Saturday, September 10, 2011

Live Dead - The Grateful Dead

Live Dead
The Grateful Dead
Warner Bros.  2WS1830

Was this the first live double album in rock?  I can't think of an earlier one.  I suppose it is only fitting that the Dead would invent the live double, which would become so ubiqutious in the 1970s.  I don't really blame them for the likes of "Frampton Comes Alive" and the other live doubles that followed this album.  It is not like the Dead invented ripping off fans or padding the catalogue to get out of a record contract.   Most Deadheads regard the live album as the ideal vehicle for the Dead's music aside from attending the concert in person and boy have these guys released a lot of live albums, more than 50 of them I think at this point.  Despite the deluge of live Grateful Dead records in the CD era (they've released far more records since Jerry Garcia died than they released in their 18 year lifetime as a recording band) this is my favorite live album by the Dead even though the concerts that produced it have been released in greatly expanded versions on CD.  For me it is just the right length and I also admire the album cover art.  I first encountered this album in my electronics class in high school around 1975.  Basically I just encountered the album cover (which I instantly loved) but it would be a few years before I would actually hear the record.  There was a stereo in my class but no one ever played the record (although some jackass did bring in "Frampton Comes Alive" and played that on the class stereo at one point, ick.)  The Dead were not popular at my high school for some reason, even though they were hugely popular in the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived.  I didn't know anyone who liked them except adult teachers.  My school was new and there were lots of young teachers, ex-hippies and fellow travelers like my electronics teacher.  I greatly admired him, he worked as an electrician for Bill Graham for many of his concerts and when he was in the mood he would tell us stories about the Bay Area rock scene.  He knew lots of people in it, including members of Santana and Quicksilver Messenger Service and he brought Journey to play at our school before they became famous.  This teacher had a big influence on me, through him I realized that adults could be hip, that smart people could be involved in rock, and that the 1960s were cool.  At the time he was the coolest adult I knew.  Thanks Mr. Farrow, I will always be grateful that I was in your class.  But getting back to "Live/Dead," I most like the Dead's music from the 1960s even though a lot of Deadheads feel their best period was the early 1970s.  I think the band peaked in 1968/1969 and that is well represented on this classic album.  Side one begins with a 23 minute long performance of "Dark Star" from a February 1969 show at the Fillmore West.  "Dark Star" is a slight song with some of the trippiest lyrics in the Dead canon.  It basically served the Dead as a framework for some extensive improvised soloing from Jerry Garcia.  It is the quintessential song of the early Dead and gets a robust performance here with a strong vocal from Garcia and some exciting bass/guitar interplay between Phil Lesh and Garcia.  Deadheads like to debate which performances of "Dark Star" are the best and I certainly haven't heard enough of them to enter the debate, but I'm partial to this one even though it is rather modest compared to the epic versions of the 1970s.  It was the first version I ever heard and it is still the one that comes to my mind when I think of the song.  It is a classic landmark in San Francisco psychedelia.  It is followed on side two by an almost equally great version of "Saint Stephen" from the same concert.  It has another strong vocal and very vigorous playing.  I really haven't a clue to what this song is about although the lyrics are full of imaginative imagery.  Robert Hunter's writing at this time was pretty surreal and frankly rather obscure as well, almost as bad in this regard as Keith Reid's although not as irritating.  This is also true of "The Eleven" which follows in a seamless segue, maybe you have to be stoned to know what an "eight sided whispering hallelujah hat rack" means.  This song was recorded at the Avalon Ballroom in January 1969.  It is an exciting and frenetic performance, anyone who thinks the Dead were laid back hippies noodling around has never heard this record.  The 60s Dead really rocked.  At the end of the song you hear the Dead moving seamlessly into the 15 minute long "Turn On Your Love Light" that takes up all of side three.  The technology of vinyl can't handle the Dead's elongated performances.  The energy of "The Eleven" is carried over into this powerful performance which is sung by Pigpen with considerable passion.  I'm not the biggest fan of the Dead's forays into rhythm and blues, but this is definitely a winner.  After three incendiary sides, things slow down on side four with a cover of Rev. Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy" recorded at the Fillmore West in March 1969.  It is a slow blues that gradually builds in intensity and features a terrific vocal from Garcia as well as a majestic guitar solo.  The side concludes with the trippy instrumental "Feedback."  It is pretty out there, not a constructed song, more of a free-form jam without drums and with lots of feedback and weird keyboard sounds courtesy of Tom Constanten.  I'm not a big fan of it, but I find it listenable for the most part although it is definitely not rock.  There is 36 second coda of the group singing "We Bid You Goodnight" to finish the album with a bit of warmth.  Thus concludes one of the great live albums in rock history and in my opinion the Dead's best moment on vinyl.  Recommended for people who think of the Dead as a bunch of stoned dinosaurs lumbering their way through "Casey Jones" (which is basically how I regarded them back in high school) - you should give this a spin and become enlightened.  The 1969 Dead were a true kick-ass rock band. 

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