Diving back into the enveloping world of Grateful Dead bootlegs
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I knew it was real when I started digging out an old CD wallet to track down all those old discs.
In there, under the dancing skeleton tipping a top hat, were most of my Grateful Dead shows I’d burned to CD as many as 10 years ago, when I was on my biggest kick of downloading and taking bootleg tapes. Save for a couple of shows from the 1980s and their last stand at Soldier Field in 1995, everything inside dated to the 1970s, with acoustic sets and Pigpen and the Wall of Sound and all the other stuff in between, multiple jams and the pulsating drums of “The Other One” strewn across these discs.
All this was notable and more than a bit surprising, if only because I hadn’t listened to any Grateful Dead music for some time. The band was a frequent option at the end of high school and into college as my education on all of rock and roll’s treasured moved along, and when high-speed connections became common place, I started finding and downloading shows, bringing them along in my car and filling the blank spaces with hours of noodling jams.
This most recent renaissance started because I wanted to hear “He’s Gone.” So I put Europe ’72 back onto my iPod and brought it to work with me. After a couple of days of that, I went back to Live/Dead and their self-titled Skull & Roses record. Then the studio albums came into play, and from their some of the deeper releases like One From the Vault and Ladies and Gentlemen … The Grateful Dead: April 1971, and it was all I could do to keep from getting in a van and trying to find the band again.
As recently as a few days ago, I thought I had even cracked the code and gotten all this down to just the essentials. As far as the Dead are concerned, everything I’d ever need in terms of live recordings could be found on Live/Dead, Europe ’72, Ladies and Gentlemen and Skull & Roses. But then a listen to Anthem of the Sun brought me back to the triple-disc Fillmore West 1969 for a ridiculous reading of “That’s It for the Other One.” A quick spin on Workingman’s Dead took me to Dick’s Picks Vol. 8 and the acoustic set they recorded at Harpur College in 1970. And of course, Ladies and Gentlemen took me to other parts of 1971 and Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4, recorded a year earlier, across two shows in February.
The adage that they were never quite the same band twice was absolutely true, at least according to all the live material released. Of course, the released stuff, even all the hours and complete shows, are only part of the story. Another living, breathing giant lies within the vast collection of tapes recorded by fans throughout the years, and all these discs of their work I’d burned and filed away so long ago suddenly became essential listening again. I have a great run through “New Speedway Boogie” from the Fillmore West on June 7, 1970, and the inaugural version of “Wharf Rat” in Port Chester, New York, on Feb. 18, 1971, is incredibly moving and sandwiched inside of an especially tight version of “Dark Star.”
None of this is news. The world the Dead Heads created for themselves is second to none, and the culture of the band is another aspect that’s always been intriguing. As a slavish collector of all things Pearl Jam — including patches, posters, shirts and hundreds of bootleg and the requisite fierce opinions on the best shows that accompany those hundreds of bootlegs — I can understand what drove the average Dead Head for so long. Every show was an experience that demanded to be captured on tape and dispersed as much as possible, with setlists and song variations discussed endlessly. And the passion that the music inspired led to thousands of tape collectors who documented and shared their experiences.
Their work is still out there for us to enjoy, obviously. Heading over to the Internet Archive or Etree.org to find a massive collection of audience and soundboard recordings is no secret and will reveal hours upon hours of concerts and discussion about eras, band members, favorite songs and even recording rigs. The discussion that it spurs on is a reminder that it’s also okay to have preferences, and I certainly have mine. Except for a few instances, I can do without listening to their shows from the 1980s and ’90s. I can even pull the reigns back on the late 1970s, too, and focus my time on the early part of that decade, especially the period in 1971 where they were a five-man unit, with the jams less sleepy and more hard-charging and impassioned. That era is well documented among the band’s official releases, but to limit the experience to that now seems pointless, again.
So instead of “only,” there are simply the essentials. Europe ’72 is a masterpiece. Ladies and Gentlemen is the best representation of my favorite era. Live/Dead and Fillmore West 1969 are hallmarks of the band’s psychedelic era.
And the rest is still there, in the form of bootleg recordings and the band’s nearly endless catalog, always ready to be mined and revisited. There’s a lot of good music in there; even if I only reach back to it once every few years, it’s comforting to know where to find it.
April 27, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org