Navigating those waters without previous experience is nearly impossible, considering that they average about six “new” releases a year, with no chronological framework, and will likely keep doing so as long as people are around to buy them. A true Deadhead has to have everything, and that includes the original catalog described in the first line above. Many of those people have long since ingested those albums (no pun intended, but we’ll take it anyway), and by the band’s renaissance in the mid-‘80s, the cassette was the general platform for listening, being portable with room for a joint or a tab in the case too. The quality of a traded bootleg would vary, but the official albums provide a consistency for a framework, and that’s where we’re going to start. (Should an archival release supplement a previously existing document, we’ll mention that. After all, we’re here to help.)
Their self-titled debut is very much a product of its time, a psychedelic boogie jam mixing up blues, bluegrass, folk and rock ‘n roll, some genres more obvious than others. At this point they were a quintet, including members credited as Bill the Drummer, Pigpen, and Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia. A cheesy organ is as prominent as guitar, and the man who’d write most of their lyrics has yet to make the scene; most of the songs are covers, and they’d continue to lean on those and more for the rest of their career. Still, many elements of their sound are clearly in place, particularly the vocals and Phil Lesh’s distinctive bass.
“The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” should immediately conjure images of tie-dye and swirling dresses; very much a pop song, it ends on a chord of dissonance. Teenage Bob Weir takes over for Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It On Down The Line”, while Pigpen growls “Good Morning Little School Girl”. “Cold Rain And Snow” stands out for its spiraling guitar and organ lines, much better than the gallop through “Sitting On Top Of The World”. Garcia gets solo credit for writing “Cream Puff War”, with verses that sound to these ears like Arthur Lee.
“Morning Dew” was covered by a lot of people, and this is pretty much the standard arrangement, though Jerry gets just as worked up as anyone. “New, New Minglewood Blues” brings back the swirling blues, while “Viola Lee Blues” comes closest to the Dead their fans would come to love, starting with a simple blues structure, jamming on it for ten minutes, escalating in speed and slowing down for a resolution.
In the larger context, The Grateful Dead can easily be described as embryonic, if only because they hadn’t figured out how to translate their live sound to the studio. Most of the songs would remain staples of their shows, so it’s a good place to start. (The expanded CD, first released as part of a box set, restores some tracks to their unedited lengths and adds outtakes, an edit of “Viola Lee Blues” and a 23-minute live version of same. The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition bolstered the original album with most of a previously unreleased concert from July 1966, plus four more songs from the next night.)
The Grateful Dead The Grateful Dead (1967)—3
2003 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 6 extra tracks
2017 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1967, plus 17 extra tracks