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The Grateful Dead's 50 Best Live Performances

The Grateful Dead's 50 Best Live Performances

Two years removed from the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary celebration and the triumphant “Fare Thee Well” stadium concerts in their native San Francisco Bay Area and in Chicago, the surprising, resurgent Deadmania has not subsided.

Indeed, the events of that year seem to have both rekindled the ardor for the group’s music in many Deadheads who dropped off the psychedelic bus following Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995, and also brought in many new fans who never had a chance to see the band but are attracted by the Dead’s amazingly diverse and appealing songbook, and the colorful, upbeat, Sixties glow that will forever surround the group.

The ongoing success of the many Phil Lesh & Friends lineups and, more recently, Dead and Company, featuring newish Dead convert John Mayer (playing with Bob Weir and Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart), show that the Dead’s legacy is very much intact and that the music is continuing to evolve.

The individual musicians in the Grateful Dead were never poll winners in music magazines, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a rock group with a core so adept at playing so many different styles—and always in an improvisational context.

They drew from electric and country blues, oldtime and bluegrass, jazz, rock and roll, soul, funk, Indian, New Orleans R&B, electronic and classical music; nothing was off-limits. Each of the musicians brought in different influences and forged his individual style. Nobody sounded quite like Garcia (often imitated, never duplicated), and the same could be said of Bob Weir, whose designation as a “rhythm guitarist” is hopelessly inadequate given the sophistication and depth of his playing.

Their styles couldn’t be more different, but they were completely sympathetic players, tightly enmeshed and equally in sync with bassist Lesh (another utterly unconventional player) and the drummers.

They brought it all together in a unique mélange that took them from the fire-breathing psychedelia of the late Sixties, to the Dead Americana of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and far beyond. Along the way they built the most loyal fan base the music world had ever seen

What follows is a selection of the best live versions of 50 songs by the Grateful Dead (and a few cover tunes) spanning their history.

Why live performances? Because that’s where the magic happened with this band. Everyone, including band members, will tell you that studio albums never quite captured the Dead’s mystical X-factor. So, live recordings it is. Fortunately, the Dead had the largest archive of live tapes of any band ever, so there is much to draw from. The difficulty, of course, is narrowing it down to just 50. After all, hardcore Deadheads would argue that 50 versions of “Dark Star”—each different as can be—could be a list in itself.

And the fact is, this does go beyond 50: As you’ll see, for a number of tunes, there are second and third picks based on eras—songs such as “Dark Star,” “Playing in the Band,” “The Other One” and a few others changed radically from one period to the next (influenced by the change in keyboardists and other factors), so versions from each epoch get a nod.

As for the criteria for the choice of songs—most are ones that, over time, were most variable night to night either because of the jamming in them or the intensity of the vocal delivery, or some other elevating force. So why not have “Sugar Magnolia” here? Or “Deal”? Or “Touch of Gray”? Surely there are multiple versions of each that fit those categories. Of course there are, and so it is with nearly any tune you’d care to mention that is not here. Such are the cruel realities of list-making.

A couple of final notes: The songs are listed in chronological order by performance date. For the main picks, we’ve listed where they can be found on Grateful Dead–sanctioned releases (where applicable), most of which can be accessed through Apple Music and Spotify. But here’s the cool news: There’s a fantastic web site called headyversion.com that is the ultimate resource for listening to the “best” versions of Grateful Dead songs.

Not only do they appear in order of popularity according to hundreds of folks who have weighed in on their favorite versions of just about every song in the Dead cannon—280 versions of “Eyes of the World,” 27 versions of “Liberty,” 59 versions of “Jackaroe,” etc.—but the site also provides direct links to archive.org’s immense vault of Dead performances, so you can hear them all in just a couple of mouse-clicks.

Of course, there is no true consensus on any of this, but it is fair to say that there is widespread agreement that certain versions of certain songs would probably make most discerning Deadheads’ lists. Similarly there is general agreement on the Dead’s peak performance periods: 1968–1974, 1977, 1981–'82, 1988–'90; you’ll find a heavy concentration of Seventies performances here. In the end, though, opinions about “best” anything are always going to be completely subjective and also probably change over time.

50. “Victim or the Crime”
March 21, 1990; Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario

Call it jagged, gnarly, noisy or unpleasant, the fact is this dissonant late Eighties Weir song was a darkly powerful force to be reckoned with, and almost featured a harrowing jam, as its ascending lines crashed and clashed. This first-set version shows all its bludgeoning brute force (and sophistication), then dissolves into Garcia’s late-Eighties ballad tour de force, “Standing on the Moon”—which, truthfully, deserves to be on this list, too, so listen to both! Available on the Spring 1990 (The Other One) box.

49. “Foolish Heart”
July 19, 1989; Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, Wisconsin

Introduced two days after “Victim” in 1988, this melodic Hunter-Garcia number (occasionally paired with “Victim”) provided a bouncy contrast, somewhat in the tradition of “Franklin’s Tower.” This version, as presented as a bonus track on the remastered Built to Last CD, is mixed so that every instrument is clear and loud—you can really feast on Weir’s imaginative rhythm lines and Brent’s synth washes. And this is easily Garcia’s best-ever vocal on the song.

48. “The Music Never Stopped”
July 17, 1989; Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, Wisconsin

The best Eighties versions of this Weir tune, also from 1975’s Blues for Allah, have a ragged majesty and intensity that is unmatched by earlier ones. The song part is fairly similar one to the next, but the two jams at the end are where the fireworks occur. Chosen by Phil for his Fallout from the Phil Zone compilation.

47. “Dear Mr. Fantasy”
July 2, 1989; Sullivan Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts

From its introduction in the summer of 1984 until Brent’s demise in summer 1990, this relatively rare Traffic cover was a real crowd favorite. Brent would sing the first verse alone, Garcia would go wild between verses, and then sing the second verse as a duet, followed by more fiery leads, and in some cases—as in this incendiary version from 1989 (one of the Dead’s best years), go into the “Na-na-na” coda of “Hey Jude,” with Brent singing “Mr. Fantasy” in between the “na-nas.” Truly electric; Jerry goes off!

46. “Shakedown Street”
June 30, 1985; Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland

This song was Garcia’s great contribution to late Seventies funk, and this colossal version has been the deserving winner of every poll on the subject. The interplay between Garcia (again with the envelope-wah) and Weir (who artfully employs a phase-pedal wah and octave divider in the middle of the jam) is deliciously rhythmic, and Brent adds much with his keyboards as well. If spacey/strange is more your thing, look no further than this Seventies pick: Egypt 9-16-78 (no third verse or vocal coda, but jamming galore).

45. “Cassidy”
March 28, 1985; Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York

First on Weir’s solo Ace album in 1972, but not played regularly until 1976, this is another one that fully matured in the Brent era, thanks to his solid duet vocals and the more variegated jam near the end. This one hits all its marks beautifully, including a nice “landing” after the jam. Look for the “SteveSW” soundboard recording on archive.org.

44. “Uncle John’s Band”
October 12, 1984; Augusta Civic Center, Maine

Speedy and adventurous, this one has a searing middle jam and then a really long ride before the final vocal reprise—which doesn’t materialize! Instead, the boys drift into an unconnected spacey jam, then “Drums,” “Space,” a fantastic “Playing in the Band” reprise, and then back to the “Uncle John’s” vocal reprise; stunning! Available on the 30 Trips Around the Sun box. For an acoustic rendering closer to the Workingman’s Dead version, check out Harpur College 5-2-70.

43. “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance”
October 10, 1982; Frost Amphitheatre, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California

These two Weir-written nuggets, which date back to the summer of ’79 and were paired until mid 1986, show two sides of Bob’s writing. “Lost Sailor” is drifty and floaty, with a slightly odd structure (that works!); and “Saint of Circumstance” is a riff-heavy and ultimately anthemic rocker, which also has some unpredictable components. From December ’86 on, “Saint” appeared alone; usually not quite as potent as it was with the then-departed “Sailor.” (Still, check out this excellent Hornsby-era solo “Saint” pick: Giants Stadium 6-17-91.)

42. “Feel Like a Stranger”
August 10, 1982; Fieldhouse, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

When this wonderful Weir funk number—introduced in 1979, less than a year after “Shakedown”— appeared as an opener, it promised a “long, long, crazy, crazy night!” and laid the groundwork for exactly that. As with “Shakedown,” its success hinged on the meshing of different rhythmic lines from everyone in the band, with Jerry’s clucking envelope-wah dancing above Bob’s slashing chords.

41. “The Wheel”
December 14, 1980; Long Beach Arena, California

What a great moment it was at any show when the first golden notes of “The Wheel” would emerge, float into the air, and point the way to that rousing sing-along. It was best in the early Eighties, once Brent solidified the harmonies that were often rough in the late Seventies, and Garcia took more time getting into and out of the song. This one comes out of a fantastic “Estimated Prophet” and quickly rolls up to cruising speed and becomes very powerful; and the post-song jam is a thing of beauty, with Weir on tasteful background slide for some of it, before it eases into “Drums” (featuring Brazilian jazzers Flora Purim and Airto).

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