Anyone who ever attended a Grateful Dead concert knows that their 28 albums never fully captured the concert experience. Like jazz musicians, the Dead used songs as jumping-off points. In three decades of performance, they improvised and reinvented their material so thoroughly that no tune ever sounded quite the same way twice. One of the sadder aspects of Jerry Garcia's death is that the magic of a Dead show is forever in the past tense, because the Dead without Garcia are hard to imagine. For the uninitiated, their recorded legacy is the only option. The seven albums below supply the best approximation of their unique sound:
(1969). Start here. A concert recording released 26 years ago, this quintessential album still epitomizes the band at its best. The seven-song set leads off with a 23-minute version of "Dark Star," a jazzy midtempo epic that continually knots up and then unravels like a musical quest for answers that never come. The band's signature song for a quarter century, this loping tune is a continual source of inspiration for the band. By the end of the album, you've heard nearly all the Dead's musical styles, beginning with rock and jazz and finishing up with nearly nine minutes of manipulated electric feedback-pure sound as music-- and an a cappella song, "And We Bid You Good-night." There's nothing on this album that could crack a radio format then or now; conversely, there's nothing dated about this music. Two decades later, it still sounds fresh.
(1970). "Live/Dead's" antithesis, but almost as good, it was recorded in the studio and the songs are constructed so traditionally they sound as if they were written 100 years ago. The band's folk and bluegrass influences lend a sweet lyricism to classics like "Uncle John's Band" and "Cumberland Blues." But what distinguishes this album is the dark, sorrowful temperament that underpins songs like "Black Peter" and "New Speedway Boogie" (a song about the violence-torn Altamont music festival, where it was the Dead who urged the Rolling Stones to use Hells Angels as stage security).
(1972). The playing is, as ever, impeccable. The singing is, as usual, mighty frail. But the songs! This album was the high point of a songwriting binge between Jerry Garcia and his lyricist Robert Hunter that lasted for most of the '70s and included songs like "Truckin'," "Brokedown Palace," "Bertha," "Jack Straw," "China Doll" and "Stella Blue." None is a love song. Unlike most pop acts, the Dead have never written much about romantic love. Their songs are more apt to be hard-luck stories-- some mournful, some surprisingly funny-- about desert rats, sharecroppers, footloose troubadours, gamblers and bums.
(1991), Two From the Vault (1992), Dick's Picks Vol. 1 (1993), Dick's Picks Vol. 2 (1995). Concert tapes from the band's archives, these performances are like snapshots of the band's evolution, from rough and eager in 1968 to sly and sophisticated by 1975. "Two From the Vault," from 1968, is first among equals here. Emboldened by the superb vocals of Ron (Pigpen) McKernan, the band charges into blues territory. Pigpen was the strongest singer the Dead ever had. He gave them entree to an R&B palette otherwise off-limits, because vocally he was the only one in the band who was up to it. When he launches into "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl," he elevates lewd to the level of art, and jump-starts the band into one of its greatest performances.