jazz musicians, they practiced constantly to polish their art, often live on stage.

The Dead's ongoing challenge was to capture the energy and excitement of their live shows in the recording studio. Rhino's recent 12-CD set, Grateful Dead: The Golden Road (1965-1973) documents the band's earliest recorded efforts. Filled with scores of outtakes and additional material, The Golden Roa is especially noteworthy for a superb digital remastering job that rectifies previous poor ones. There's also an extended essay on the band by Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally.

The set opens with a collection of 1965-66 studio and live material from labels like Autumn and Scorpio, followed by the Dead's eponymous 1967 Warner Bros. debut. What's so striking about this early material, frankly, is how mediocre it is -- in the studio, the band sounds like any other 1960s blues-influenced rock band.

The Dead were the first rock band signed by Warner Bros., the home of acts like Trini Lopez and Connie Stevens. Distrust quickly erupted between the band and the label, to the point that Dead manager Rock Scully categorized their relationship with Warner executives as akin to "dealing with aliens."

Meanwhile, the band was working with soundmaster and LSD guru Owsley Stanley, and playing at Ken Kesey's LSD-soaked "acid tests," chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. It's no surprise that psychedelia dominated their next album, Anthem of the Sun. The band was trying to capture the essence of their live shows in the studio, and while they didn't really pull it off, the alternate live versions of "Alligator" and "Caution" give some sense of what they were trying to do.

Warner made the mistake of letting the band loose in the studio with Ampex 16-track recording equipment for their next album, Aoxomoxoa. Overproduced and even more trippy than their previous album, it took over a year to put together and ran up huge studio bills for the band.

In a dose of wisdom, the band released a double LP live set in November 1969. Live/Dead finally captured the Dead at their best -- improvising on stage. Despite a shaky set of albums, the band had polished their free-flowing live sets and Live/Dead brought that energy to living rooms and dorm rooms across the country. Playing mostly original material, the first LP side opened with a 23-minute "Dark Star," an exquisitely rendered group improvisation. In terms of improvisational prowess, Live/Dead is one of rock's most satisfying live albums.

The next two studio albums surprised everyone. The band had written a number of songs in collaboration with lyricist Robert Hunter, whose lyrics, peppered with folkloric elements, evoked an America filled with coal miners, outlaws, train wrecks, and lost opportunities. In an important move, Jerry Garcia had begun to play pedal steel guitar. All these elements merged on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, arguably the band's finest studio efforts. The albums produced a series of FM radio-friendly songs that increased the band's fan base.

Opening with the acoustic "Uncle John's Band," Workingman's Dead tips its hat to folk, blues, and country elements and features some of the band's best songwriting. "Dire Wolf" skips along on Garcia's pedal steel and "Casey Jones" infuses a western legend with drug references and a train-like rhythmic pulse. "Cumberland Blues" is a minor masterpiece, opening with a potent guitar/bass picking mix and a miner singing about his hard life. By the chorus, Garcia's banjo has slipped in and you've been transported to the Kentucky coalfields.

American Beauty sparkled with more pedal steel and a bevy of acoustic guitars. Opening with the lovely and wistful "Box of Rain," the band evoked outlaw legends in "Friend of the Devil" (with David Grisman on mandolin), tossed out a playful love song with "Sugar Magnolia," and introduced their autobiographical theme song, "Truckin'." By the end of 1970, the Dead were famous nationwide, and had developed a solid repertoire of original songs steeped in what would later be called "roots" traditions.

The band finished their Warner contract with two more live albums in 1971-72. Grateful Dead (a.k.a. "Skull and Roses") showed a polished band playing a mixture of originals and covers by Merle Haggard and Buddy Holly. Europe '72, originally a three-LP set, contained almost all original material and introduced a few more songs into their standard repertoire: "Jack Straw," "Brown Eyed Woman," and "Tennessee Jed." The box set wraps up with the largely acoustic live album Bear's Choice.

The Dead would form their own record label in 1973, and would record another 15 or so albums before Garcia's death. Grateful Dead Records has released over 20 vintage live recordings since 1991. Their concert tours and the Deadheads that followed the band became an American cultural phenomenon in the 1970s and on up through Garcia's death. The Grateful Dead were one of the longest-lived, most successful bands in rock history, and this fine box set captures their earliest recorded legacy. It was a long strange trip, indeed. *

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