But I was wrong. They aren’t so good. Not for me anywhere.
A while back I read with interest a story in the New York Times about how sophisticated many Deadheads had become in their quest for the very best live Dead recordings:
There are at least five different levels to how fans talk about the Dead. The basement level concerns the band’s commercially released albums. This is how a lot of interested but inexpert people once talked about the Dead — myself included — in the early 1980s. I had a couple of skunky-sounding audience tapes, tinkling out distant brown scurf from Nassau Coliseum, but I was an unconnected kid. I listened to “Live/Dead,” “Europe ’72,” and “Anthem of the Sun” — all in the racks at Sam Goody.
The next level is periods or eras, the conversation I was prepared for. There was the aggressive, noisy, color-saturated improvising from 1968 to 1970; the gentler and more streamlined songwriting and arranging of ’72 and ’73; the spooky harmonies of 1975; the further mellowing and mild grooves that lay beyond. Next comes the level of the Dead’s best night: Jimmy’s level, one based on years of close listening to noncommercial live recordings, from the band’s own engineers or radio broadcasts or audience tapers. These began circulating in the early ’70s and became commonplace by the mid-1980s, after I had wandered off the trail.
After that comes particular songs within particular performances. (Some will say the “Dark Star” from Veneta, Ore., on Aug. 27, 1972, or the “Dancing in the Street” from Binghamton, N.Y., on May 2, 1970, encapsulates much of what they like about the Grateful Dead.) Beyond that is an area with much thinner air: here involving, say, audience versus soundboard tapes, the mixing biases of different engineers, techniques of customizing early cardioid microphones, and onward into the darkness of obsession.
Because of the culture of taping and collecting around the concerts, the audience developed a kind of intellectual equity in the band. And as the fans traded more and more tapes, in the nonmonetary currency of mind-blow, a kind of Darwinian principle set in: the most-passed-around tapes were almost quantifiably the best. If a tape wasn’t that good, its momentum sputtered, and it became obscure.
Deadheads have often been polled about their favorite show, through fanzines and Web sites. The answers have stayed fairly consistent. May 8, 1977, at Barton Hall, Cornell University. The pairing of Feb. 13 and 14, 1970, at the Fillmore East in New York — perhaps the first widely traded shows. The Veneta and Binghamton shows. You’d think the canon would have been displaced as more and more information came along, but it hasn’t, really; it has only widened. I have spoken to young Deadheads who, surprisingly, respect the ancient judgments. “I’ll stick with May 8 because of its historical importance,” said Yona Koch-Feinberg, an 18-year-old from Manhattan. “That’s almost as important as the musical ability of the evening.”
Having read this stuff, I was curious. I’ve hate most jam bands and their noodly appendages—that is, the live shows and the shell-necklaced subculture that follows these performers around. I like songs and hooks. I don’t like endless guitar solos stretched out over the same mindless, virtually unchanging beats. I also don’t dig smoking weed amidst the kind of people who are usually into that sort of thing. But, while it’s easy enough for me to ignore crap like Phish and String Cheese Incident, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Grateful Dead. This is due solely to their two early 1970 gems, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.
Those two records are everything the “live” Grateful Dead are not. Concise, focused, witty, poignant. Brilliant. I wouldn’t change a single song from either record. But every time I’ve heard a live recording of the band, I get bored really quickly and turn them off.
I thought, after reading this article, “Maybe I’m just hearing the wrong stuff. Lemme get my hands on this magical May 8th show from 1977.” So I downloaded it using the magic of bit torrent. The verdict? Damn it does sound really good. But it bores me for the same reason all jam band music bores me. Too many damn notes and too much navel gazing. It’s light jazz for potheads.
That’s not entirely fair. There are some great songs in here. I mean, it’s impossible to fuck up a great tune like “Loser”, and at 8 minutes it’s pretty svelte compared to the 16 and 25 minute numbers elsewhere in the set. But mostly, the stellar sound grabbed from the board can’t hold my interest throughout the lengthy musical interludes between the comparatively rare and hoarsely sung verses & choruses
As I’m writing this, it’s May 8th 2009. 32 years later to the day. And I’m listening to that “amazing” show right now. In 8 hours, I’ll be on a plane headed for San Francisco. But thinking about the Dead hitting their magical stride one night more than 30 years ago and visiting their old stomping grounds—I don’t think it will bring me any closer to the mystery of why so many people strive to become “experts” on the band’s live shows. And it sure as hell doesn’t explain why people would follow around lesser imitators with similar fervor years after Jerry Garcia has passed away.
If May 8th, 1977 is as good as it gets, it wasn’t good enough to change my mind about their live recordings.