GRATEFUL DEAD - The Grateful Dead (1967) [50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition, 2017]
Before they were the Grateful Dead, they were “San Francisco’s Grateful Dead.” At least that’s how they were to be billed on the title of their debut album: a scuzzy, organ-drenched oddity, more representative of the era it came from than the band it introduced. Leading up to the record’s release in 1967, the Grateful Dead had fortified their reputation as an uncontainable force, a live act who had to be seen to be believed. They were a band inextricably linked to their locale (Haight and Ashbury, San Francisco) and the scene it had hatched (namely Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, for which the Dead served as the house band). In a spirited but nascent Vancouver show attached to this 50th anniversary reissue, mostly comprised of embryonic attempts at original songs (“Cream Puff War,” “Cardboard Cowboy”) and jumpy renditions of soon-to-be standards (“I Know You Rider,” “New Minglewood Blues”), the audience greets the band with silence. Bob Weir responds dryly, “I see our fame has preceded us.” He’s not entirely kidding. At the time, no one was quite sure what to do with the Grateful Dead. It was a question the band would face multiple times throughout their career and one that was immediately apparent when they recorded their debut album: How do the Grateful Dead present themselves, stripped of the context that defines them?
While the band would never find a definitive answer to that question (although they came a hell of a lot closer on their next self-titled release, a staggering live album from 1971), their debut record found the Dead choosing the path of least resistance. Signed to Warner Brothers with a “jazz rate” deal meaning they were paid by song length, not number of tracks—the band conceded to nearly every label expectation, transforming themselves into something like a traditional garage rock band. In thirty-five minutes, they speed through the album’s nine songs with an anxious energy, resulting in an endearing-but-muddy listen—something Phil Lesh would describe as “sound and fury buried in a cavern.” Maybe it was the nerves of a group of young freaks trying to sell themselves for the first time, or maybe it was the massive amount of Ritalin they were all on, but the Grateful Dead sound more energetic here than they ever would. Which is to say, if the Dead’s characteristic brand of sprawling experimentalism isn’t your bag, then this might be the album for you.
The Grateful Dead 50th Anniversary Deluxe 2-CD Set includes the original album remastered as well as the full unreleased show from P.N.E. Garden Auditorium, Vancouver, BC, Canada on July 29th, 1966. Also includes four additional tracks from the subsequent night at same venue.
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