For some, mention of the "Grateful Dead" will bring a mist to the eyes and the recollection of a show somewhere, sometime long ago, when Jerry played "Tennessee Jed" just for them. To others, the Dead are a perhaps once-innovative band who long outlived their usefulness. And to anyone with open ears, the Rhino Records release of The Golden Road: 1965–1973 may finally separate the Dead from the Deadheads and restore the band to their music.
All of the Dead’s Warner Brothers albums are here: The Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead, Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, The Grateful Dead (a/k/a Skull and Roses), Europe ’72, and History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice). There’s a wealth of bonus material, mostly live tracks recorded around the time of each album’s release; the box also includes two discs of live and studio tracks recorded in 1965 and 1966, Birth of the Dead.
What we learn is that the essence of the Dead arose from efforts to resolve the tensions of their influences. From Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir came a devotion to folk. Organist/harmonica-player/vocalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan had a purist’s take on the blues. Bassist Phil Lesh learned to play bass in order to join the band after coming from a heavy avant-garde classical background. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann seemed like a poster boy for the iconic rock-and-roll hoodlum. And Mickey Hart, who began sharing drum duties with Kreutzmann right before Anthem, was a spiritually infused weirdo from the jump.
Although much of their fakebook was initially lifted from the folk repertoire, the songs would often be propelled at an amphetamine pace — the brisk "I Know You Rider," or the band’s version of Jesse Fuller’s "Beat It On Down the Line," with an attack that foreshadows the Ramones by a decade. The live recordings from this era (’65-’67) show the band beginning to stretch out, elongate, and poke at the borders of structure, as on the cubist "Viola Lee Blues."
The marathon Ken Kesey–sponsored Acid Tests that the Dead played at required lengthy songs, and Phil Lesh’s training probably helped articulate an approach to performing them. On Anthem and Aoxomoxoa, drugs had obviously scorched the band’s agglomerated brain, but their musical vocabulary became the richer for including noise, weird sounds, and chromatic guitar lines. They could stutter, as on the pointless musique concr¸te of "Quadlibet for Tender Feet"; more often they’d use the new vocabulary to great effect, as on their rewriting of the trad folk ballad "Dupree’s Diamond Blues," a grinning, stoned, jug-backed tune. Or on the jostling "Cosmic Charlie," which starts with sliding scrapes from the two guitars and a baritone counterpoint from Lesh before exploding just as Garcia’s vocals kick in.
The Dead reached a pinnacle on Live/Dead, a double album that can stand with Exile on Main Street and Daydream Nation. It includes a wildly swinging and ebullient "The Eleven," the brutal blues of "Turn On Your Lovelight" (which transforms the smooth R&B of Bobby Blue Bland’s original into something swaggering, stomping, and rude), and one of the finest versions ever of the epic free-for-all "Dark Star." It depicts a group in full command of a variety of genres — also a group with an almost psychic sympathy: one musician tosses out something extemporaneous and the rest of them turn on a dime to follow it out.
Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, make full use of country’s deceptive simplicity; the pyrotechnics of Live/Dead are absent, but a darker, melancholic thread (abetted by Robert Hunter’s lyrics) connects songs like "Uncle John’s Band" and "Black Peter" for an emotional payoff the earlier material didn’t always provide. The last records in the set, especially Skull & Roses and Europe ’72, are the most quintessentially Dead-like in their improvisational flow and ensemble sound, but also the most uneven in execution. Here the band don’t inhabit genres (country/blues covers excepted) so much as hint at them. The result can be almost majestic, as on the transition between "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider," where each musician thunders along relentlessly but still moves deftly in and out of the others’ blues or jazzy riffs and sudden changes of tempo. Or it can be desultory, as on the characterless "Brown-Eyed Women."
The Golden Road demonstrates how deeply the Dead mined the topsoil of musical Americana to forge something new. They didn’t always have a clear end in sight — you don’t dance to get somewhere in particular, as Alan Watts once said — but they could provide an immensely satisfying ride.