“Once we’re done with it, the audience can have it.” — Jerry Garcia
It so happens that one of the greatest things about the Internet is also one of the not-so-greatest things: you hardly ever have to leave the house anymore. Of course, for traders and collectors of bootlegs, this has been a major boon. Obscure tapes a fan might spend years tracking down in previous times can now be searched, found, and downloaded with ease. And — as a special added bonus — their quality won’t degrade with every copy.
For Deadheads, especially, such easy online access has been critically important in maintaining a community of people who love the Grateful Dead, when there hasn’t been a Grateful Dead show in years. That’s enough time for new generations of Deadheads to emerge, and to discover and grow up with a resource their elders could only dream about: the Internet Archive’s Grateful Dead collection, which currently features over 15,000 recordings (mostly complete concerts) and continues to expand as more are added.
Sure, it’s not quite compensation for never getting to see, and tape, the band in person, but these days, such a thing would probably be impossible in any case, even if Jerry Garcia hadn’t died in 1995. (Last year, to keep fans’ spirits up, band members Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Donna Jean Godchaux welcomed famous special guests on YouTube and broadcast unreleased filmed concerts in the weekly “Shakedown Stream.”) For those raised on Dead tapes, the archive must feel like coming home. For others, it can be a bewildering collection of dates, venues, and locations.
How to navigate the thousands of recordings of the estimated 2,200 concerts captured on tape by the band and their fans over the course of decades? A few years back, one fan made a list of the “10 Essential/Best Grateful Dead Shows,” all of which you can download and/or stream and pore over to your heart’s content.
“I am not an old Dead Head, or a member of the 4‑decade club,” he admits. “In fact, I never saw a show, seeing as I was born in 2001.” It’s not his fault, but he’s entered an arena where fundamental disagreement about such things is a matter of course.
1. 09–21-72, The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
2. 05–08-77, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
3. 02–27-69, Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA
4. 05–02-70, Harpur College, Binghamton, NY
5. 08–27-72, Veneta, OR
6. 07–07-89, JFK Stadium, Philadelphia, PA
7. 05–26-72, The Strand Lyceum, London, England
8. 12–31-78, Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA
9. 11–08-69, Fillmore Theater, San Francisco, CA
10. 12–06-73, Cleveland Public Hall, Cleveland, OH
11. 06–26-74, Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI
See the top ten list above (including links to shows), find honorable mentions here, a shorter list by Mike Mineo here, and add your own picks in the comments. And consider the fact that a band who devoted more time to touring than anything else “had just one Top Forty hit in thirty years,” Nick Paumgarten writes at The New Yorker (though “not for lack of trying”). They more than their share of terrible nights onstage (by their own admission) but still inspire people who will never see them play.
“Each tape seemed to have its own particular note of decay, like the taste of the barnyard in a wine or a cheese,” writes Paumgarten of learning to savor these concerts: “You came to love each one, as you might a three-legged dog.” For Deadheads, it can be hard to pick favorites, especially if you haven’t heard them all yet. Immerse yourself in live Dead now at the Internet Archive’s Grateful Dead Collection here. Browse by the year of the recordings here.