The Grateful Dead has issued nearly a hundred live concert recordings over the years—a peerless abundance, yet only a small sample of the thousands of shows that circulate among fans of the band. Some of the official releases are essential, such as the album “Live/Dead” (psychedelia from 1969) and their first archival release, “One from the Vault,” (jazzy prog(ish)-rock, performed at the Great American Music Hall, in San Francisco, during their hiatus from touring, in 1975). Others are ample accounts of the band at various peaks: the boxed set containing four wild nights at the Fillmore West in 1969, or the briefcase containing their entire 1972 tour of Europe—twenty-two concerts, with a uniformity of polish that the Dead never really matched, before or after. Then there is the Dick’s Picks series, overseen by the late archivist Dick Latvala and his successor, David Lemieux, who has recently introduced a new series called Dave’s Picks. All told, these comprise forty releases.
For the most part, anything the Dead has commercially released is removed from my main source of old shows: the Internet Archive. As a result, many of the band’s best, or at least most complete, performances are not available for free, unless you’re willing to trade, as in the old days, or plug a spare hard drive into a collector’s computer. I tend to stream the music on the Archive. My friends often share the fruits of their downloads with me. I also have stacks of CDs and gigabytes of MP3s (alas, a “lossy” format), plus, in the car, Sirius/XM satellite radio, which, to my passengers’ dismay, has a channel devoted exclusively to the Dead. Then there’s the official Web site, dead.net. That would seem to be plenty.
But, for whatever reason, many of my favorite old shows have been ignored by Dick and Dave. This isn’t to say that I think these are the best ones. Most of them are warty, in one way or another. The sound may be problematic (or worse), the vocals poor, some tracks average. Aficionados may prefer a gig a week or two earlier or later, and on some days, I might, too. But I love these. Or parts of them, anyway. So here, in chronological order, one per year—excluding a few years, as well as anything after 1986 (post-coma was fun for a while but doesn’t hold up on tape, to my ears)—is a baker’s dozen: my thirteen essential, commercially ignored—some desert-island Dead.
2/22/69, Dream Bowl, Vallejo, Calif.
The Warlocks became the Grateful Dead in 1965, but it took a few years for the band to find a voice. If 1968 was primal psychedelic Dead, 1969 was the apotheosis. There’s too much to choose from, though the set lists don’t vary much. The hall names have a mythical ring. This year came down to a choice between shows at the Ark and the Avalon, after the Fillmore run, or a more obscure show at the Dream Bowl, just before it. The February 22nd show is as fine an example of this period as any. The “Mountains of the Moon” segue into “Dark Star” is a beaut. “The Eleven,” with its 11/8 time signature, is elemental. “Doin’ That Rag,” soon to be retired, is a kick. Plus you have Pig in his prime, on “Turn on Your Lovelight.” (Listen here.)
6/24/70, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, N.Y.
This is an early specimen of an audience tape. If you’re picky about sound, move along. If you stay, be sure to read the account, at the bottom of this link, of its provenance—a gruff taper named Ken Lee, a kind of tapehead Stagger Lee. Why this one, then? The band sounds ferocious, and the audience is riled. The “Dark Star” suite has its gentle moments, but the way they launch into “St. Stephen,” with the theatre crowd going bananas and what sounds like a gun being shot, gives an eighties Deadhead like me a taste of a more feral time, both onstage and off. (Listen here.)
12/14/71, Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
December of 1971 was a hot stretch. The Dead had a new barrelhouse piano player, Keith Godchaux, yet still had their soul man, Pigpen. They had a host of proper new songs, yet still got weird. The approach was a little cruder than it would be in 1972, but prettier than the year before. The bass had a chunky tone that you could sit on, the one-drummer setup made the tempo brisk, Bob Weir, the rhythm guitarist, had newfound authority, and Garcia had learned to sing. Something about all this and the state of Michigan seems right. Take it from the top. (Listen here.)
8/27/72, Olde Renaissance Fairgrounds, Veneta, Oreg.
In an incredible year, this performance, outdoors in blazing heat, in Ken Kesey country, is legendary. There is unreleased film of it, bits of which are on YouTube. For those who like the long jams, these are some of the finest: “Bird Song,” “Playin’ in the Band,” “Dark Star.” The “China Cat Sunflower”-“I Know You Rider” is foundational. The stage announcements are excellent: missing children, water shortages, lost goods. “Jay Sunday, Earth Man, lost his Austrian billfold. Please leave it at the New World restaurant.” Hotbox time machine. (Listen here.)
2/15/73, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wisc.
Check in on the era-representative versions of “They Love Each Other,” “Here Comes Sunshine,” and “Playin’ in the Band,” which, at fifteen minutes, is relatively lean, if you go in for that kind of thing. But it’s the “Dark Star”-“Eyes of the World” that put Dane County on my life raft. The bass tone, the drum work, the gentle pace: it summons up an exploratory prime. The segue between the two songs, which includes (sin of sins) a bass solo, and then a Garcia-Lesh instrumental duet, and then a dreamy intro to “Eyes,” is like a psalm. (Beware the break between tracks—it wasn’t like that on the old Maxell.) (Listen here.)
5/19/74, Portland Memorial Coliseum, Portland, Oreg.
For years, my ur-1974 was Freedom Hall, Louisville, but that show became an official release, under the Road Trips rubric. This gig, a few weeks earlier, has some goodies. “Truckin’ ” is a fine, iconic song that can get tiresome, but the run-out afterward here, which passes through a funky take on a descending progression known as “The Mind Left Body Jam,” captures the Fender-Rhodes spirit of ’74. So does the next gig, in Seattle. (Listen here.)
5/9/77, Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo, N.Y.
On the desert island next to mine, there’s a guy who brought along every show from May, 1977—including his Betty Board of the highly overrated May 8th Cornell gig (which, I’ll concede, features the definitive version of the disco rearrangement of “Dancin in the Streets”). I have room for only one: Buffalo. The next night is better over-all, but “Help on the Way”-“Slipknot”-“Franklin’s Tower,” sadly underrepresented on this list, is stronger on this night. The slow tunes, too: “Comes a Time,” “Peggy-O.” (Listen here.)
1/22/78, MacArthur Court, Eugene, Oreg.
1978 got a little sloppy, but this one is a monster. Start with “Terrapin,” or else “The Other One.” Listen for the “Close Encounters” theme prior to “St. Stephen.” “Not Fade Away,” often rote, shows some special snarl. Sounds like Garcia was abducted by aliens. (Listen here.)
1/15/79, Springfield Civic Center, Springfield, Mass.
The end of the Keith and Donna Godchaux era had its ups and downs, this night being no exception. But the way the “I Need a Miracle” crashes into “Shakedown Street” is unique and stately. It sounds almost (banish the thought) pre-meditated. The pretty, chimey jam out of “Drums” into the so-called “Playin Reprise” ends with warp-speed Garcia fingerwork that boggles the mind, until you hear the band careen into “Casey Jones,” and then it all makes pharmacological sense. (Listen here.)
11/30/80, Fox Theater, Atlanta, Ga.
An old cult favorite. The whole second set, courtesy of Dr. Bob Wagner. The “Scarlet Begonias”-“Fire on the Mountain” may be the main attraction, but the “Playin’ ” jam is a headlong fever dream—not for the faint of ear. The way “The Wheel” comes out of the “Space” is real purty, though, as is the weepy, deliberate “Ship of Fools.” (Listen here.)
8/29/83, Sivla Hall, Hult Center, Eugene Oreg.
In the early- to mid-eighties, there were marquee nights and grim ones. You could build a rescue raft out of a dozen sturdy “China”-“Rider”s. I just adopted this version, even though no one else I know really seems to know it. The band plays faster than ever, tight and coke-y bombastic bluegrass. The recording is rough (this is why God made equalizers, or other bands), but Garcia blazes. You’ll shed a few pounds. (Listen here.)
7/13/84, Greek Theatre, Berkeley, Calif.
The “Scarlet”-“Touch of Grey”-“Fire” (this was before “Touch of Grey” had been recorded; it’s brisker here) is a beloved oddity. Garcia, often AWOL in 1984, comes to play. The synthy keyboards may frighten off “Alligator” fans, but let’s not forget this was the era of Wham! There’s also another beautiful “Space”-“Wheel” (it’s happenstance, the combo is not a fetish of mine), a death-shrouded “Stella Blue,” a floor-bouncing “Sugar Magnolia,” and then a rare thing for this era, “Dark Star,” as an encore—in the lore, a shooting star blessed the breakout. You’re not in 1969 anymore, but still, a taste of the old magic. With apologies to 10/12/84. (Listen here.)
6/30/85, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Md.
A good night at a great venue. 1985 is dead-cat-bounce year, in the pre-coma Garcia-decline narrative, as the band, celebrating its twentieth anniversary, dusted off some oldies and toyed with a few novelties. Some may prefer the Oade brothers’ audience recording, which has the tinny sound of the old pavilion, but it would be cruel to foist that on newcomers. This soundboard is cymbally, too. Just add bass. The “Shakedown Street” has swagger. 1985 was a good year for “Brown-Eyed Women.” Then the walls caved in. (Listen here.)
Tweet us your favorite Dead shows at #tnydead.
Read Nick Paumgarten’s Annals of Obsession “Deadhead,” in this week’s magazine.
Photograph by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.