Today marks what would've been the 69th birthday of Jerome John Garcia, the late guitarist/front man/de facto leader of the Grateful Dead. To honor Jerry's legacy as the father of psychedelic jam rock, here are four must-have-seen Grateful Dead shows. Taken into account are the strength of the setlist and recording quality, and each show is taken from a time when the band was pushing the envelope and breaking new ground. Links to stream the shows are included.
Cornell University, Barton Hall
Ithaca, New York
May 8, 1977
The pinnacle show of the pinnacle tour from the "Disco Dead" era. This is the gold standard; "Scarlet Begonias
" into "Fire On the Mountain
" pretty much lays the groundwork for what it means to be a jam band. Fueled by a fresh batch of career-defining material ("Estimated Prophet
") and a healthy stash of fine Colombian, even slow songs such as "Morning Dew
" crescendo into jam-rock climaxes. But really, this one's just as much about the sound quality as it is the setlist; one of the first "A+"-rated unofficial recordings, Cornell '77 was the entry point for a generation of bootleg traders.Listen
April 14, 1972
Anyone who pooh-poohs the May 8, 1977, show probably references something from the 1972 European tour as the No. 1 Grateful Dead moment. And it's a strong argument. Spring of '72 was the height of psych/folk/Americana Grateful Dead. This run of shows is remembered for spot-on vocals and tight jams (see "Cumberland Blues
"), with Garcia in his stage prime, commanding the groove with his "Alligator" Stratocaster. The Tivoli show benefits from soundboard-quality recording produced for FM radio.Listen
March 18, 1967
On this night, during the crest of theHaight-Asbury
psychedelic wave, the Grateful Dead sandwichedChuck Berry
between two sets atWinterland
. The band had just released their self-titled debut the night before. Here, we find the Dead injectingLSD
into American Blues and, in doing so, becoming the jam-scene archetype for years to come. This soundboard recording captures Jerry and the boys at their rawest and most visceral, brandishing a raunchy, bluesy aesthetic definitive of early Dead. It's a little rough at times, performance-wise, but that's what makes it beautiful.Listen
June 23, 1974
Audience tapes like this one capture the Dead's best-of-the-era "Wall of Sound" live-audio setup famously designed and engineered by LSD chemistOwsley Stanley
. This recording is the best of both worlds, gleaned from an audience recording and produced for FM broadcast, it serves as a nice document of when Jerry & Co. were pushing their Americana vibe into funkier, more exploratory realms. The set highlight is the space-rock "Dark Star
" that morphs into "Spanish Jam
," and then explodes into "
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," a half-hour display of Garcia's flexibility as a bandleader and the Dead's unique knack for playing loose and tight at the same time.Listen