Getting Dead

I had a good friend ask me a question recently: “I’ve never really listened to the Grateful Dead, and I didn’t have any friends that listened to them coming up either.  What would you recommend I listen to to get going?”

Seems like a simple enough question, but after giving it a little thought, the answer wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

Looking back, I can tell you exactly when I got into The Grateful Dead.  I was dating a girl my junior year in high school.  One weekend, we were invited to go visit her uncle (or cousin, I can’t remember – not important).  On the way to his house, I was warned by my girlfriend’s parents that he was ‘a little weird’, and was into ‘hippie music’.  By then I was listening to a lot of Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin, Jane’s Addiction, and Beastie Boys, a little of everything, so I was open.

Long story short, he was a Deadhead in the truest sense of the word.  He wore (almost) exclusively tie dye shirts, had long-ish hair, and his house smelled funny.  He was a super nice guy, and we hit it off.  After about an hour, we started talking about music, and he said he had something to show me.  It was daylight, so I wasn’t that worried as we made our way to the basement.  We passed a bunch of colorful posters, and he opened up a double-door closet and turned on the light…

It was stacked from floor to ceiling with tapes.  This dude must have had over 1000 Grateful Dead shows ON TAPE.  It was a sight to see.  This isn’t a picture of his closet, but this is what it looked like inside (Google Image):

He asked if I knew anything about the Grateful Dead, and my response was probably the same as 80% of people that weren’t really into the Dead: “Sure, I know ‘Casey Jones’…I like the ‘Steal Your Face’ skull”.  He smiled, nodded, and we started going through a few of the tapes.  I was really intrigued by the artwork.  Again, this isn’t a picture of his stuff, but a good example (Google Image):

He found one that included “Casey Jones”, and played it for me.  I was immediately struck at how the live version sounded uniquely different than what I had heard.  I loved it.

Anyway – long story short, we spent about an hour down there, listening to music, he was telling stories about all the shows he had seen, following them around on multiple tours in the early- to late-80’s.  Super cool guy.  As we were leaving, he suggested that I buy two CDs: “Skeletons from the Closet” and “Live Dead”.  I bought both CDs soon after and started listening.  Since then, I’ve become a pretty hard core Dead fan.

Moving back to my friend’s question, I don’t know that I’d recommend “Skeletons” or “Live Dead” as a way to get into the Dead.  Back when they were suggested to me, there was no Spotify, iTunes, or any sort of streaming.  All we had was Turtles and Media Play.

I reached out to a couple good buddies about this question, and curated a playlist that should be a good primer for anyone looking to get into the Grateful Dead.  Thanks to my man JGS, Jonah from Miller Brothers, Captain Ben Young of Flood Tide, Mrs. RCS, and a couple others that shall remain nameless.  Here we go:

Early Dead – This is the Skeletons stuff.  It’s actually pretty bluesy, with great lyrics and good beats.  You’ll be surprised at how many of these songs you’ve heard.

Sugar Magnolia
Truckin’
Friend of the Devil
Playing in the Band
St. Stephen
Dire Wolf
Casey Jones
Franklin’s Tower
Loose Lucy
Scarlet Begonias
US Blues
Deal

Later Dead – From about 1974/5, the Grateful Dead really got into their own.  One thing you’ll get from Dead fans is a) they are all pretty cool folks, and b) everyone has their own perspective of when the Dead were at their best.  Personally, I like their later stuff, but I don’t discount ANY of the earlier stuff.  It all plays really well together.

Shakedown Street
Fire on the Mountain
Estimated Prophet
Terrapin Station
Feels Like a Stranger
Me and My Uncle
Jack Straw
The Music Never Stopped
Eyes of the World
Wharf Rat
Sugaree
Althea
Touch of Grey

After you spend a month or so with the above setlist, you’ll be ready to transition to some Live Grateful Dead.  For someone who’s been a fan for 25+ years, Live Grateful Dead is the best Grateful Dead.  It’s why their shows are so popular.  Thanks to Spotify and the Internet, you can find almost any live show for free, but there are a couple that stand out.  Again – this is my opinion, and I’ll reiterate my comment above that I believe they were at their best in the mid-late 70’s.  Here are two shows that are excellent starters for Live Dead:

Cornell ’77 – This is widely regarded as the best Dead show of all time.
Hartford, CT ’77 – Absolutely incredible.  Great sound quality for 1977.

***UPDATE***  Our dear friend Jess Graves just created the above song list as a GATEWAY DEAD setlist on Spotify.  Be sure to click the link and follow.  It’s a really good setlist…

So there you have it.  This is my recommendation for anyone looking to get into the Grateful Dead.  Hopefully you’ll be sporting Steal Your Face shirts and baggies in no time…  I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts in the comments below.  As with all things Dead, let’s keep it kind.

Next time: the new Dead merch.  Get ready…

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21 Comments

  1. Fat Elvis
    07/12/2019 / 7:36 AM

    I remember the Jerry Garcia Band tours in the early 90s. For whatever reason my wife always thought “The Dead” should be a death metal band. Now that the jam and bluegrass resurgence has hit live music, my wife and my kids will listen to a little bit of the GD. Only when I am drving and in charge of the audio.

  2. Billy Powell
    07/12/2019 / 7:43 AM

    Never got into the Dead like I could The Band or Allman Brothers but enjoyed their earlier music. Would love to see a piece about current artists and music that folks with similar taste might enjoy

    • Ryan
      07/12/2019 / 8:27 AM

      My morning jacket

      • CRW
        07/12/2019 / 9:01 AM

        2nd MMJ. Listened to them alot 2006-2010 and then saw them 2ish years ago in Nashville. They are awesome live. 

        • Ryan
          07/12/2019 / 12:31 PM

          They are a completely different band live than on their albums. Playing Red Rocks in August hope to see some of yall there,

    • GBB
      07/12/2019 / 1:31 PM

      There’s an album on Spotify called Day of the Dead. It’s a tribute album for the Dead featuring several current artists covering the classics. Definitely worth a listen.

  3. PDB
    07/12/2019 / 7:46 AM

    I’ve recently (in the past few years) gotten into the Dead following a path similar to what you laid out above.  It’s great windows down, summer time driving music.  I think ti secretly drives my wife a little crazy, but my 8 year old is getting into it now. 

  4. Nem
    07/12/2019 / 7:48 AM

    Dead Set from 1980 is a good gateway album, in my opinion.  Europe ’72 was my first as a know-nothing high school freshman in 1982.  The truth is, don’t matter when you start or what you start with…just listen to the music play.

  5. Randy
    07/12/2019 / 8:18 AM

    Growing up we had a few albums and live recordings floating around the house but once the One and Two from the Vault and first couple of Dicks Picks surfaced….I became completely hooked and have never looked back.

  6. CRW
    07/12/2019 / 8:35 AM

    Neither of my Parents were big Dead Heads, but I remember the songs getting played on Fox 97 FM back in the day and I listened to my Dad’s Skeleton CD a few times. Then I saw the band a few times in some sort of format be it Phil & Friends, The Others Ones, The Dead, or Further in the 2000’s. I didn’t really start listening till around the Fare Thee Well Tour and watching the Netflix/Amazon Docs. Then the deep dive started. 

  7. GBB
    07/12/2019 / 10:30 AM

    My folks were super conservative and the Dead imagery didn’t exactly line up with what they wanted me listening to growing up. I vividly remember a party at one of their friends houses when I was probably 10. I found a record collection and saw the Skeletons in the Closet album cover for the first time. It was like the scene in Almost Famous when he finds his sister’s records – it was awesome. Right about that time my dad walked in and “busted me” for trying to listen to the album. A decade later I ran across a Dead album and it all just clicked. Now I listed to them all the time and my parents (who have loosened up now that I’m older) just roll their eyes.

  8. Barron Chandler
    07/12/2019 / 12:01 PM

    The 73-74 sound has become a favorite time for me. Phil’s bass was really prevalent during most of the shows I’ve heard and brought a really cool jazz element to their music at that time. That said, there was a 3 month stretch when Donna was on maternity leave in 74, I think it was October through December(?), and I love to hear those particular shows. Nothing against Donna. I like her backing vocals, but I never liked when she would start to belt out lyrics like during GDTRFB or One More Saturday Night. And, you’re spot on with 77. The month of May in 1977 was simply special. There’s really not a bad show from 77 that I’ve heard. Overall, what you can now find and stream on Spotify has been huge for me. The Dick’s Picks and so on have really created a nice collection of any time period you could ever want.

  9. JMR
    07/12/2019 / 1:42 PM

    I grew up with The Dead – my first show was in 1981, in utero. I broke my arm drumming along to Terrapin Station when I was about 3 (smashed it against the corner of the brick mantle in our living room). I can’t imagine what it’s like to ‘discover’ them.
    That said, I’ve found the best way to get people turned on to them is to find out what music they currently like — the Dead’s repetoire is so diverse, there’s almost always something similar to what your friend/family/etc. Already listens to. For someone who loves country music, a lot of the Weir/Barlow murder ballads and anything from Working Man’s Dead is perfect. Someone who likes more R&B or funk will probably like Terrapin or Shakedown. Someone who’s into the prog rock, Pink Floyd/Yes thing will really get into some of the cooler Dark Star and Drums/Space recordings that are out there.
    Point is, there’s something for everyone. Going to the shows are great because there’s everyone from people that followed the tours in the 60s and 70s to people who got into it in the past few years and everything in between.

  10. Tanner
    07/12/2019 / 2:56 PM

    A buddy of mine in high school burned me a CD with Friend of the Devil on it and then I heard Truckin shortly after and liked those songs. But it was a fraternity brother my freshman year that had a ton of their albums downloaded from Napster that he gave me that made me a Deadhead. Particularly Europe 72 hooked me. After that I got their American Beauty album and that became one of my favorite albums of all time, and still is. My wife is now a fan and confirms the many reasons I love her when I get in her car and she’s got the Grateful Dead station on SiriusXM on. While she was pregnant with our son he would start kicking and moving anytime we played the Dead and still loves watching their shows and dancing to them. The Dead are multi-generational.

  11. nachdrock
    07/12/2019 / 3:00 PM

    They were just EVERYWHERE at Jewish sleepaway camp in the northeast in the early 90s.  Every single counselor had cases and cases of live tapes.  I don’t remember what made it click for me but listening to the dead (and later phish) was just part of life up there in the summer.  I do remember buying Skeletons in the Closet on CD with my mom when I was like 12.  Never looked back.

  12. 07/12/2019 / 4:16 PM

    NO MENTION OF BRENT? 

  13. Nerfy
    07/13/2019 / 8:09 AM

    ” Hundred Year Hall” (Germany ’72…s three cd set) is another superb example of the band in great form.

  14. JPW
    07/13/2019 / 8:45 AM

    This all good—only thing I would add for an aspiring fan; find a couple songs you like, then listen to as many different versions of it as you can find. Like Sugaree—then see how different it sounds in 74, 81 and 90. Check the common live suites as well like Scar/Fire, China/Rider and my fav, Help/Slip/Franklin. One from the Vault 8/13/75 was my gateway. 

  15. Jay
    07/13/2019 / 6:12 PM

    IMO, the real primer is Europe 72. 

  16. JTS
    07/14/2019 / 7:50 AM

    In high school in the late 80s one of my best friends had been turned on to the dead by his cool uncle who lived in the Bay Area and had been going to shows since 73. My friend told me if I bought the skeletons from the closet CD and didn’t like it that he would pay for it. I bought it and listened to it on a portable CD player on the ride to go visit my older brother at Virginia Tech. The grateful dead has provided the soundtrack to my life since that day. I collected tapes (analog and DAT) and went to as many dead and Jerry band shows as I could from the late 80s until Jerry died. My musical taste is still 95% dead. I have a hard drive with over 1000 dead shows on it and that’s what plays any time I have music on. When people ask me what kind of music I like my response is “I listen to both kinds of music, the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band”.  Needless to say my friend didn’t have to pay for the cd for me. Best gift I’ve ever bought for myself. A big thanks to Greg who is still one of my best friends to this day. 

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