From the Vault, May 5, 2009

I’m a Deadhead. I love The Grateful Dead and the beautiful music they made for nearly thirty years. In college, Spring Break did not mean Daytona Beach or fun in the sun. It meant one thing. A week on the road with the Grateful Dead on their annual east coast spring tour. These epic road trips started in central Maine and included three nights in Albany, NY for shows at Knickerbocker Arena, then down to Nassau, Long Island for three nights and then, if we had any money left, three more nights in Landover, MD. Ahhhh, the memories.

The New York Times recently wrote a great article about the Dead and their die hard fans, Bring Out Your Dead .

There are at least five different levels to how fans talk about the Dead. The basement level concerns the band’s commercially released albums. This is how a lot of interested but inexpert people once talked about the Dead — myself included — in the early 1980s. The next level is periods or eras, the conversation I was prepared for. There was the aggressive, noisy, color-saturated improvising from 1968 to 1970; the gentler and more streamlined songwriting and arranging of ’72 and ’73; the spooky harmonies of 1975; the further mellowing and mild grooves that lay beyond. Next comes the level of the Dead’s best night…

After that comes particular songs within particular performances.

For the record, my favorite Dead era’s are, in order, 1975-78, 1972-73, and 1981-83. The article went on to debate what was the best Grateful Dead show of all time. My personal favorite is Venetta Oregon, August 27, 1972. Of course, this is a completely subjective exercise with no right or wrong answers. With more than 2,300 concerts to choose from, it makes for an interesting conversation, amongst Deadheads at least.

Deadheads have often been polled about their favorite show, through fanzines and Web sites. The answers have stayed fairly consistent. May 8, 1977, at Barton Hall, Cornell University.

After reading this article last month, I have gone on a deep dive thanks to where there are thousands of Dead shows online and ready to stream. I’ve listened, and re-listened to many of the shows that are on the short list for “greatest show ever”, including the amazing week of shows in May 1977, beginning May 5 in New Haven, CT to Boston Garden on the 7th, the epic Cornell show and finally May 9 in Buffalo. That spring tour in 1977 is widely regarded as their best tour ever. After re-listening, it’s easy to see why.

The NY Times has also posted a great interactive feature for Deadheads to debate The Greatest Show Ever. The Times lists four shows to pick from,

1.) Fillmore East, February 13-14 1970
2.) Harpur College, Binghampton, NY May 2, 1970
3.) Venetta Oregon, August 27, 1972
4.) Barton Hall, Cornell University, May 8, 1977

Grateful Dead era’s are usually broken out by keyboard players, as that has been the hot seat in the band. Remember Spinal Tap and all the exploding drummers? They got that gag from the Dead and their revolving keyboard players. The rotation of keyboardists was a hinge point for the band to take their music in new and exciting directions. The early years, 1965-1972 were defined by the blues singing of keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernen. Pigpen drank himself to death in 1973 at age 28, opening the door for two new band members and an entirely different sound. In 1972, the husband and wife team of Keith (piano) and Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals) joined the band stayed on until Keith’s drinking forced their exit in 1979. This was, in my opinion, the period of their most amazing and consistent work as a band. The band then turned to the great Brent Mydland, who combined amazing vocals with virtuoso electric piano and organ work that electrified the band in the early 1980’s. After Brent died from a drug overdose in 1990, the band brought in Bruce Hornsby for a number of shows, and then finally, Vince Welnick for the final few years until Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995.

1970 “Pigpen Era”

1972 “Keith and Donna”

1977 “The Greatest Year”

1980 “Brent Midland”

1990’s “So Many Roads” (This is a beautiful song)

For a bonus, here is a great Jerry ballad and one of my favorite songs to see live, Loser. It takes until about 1:45 mark before they start playing, but it is worth the wait