Graded on a Curve: Grateful Dead,
The Grateful Dead

Celebrating Jerry Garcia, born on August 1st in 1942.Ed.

Many Deadheads, and by this I don’t mean all Deadheads but only many many thousands of Deadheads, suffer from an alarming lack of quality control. To them, the monstrous Shakedown Street is every bit as listenable as Workingman’s Dead. Me, I love the Grateful Dead, but I have by no means swallowed the electric kool aid. Terrapin Station, for instance, makes me want to nail two-by-fours over my ears, and if I hear it coming, I run. Like Hell.

But I adore a half-dozen or so of their LPs, and their 1967 debut is one of them. I love the album for many reasons, but first and foremost I love it because it is, compared to many of the Grateful Dead’s later, more lackadaisical LPs, a real firecracker. The boys are energized, and most of the songs are psychedelic rave-ups that highlight the brilliant playing (I’m not sure he ever sounded better) of guitarist Jerry Garcia. Many Dead albums, including a few I like, are long-winded slumber parties, but on their debut they’re in and out, and traveling at light speed, even on the sole lengthy number, “Viola Lee Blues,” which includes some of the best rock improvisation I’ve ever heard.

I’m not the only one who thinks the LP is uncharacteristic of the Grateful Dead. Bassist Phil Lesh commented in his autobiography that “the only track that sounds at all like we did at the time is ‘Viola Lee Blues,’” before adding that the recording was rushed. To which I can only reply that all of their recordings should have been rushed. The key to their debut is velocity, a characteristic that no one, and I mean no one, would attribute to the mature Grateful Dead. Only two of the LP’s nine songs are originals, but only the bluesy “Good Morning, Little School Girl,” which highlighted the vocals and harmonica of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan sounds like a cover; remarkably, the Dead do a fantastic job of making a potpourri of other artists’ material sound like their own.

Amazingly, the LP only includes one slow burner, “Morning Dew.” And it sounds great reduced to bare bones, as anyone who has ever suffered through the extended live version on Europe ’72 will attest. On this one Garcia’s guitar sounds like the epitome of the “San Francisco Sound,” and his vocals are appropriately doleful. Pigpen’s organ adds some nice seasoning, and the band is as tight as they would ever be. And the Garcia solo! Exquisite.

The Grateful Dead opens with two great fast ones, “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)” and “Beat It On Down the Line.” The first is a Garcia composition and is as snappy as the Dead would ever get, and includes a fantastic Garcia guitar solo, as well as some remarkably energized vocals by the legendarily laid-back Garcia. “Beat It On Down the Line” features guitarist Bob Weir on lead vocals, and lives up to its title. And the Garcia solo is every bit as great as the tambourine that comes in about halfway through the tune.

The gravel-voiced McKernan is the force behind “Good Morning Little School Girl,” which features a cool blues riff by Garcia as well as some great harmonica playing by Pigpen, who knows when to throw in a shout. Speaking just for myself, I think it sounds out of place amongst the band’s other material, but that’s not to say it isn’t a powerful example of blues perversion, especially during the sped-up ending.

“Cold Rain and Snow” is a chipper version of a song the band would later slow down in concert. Garcia handles lead vocals, McKernan’s organ fills the background, and Bill Kreutzmann’s drumming is great. Why, Garcia even gets excitable on vocals, just as they do on feisty follow-up “Sitting on Top of the World,” which boasts one of the coolest (if briefest) Garcia guitar solos I’ve ever heard. As for Garcia’s second solo, it could well be the cure for Ebola, that’s how good it is.

Garcia’s “Cream Puff War” features some guitar mayhem, a great riff, and some amazingly animated vocals by Jerry. Why, he even screams at one point. And his guitar solos are wondrous forays into psychedelic mayhem, with lightning quick runs and big barrages of notes that will leave you in awe.

“New, New Minglewood Blues, like the song that would follow it, were both written by Noah Lewis, the legendary jug band and country blues musician who would die in poverty, from gangrene brought on by frostbite, in 1961. An excitable Bob Weir sings lead, Garcia’s guitar playing is remarkable, and Phil Lesh’s bass is all over the place. Closer “Viola Lee Blues” is the album’s one extended cut, and features both Garcia and Weir on vocals as well as some excellent organ playing by McKernan.

Garcia tosses in a tremendous guitar solo in synch with Pigpen’s organ as the band commences to jam, and while I usually hate the way the bands of the time stretched out their tunes to absurd lengths, on this one I’m mesmerized by Garcia’s guitar. The fat man is on fire, and that’s all there is to it as he tosses off amazing runs and twists and turns. The Dead would go on to play plenty of great jams, and plenty of dull ones too, but this one motorvates, brother, and that’s all there is to it.

I’ll always most love the trilogy of LPs the bands released at the turn of the seventies, to wit Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and the live Grateful Dead, or Skull Fuck as it’s sometimes known. All three are brilliant, and reflect the band’s songwriting skills in a way that their debut doesn’t, but they don’t rock out, the Dead by that time having slowed things down to jam band speed.

On The Grateful Dead the band doesn’t slow down, they rave, which makes this a unique Dead LP indeed. The terrible Terrapin Station and awful Shakedown Street were decades away, and the boys in the band are full of piss and vinegar. They have so much before them. It’s a real pity they ended up putting out shitty albums and performing live shows in their sleep. Or on the nod, in Garcia’s case. On this one they sound like they’re on speed, and of all the drugs out there, it was the one they most needed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text