Friday, March 2, 2012

Making the case for 1980’s Grateful Dead

What’s your favorite Grateful Dead period or era?  Some folks like the Pigpen years, when the Dead were an ambitious psychedelic 60’s blues rock dance band.  Others like ’72-‘74 when they would transform from a 1st set country rock outfit to a 2nd set Miles Davis inspired acid jazz unit.  A lot of fans are drawn to the late 70’s period when the band presented itself as a consistently smooth touring ensemble that eased its way into polished shows night after night, best exemplified by May 1977.  And finally some aficionados prefer the post-Touch of Grey years of ’88 through spring ‘90 when Jerry and the boys peaked in popularity and became a rock and roll powerhouse able to shake the rafters of America’s finest football stadiums and deliver on a massive level.

However, one time-period that often gets overlooked in these discussions is the early-to-mid 1980’s…I’m talking ’81, ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’85 era Dead.  Similar to a vintage Cabernet Franc that tastes like perfection to some and like a filthy old boot to others, these are my go to years when I want to listen to some good ol’ Grateful Dead.  There’s a crazy vibe to these early-to-mid 80’s shows that is reminiscent of a locomotive on the verge of careening out of control but is somehow still able to stay on track and make its stops.  You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get and that’s part of the fun.  Even the supposed stinker shows from these years have ironic appeal, in a Japanese wabi-sabi sort of way.
Grateful Dead - May 1982, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA by Joel Eisenberg
It was the 1980’s after all…the Dead were already written off as dinosaurs by the world at large, seemingly lacking any relevance to the pop culture of the time and still a couple years away from their eventual commercial success and then ultimate demise.  But to the Dead and its fanbase most of the surrounding trends and “just say no” consumerism of the decade were just white noise.  Being a band that existed in the now, the Grateful Dead were just as much an 80’s band as they were a 70’s band or a 60’s band.

By the early eighties Brent had gained his sea legs and his intensity was revitalizing the group, Bobby was on some weird, hyper trip, Jerry (on the verge of some severe drug-related physical calamaties) cuts through in a far grittier, grungier, more urgent fashion than normal, Phil has some of his most stand-out and memorable performances (“the Raven”, “more nitrous”, “earthquake space”) and a new fire was lit under drummers Mickey and Billy as they grew accustomed to letting loose and going hog-wild during their drumz portion of the 2nd set.  In other words, the band meant bizness!

For even the most Deadicated fan, the 80’s aren’t the first place you look for gems, but they are well worth checking out.  In my opinion you really can’t go wrong with any show from this span.  Have fun panning for gold!

1 comment:

  1. HHow often I wonder have you looked back at this post curious to see if anyone would reply. Four years later on a hot and humid day in Northern Illinois I came across your musing and I get what you’re laying down so I figured I would post a comment for the sake of solidarity. I came into the Dead Scene late in the '80's and thoroughly enjoyed my 6 year run with the band. When Jerry passed, I put my time with the 'Dead on the shelf and moved on to other adventures. Around the time of the 50th anniversary shows started to be talked about, I found myself reminiscing about that period of my life so I went digging for my old bootlegs to get reacquainted with the Boys. Not surprisingly in the 20 plus years that had passed since I had last listened to them, they disappeared but as so often happens, when one door closes another opens. It was less than a week after I discovered my bootlegs were gone that a friend of mine sent me a link to Archive.Org. The link was for a show we had gone together back in ‘89 at Alpine Valley. After I listened to the show, I did some snooping around on the site and found that Archive.Org had most of the Grateful Dead’s shows covering all 25 years the band toured! Score! In the two years that have passed since that revelation, I have listened to shows from all era’s the Dead have played. I am able to stream the shows at work so every day I listen to two or three different ones. I have moved through all 25 years and while I enjoy each era for its own unique sound, there is something magnetic and alluring about the early 80’s that draws me to those shows more than any other time. It could be the post Godchaux freedom, it could be Brent, it could be tight community of Dead Heads nurturing the band though some anti-jam band times, it could be all of that more or less. Who knows. What I do know is I dig the sound and appreciate the early ‘80’s like you do! Check out the 8/16/1980 Mississippi River Fest Show. It’s a fun gritty hootenanny!