The rock impresario Bill Graham famously said of the Grateful Dead They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do. And There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. True that, on both counts, and the many shows I went to, in particular between 1968 and 1973, attest to the communal, telepathic, joyous and inspirational qualities of the gatherings. The musically spectacular shows made formative and indelible impressions on my teenage soul, and the Dead’s witnesses are legion.
The live shows were all about immediacy and the drama of connection, dancing and taking a trip. You knew in your bones there was nothing like it. The archetypal vibrations, resonances and reverberations of those shows, whose essence persisted even into the 1990s (and some claim continue to this day) would cause some to eschew Grateful Dead studio albums, save the epiphanies of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Obviously, St. Stephen, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, China Cat Sunflower, Sugar Magnolia, and Dark Star are all examples of studio cuts surpassed by innumerable live performances. That’s how this thing worked and who they were. Live Grateful Dead’s the thing.
But not so fast there, pardner. I’ve not listened to the thousands of hours of live Dead shows on record, but anyone who makes that claim is either a liar or in serious need of professional help.* Yet I’ve heard enough to boldly guess that around twenty Grateful Dead songs have studio versions that are definitive, appearing on no less than nine of their albums. Either because they couldn’t pull off the harmonies live, or the live arrangement was clumsy by comparison, or due to some other elusive butterfly, I’ve always felt that, despite what I’m sure are a number of live performances that launched well, the studio versions of the following songs were more powerful, they better captured the song’s essence. I’ve left out those songs from albums that never got much (if any) live performance, including just the ones they still played a lot, either because they were good launching pads for jams, or the Dead somehow thought they could pull them off live, or they just enjoyed playing them, knowing full well that the quintessence had in fact bloomed in the studio.
Before the Deadhead mob comes after me, raining skulls and roses onto my delicate sensibilities and vulnerable list, remember that this is only about twenty tunes . . . that means that there are somewhere north of 100 Dead tunes whose ‘definitive’ performances are to be found in the Main Thing, the live tapes…and missing those, the attics of our lives.
[from the album Grateful Dead]
Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)
Cold, Rain and Snow
Cream Puff War
Dupree’s Diamond Blues
Doin’ That Rag
Uncle John’s Band
New Speedway Boogie
To Lay Me Down
Box of Rain
I’ll Take a Melody
[Wake of the Flood]
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo (or is the September 3, 1977 show in Englishtown, New Jersey the definitive one? I’m checking it out!)
[From the Mars Hotel]
[In the Dark]
Touch of Grey
[Built to Last]
Built to Last
*Unless you are Dick ”Mr. Dick’s Picks” Latvala or Dave “Mr. Dave’s Picks” Lemieux. And they get paid!
**This happens to be all of Side One.
***I would have included Bird Song on this list, but FINALLY, there is a delectable version from P.N.E. Coliseum in Vancouver, BC from June 22, 1973, just released in 2018.