Everybody in a band has to listen to the other players at all times, and the Dead demonstrated that. When the jams worked, they worked well, and despite all the criticism the band has gotten over the years, they were talented musicians, intuitive and creative together. “Dark Star” stretches for 23 minutes, and although the first few minutes do sound like they’re tuning up as they go, they sail through various peaks and valleys together. Onstage the tune found its way to “St. Stephen”, familiar from the last album, but extended and including a set of lyrics leading into “The Eleven”. This mysterious title becomes less so when one realizes it comes from the piece being in 11/8, not as difficult to boogie to if you try—just think of “Whipping Post”.
That’s a good place for Pigpen to step forward and belt out “Turn On Your Love Light” for 15 minutes. Once a hit single for Bobby Bland, it’s more familiar to kids today who learned it from the six-minute edit on the Dead hits album everybody had. That edit might be preferable for listeners who only take so much Pigpen. While it may be a little slow for those already asleep, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is a good demonstration of their skill on non-standard changes, and seven minutes of mildly controlled “Feedback”, eventually becoming more palatable in time for the harmonized benediction “And We Bid You Goodnight”.
Even given its freeform roots, Live/Dead is their best album yet, truly showing their strengths and what made the music so attractive. Rather than conforming their approach to the album format, the Dead found a way for to make the reverse happen. It’s probably not enough to convince anyone who can’t stand the band, but it’s a lot more inviting that the previous three studio creations.
Having to flip record or tape sides is always a bummer, but digital technology made it possible for Live/Dead to be experienced in one continuous flow. Already a nearly full CD, the eventual remaster had room for only two bonuses: the studio version of “Dark Star” released as a single, and a truly twisted radio ad for the album. (Sadly, the pretty lyrics insert from the original vinyl is not included.) Meanwhile, those seeking the complete shows whence the album came will have some digging ahead of them. The source for “The Eleven” and “Love Light” isn’t available officially as of this writing; everything else can be found throughout the ten-CD version of Fillmore West 1969. And of course, there’s more from that particular period.
The Grateful Dead Live/Dead (1969)—3½
2003 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 2 extra tracks
Archival releases of same vintage:
• Live At The Fillmore East 2-11-69 (1997)
• Dick's Picks Vol. 26 (2002)
• Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings (2005)
• Download Series Vol. 12 (2006)
• Road Trips: Vol. 4, No. 1: Big Rock Pow Wow ’69 (2010)