We’re digging through The Grateful Dead vault to bring you a special performance from the iconic jam band. Well, six of them, actually. Below we’re bringing you a collection of the Dead’s greatest live shows of all time and it’s a thankless task. Thankless because if you know anything about The Grateful Dead, you’ll know they have some diehard fans.
Deadheads are widely regarded as some of the most clued-up fans in rock and roll and if you misstep on one tour, show, song, then they’ll let you know. Add into the mix that The Grateful Dead have thousands of shows to choose from and you’ll give yourself a headache pretty quickly. The reason their fans are so connected to the band’s live efforts is that it is where most of the group’s best work has been completed. Of course, they have albums that have transcended time and generations but the real magic of the Dead was on the stage.
So why not kick back and let us do all the hard work for you. Here we’re bringing you six of the band’s finest on-stage performances complete with the knowledge and the encouragement to go and explore them all. There are quite literally thousands to choose from. Expect to see noodling guitars, jam sessions longer than some shows and more. Truly, there is no show like a Grateful Dead show.
That’s largely because every single Dead show is different. The group have made a reputation on their constantly evolving music and performance and its consequential mind-altering properties. The band have a way of picking up their audience and transporting them to a brand new plane of existence—that is the magical quality The Grateful Dead can bring.
So while no show is like another, we’d say that the six below are some of The Grateful Dead’s finest work.
The Grateful Dead’s 6 best live performances
Red pill or the blue pill?
December 1st, 1966, at The Matrix, San Francisco
The Grateful Dead may have been murmuring in the underbelly of San Francisco since 1965, under the guise of The Warlocks, but by 1966 the group had truly found their niche. Arriving at The Matrix on December 1st, the band were at their fiery beginning and all out of blue pills.
The original quintet is still in place when they take that stage at the club, owned by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, are full of youthful vigour and unstoppable effervescence. Bob Weir, only 19 at the time of the recording, is particularly passionate as he sings. Jerry Garcia is equally as refused: “Welcome to another evening of confusion and high-frequency stimulation,” he said during the set.
It’s hard to argue with that. As well as some of their early efforts like ‘Alice D. Millionaire’ getting a run out, the group also performed some R&B staples as well as some later future live show stalwarts. It was the first real statement of a band ready to write the ‘How To’ on touring.
In tribute to Neal Cassady
February 14th, 1968 at Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco
“We respectfully dedicate this set to the memory of Neal Cassady…” said Jerry Garcia when the band approached their second set at the Carousel Ballroom in their natural home of San Francisco. The Beat poet and writer had only passed away a few days prior and his spirit was honoured by a group doubtless influenced by his work.
As well as paying homage to the fallen wordsmith, Garcia and the group also performed a string of songs from their new upcoming album Anthem of the Sun, including ‘New Potato Caboose’, as well as Bob Weir’s ‘Born Cross Eyed’.
The band’s second album still stands out today as one of the most perfect distillations of the counter-culture movement that swelled around San Francisco and which the Dead were firmly in the middle of. A libertine attitude to music’s darkest rock and roll backed up with the intellectualism of psychedelia. Valentine’s Day in 1968, the audience at Carousel got a double dose of it.
Get your fill, a three-hour set starting at 1 a.m.
13th February, 1970 at Fillmore East, New York
Another night around Hallmark’s favourite holiday saw The Dead once again in scintillating form. The late show was certainly that as the group didn’t take to the stage until 1am and when they did, they stayed there for nearly four hours, simply shredding away.
The set is a popular contender for The Grateful Dead’s best as the group are electrifying with their performance of ‘Dire Wolf’, in particular, ranging among their finest. It also saw the group perform ‘Dark Star’ as well as ‘The Other One’ for a rip-roaring performance.
The band eventually finished as the dawn began to break over the city. We can’t imagine how leaving such a show in such a way must’ve felt but we know those in attendance were very lucky.
The Grateful Dead arrive in… Wigan
7th May, 1972 at Bickershaw Festival, Wigan, England
If you’ve ever attended a festival in England then you’ll be well aware that far from the sunshine filter of Coachella, most are clogged in the mud. When those festivals take place in late spring in the country’s foggy North West, then it’s almost guaranteed you’ll arrive at the said festival and instead find the finest bog. This is the scene that welcomed The Grateful Dead in 1972.
Arriving at Bickershaw Festival near Wigan in England in that year they did so with a fearsome reputation as one of the best live bands around. With a stellar line-up, the group took to the stage as ferocious headliners. In the middle of their Europe ’72 tour, the band were firing on all cylinders, it is some of their finest moments on the continent.
It largely made up for their disappointing set at Woodstock in 1969. While they were more than underwhelming at that iconic festival they gave those cold and wet masses in attendance of this ropey festival saw the group performing at a blistering level. The show is also remembered as one of McKernan’sfinal with the band after he tragically died in March 1973 at just 27-years-old.
Great American musicians
13th August, 1975, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
When The Grateful Dead took themselves off the road in 1975, there were some worries that the group may, like an old car unwilling to restart after a long winter, stall and splutter on stage. The group avoided the road and only played four shows in San Francisco — an unthinkable schedule for the band. One of those performances though captured exactly why the band needed their time off.
Recorded at an intimate record-release party for the new album Blues for Allah — easily one of the band’s best studio albums — The Grateful Dead prove why every single minute off the road and focusing on their craft was worth it.
There’s a palpable pride in everything they perform as they showcase the new record. Garcia and Weir are almost jubilant with energy performing ‘Help on the Way’, ‘Franklin’s Tower’ and ‘The Music Never Stopped’ among others. It also saw the band perform some Johnny Cash number and Chuck Berry.
Perhaps already well aware of Blues for Allah potential the group were sure to have the performance recorded and later released as One from the Vault a sumptuous live album.
The Big Time
18th September, 1987 at Madison Square Garden, New York
Perhaps more comfortable in open-top amphitheatres than in mega-venues, The Grateful Dead harnessed their relatively new found fame off the back of ‘Touch of Grey’ to get themselves a five-show run at the legendary Madison Square Garden.
The group did play their now affectionately known “hit single” twice during their five-show stint but not on this night. No, on this night, the band instead borrowed heavily from others and their back catalogue. As well as dipping into Garcia’s solo record Garcia the group also performed a cover of Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ but otherwise opted to dig deep into their vault as a thumb to the nose of those newly acquired “hit single” fans.
Begrudging popstars though they may have been, the spend a good deal of their introduction laughing at the lunacy of such a moniker, the group still deliver a quite scintillating set which is perhaps the best of the core group’s later years. It is a remarkable performance from outsider royalty on the main stage.