Grateful Dead: The Golden Road. (Audio)

By Ellis, Andy | Guitar Player, January 2002 | Go to article overview
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Grateful Dead: The Golden Road. (Audio)

Ellis, Andy, Guitar Player

The Grateful Dead are undoubtedly the most-recorded group in the history of music. As early as 1966, the road crew religiously taped the band's concerts through the P.A. mixing board, and fans began to circulate their own audience recordings. In the early '80s, the late Jerry Garcia and his bandmates started selling special "taper tickets" that allowed listeners to set up mics in a roped-off area of the venue. Since then, legions of devotees have captured every show using state-of-the-art equipment. By trading tapes and discs with likeminded folks, Deadheads are able to amass hundreds of hours of live performances--some dating back to Garcia's jug band days.

This wealth of material means hardcore Deadheads are likely to view The Golden Road--Rhino's 12-CD Grateful Dead box set--with mere curiosity. However, typical fans will be thrilled by the depth of this collection, which contains 15112 hours of music, including seven hours of previously unreleased recordings.

The Golden Road merges nine Warner Bros. albums with "soundboard" tapes and studio outtakes from late 1965 through 1972--the Dead's most creative and magical period. You get carefully remastered versions of The Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead, Working Man's Dead, American Beauty, Grateful Dead (a.k.a. Skull and Roses), Europe '72, and History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. I (Bear's Choice). These albums are augmented with rare tracks, as well as hidden singles, radio promos, and even a stage rap. In addition, there are two CDs of pre-Dead music recorded when the band was called the Warlocks and the Emergency Crew.

The set's new material is presented in chronological order with the old, so listening to the 152 tracks, we're able to trace the Dead's musical evolution. Slowly--and sometimes painfully--we hear them blossom from a tentative cover band Into a telepathic, improvisational ensemble.

Birth of the Dead

Appropriately, the journey begins with the double-disc Birth of the Dead. Composed exclusively of studio tracks, disc 1 opens with six demos recorded for the Autumn label in late '65. Clearly the band was not destined for pop radio. Their flat, quavering vocal harmonies pale in comparison to emerging American bands of the day, such as the Byrds and Lovin' Spoonful.

Some details: We hear Garcia wrangle the last chord in "Mind-bender (Confusions Prince)" with fast whammy-bar action. For several years, this tremulous move would be an essential element of Garcia's early "Captain Trips" sound. Photos from this era show him playing a red, Bigsby-equipped Guild Starfire hollowbody through Fender amps, and judging from his bright, snappy tone, it's likely he used this setup on these songs.

A bluegrass-tinged "I Know You Rider"--which would become a cornerstone of the Dead's live repertoire--makes its debut here. Combining Yardbird-style rave-up riffing wailing harp, and a genuinely rockin' Pigpen vocal, "Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)" points toward deeper jams just on the horizon.

The next ten songs were cut for the Scorpio label in the summer of '66. Gone is the cold, distant, reverb-drenched sound that characterized the Autumn sessions. Instead, the band is warm, rambunctious, and rootsy. Particularly exciting is Garcia's peppy major-pentatonic solo in "You Don't Have to Ask." This is where we first hear the relentless ascending and descending lines that would power his leads for the next few years. When the Dead hit "Cold Rain and Snow," everything snaps into focus. This is the sound--the adenoidal vocals, quivering Bigsby chords, chopped 6-string backbeats, harmonized Farfisa-and-guitar riffs, and fat, incredibly melodic bass lines--that would make them famous.

Disc 2 consists of 14 live songs recorded in the summer of '66. The vocals are ragged and the tempos lurch hither and yon, but it's fun to hear the Dead honing their craft. Highlights include a driving but spacey "Viola Lee Blues," a poignant take on Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," a menacing "I'm a King Bee," and a swaggering "Big Boss Man.

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