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Souls in communion

Searching for nugs in the Grateful Dead box set

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I always hated the Grateful Dead. Yet in my youth, Deadheads loved me and wanted me to hang out with them and pursue their hijinks. I always had a great time until the inevitable skinny electrified hippie would pull out the latest gig on a cassette and announce: “Hey man ... Meadowlands!” Everyone would shift their attention and I’d just roll my eyes. It always sounded like crap, super-high end audio recording—with The Dead playing like they just woke up, ambling through song after song. I needed intensity: a steady diet of Butthole Surfers, Melvins, Unsane, Laughing Hyenas was more my bag, as they say.

Jump forward a few years to about the time Jerry Garcia died. By then I had acquired a taste for collecting heavy psychedelic music. It was three days after Garcia passed when I heard the American Beauty version of “Truckin’” on the radio. The beat caught me off guard; it rolled easy but had something a lot more down to earth than what I was used to.

That was it. I was hooked. But what I’ve learned since is that it’s pretty much cut and dried when you admit to liking the Grateful Dead. The assumptions that follow are, “Oh, you must like all those jam bands” (I don’t), or “You must have a ton of shows on tape!” (I have what I need). It’s hard to convince someone that you can simply love the music, and it’s within those first years that The Dead are just stunning.

Any convincing that needs to be done should start with the latest boxed set The Golden Road, which covers the Dead’s historical beginnings from 1965 to 1973. The set includes their nine Warner Bros. releases: The Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, the double live release Grateful Dead, Europe ’72 and Bear’s Choice. There’s also a double disc (one live, one studio) of 1965-66 recordings entitled The Birth of the Dead.

Each album has been re-mixed and re-mastered, but the clincher here lies with all of the choice additional material: unreleased studio takes, extra jams and tons of live tracks. What a sight to behold! Beautiful packaging, a nice informative booklet with tidbits of recording and era-in-general anecdotes, and each release featuring a reproduction of its LP cover and original solid dark green Warner Bros. label design.

The preliminary Birth of The Dead discs give fine insight into the transformation from jug band to all-out electric garage blues band. There is nothing on the ’65 disc too far from Rolling Stones or even Sonics territory, but judging from the live recordings that followed in ’66, the music had somehow made the quantum leap to jam status. Then it was right into the studio in an attempt to capture some of that freak-out magic.

Studio recording was notorious for dulling whatever thunder the Dead created in their live shows. Still, their first self-titled LP succeeded in capturing the blues and grit straight out of the garage. But it was San Francisco and circa-whenever psychedelia seeded the adventurous Anthem of the Sun, turning the recording process into a solid brain flush of sound activity wherein the studio became part of the experimental process, linking up songs, overlapping jams and using John Cage-influenced prepared music.

By Aoxomoxoa and Live/Dead, space travel had come in for a landing, though the long jams would never disappear (three unreleased killer ones can be found on the Aoxomoxoa disc alone). It was 1969, the hippie culture had undergone its revelations and now it was time to chase a few visions. Members of the Dead purchased farms and let their roots grow just like their neighbors, Crosby, Stills and Nash. In fact, those three helped the Dead out with harmonies and, in return, were paid with some finer points of musicianship.

The first release of the ’70s, Workingman’s Dead finds the band ironing out warbling harmonies and proving themselves with acoustics. Extra tracks in the boxed set are the cream of the crop, with incredible live versions of “Black Peter” and “Easy Wind” and the unreleased “Mason’s Children.”

What can be said about the breakthrough of perhaps the best-known Dead album, American Beauty, without being too obvious? How about additional live versions of “Friend of the Devil,” “Candyman,” “’Til The Morning Comes,” and “Attics of My Life,” to name a few? The double live release, Europe ’72 and the selected Bear’s Choice also come with extra tracks, mostly in honor of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died in 1973. The ’72 disc features his unreleased composition, “The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)” and other Pigpen standards (“Caution,” “Big Boss Man”) throughout—a very fitting tribute.

It’s obvious that the live material strewn along The Golden Road was very new for the band, so weird time signatures or fumbling lyrics are not unusual. That always seems to be the case with the Dead, and may be part of their charm —sometimes they are the absolute best and sometimes they squeak by. The latter material did not always transfer well to the studio, but the Dead managed to capture themselves as accurately as possible for those lean times, squeezing every bit of sound onto four- or eight-track recordings. And it still sounds as beautiful as if you were leaning against their amplifiers, listening to them play in a practice room. Kreutzman, Lesh, Weir, Hart, Garcia, Pigpen, with T.C. and the Godchauxs all bent and shaped this fine historical document to make it a vital part of music. It’s all here for your pleasure once again. The question is, are you game for another round? Grab your headphones and let’s go.

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