It would be downright prejudicial to exclude the Grateful Dead from any list of the most relevant ‘alternative’ artists, but for a ‘cult’ band, they sure sold a lot of records.
From 1970 onward, the band charted over a dozen albums in the top 40. “Live/Dead” (released in 1969) only came close to that level of success, but it may be the single most important album in their official catalog and it contains every ingredient that led to such devotion from their eternally obsessed fan base. Most of their ‘hit’ albums were studio concoctions, and even non-‘Dead-Heads’ know that the band’s reputation is based on live shows. “Live/Dead” is the album that started that reputation, and rightfully so, but if you already dislike the band, this record probably won’t do much to change your mind.
“Dark Star” might be the single weirdest album opener of its time. The band noodles (Noodles? Damn, that in itself is insulting and demeaning. The band plays as if focusing on a target) for about for six full minutes (six rapturous minutes, if you get hooked) before the song starts to gel and once it does, it presents an inscrutable lyric based on an improbable melodic structure; It’s as though the song is fighting itself into existence. After one verse, it then leaps into the great unknown for an additional twelve minutes. There is so much here that has common ground with Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” but this came first, and quite obviously, there is significantly more formal structure here than on any of Miles’ latter-day fusion tracks. While a few other bands were already experimenting with long form improvisation (Soft Machine comes to mind), nobody could do it as well as the Grateful Dead. Their instrumental interaction is stunningly intuitive and thus intriguing, sometimes intoxicating, to a discerning listener…but far from perfect; I’m not going to defend “Feedback,” but it’s the concentrated bits that matter here.
Whatever your own presuppositions, you’d be wise to exercise some caution when listening to “Live/Dead” for the first time, because for some people, the Grateful Dead can be addictive. A large percentage of the population seems incapable of listening to anything at all by the band, but a significant percentage of those who do listen find themselves ‘hooked’, engrossed in an all encompassing, life-altering obsession that overwhelms everything else. Repeated listenings only make it more likely that you will succumb, as the improvisations start to convey discernable patterns. Personally, I feel lucky that I’ve been able become a fan of the Grateful Dead and yet sidestep any obsessive behavior, but when I listen to “Live/Dead,” I sometimes get the feeling that I’m standing on a precipice and could surrender to the void.
November 1969 - Billboard Charted #64
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