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From Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan: The best Grateful Dead guest appearances

If there’s one band who was always likely to throw out a hand and invite you up on stage to jam with them, it would be the Grateful Dead. Across every one of their incarnations (acquiring and losing members of the band throughout the years), the group maintained that the sense of freedom one feels while on stage should be extended to everybody worth their weight in artistic gold. It goes hand in hand with the band’s principal ethos of continuously evolving their sound while under the spotlight.

Few bands have ever encouraged such widespread devotion as the Grateful Dead. The group, led by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, has always gathered fans up like taking handfuls of the very dirt they’re standing on. Using their unique live show style, they enthralled audiences, providing them with a sense of escapism that simply wasn’t available anywhere else. Though there were certainly some extra-curricular activities happening all around the band and in the crowd, the truth is that they demanded the attention of their fans by allowing them the freedom to express themselves fully. There was no judgement for the Deadheads and seemingly not for any act who wanted to join them on stage.

It can almost seem a little churlish to describe the band as a good live act. Before the Grateful Dead, there was no such thing as packing up your life and following a band across the country. Even if you did head for the next stop on the tour, chances are it would usually end there. But the powerful show the band provided turned regular fans into devoted Deadheads, happy to not only travel a few miles but leap across the entire country, taking part in the mass immigration of some serious vibes. Perhaps one of the Dead’s real joy was that they seemed to inspire so many other acts.

The group weren’t exactly commercially savvy. the Grateful Dead have often been regarded as a poor studio band, something Jerry Garcia even said himself, remarking that he didn’t like many of the band’s albums. But they still had the respect of the industry for what they did on stage. It wasn’t only a evolutionary form of performance, using the band’s intent and measure to create jams that could last hours and hours, but a truly revolutionary moment too.

The Grateful Dead proved that you didn’t need three-minute foot-stompers to make it as a band, and that performance was truly the interaction between artist and audience—not a one-way conversation. This inspirational tact has led to the group gaining countless admirers who all wanted to jump on stage with them. Below, we’ve picked out our favourites for your perusal.

Find a complete live playlist of the Grateful Dead here to swot up on one of the finest live bands to have ever graced the earth.

The best Grateful Dead guest appearances:

John Belushi

A slightly left-field choice (hey, this is the Dead, after all), but the appearance of John Belushi at one of the band’s famous shows in New York will always capture our attention as it put the mellow vibes of the group on a head to head collision course with Belushi’s anarchic style. It also makes our list as it may be one of the only occasions when the guest wasn’t actually invited on stage.

After Belushi was refused the chance to sit in on one of the Dead’s shows, the comedian decided that he’d crash the party anyway. He invaded the Capitol Theatre, New York stage, to make for a legendary evening for all who were lucky enough to be in attendance. Though Belushi’s musical exploits were minimal, the anecdotal ammo it would offer you in your local bar meant going to this show has earned some fans Grateful Dead stripes.

According to Bill Kreutzmann’s book, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreaming, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, Belushi was undeterred by the rejection and instead performed a perfect “comedic ambush”.

Kreutzmann continued: “[Belushi] had on a [sports] coat with small American flags stuffed into both of his breast pockets, and he landed his last cartwheel just in time to grab a microphone and join in on the chorus. The audience and everyone in the band—except for Phil—ate it up. It couldn’t have been rehearsed better. Belushi had impeccable comedic timing, musicality, balls, the works. And apparently, he didn’t take no for an answer.”

The Beach Boys

At the Fillmore East in New York, Grateful Dead would welcome pop-rock behemoths The Beach Boys to the stage for a special jam session. It was an everyday occurrence for fans of the Dead, picking up special guests with the ease of wind picking up grains of sand; the band were experts in welcoming stars to their stage. Even by 1971, with the band still in their comparative infancy, the Dead were more than happy to welcome some huge names.

Though the crowd would let out a half-moan following Jerry Garcia’s announcement that “We got another famous California group, it’s the Beach Boys,” they would soon be shown why exactly Garcia was so pleased to introduce the hugely influential band. Deadheads are loyal to their group, and the rumbles of discontent were certainly short-lived as the other giants of the West Coast made their way across the country to bolster the arsenal of their Californian pals; it was a one of a kind show.

If you ignore Mike Love’s desperate attempts to be “hip” by retelling a story about getting stoned with Buffalo Springfield, the performance is pretty tight. Of course, without Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys were never quite at full tilt, yet their renditions of ‘Help Me, Rhonda,’ ‘I Get Around’, and ‘Good Vibrations’ were all welcomed with open arms.

By the end of ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ the Dead had begun to re-enter the stage for two more songs with the Cali band. As well as taking on a cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’ (which you can hear below) they finished the night with a rendition of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’. And another crazy night with the Grateful Dead was later brought to a close.

Etta James

Etta James is one of the most powerful singers of all time and should rightly be considered a pillar of strength for the entirety of the music spectrum. She joined the band on New Year’s Eve in 1982 for a serious performance that would never be forgetting.

Bringing the local band Tower of Power, a horn group that helped to provide the backing for James’ landmark vocal performances. She performed some classic songs, including ‘Tell Mama’ as well as a cover of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, which confirm the singer was able to traverse genres as easily as she scaled up notes.

Her performance of ‘Hard to Handle’ is perhaps the greatest moment from this special NYE show. It does a perfect job of showing exactly why James is still considered a legend to this day.

Bob Dylan

Of course, for Bob Dylan, there are many occurrences we could point to as some of his finer moments with the Grateful Dead, largely because he had so many of them. Joining the band in 1987 as part of the ‘Dylan and The Dead’ tour helped reinvigorate the singer’s entire live show with one single rehearsal session. In Dylan’s autobiography, he recalls: “Everything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch the right nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history anymore.” Dylan felt pushed aside and was now becoming more than happy to take his place in the history books.

The band was intent on rehearsing as many of Dylan’s songs as possible, knowing that they may need to rely on the arsenal of tunes at one point or another during the tour. It was a daunting task for an artist who thought his time was up. He left the studio and was determined never to return until a run-in with a jazz band made him reconsider. ‘Dylan and The Dead’, as the live show and subsequent album, was titled, was a frightening concept for the singer, but “then miraculously,” he adds, “Something internal came unhinged.”

“I played these shows with The Dead and never had to think twice about it. Maybe they just dropped something in my drink, I can’t say, but anything they wanted to do was fine with me.” One such impressive performance comes as Dylan joins the band for a marvellous performance of ‘I Want You’.

Neil Young

Following the tragic death of concert promoter Bill Graham, a gathering of musical acts and music fans assembled in Golden State Park to pay tribute to his life and legacy. Among the acts were the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, who delivered a touching performance of Bob Dylan song ‘Forever Young’.

Young was in attendance as part of the Crosby, Stills Nash and Young set and was happy to stick around for the Grateful Dead’s closing of the show. During the performance, the Dead also welcomed John Fogerty to the stage for a few Creedence Clearwater numbers marking some of the first times they had been played in decades—but it was Young’s introduction that stole the show.

Bob Dylan, a friend of the Dead’s himself, was not in attendance due to ongoing tour commitments but he did, according to Young pass on something else. “I got a letter here from Bob,” Young says in the clip below before beginning the song, ‘Forever Young’. “It’s too big to read, so we’re going to have to play and sing it to you.”

The two artists melt together seamlessly, integrating Young’s notable vocal with the Dead’s expert playing means this is one of the most memorable Bob Dylan covers of all time.

Janis Joplin

Two of the everlasting idols of the sixties spirit, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead, didn’t cross paths too many times but, on one special occasion, they delivered quite possibly the finest jam session in either of their respective careers.

Two acts that were born out of San Francisco’s vibrant hippie culture were the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. The two acts would enjoy a similar beginning but sadly have two very different ends. The Dead, as they became affectionately known, were the archetypal rock group of their surroundings. Never keen to sit still, they endlessly toured and evolved their music at the same speed. No two shows were the same and they relied on the uniqueness of their output to gather an army of fans which would see them tour extensively way into the nineties. Joplin, on the other hand, also garnered a group of fans thanks to her mercurial talent but would sadly never see old age, dying at the tender age of 27.

Their similar stories of growing fame and chartered success would see the stars cross paths on several occasions, something which was accentuated by Joplin’s reported romance with Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan of the Dead. Joplin would share the stage with the band a few times in her career but one stands out above the rest, when Janis Joplin joined The Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West on June 7th, 1969.

The first time Joplin joined the band on stage came with a certain amount of trepidation, but the singer absolutely knocks it out of the park and delivers a powerhouse vocal performance. Equally, the Dead are at the top of their game too, churning out the kind of jams that would make minds swirl with glee.

Pete Townshend

On March 28th, 1981, the band welcomed another guest of seriously high esteem as the principal songwriter and lead guitarist of The Who, Pete Townshend, meets the band on stage for a three-song set that had enough power to bring the entire house down. Grateful Dead were on tour (shockingly) in Europe following a short run at the Rainbow Theatre in London with a final show in the German city of Essen. The band left the English capital and made their way to the German city for a feature-length performance on the legendary TV show, Rockpalast.

The television show was at the height of its power and managed to bring in some notable rock ‘n’ roll acts when they invited the West Coast counter-culture kings, The Grateful Dead, to join them in front of the TV cameras. The band weren’t exactly the punk-fired acts the show had become accustomed to, but the Dead had an ace in the hole they were ready to breakout.

That ace was none other than lead guitarist Pete Townshend. While The Who may have been in a bit of a creative lull at the time, Townshend joined the Dead for a rollicking performance that proved he wasn’t done with rock and roll just yet as they deliver a powerful rendition of ‘Not Fade Away’.

The Allman Brothers and Peter Green

If you take Bob Weir, add Jerry Garcia and then add into that mix the searing talents of Duane Allman and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, you have a concoction of guitar heroes capable of burning the house down.

That house was the Fillmore East, a home away from home for the Grateful Dead, and it saw the group of performers deliver one of the greatest performance of all time, bar none. Gregg and Duane Allman were at the top of their game, and Peter Green was a noted gem in the crown jewels of the British blues scene. It may be one of the more chaotic shows in the band’s catalogue, but it certainly does show the power they had in their hands.

The blues of the guitarists at hand can be heard in their unusual rendition of ‘Dark Star’, which deeply reflects on the sixties sounds. It opens up from there into a rarely heard version of ‘Spanish Jam’ before the Dead take over proceedings and takes the gig into a whole new plain. But it’s possibly the 33-minute jam on ‘Lovelight’ that will live longest in the memory for those who witnessed it.

Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana is arguably one of the greatest guitarists of all time, but he saw the brilliance of Jerry Garcia and claimed him as the greatest axeman he had ever seen. It seems fitting then that the two Bay Area icons would sit in on a few sessions with the Dead, but this performance at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, the University of Las Vegas, back in 1991, is one of the greatest.

It contains one of the band’s most noted jams of all time as a 17-minute swirling rendition of ‘Bird Song’ with hints of another cracker, ‘The Other One’ also flecked within the show. The real joy of these performances is witnessing Santana and Garcia duelling with one another, determined to one-up each other in an attempt to elevate the experience for the audience.

There’s no better sonic experience than hearing two guitarists who clearly appreciate each other battling it out. Luckily for Dead fans, they’ve enjoyed this for decades.