As a dedicated fan of the long jam—I always felt like I should try to dig the Grateful Dead. I didn’t not dig the Grateful Dead. But I suffered from underexposure to their music, if not to their reputation as endless noodlers. By the time I gave the Dead a chance my head was full of ideas of what a long jam should be, from the likes of Kraftwerk, Coltrane, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd, Sun Ra…
Herein lies a difference. Some jams are structured, controlled, almost orchestral, building into movements or droning on into a haze of noise and sonic wash. Then there’s the Dead, the world’s finest purveyors of meandering endless noodling. I don’t mean that to sound derogatory. One could say the same thing about many jazz ensembles—like Sun Ra’s Arkestra or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew period—without taking away from the brilliant abstraction, the keen conversational interplay, the dynamic range and moments of anticipation, the phenomenal solos….
Maybe there’s a lot more going on than noodling, after all, even if the “endless” part can seem accurate when it comes to the Dead, a point on which I’ve seen Deadheads agree. Of what might be the band’s longest jam—a nearly 47-minute live rendition of “Playing in The Band” from 1974 (top)—one Reddit fan, MrCompletely, writes, “Playin’ is significantly longer than it is good.” Form your own opinion. Your attention span might make up your mind for you.
A far more common topic in forums like Reddit’s r/gratefuldead are conversations about not only which live song ranks as the longest jam, but how blissful and magical said jam was and whether the Deadhead saw the jam or forever regrets missing the jam. One Dead fan, Pyratefish, cites “The Other One” from 9-17-72 as “a beast” to beat them all. “Forty minute ride in to the far reaches of the universe that culminates in a battle for your very soul.” Top that.
Maybe we can, with another candidate for longest jam, a performance of “Dark Star” in Rotterdam in 1972. Mention of this jam brought up other contenders, most of them versions of “Dark Star” or “Dark Star” medleys. One fan, lastLeafFallen, even suggests a “jazzy, experimental, and mind-bending” version of the song from 1990, but they don’t get any takers on that one, even though “Branford Marsalis sits in on sax making this jam especially special!”
The Grateful Dead were genuine jazzheads and meshed well with musicians like Marsalis and Miles Davis. But they didn’t play jazz themselves so much as they used loose jazz figures and ideas to make experimental rock. When done well, it is done exceptionally well, as in the inevitably-overstuffed, 48-minute-long Rotterdam “Dark Star” further up. We can hear strains of future post-rock bands like Tortoise and even late Radiohead, hints of music that hadn’t arrived yet on the planet. And other long passages that sound like something only the Grateful Dead could play.
Just as their early fusion of country, rock, and blues had produced something unlike any of them, their fusion of jazz and rock could synthesize new forms. Or it could fall apart, or both several times over in the same song or at the same time. Hear the full 1974 concert at the University of Seattle at the site Live for Live Music. The epic, 47-minute “Playing in The Band” is track 17. Suggest other candidates for longest Grateful Dead jam in the comments.