The Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This is where it all started.
It’s safe to say that when the freshly minted Grateful Dead, who recently changed their name from the less appealing Warlocks, recorded their auspicious debut in early 1967 none of the members suspected the long, strange trip that lay ahead of them. Fifty years later the first official studio set from this legendary outfit gets the “deluxe” remastered/expanded reissue treatment. It’s the initial release in a series that promises to do the same for all of the authorized albums in the extensive Dead catalog as they notch their 50 year milestone. This ambitious project will take years, perhaps even decades, to complete.
What’s most impressive when listening to this eponymously titled offering, with the benefit of half a century of hindsight, is how much it sounds like the Dead we have come to know. Half of these nine tunes remained active in their sets pretty much throughout the tenure of their history. And even if the band gradually retreated from the blues covers that founding member Pigpen loved after he passed, and are so prevalent here, that genre remained an ingredient in the Dead’s diverse repertoire.
While the project is often derided for songs like the opening “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” that seem to be played as though the group were on speed, the distinct elements of country, folk, rock and roll mixed with touches of Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots, all dipped in a shimmering psychedelic haze, are present. Phil Lesh’s singular bass — similar to Jack Casady’s from San Francisco peers the Jefferson Airplane — makes its presence known, and the three vocalists (another trait of the Airplane) swap leads and harmonies in songs that were reproductions of the Dead’s live set of the time. A few tracks, such as their version of the folk standard “Morning Dew” and “New New Minglewood Blues” (the former at 5 minutes, the latter twice that), display the Dead’s unique musical yin/yang synchronicity to open up and jam but keep the structures intact. The fresh remastering here makes the outing sound as crisp and alive as when it was recorded.
Speaking of alive, disc two unveils previously (officially) unreleased material from a Dead performance on July 29-30,1966, at Vancouver’s P.N.E. Garden Auditorium. At this late stage, it’s amazing there is anything of value left in the Dead’s seemingly bottomless vaults. But this 17-song, hour and 20 minute show is captured in sparkling fidelity (especially for the era) and is a real find, even for those who don’t consider themselves the Deadhead faithful. Three selections never appeared on later recordings; the group seems together and tight; and even if Pigpen’s ever-present garage-y organ is charmingly dated, this is far more than a musty relic. They convincingly run through Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and not surprisingly preview many tunes that would eventually appear on their soon-to-be recorded album. Sure, some of it is hampered by the same caffeinated attack they brought to the studio, but this remains an enticing listen and a historically important snapshot of an iconic band in its earliest, and some might contend most innocent, days.