Jul 23, 2012

October 1970: Vintage Dead


Though the Grateful Dead is still very much with us, it is entirely appropriate for a nostalgic look at what it was five years ago and we have it on "Vintage Dead" (Sunflower SUN-5001).
The music, sometimes called "San Francisco sound," which this group was largely responsible for popularizing, is no more available to us now than new grapes from a noble harvest of the last generation are to a vintner for a new pressing. We have pressings, record pressings in this case, but the freshness is gone: light shows, fuzztone and wavy-lined posters are no longer experiments.
The big difference in San Francisco music - that it was for dancing - is not the case today. Bay area ballrooms have had some hard times and rock is again mostly for listening.

But half a decade ago the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore were thrilling names even on this coast.
The Dead was the very first San Francisco group, though Jefferson Airplane became better known, and it innovated not only in music but in style. The Dead was the first group to live together, constantly playing and developing and in effect performing 24 hours a day.
It's different now. Some of those pioneers are dead from drugs, some groups have split, some have reformed and then split again, and each success removed a bit of the exuberance that was so appealing at the first.

Fortunately "Vintage Dead" is not a studio album but a concert, recorded in 1966 at the Avalon.
The music is not by the Dead, but by Bob Dylan or Wilson Pickett, but the treatment is pure San Francisco. There may have been more typical San Francisco concerts, but this is a fine example.
The sound is smooth, with bounce enough for dancing. "In the Midnight Hour" is a jam, not soulful but graceful. Grace is the distinguishing characteristic of the first San Francisco music. When the Dead sings Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" it loses all the harshness and bitter sound that Dylan usually writes into his songs.
We won't hear this sound again, live. For even the Dead or the Airplane, its time has passed by. It had an innocence that didn't last long.

(by Harry Eagar, from the Rock On! column in the Norfolk Ledger Star, January 12 1971)

* * *


"Vintage Dead," The Grateful Dead, Sunflower Sin 5001

Of all the rock groups who have come to symbolize the psychedelic way of life in 1970, the Grateful Dead are very high on the list of early trippers. It is not only their music, which is Americana freaked out rock n' roll, but it is the Dead themselves, their beautiful communal way of life and their insistence on free concerts. As far back as you can trace the electric explosion of music, the Dead are there.
As with many of the early groups, The Dead have never really come across on record the way they are live. Live they are just very good, but on their albums, with the exceptions of "Working Man's Dead," they come across as nothing special. "Vintage Dead" breaks this pattern and for once gives you an honest sound from The Dead. It is old and dated, but it is still worth listening to. This record was recorded at the Avalon Ballroom in 1966 and one side of the album is "In the Midnight Hour" which really gives you a feeling for the famous Grateful Dead riffs and freak outs, where they seem to hand the music from one to the other and then back again. "Know Your Rider" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" are part of the softer more mellow side of The Dead.

(from the Miami News, 26 October 1970)


  1. Later in '71 a second record from these '66 tapes, Historic Dead, was released. I'll be posting an October '71 article on the story behind these records.

    For now, a quote from Garcia when asked about these records by Jann Wenner in '71:
    "There's no point in going back to the past, for one thing, and for another thing, those performances weren't meant to stand around forever. They were for that night. And if you were stoned and there that night, that was probably exactly what was happening, but it's not what's happening now. It's just a source of embarrassment."

    Setting aside Garcia's embarrassment (which he usually felt with older Dead performances), this is an interesting philosophy, apparently opposed to the release of any old live shows as pointless!

    The article above, lightweight & uninformed as it is, I think has a more accurate perspective of this album.

  2. I added a short review from Miami, October 1970, shortly after the album's release. (It's a little strange that Vintage Dead came out a month or two before American Beauty did - no wonder the Dead were bugged by it - and perhaps not coincidental that they immediately started thinking about doing a new live album.)
    As a review it doesn't add a whole lot, recognizing that the music is "old and dated" but has an "honest sound" and gives a feel for 1966 Dead, way back four years ago when time was young... ("As far back as you can trace the electric explosion of music, the Dead are there," the review says, which is quite an exaggeration, but it emphasizes how distant 1966 already seemed.)
    But it has a good brief description of the Dead which is a perfect outline of why people liked them: "their beautiful communal way of life," "their insistence on free concerts," and their live music ("Americana freaked out rock 'n' roll").