Deconstructing The Dead
We probably all know someone who can listen to a snippet of a song and instantly recognize it. It’s a neat parlor trick, to be sure. But, it’s not an uncommon talent. In fact, there are enough folks capable of doing it that they made a long-running game show called Name That Tune back in the 70’s. But, how do we apply that ability to pick out a tune from the Grateful Dead’s extensive live catalogue? And going further, to name when that song was recorded?
These days, you can pull up at least five versions of every show the band ever played on the internet. Complete with tapers notes, comments from those in attendance, and a thorough list of each microphone that was used and how far it was positioned from center stage. But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to the internet, Deadheads had their own sophisticated and rigorously designed network of communication. They used it to swap tickets and backstage passes, merchandise and of course, tapes. Yes, the tapes that would become our online catalog of live Dead today. But, this network was primitive by today’s standards. Cassettes weren’t always clearly or accurately labeled. Some were barely labeled at all, foregoing the song titles entirely and being instead emblazoned with a simple Stealie. Others had been lovingly and carefully illustrated with elaborate designs, only to fade away from years spent on dusty shelves.
It took Heads with keen ears and advanced perception to decode those mysteries. But, with a little background knowledge, extra time and an open mind, you too can blindly listen to just about any live show from the Grateful Dead’s live catalog and narrow it down to within five years. But, why would you want to? Because this ability will lead you to better understand, and more thoroughly enjoy, who the Grateful Dead were and how they did what they did. To paraphrase Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, just because you’re listening to the Grateful Dead doesn’t mean you’re hearing them. Ready to hear them?
Now even the most casual fan could probably listen to a song like Casey Jones or Sugar Magnolia and be able to name-check it after hearing just a few bars. But could they listen to a live version of it and tell you what year it was recorded? Which venue, even? Some Deadheads have such an expansive knowledge of shows that they can do just that. They can tell you what shoes Jerry was wearing that night, what the weather was like outside and how many people attended the show. Who the promoter was, what sort of image was featured on the backstage pass and what brand of beer was being served in the lobby. This kind of ability takes years of research and reading of first hand accounts from witnesses on the ground. Then, compiling all that data in the mind's filing cabinet in a way that allows one to recall such trivia at a moment's notice. That’s not something most people have the time, ability or inclination to do. And for our purposes here, that’s not the sort of minutia we’ll be combing over. But for those who would like to understand the Dead’s live catalog on a slightly deeper level than most, there are a few tricks one can employ that will allow them to narrow down when a recording was made just by listening for a few key things. This will help you understand better what kind of band the Dead was at that moment, as they morphed and grew over their career. It will allow you to “grok” the Grateful Dead in a way the average classic rock radio listener doesn’t.
To be able to do this, you must first have at least a cursory idea of who was in the band and when they were in it. Of course, there are four guys who performed with the band throughout their initial 30 year run without exception: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzman. You’ll always hear those four guys on any live dead recording, so hearing them won’t necessarily help you determine when a recording was made. I say it won’t “necessarily” help you… but, we’ll come back to that later.
So, who else could we possibly expect to hear on a show? Well, the other guy you’ll most likely hear is percussionist Mickey Hart. It will be important to develop an ear for his contribution to the group’s sound, since it compliments Bill’s drumming without aping it. They play often off each other, you see. While Bill holds down the backbeat on a trap kit, Mickey colors outside the lines with an array or percussive instruments sourced from around the globe. He’s responsible for that distinctive “world beat” influence you’ll hear. But, how does this help us narrow down when a show was played? The answer lies with knowing when Mickey was in the band. There was a brief period between February of 1971 and October of 1974 where Mickey had left the band. Therefore, if you’re listening to a show and only hear Bill’s trap kit, you’re likely hearing a concert from that window of time. That narrows down a three decade long stretch of time to just about three years!
What if you hear a female voice warbling along to the melody? That would be Donna Jean. Some Heads love her while others don’t. Whichever camp you fall into, being able to pick her voice put in the mix can help you narrow down which era of the band you’re hearing. Donna Jean Godcheaux and her husband Keith joined the band VCJ in the winter of ‘71, with Keith predating Donna by only a few months. They would remain with the group until February of 1979.
Neophytes may have a hard time distinguishing a Europe ‘72 China Cat from a June 1974 example, but that’s okay. It takes time to develop an ear for such distinctions. If you get confused, just listen to the music play.
Recognizing who’s on keys is one of the easiest ways to pinpoint which era of The Dead you’re hearing. Let me reiterate that more forcefully: the keyboards are in my opinion the distinguishing characteristic that separate one era of The Dead from another. Familiarize yourself with each keyboardist’s style and tone and you will unlock the mystery.
Over time you’ll realize that when you don’t hear the bluesy organ tones of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in one of them, it must have been recorded after his passing in 1973. Instead you may hear the more “schooled” stylings of a classically trained pianist. That’s Keith Godcheaux. Or, Brent Mydland. But, here’s where it can start to get a bit sticky.
There was a small window of time when Pigpen and Keith were in the band at the same time. This was during The Dead’s 1972 European tour. Some of the time, Pigpen was playing harmonica while Keith held it down on the keys. But when they do play together, it’s easy to discern Pig’s bubbly Hammond tones from Keith’s plinky acoustic piano. Listen to the May 4th, 1972 show recorded at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, France for a great example of their interplay on the song “He’s Gone”. Also, check out the Tivoli Concert Hall show from April 17th, 1972 recorded in Copenhagen, Denmark to hear some of Pigpen’s stellar blues harp on the song “Next Time You See Me”. One more thing regarding Europe ‘72, because it is such a legendary tour: This took place during the era that Mickey had left the band, so take notice of the fact you’re only hearing one drummer.
But, to backtrack for just a moment, I have to mention Tom Constanten’s contribution while we’re covering keyboardists. Tom was sort of the “Phil” of Grateful Dead keyboard players, in that he approached his instrument in an avant-garde fashion, fusing jazz with rock ‘n roll often creating a swirl of psychedelic tones with his organ. Listen to the official release “Live Dead” for a sampling of his work. He’s arguably the most overlooked of The Dead’s keysmen, but his contribution to the evolution of the band’s sound shouldn’t be.
Keith and Donna came to the Grateful Dead as a package deal and they left as one, too. February of 1979 saw the couple’s departure and within a couple of months the band welcomed Brent Mydland on keys. Brent’s sound is distinct from Keith’s in that he primarily played a Hammond B3 organ and various other synthesizers as opposed to an acoustic piano. Like Keith, he was classically trained. But, Brent’s style and phrasing had more “swing” to them. More “soul”, for lack of a better word. And he had a voice, not unlike Michael McDonald, with a high, raspy tone, which he employed to great effect on songs like “Blow Away”, “Easy To Love You”, “Just A Little Light” and “Tons Of Steel”. All of which would become staples of the Grateful Dead’s love set until Brent’s passing in July of 1990. If you hear any of those tunes, you’re hearing a show that took place between 1980 and 1990.
That narrows us down to a decade. Pretty good, but how can we narrow down what we’re hearing even more? Well, if you hear Bob Dylan singing it was recorded during the 1987 Dylan and The Dead Tour.
It’s helpful to know which songs appeared on which studio records. If you’re hearing “Althea”, it’s not an early 70’s show. The band didn’t start to incorporate that song into the set list until the fall of 1979, just prior to the release of Go To Heaven in the spring of 1980. That said, it’s helpful, but not foolproof. For example, “Touch Of Grey” was released on the Dead’s 1987 album In The Dark. But they were playing that song live as early as 1982. Five years prior to becoming The Dead’s biggest mainstream hit and lone Top 40 single.
I’d like to take a moment here to expound on what a profound turning point the release of “Touch Of Grey” was, not only for the band but, for me personally. For the Grateful Dead, sudden mainstream success fueled by heavy rotation on MTV and corporate rock radio, led to unmanageable crowds showing up at every tour stop. It led to the band being forbidden by some local leaders from ever returning to their quiet little towns. For the first time in their career, the Grateful Dead weren’t just a fringe act. And for every fan that left because the band had “sold out”, three more took their place. The rise of so-called “Touch-Heads”. Folks who never paid any mind to the band until that catchy little earworm planted itself firmly in their psyche. It’s an anthemic number for the working class with a rousing refrain: “I will get by, I will survive”. Who can resist the urge to sing along and share in their hard-scrabble brand of optimism, if only for a few bars?
If you’ll allow me the indulgence, I’d like to take a side road here for just a bit. This era of the Grateful Dead is significant for me personally because 1987 is when I “got on the bus”, as they say. I was just ten years old when the video for “Touch Of Grey” first hit the airwaves and I instantly loved it. As a boy growing up in the 80’s, heavy metal was the first genre of music that piqued my adolescent interest. In part, because of the imagery: demons, fire, skulls and, of course… skeletons! So when I saw those skeletons on stage, smoking cigarettes and playing rock music, it wasn’t much of a stretch for a kid like me to find this impressive. Later, I would stumble upon The Grateful Dead Movie on my public television station. A live concert filmed at San Francisco’s famed Winterland Ballroom in 1974 and released in 1977, the movie opens with a mind-bending animation sequence set to the tune “U.S. Blues”. I would later rent the VHS tape of this movie from my local video store just to watch that animated opening again. As I grew up, my interest in the band waxed and waned, peaking in my 20’s and dipping again in my 30’s. Now, in my 40’s, I’ve gained a totally new perspective on the band, their music and the cultural shift they facilitated by way of their freewheeling, globe-spanning caravan of music makers and merry pranksters. Having never had the chance to see the band perform, I enjoy their shows vicariously through the recordings that were made by The Tapers. But, more on them later. For now, let’s see how we can continue to hone our skills in determining which era of the band we’re hearing on those tapes.
Brent tragically passed away in the summer of 1990. Replacing him was Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick along with Bruce Hornsby on piano for the first year and a half, or so. These shows are recognizable for Vince’s funky synth tones and Hornsby’s delicate flourish on the grand piano. And if you hear an accordion, you know you’re hearing a show from this era as Bruce would often break it out for tunes like “Bird Song” or “Samson And Delilah”. Check out the June 6th, 1993 show at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. for a great example of how Bruce added really nice textures to Bird Song with his accordion.
Vince Welnick may very well be the most unjustly maligned member of the Dead. Fans too often deride his tones as being “cheesy” or “over the top” and compare his sound to that of a carnival calliope. I personally like the fun vibe Vince brought to the band in the wake of Brent’s passing. The band was exhausted by the time he joined and it showed. The tempos had slowed considerably and Jerry’s voice wasn’t much more than a strained croak some nights. Vince’s energy was a nice counterweight to the heaviness the rest of the guys were carrying, mentally and emotionally. So keep an ear out for those otherworldly synthesizers and high pitched backing harmonies laid over a luxurious padding of grand piano: that’s the Vince/Bruce era of the early 90’s Dead you’re hearing.
Speaking of Jerry’s voice, you can also use it as a guidepost while you find your way through the decades. As the man aged, and as the grip of his heroin addiction tightened, Jerry’s voice weakened. In June of 1986, Jerry fell into a diabetic coma for six days. The band would go on to cancel all shows in the coming months, only returning in December once Jerry felt up to it. The December 15th, 1986 show at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is a special show, opening with “Touch Of Grey”, which in light of Jerry’s near death experience took on a whole new feeling. It’s obvious that the rest did him good. 1987-1991 are pretty stellar overall, save for the odd clunker here and there. But, once they got into 1992-1995, Jerry’s voice was just barely there. He sounded 20 years older than he was. Match up Jerry’s frail vocals with Vince’s keys and you’re listening to the last five years of the Grateful Dead 30 year run.
What I’ve laid out here is by no means a comprehensive breakdown of Dead eras. It's not meant to be. It’s more of a 30,000 foot overhead view, at best. But, if you know who was in the band and when they were in it, and if you have a pretty good idea of the way each of those members contributed to the overall sound, you’ll be able to pin down which era you’re hearing within a few years give or take. And over time, your senses will sharpen. Your ears will fine tune. This will not only give you an understanding of the Grateful Dead’s music that most casual listeners don’t have. With this newfound understanding, you’ll hear the Grateful Dead in a whole new way. And perhaps, after years of listening to the band, you’ll really hear them for the first time.