Sep 9, 2012

September 1972: The Dead's Style


Waiting for my first Grateful Dead concert, amid a euphorically chaotic crowd of some 16,000 "Dead freaks", a veteran of eight of their concerts remarked to me in a perfectly serious, matter-of-fact tone, "You know," he said, "I've finally found the meaning of life. Life is a Grateful Dead concert; all else but an interim."

Well, now that I have become a veteran of two Dead concerts, proudly displaying my ticket stub and grass-stained trousers alternately like well-earned battle scars and my keys to the pearly gate, I, too, have found the meaning of existence. Just point me toward the next Grateful Dead concert, if you will, please.

Being a veteran, like the theory of auteur, holds special meaning in relation to a group such as the Grateful Dead. For after becoming familiar with a few of their songs, and especially after hearing them perform live, all of the rest warrant an actively involved perception.

This, however, is so obvious as to be absurd to a follower of Jerry Garcia and his merry band; in fact, it is this common assumption, common at least among fans, which allows Garcia the great freedom of movement, the breath-taking, mind-boggling runs, leaps and transitions, which mark him as one of the greatest guitar players ever to have fingered the instrument.

But perhaps Garcia's skill, complemented fully by Bob "Ace" Weir's rhythm guitar and Phil Lesh's bass, can be best observed in concert where his mastery over the guitar assumes at times a free-form, dream-like quality reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix at his best, and at other times, it reflects Garcia's rock and roll/blues roots - enough so to make Chuck Berry appear no more than competent – as, say, a Ringo Starr.

Beginning an old standard, such as "Trucking" or "Uncle John's Band", in the traditional manner, the Grateful Dead, with Garcia forging ahead, soon severs all ties with the original tune, preferring instead to launch an evolutionary exploration into areas where sensory perception and intellect effect and react to each other directly. For perhaps 20 minutes, though it is often hard to say, complete dominance is maintained over the crowd by Garcia's initial hypnotic thematic statements and slight variations thereof.

With the audience firmly under their control, however, the Grateful Dead quickly shift from supportive blues rhythms and country leads to an extremely active texture highlighted by Garcia's excursions into dream-like runs which united produce a stream-of-consciousness effect quite unprecedented in the area of popular music.

But the Dead are never static. Having once established and elaborated upon a statement, they slide, often by use of syncopation and imitation, into an entirely different presentation; from, for instance, variations on a country/blues theme to an almost surreal interpretation of progressive jazz.

This can be readily observed in "Saint Stephen" and "The Eleven", two continuous songs which occupy an entire side on the rather old, yet still masterfully innovative, first Live/Dead album. Beginning slowly and ambiguously by covering a wide range, as much by implication as by actual statement, the Dead suddenly blast into a follow-up of the major motive, establishing the thematic pattern upon which the vocals are supported and to which the Dead return after developing lengthy variations and additional themes.

Following a brilliant interpretation of the original statement which seems effortlessly to roll off their fingertips into the listener's mind, a device, by the way, they frequently use to bridge the gap between the here and there, the powerfully subtle Bill Kreutzmann on drums and Phil Lesh lead the others through an extremely difficult transition in which they change time while repositioning themselves in order to explode into "The Eleven."

Since the recording of Live/Dead, the Grateful Dead's style has undergone a number of changes, perhaps the most dramatic of which was the adaptation of country music and the resultant album, Workingmans Dead, (1970). Although still heavily influenced by country music, the influence is now an inherent one, the Dead's roots having sprouted forth from country, rock and roll and blues; the distinction between them is increasingly difficult to define.

Another important alteration, and one which promises to aid greatly in the continued evolution of the Grateful Dead, both individually and collectively, is the freedom allowed members of the group to play and record with other artists. Most notable in this regard is Garcia, who has performed on at least four major independent albums in the last year or so, although on most, members of the Dead play as well. Weir, also, has recently recorded an excellent album entitled Ace. Here, too, the musicians are all members of the Grateful Dead.

Perhaps the best recorded example of what may be yet another turn in style, and one which was embryonically apparent in at least two of the Dead's latest concerts (Philadelphia and Washington) can be found in a largely undiscovered album Garcia recorded with Howard Wales, called Hooteroll? Without a doubt, Garcia's collaboration with the superb blues/jazz organist, Wales, will continue to produce dramatically important results.

To a large extent, the Dead's recent dream-like style of playing, characterized by slowly evolving, minutely subtle melodies which at times are intentionally shattered (to say nothing of our minds) by powerfully syncopated chords and notes, by Lesh's imitation and by a general accelerando, can be attributed to Garcia's experiences with Wales on Hooteroll? It seems likely, too, that the increased influence and often outright performance of jazz preeminently displayed throughout much of their latter concerts can be developmentally traced to Hooteroll? as well.

What these stylistic refinements hold in store is hard to say at this point, although I have heard that a new double or triple album recorded live in New York, and soon to be released, will provide ample testimony to the continuing musical evolution of the Grateful Dead. Until then, and with pardons extended to Mick Jagger for this gross interpretation, "I don't want to talk 'bout Garcia, just wanta hear him play."

(by Rob Pritchard, from the Cavalier Daily, U of Virginia, October 6 1972);query=grateful dead

Thanks to


  1. You'll have to pardon the writing here... Pritchard was evidently a music student in college, and wrote in a pretentious, convoluted collegiate style. He throws in musical terms like "imitation" and "motive" without being too precise or understandable; and he's often vague & unclear (some of it, like the third paragraph, is quite hard to follow)...but there's no point beating up on this poor kid 40 years later!

    Its value here is, it's an attempt by someone at the time to try to describe what the Dead were doing in their music. He compares their current live jams to their '69 live album, and speculates on the influence of the Garcia/Wales collaboration on the Dead's jams.
    He overstates the Wales influence, but he had only the one album to hear, and there's no question it was important to Garcia's style. And he's certainly right about the increasing jazziness of the Dead's jams. (But apparently he didn't notice Keith's role in this, so mesmerized was he by Garcia.)

    He went to the 9/21 and 9/30 shows - not sure how familiar he was with their albums before. (He doesn't mention the '71 live album.) The triple album he thought was "live in New York" would be released in November.

    I also posted this on the Archive last year:

  2. By the way - in the 1972 reviews, I noticed that "Dead freaks" was still the usual term for Dead fans - "Deadheads" seems not to have been in general use yet.
    Personally, I prefer "Dead freaks"!

  3. True but the dead newsletters they wrote in '72 were using the term deadheads

    1. I think the Dead's "Dead Heads" messages may be what popularized the term - it quickly replaced "Dead freaks" as the most common label for fans.
      I don't remember whether anyone called their fans "deadheads" before the Dead themselves did.