I am not a Deadhead nor an expert on the Grateful Dead, by any means. I am an occasional listener and, one might say, occasional enthusiast of Deadhead culture, in that I find it equal parts mystifying and fascinating. I mention all these qualifiers fully aware that thousands upon thousands of dedicated fans have spent lifetimes listening to, following, and taping the Dead. It is possible that those people have absolutely no need of what follows below, a chronological playlist of 346 hours of live Grateful Dead, tracking the band’s career on stage after stage, from their very beginnings in 1966 with the talented and tragic Pigpen to their tragic end with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.
Completists may scoff and quibble—I can't tell what's missing here. I speak for those who kind of get it and kind of don't—somewhere between people “who believe that the Dead only ever stumbled,” as Nick Paumgarten writes at The New Yorker, and those who “believe that they only ever soared.” Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, the Grateful Dead just sounded awful, and I dare anyone to prove otherwise. But the same could be said of a lot of great bands, who have all had far less longevity and proficiency.
And so much depends on the quality of the recording, to be fair, not a given in most Dead tapes. Then there’s the “copious drug use, an aversion to rehearsal, and a genuine anarchic streak.” But when they were in phase and in time, and sometimes even when they weren't, they could be "glorious":
The chance at musical transcendence amid a tendency toward something less—was what kept us coming back. This argument is a little like the East Coaster’s on behalf of his weather: the nice days are nicer when there are crappy ones in between.
Writing, he says, as an “apologist,” Paumgarten claims that the Dead’s ups and downs were largely the result of their most talented and “charismatic figure” Jerry Garcia’s erratic performances. “When he had a bad night, you knew it. The others, when they were off, could sort of hide.” When he was on, his “iridescent guitar leads” were transporting (check out his effortless country licks at the top in "Big River"). But his strength waned, and the band lost much of its energy in later years.
Another Dead fan, Marc Weingarten, writes at Slate in praise of the “famously varied… architecture of band leader Jerry Garcia’s frequently transcendent guitar work,” and blames not Garcia's decline for the band’s decline in general but, you probably guessed it, Deadhead fans, who harbor an “a priori assumption… that Dead shows were always magic and that the magic could be routinely summoned on a nightly basis.”
Perhaps unfair. Sometimes fans could make a bad show magical... ish. And it's impossible to imagine the Grateful Dead without their rabid fanbase, who crucially allowed the band to grow, expand, and experiment, always assured of a packed house. But a large part of the Dead’s appeal, to casual fans, at least, is that they were only human. Dudes you could totally get high with (on the power of music!). That’s right, I’ll say it, take a long strange trip. Come back in 346 hours and tell us what you found.
Stream the "Grateful Dead Full Live Chronology" playlist above, or find it on Spotify here.