Warner Brothers, 1969
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/09/2010
“[Aoxomoxoa] marked something that wouldn’t be realized for some time: it was the end of [The Grateful Dead’s] early, experimental days. Sure, you could argue that Live/Dead capped this, but that album is almost a transition piece to me. Anyway, we’ll have this argument when that disc gets reviewed.”
Good news… the time to argue this has finally arrived, albeit a bit late. Sorry ‘bout that, by the way – kind of ended up taking a long, strange trip to get to this point.
The old saying “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” is something I only got to experience as truth one time, and that was at the band’s final show on July 9, 1995 in Chicago. If that show blew me away, one can imagine what seeing Jerry Garcia and crew in 1969 had to be like, even without the assistance of pharmaceuticals.
Live/Dead, a release that was meant to help ease the mounting debt the band was facing thanks to countless hours of studio time, has proven to be one of those live albums that is truly legendary. And, like a typical Dead concert, to me it has both hits and misses, but overall is a solid wrap-up of the first few years of The Dead’s existence.
The final album to feature Tom Constanten as an official member of the group, there is no denying that this disc captures the group caught between the worlds of blues and psychedelia, though the group was definitely no stranger to crossing genres, and would constantly do this throughout their career. The whole disc, in fact, almost serves as a music lesson for the listener – often, as in the case of “St. Stephen,” occurring in the same song.
The whole essence of The Grateful Dead can be wrapped up in the 23-minute rendition of “Dark Star” that opens the disc, a song that is as much a musical journey as it is an impromptu voyage into the unknown. I’ve listened to this particular version dozens of times over the years, and I’m always amazed at how the musical waves ebb and flow, often driven by Garcia’s guitar lines.
Granted, to the uninitiated, this drawn-out first salvo can often feel overpowering, and it can be. But if the listener simply sits back and allows themselves to be transported on the journey that this particular version takes them on, without worrying about the boundary of time, it proves to be a hell of an adventure.
That adventure continues with a killer rendition of “St. Stephen” that leads briefly into an anthem-like drone about William Tell before launching into a full-out jazz barrage that is “The Eleven.” The way that the band was able to move from genre to genre like this in their early days shows just how versatile (and, in effect, underrated) The Grateful Dead really were.
The first stumbling block for me – and I acknowledge this is going to open the doors for the flame wars to begin – is with Ron “PigPen” McKernan’s turn as lead throat on “Turn On Your Lovelight.” I first became familiar with this song via the six-minute version on Skeletons From The Closet not knowing it was a truncated version. As the original sits, clocking in at a hair over 15 minutes, I still appreciate the shortened version more. It sometimes feels like McKernan and the group are stretching this one out a little too much, knowing full well that other versions exist that are even longer. Admittedly, I’ve never been in the “school of PigPen,” having preferred the years that Brent Mydland was the keyboardist for The Dead, but I just cannot get into the longer version of “Lovelight,” no matter how hard I try.
Garcia slows things down with a bluesy-gospel rendition of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” another song that might confuse and confound new inductees to the world of The Dead. Yeah, it’s not the most exciting thing they ever recorded, but it definitely has its moments, and is worth checking out. “Feedback” is an early tip of the hat to what “Space” would become at the group’s concerts, a free-form jam session where anything was welcome, musical or not, and it would all somehow segue into a neat coda and a song. In this case, I actually heard the jam begin to take the shape of what became the closing track, “And We Bid You Goodnight.”
The re-mastered CD version, originally released as part of the boxed set The Golden Road, contains two bonus tracks. The single version of “Dark Star” was previously available on the best-of compilation What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been, but it’s still a pleasure to hear. I can’t say the radio ad for Live/Dead adds much to the mix, though, especially seeing that Bill Kreutzmann was still referred to as “Bill The Drummer.” For a band that featured such creativity, this particular ad just doesn’t seem to match that level of originality.
Live/Dead might not be the kind of disc that you find in constant rotation in your CD deck or iPod, but it is not only worth giving a listen to, but also to dust off every once in a while to remind yourself just what The Dead were capable of in their early days, warts and all.