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A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs

As avatars of San Francisco’s ’60s-born counterculture, the Grateful Dead have served as an alternative to American reality for more than a half-century. Performing from 1965 to 1995 with guitarist and songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Dead survive through a vast body of live recordings, originally traded by obsessive fans and now preserved on a long string of official releases. Though the band has an epic narrative (told in Amir Bar-Lev’s rapturous four-hour Long, Strange Trip documentary), much of the Dead’s story and significance remains purely musical. Part of the group’s staying power is due to the mysterious vastness that exists outside the bounds of their official studio recordings, a live canon shaped by generations of the still-active Deadhead music trading network.

Flourishing in an extralegal sharing economy built around the exchange of concert tapes and psychedelics (the tapes were never to be sold), most of the Dead’s live recordings could only be accessed through profoundly anti-corporate means. Rather than killing music, as an infamous British music industry campaign claimed in ’80s, home taping actually propelled the Grateful Dead to stadiums, as the Dead themselves acknowledged.

Profoundly unslick, the Grateful Dead’s anti-authoritarian creative tendencies remain palpable in the current era. Self-consciously apolitical and populist to a fault, the Dead built a diverse audience across the political spectrum while continuing to act as a catalyst for young and old seekers, music heads, counterculturalists, and psychonauts. Simultaneously, the Dead produced dancing music, folklore, and lyrics to nourish an extended community that continues to thrive at shows by the band’s surviving members and a national scene of cover bands.

Navigating the Grateful Dead’s shadow discography can be daunting, a tangle of different periods and idiosyncrasies. This list of recommended song versions—chronological, not ranked—serves as an introductory survey of the band’s different periods. Loosely, the 37 entries here chart a path from garage-prog (1966) to lysergic jam suites (1967-1969), alt-Americana (1970), barroom country & western (1971), space-jazz (1972-1975), and epic hippie disco (1976-1978), eventually arriving at the more slowly evolving band of the ’80s and ’90s, whose driving creative force sometimes seemed to be their own inertia.

It’s the latter era that is most prone to cleave even Dead enthusiasts. It represents a divide between the tighter, more critically accepted earlier band and the beloved-by-Deadheads ’80s and ’90s incarnations, when they were beset by addiction, the technologies of the era, questionable aesthetic choices, and an evolving secret musical language that sometimes made more sense in sold-out stadiums of dancing fans. While the Dead got more popular every year in their later decades—and continued to generate jam surprises and bold performances aplenty—new listeners will likely want to start with the band’s earlier epochs. One can see long-running debates even among our contributors encapsulated in entries for beloved songs like “Jack Straw” and the “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain” combo, with a contingent of heads here deeply digging the chaotic stadium psychedelia of the later band.

The majority of the primary song choices presented below come from the classic years of the ’60s and ’70s; for many songs, Key Later Versions from the ’80s or ’90s highlight further developments for the discerning Dead freak. There, one can hear the band finding new places hidden in the old, mining the mountain range of material they’d generated earlier in their career.

Though the band’s proper albums have earned an undeserved bad reputation, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (both released in 1970) especially contain a small handful of songs for which the studio versions remain almost undisputedly definitive. While songs like “Ripple,” “Attics of My Life,” “Box of Rain,” and several others belong on any list of the band’s campfire standards, they’re left off here in the interest of songs that varied more greatly in live performance. Likewise, Europe ’72, which features elements re-touched in the studio, generated a number of great live tunes served perfectly well the version found on that album, including “Ramble on Rose” and “Brown-Eyed Women.” Though the Dead continued introducing new originals up through their last tours, this list focuses on something like a core curriculum of live Dead.

Nearly every selection on this list can and should be argued by anyone with an opinion about live Dead recordings. But these picks are intended to be gateways into different scenic and well-manicured corners of Grateful Dead land for those who haven’t spent much time there, places that might feel welcoming before drumz/space kicks in. From there, the paths are nearly infinite: an enormous live catalog splattered unceremoniously across streaming services (but helpfully listed chronologically at DeadDiscs), the complete fan-curated collection at archive.org (navigable via DeadLists or Relisten.net), a riot of Grateful Dead historical and ahistorical blogs, academic conferences, a nightly slate of #couchtour webcasts, or a live music venue near you.

Listen to The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs on Spotify and Apple Music.


“You Don’t Have To Ask”

July 16, 1966

Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif.

Written by: Grateful Dead

Overly complicated original is highlight of album’s worth of songs scrapped before debut LP. Played in 1966 only.

“You Don’t Have to Ask” has all the elements of a great garage band song. It’s got a groovy bass line, excellent reverby guitar solos, great group harmony vocals, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s combo organ cuts right through everything. It’s a zippy little number, guaranteed to fulfill the Dead’s dance-band obligations. But while it’s catchy, it’s also totally fucking bananas. There are several verses, choruses, parts, sections, a bridge or maybe three, chords you don’t expect (maybe they were surprised too), modulation up, (spoiler alert) modulation back down, then something else entirely, all at a breakneck speed for them and wrapped up in under four minutes. It kinda sounds like they (Bob) were still learning the song, but they’re all really going for it, even if it was destined to be one of approximately an album’s worth of originals dropped from the repertoire before the band signed to Warner Bros. in 1967. If there was a version of the Nuggets compilations that consisted entirely of songs written and played by lunatics totally zonked on acid, this would definitely make the cut. James McNew

Lore: Deadhead forensics has determined that “You Don’t Have to Ask” was also known as “Otis on a Shakedown Cruise,” an early song title remembered by band members that seemingly didn’t survive on tape; at least until an attentive listener noticed that—seconds before this version starts—a band member can be heard off-mic asking, “Otis?”

 


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