Many years ago, while looking at my bootleg collection, my brother asked me if I really needed so much Grateful Dead.
In their 30 year career, the Grateful Dead created at least five distinct sounds, had hundreds of songs in their repertoire, and lived on improvisation. Truly, every concert they ever played was a unique and different beast. They never played the same song twice. They have, in fact, released no fewer than 30 live albums and continue to do so, on a regular basis. And as anyone in business will tell you, they wouldn’t be doing so, if there weren’t people buying them.
So, my answer to my brother then, as it is now is, “definitely, dude.”
Their newest live outing, Live at the Cow Palace, comes from a performance on December 31, 1976, and it’s a smoking one. The Dead’s New Years Eve performances were legendary for their monolithic length and monstrous sound. Clocking in at well over three hours, this one is no different, and since it didn’t get started until a little before midnight, it must have been some party through the wee hours of the new year.
This is actually my favorite period for the Grateful Dead, in terms of live performance. By this point they had a large body of songs in which they performed, both those they had written themselves, and a wonderful collection of covers. This ensured that the set list remained consistently interesting and different. Bob Weir had grown into a significant leader, the band’s best singer, and a power house rhythm guitarist. Gone were the days of the long haired, spacey looking kid who sang cowboy songs and plinked along with his guitar.
Jerry Garcia is as fiery as ever, and the rest of the band was now able to keep up. While the band may have toned down slightly from the growling hell-beast of their earliest years, they could still tear into a song like no other act in rock music.
The sound on these three disks is clear, crisp and brilliant. The disks say they are optimized using the HDCD technology, and while my crappy speakers are no where near anything anybody would call high definition, the sound is still on the far side of awesome. Each instrument (and there are six of them, not including vocals) comes in without the slightest hint of fogginess and everything is beautifully clear.
The music is pretty dang brilliant. Normally on these giant New Years Eve shows, the band would take awhile to warm up, as if knowing they would be playing for ages, they’d take their time getting anywhere. But here, within three songs they are springing into interstellar overdrive.
I must make a secret Deadhead confession here. I’ve never really cared for the Dead when they verge into the deepest depths of improvisation. On a song like “Playing in the Band” the Grateful Dead would often leave all semblances of anything like a normal song and run raging into something that can only loosely be called music. For many fans, this is THE reason for digging the band, the heart and core of what it was to be a deadhead. To me, it is at this point that I start itching for the fast forward button.
This isn’t to say that I don’t dig the jams. I just like them with a little more structure. I get my musical rocks off when the band stretches the songs out into jamming bliss, but maintain a little of the melody, a snippet of the song. Keep the skeleton of the song while your inventing new music. That’s all I ask.
But don’t tell anybody, or they’ll take away my secret Deadhead card.
For the most part, the boys stay slightly grounded. There are a few minutes of space exploration, but mostly they keep the very basics of song structure intact. For my ears, it is pure bliss. They even turn “One More Saturday Night” into something blissful, and if you’ve ever heard that crap-fest of a song, you’ll know that’s an achievement unto itself.
This is not by any means the place I’d send a newbie. If you’ve never heard the Grateful Dead, skip this collection and go to something more understandable, like American Beauty, or Workingman’s Dead. This isn’t even the place I’d send experienced heads, looking for some live vibe. There are a stack of live disks I’d take in front of these.
So, should the long-term Deadhead purchase this set? Is there any reason, for someone who already has numerous live shows to throw down his or her hard earned cash for just another show?