The startling, renewed Deadmania has not abated two years after the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary celebration and successful “Fare Thee Well” stadium performances in their home San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago. Indeed, the events of that year appear to have both rekindled the ardor for the band’s music in many Deadheads who had fallen off the psychedelic bus following Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995
The Grateful Dead’s 50 Greatest Live Shows
and also brought in many new fans who had never seen the band but were drawn in by the Dead’s amazingly diverse and appealing songbook, as well as the colorful, upbeat, Sixties glow that will foreshadow the band’s return to the stage. The continued success of Phil Lesh & Friends lineups, as well as more recently, Dead and Company, which features newish Dead convert John Mayer (along with Bob Weir and Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) demonstrate that the Dead’s legacy is very much intact and that the music is still evolving. The Grateful Dead’s individual members were never poll winners in music publications, but it’s uncommon to find a rock band with a core capable of playing so many various styles—always in an improvised environment. Nothing was off-limits when it came to electric and country blues, oldtime and bluegrass, jazz, rock and roll, soul, funk, Indian, New Orleans R&B, electronic, and classical music. Each performer drew on a variety of influences to create his own unique style.
Nobody sounded quite like Garcia (often mimicked, never replicated), and the same could be said of Bob Weir, whose label of “rhythm guitarist” is woefully insufficient given his skill and depth of playing. Their approaches couldn’t have been more dissimilar, but they were absolutely sympathetic performers, deeply entwined and equally in tune with bassist Lesh (another outlier) and the drummers. They blended it all together in a unique blend that took them from late-sixties fire-breathing psychedelia to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty’s Dead Americana, and far beyond. Along the process, they amassed the most devoted fan base in the history of music. The following is a list of the best live versions of 50 Grateful Dead songs (plus a few cover tunes) throughout their whole career. Why are live performances so important? Because that’s where this band’s magic happened. Studio records never truly caught the Dead’s mystical X-factor, according to everyone, including band members. So, live recordings are the way to go. Fortunately, the Grateful Dead had the greatest archive of live cassettes of any band in history, so there’s much to work with. The challenge is, of course, whittling it down to just 50. After instance, ardent Deadheads would argue that 50 different versions of “Dark Star” could be considered a list in and of themselves. And it’s true that this goes beyond 50: As you can see, there are second and third choices based on eras for a number of songs—songs like “Dark Star,” “Playing in the Band,” “The Other One,” and a few others changed dramatically from one period to the next (due to changes in keyboardists and other factors), so versions from each epoch get a nod. The majority of the songs were chosen based on the fact that they were most changeable from night to night, either due to the jamming or the intensity of the vocal delivery, or some other raising factor.
So why not include “Sugar Magnolia”? Or should we say “Deal”? Or how about “Touch of Gray”? There are almost certainly several variations of each that fall into those categories. Of course there are, as there are with practically any song you can think of that isn’t on this list. The harsh facts of list-making are as follows. A few concluding thoughts: By performance date, the songs are given in chronological order.We’ve mentioned where the key picks can be found on Grateful Dead–approved albums (where appropriate), the majority of which can be accessible on Apple Music and Spotify. However, here’s the good news: Headyversion.com is a terrific website that is the ultimate resource for listening to the “best” versions of Grateful Dead songs.
Not only do they appear in order of popularity according to hundreds of people who have weighed in on their favorite versions of just about every song in the Dead canon—280 versions of “Eyes of the World,” 27 versions of “Liberty,” 59 versions of “Jackaroe,” and so on—but they also appear in order of popularity according to hundreds of people who have weighed in on their favorite versions of just about every song in the Dead canon. However, the site also gives direct links to archive.org’s massive collection of Dead performances, allowing you to listen to them all with just a few mouse clicks. Of course, there is no actual unanimity on any of these, but it is safe to assume that certain renditions of certain songs would likely make the top lists of most discerning Deadheads. Similarly, the Dead’s peak performance decades are widely agreed upon: 1968–1974, 1977, 1981–82, 1988–90; there is a strong concentration of Seventies performances here. In the end, though, ideas on what is “best” will always be subjective and will most likely shift over time.
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