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The Grateful Dead: A Beginner's Guide

(Photo Credit - Grateful Dead)

They've been called "America's Best Band" and several other monikers throughout their 30 year career. They also have one of the most recognizable logos in music history, the Steal Your Face Skull (see right). However, The Grateful Dead might just be one of rock's most unapproachable bands. This has nothing to do with them personally, or their sound, which is full of fantastic harmonies, slick guitar solos, and dance-worthy melodies.

Rather, it's the size and sheer scope of their work that turns most people away. You look at a catalog the size of The Grateful Dead's and it's hard to know where to start, especially when you consider their (required) live work. Their live catalog is so large because of the Deadhead's (loyal fans) penchant for taping performances and even engaging in tape trading at the Dead's concerts, all of which was totally sanctioned by the band. Sometimes tapers were even allowed to plug into the board to get the best quality recording possible.

What I'd like to do today is give you some places to start for those that are uninitiated and hopefully you'll come to appreciate one of music's best bands. Am I saying that these are the best songs by The Grateful Dead? Absolutely not, I think any Deadhead would have a hard time agreeing on that list. Rather, this is just a place to get you started.

1. "Box of Rain" - My absolute favorite song by the Dead, "Box of Rain" first appeared on the Dead's acclaimed American Beauty (1970). It was composed by Phil Lesh and lyricist Rob Hunter. It's also one of the rare tracks in the Dead's catalog where Lesh sings. What's so great about this track is the harmonies, Lesh, Garcia, and Weir show off harmonies that are among the best I have ever heard. This is also a rare track by the Dead where the album stands head and shoulders above the live versions.

Definitive Version(s): American Beauty (album version) and Live at Portland Memorial Coliseum (6/24/73).

2. "Fire on the Mountain" - Easily one of the most beloved tracks out of the entire catalog of The Grateful Dead, "Fire on the Mountain" is a track full of jammy instrumentals and dynamic vocals. Give it a listen and I'm sure it will become one of your favorite songs by the Dead as well.

Definitive Version(s): Live at Cornell University (5/8/77) and Live at Palladium (4/30/77).

3. "Scarlet Begonias" - Originally appearing on 1974's From the Mars Hotel, "Scarlet Begonias" is a prototypical jam tracks. Every jam band that came after the Dead can thank this track and many others for their sound. However, it's worth pointing out that this is a special tune, with Garcia primarily on vocals with some dynamic melodies that seem to float throughout. When you put this one on, you'll be moving in no time.

Definitive Version(s): Live at Winterland (12/31/78), From the Mars Hotel (album version), and Live from Cornell University (5/8/77).

4. "St. Stephen" - Another banger from the Dead's catalog, it's lyrics are shrouded in mystery, with lyricist Robert Hunter remaining pretty tight lipped concerning the songs exact origins and meanings. Garcia developed most of the music for the track and it's always exquisitely performed, but I have a couple of my favorites below.

Definitive Versions(s) - Live at the Fillmore West (2/27/69) and Live at Cornell University (5/8/77).

5. "China Cat Sunflower" - This guitar driven tune was originally released on the Dead's 1969 album Aoxomoxoa. It's a ridiculously bright song that you can't help but jam to. Especially because of Jerry Garcia's fantastic guitar solos throughout.

Definitive Versions(s): Live Providence Civic Center/Boston Garden (6/26-28/74) and Live in Paris (1972).

6. "Death Don't Have No Mercy" - A track chock full of bluesy guitar solos and noodling that is reminiscent of Jimmy Page's work, "Death Don't Have No Mercy" is a track that pushes the Dead into harder territory, and it's great.

Definitive Version(s): Live at the Fillmore West (2/27/69).

7. "Althea" - A later entry into the Dead's catalog, "Althea" may have debuted on the critically panned Go to Heaven (1980), but that doesn't stop it from being a barn burner. "Althea" also became of staple of the Dead's live sets after it's release, becoming one of their more popular tracks. It features vocals from Garcia and some great melodies, particularly from Lesh's bass work.

Definitive Version(s): Live at Nassau Coliseum (5/15-16/80) and Live at Alpine Valley Music Theatre (8/7/82).

8. "Dire Wolf" - Originally released on perhaps the Dead's most critically acclaimed album, Workingman's Dead (1970), "Dire Wolf" has the rustic Americana feel that the Dead were known for in the early 70's. While primarily featuring Garcia on vocals, it does have some nice melodies throughout. This is one you're not going to want to miss if you're into folk.

Definitive Version(s): Live at Harpur College (5/2/70) and Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (7/8/78).

9. "Dark Star" - One of the psychedelic rock tracks in the Dead's history, "Dark Star" first appeared as a single in 1968. While it didn't perform well as a single, the song has become one of the Dead's most treasured tracks. The style and structure of the song allows for lots of noodling and improvisation by the band. It's been performed as one track and also been performed in parts throughout a set. It also has the distinction of appearing on the bands Dead/Live (1969) live album as the opener.

Definitive Version(s): Live at the Greek Theater (10/20/68) and Live at the Fillmore West (1969).

10. "Bird Song" - "Bird Song" originally appeared on the Dead's Reckoning live album that was recorded in 1980. However, the song was in the band's rotation of tracks for their sets long before that, appearing as early as 1972. It's a slower track featuring Garcia on vocals, but it moves so well throughout, and features great harmonization that was consistent with the Dead's Americana days.

Definitive Version(s): Live in Veneta, OR (8/27/72) and Reckoning Live Album (1981).

11. "Morning Dew" - I know, I know, it's hard to include a song that is a cover. However, the Dead were never afraid to throw a cover into their live sets, often playing popular tunes of the day to the delight of fans. That's why it's number 11! However, the Dead did this one so well that it might as well be an original.

Definitive Version(s) - Live at Cornell University (5/8/77) and Live at Lyceum Theatre (5/26/72).

All of the versions I have tagged above are readily available on Spotify today. However, if you want to do some more digging into The Grateful Dead's massive live performances, you can visit here. There's loads of goodies for you to get your hands on. Hopefully this little guide will get you started on what I hope will be a long strange trip...

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