The conventional wisdom about the Grateful Dead--at least among non-Deadheads--is that all of the group’s music sounds the same: long, spacey jams interspersed with shuffling, mid-tempo songs. But the truth is that in its 30 years, the San Francisco institution made a wide variety of albums showcasing a vast spectrum of its psychedelic blues-folk-country derivatives.
While Deadheads themselves rarely agree on which are the group’s best albums, this gorgeous, country-flavored 1970 collection is certainly the best place to start, offering some of the most-enduring performances by Jerry Garcia, the band’s leader, who died Wednesday at 53, apparently of a heart attack. His strained but affecting vocals are featured on such enduring numbers as the bluegrass-based “Friend of the Devil” and the elegiac “Ripple,” complemented by the Bob Weir-sung “Sugar Magnolia” and the group’s most trademark anthem, “Truckin’,” in which lyricist Robert Hunter turns the group’s own then-fresh history into witty mythology.
**** “Workingman’s Dead,”
Warner Bros. Even more than “American Beauty,” which it preceded by just months, “Workingman’s” taps deep into the American frontier ethos, with its eight Garcia-Hunter mini-epics of rebel loners and lovable losers. “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” are the popular favorites, but “New Speedway Boogie,” with its churning, blues-derived riff and Zen-pioneer stance, is one of the Dead’s hidden treasures.
*** 1/2 “Live Dead” and “Europe ’72,” Warner Bros; “One From the Vaults,”
Grateful Dead Records. No recording has really captured the essential live experience of the Dead, but these three get the idea across. “Live Dead,” from 1969, documents the Haight-Ashbury heyday, including the legendary space jam “Dark Star.” “Europe” is a tighter collection offering a mix of Dead staples (including “He’s Gone” and “Ramble on Rose”) and such blues-country covers as “It Hurts Me Too,” sung by Garcia, and “Big Boss Man,” sung by Ron (Pigpen) McKernan. “Vaults,” the 1991 inaugural release from the Dead’s archival series, features an entire 1975 show highlighted by a jazzy, 14-minute jam on “Eyes of the World.”
*** “Anthem of the Sun” and “Aoxomoxoa,” Warner Bros.
This is the psychedelic Dead, the products of early attempts to recreate the lysergic vibe of the ‘60s concerts. Arguably they’re both failed experiments, “Anthem” with its tape collages patching live and studio snippets together, “Aoxomoxoa” with its heavy studio effects. But each contains classic songs, especially the latter’s “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower.”
Also of Note: “In the Dark” (Arista), the 1987 recording, brought the band to the unfamiliar territory of the Top 10, thanks largely to the sprightly single “Touch of Grey,” with its “I will survive” chorus. Even beyond that hit, it’s a solid set of compact, spirited performances. Unfortunately, that didn’t carry through to the follow-up, 1989’s “Built to Last” (Arista), which now stands as the group’s final studio album. Of Garcia’s handful of solo albums, the best are 1972’s “Garcia” (Warner Bros.), featuring “Deal,” “Sugaree” and “Loser"--which became Dead concert staples--and 1991’s live “Jerry Garcia Band” (Arista), an affectionate showcase of the gospel, pop standard and old-time rock ‘n’ roll tunes that were the focus of his side-project group.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended), four stars (excellent).