Thursday, January 5, 2012

244. Live/Dead. I promise I'll try and contain myself.

Album: Live/Dead
Artist: The Grateful Dead
Year: 1969
Genre: Psychadelic Rock and Roll


1. Dark Star
2. St Stephen
3. The Eleven
4. Turn on your Lovelight
5. Death Don't have no Mercy
6. Feedback
7. And we bid you goodnight.

It's a hypothetical situation that's commonly asked but terrifies me every time: Imagine you are going to be consigned to a desert island somewhere and you're only allowed to take one CD. For the rest of your life you will have only one 80 minute collection of music to while away the solitary hours as you go progressively madder and start talking to volleyballs and building friends out of coconuts. You're asked to forgo all the other moments of greatness in recorded music and cast them aside in favour of one release which will become your music collection for the rest of your days. The very question gives me the shivers but I know which CD I would choose. I have a Desert Island Disc, a favourite album of all time and one the expert panel at Rolling Stone magazine decided could only be bettered by 243 other releases.

In 1969 the Grateful Dead were experiencing the first highpoint of their long career. Their line up had solidified with the addition of Mickey Hart as a second drummer and they were performing live as if they had a spooky telekinetic ability that drove them together as a coherent unit with uncanny powers of improvisation. Nobody else on earth was capable of doing what they were doing and nobody has done it since. I have to go track by track now and I promise I'll try and restrain myself but I may lapse into the sort of deranged wittering madness that only a truly great album (or 20 years alone on a desert island) can produce.

The album starts with some very quiet interplay between the musicians. The very loosest jam it's possible to indulge in without becoming totally formless. Then out of the depths of the meandering the main theme of Dark Star starts to emerge. While casual radio listeners might know the Dead more for their hits like Truckin and Uncle John's Band, any committed Deadhead will always list Dark Star as their finest moment, or more accurately collection of moments. While the single version (which failed to chart at all, anywhere, ever) went for 2 minutes and forty seconds, live versions of Dark Star would often clock in at around the 30 minute mark. Frequently they would start playing and then get distracted and play some other songs in the middle before finding their way back to the song at the end. The Live/Dead version is a relatively brusque 23 minutes long and it's over six minutes before Jerry Garcia actually starts singing the words.

Wikipedia claims 13 minutes of this version of Dark Star is taken up with a guitar solo which is a bit like saying most of The Godfather is taken up with Al Pacino acting. Jerry isn't playing on his own while the rest of the band repeats a groove behind him and tries to stay awake. At every moment, every member of the band is doing something interesting. They're all playing riffs, fills, improvising tunes but never ignoring what's going on around them. They're pushing each other to places they've never been before. The Grateful Dead felt that playing the same thing twice was a waste of good stage-space and music was only worth playing if they had no idea where it was going. Listening to them launch out into space without a net and only each other to fall back on is a transcendent experience and proof that music is so much more than practice.

The track ends with the band harmonising on the final lyrics (and actually singing really well, not something they were often noted for) before bringing the music down to a very quiet place that lets Jerry Garcia play the introduction to St Stephen in a docile and understated way while the band sits back ready to pounce together to kickstart the song. The next ten minutes are tight rock and roll as the band move seamlessly into The Eleven, deftly taking the music through a range of tempo and mood changes with some of the best singing of their silliest lyrics every captured on vinyl. When St Stephen finally gives way to The Eleven (named for it's 11/8 time signature) the band start to really boogie. While most people picture an audience of Deadheads as tie-dyed, low-lifes swaying to an inner rhythm generated more by the drugs in their system than the music from the stage, the truth is the average audience member at a Dead show was dancing themselves silly. While Jerry and Co could launch their songs into space they could also ground them in your hips and spent more time playing dance-able rock and roll than space-infused audio lightshows. The Eleven is just one of many Dead tunes that demand the listener get up and groove.

More strident and direct demands were made by keyboard player and bluesman Ron "Pigpen" Mckernan who stays quiet for the first half of Live/Dead but is unleashed in no uncertain terms during Turn on your Lovelight, his signature tune. Pigpen strides to the mike and when the band notice him ready they effortlessly turn the high speed jamming of The Eleven into the introduction of Lovelight. If I could go back in time I'd love to see Pigpen front the Dead. He could apparently hold an audience in the palm of his hand and was one of rock's greatest ever frontmen. His singing on Lovelight is amazing and he drives the band through 15 minutes of blues-based rock and roll that has the audience leaping about like the happiest deranged loons in San Fransisco.

Lovelight actually reaches a conclusion which (if you're listening on CD) is the first interruption to the continuous music they began at the start of Dark Star. The next song finds the band in slow blues mode as they play a version of Death Don't Have No Mercy. Garcia sings like someone who has lost people and listening to him feel the emotion it's hard not to feel it along with him and mourn those music lost, such as Pigpen and Jerry himself. After pouring his heart out into the mic he pours even more into his amp through a beautiful solo which is tear-wrenching, beautiful, entirely improvised and unlike any other solo he played on this song before. Jerry didn't memorize solos or try and replicate what he played on the album- the music moved him and he moved it back.

Death don't have no mercy evolves into a track called Feedback which isn't an attempt by the band to gauge the opinions of the audience. It's not them handing out forms and collating responses, it's the band trying to create music using the sonic limitations of their equipment. A moment when they attempt to surrender their carefully practiced musicianship to the whims of their amplifiers. Does it work? It depends how you define work. For some it's a track that only exists to be skipped. For others it's a moment of spontaneity and organic musical inspiration that can't be replicated.

The Feedback eventually falls away to be replaced by the band singing We bid you Goodnight, an accapella ballad that finished several shows (although frequently better than it does here).

In under eighty minutes the greatest live band in the world has played rock and roll, blues, boogie, jazz and a combination that only they could ever do. And they did it in a way that they had never done before and would never do again thanks to inspiration and an incredible ability to improvise. If I only had one disc to take to a desert island it would be this one. If I could take more than one disc I'd take the boxed set that contains the full shows Live/Dead was culled from.

There were four Grateful Dead albums in the top 500. If I had my way there'd be many more. This is the highest ranking Dead release. If it was up to me it would be the highest ranked album on the countdown.

Highlight: The opening moments until the first moment of silence.
Lowlight: And we bid you goodnight. Done better elsewhere

Influenced by: Coltrane and the Blues.
Influenced: An entire movement we call The Jam Band scene.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "And though "Black Star" reaches a point of being interesting at the "chorus," the point quickly passes into 15 minutes of pointless, weak, guitar noodling played as though no one was listening, which for a long time was true. "

-People were listening. People always listened. Some of them listened so well they get the name of the track right.

So is this the best live album of all time or is there a wrong tree somewhere with me barking up it? Let me know below


  1. I am honestly shocked that I am the first person who commented on this particular entry.

    But I'll get right to the point and say that, to me, this is an album that I cannot seem to get.
    First off, let me tell you where I am at with the Dead:
    -I am not even 18 yet, and my parents were never fans of the Grateful Dead, to say the least. I also have never touched a drug in my life, if that helps
    -prior to buying this CD (fairly recently), I have only heard two Grateful Dead songs, that happened to be on regular rotation for me, starting about a year and a half ago - St. Stephen (the original studio version from Aoxomoxoa) and of course Uncle John's Band (the original studio version from Workingman's Dead), and I loved both of them, but in particular St. Stephen, which is arguably one of my favourite songs of all time (and I could go on a tangent as to why it is so amazing, but I'll spare you from that); so, in short, not a lot of exposure to the Dead, not owning even one full album by them
    -a year and a third later (this year), I bought Live/Dead (I will add that I also bought both James Brown's and the Allman Brothers Band's fabled live albums (Live At the Apollo and At Fillmore East), plus "Love and Theft" , all in the same week)
    -when I got home the next week, however, I played Live/Dead and I was completely unimpressed; in fact I only got through the first two tracks and I was still completely disappointed. To elaborate, I felt as if Dark Star went on far too long, and the live St. Stephen felt week in comparison to the studio version
    -after that it is now sitting on my shelf, with no rotation whatsoever; I find this hard to say, but I have not found any motivation to play it, because I frankly don't see the point in doing so

    Now I actually do want to appreciate this album, and, furthermore, the Grateful Dead in general. So how do you recommend I approach this? How can I establish an appreciation for their music? I loved (and still love) the two of their songs, but this is a very difficult listen for me. Should I have started off with a different full-length album, like, for instance, American Beauty, instead of this one? I am just baffled, right now, and I want to be appreciative of this album, but I just do not know how.

    So, basically, to sum it up, how can I be more appreciative to this album, and the Grateful Dead in General?

  2. I would definitely recommend hearing American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. Give them both a listen because they'll help to appreciate how good they were as songwriters. Their ability to craft great songs was overshadowed by the whole "psychedelic noodler" thing which became the focus for their entire career.

    Live/Dead is possibly not a good starting point for the live Dead experience because that opening Dark Star is pretty daunting. Try giving Europe 72 a listen. The tour of Europe produced some gems and they were collected on a live album which showcased all that they were capable of. It's got some nice ballads, some great rockers and some stretching out into jamming territory. A lot of people cite it as their entry point into live Dead.'72

    1. Thanks, I'll buy American Beauty and Workingsman Dead first. What about Skulls and Roses (the live album)? Also, what about Aoxomoxoa, because I DO LOVE St. Stephen, but does the rest of the album hold up well?

    2. I'm not a huge fan of Aoxomoxoa, it's far too tinkered with for my liking and I prefer the rawness of all the tracks when played live.

      Skull and Roses is a great live album and some like it just as much as Europe 72. Both are good introductions but I prefer Eruope because it's got Keith Godchaux playing keys live as opposed to Skull and Roses where the keys are overdubbed later.

    3. Thanks for your input.