The Dead's massive 80 cd boxed set celebrating their 50th anniversary may look intimidating, and it's certainly not the ideal purchase for a beginning Deadhead, but for hardcore fans of the group it's indispensable. My review today will simply give a summary on the merits of each show.
1966/07/03, San Francisco, CA.
Primal Dead. They veer from raw and edgy to tight and confident to loose and unpolished, but never are they anything less than determined and energized. Their sound already has much of the character it became known for, especially in Pig and Jerry's respective playing. The Dead's legacy had begun.
1967/11/10 Los Angeles, CA.
A scorcher of an early Dead show. "Viola Lee Blues" is 16 minutes of pure, unfiltered blues jamming with Jerry already honing the lyrical, soulful playing he'd become known for, while "Morning Dew" finally begins to simmer in the slow burning, epic showstopper of their later shows. It all comes to a head with a terrifying 25 minute "Caution" jam, a truly wild ride to cap things off.
1968/10/20 Berkeley, CA.
A short show but it delivers the good. Pigpen is at his best on a seedy "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," and formative versions of "Dark Star," "Saint Stephen," and a solid "Caution Jam" round out a brief but great set.
1969/02/22 Vallejo, CA.
This was my intro to 1969 Dead, and it's as good as any show they did during this period. All songs are done pretty much perfectly, but "Mountains Of The Moon" into a wonderful "Dark Star" and a chilling "Death Don't Have No Mercy" are the standouts.
1970/04/15 San Francisco, CA.
Many a legendary show took place at the Winterland and this one of them. From the hard charging "Cold Rain And Snow" opener, the band is razor sharp this evening. Pigpen is at his best here, with a searing turn on "It's A Man's Man's World" and later going crazy on "Lovelight." Even the "Drums" segment is worth listening to, with a jam leading into a fierce "The Other One." I can't think of a better 1970 show that hasn't already been released.
1971/03/18 St. Louis, MO.
Great show from a Top 5 year for the band. It kicks off with a killer "Casey Jones" and we're off to the races from there. Bobby turns in a wonderful "Me And Bobby McGee," then goes off on "Truckin'" and "Sugar Magnolia" later on. Jerry delivers the heat for "Loser" and "Wharf Rat," and the "Caution" jam at the end is a smokin' showcase of the band as a unit.
1972/09/24 Waterbury CT.
This comes smack dab in the middle of a great run for the Dead (legendary shows at the Stanley Theatre in New Jersey and the Spectrum in Philly also occurred). This show is right on par with them, with all the major highlights from the period present and accounted for, including yet another sprawling "Dark Star" that's up there with the best of 'em.
1973/11/14 San Diego, CA.
I'd have preferred the legendary Kezar Stadium show to this one, but you can't go wrong with this period of the Dead. The performance is consistent throughout, the band sounding well oiled and turning especially strong versions of "Jack Straw," "China -> Rider," and "Wharf Rat," a unique version in that they actually chose to close the show with it, a change of pace from the often more celebratory numbers they put in that spot.
1974/09/18 Dijon, Fr.
Excellent show overseas. One of the best paced and performed versions of "Friend Of The Devil" ever. "Scarlet Begonias" is still in its formative stages but is delivered with funk and finesse. The entire pre-"Drums" set is a fan's wet dream, with every song nailed down pat. An all around excellent show, though you can be forgiven for skipping Phil Lesh's bizarre electronic experimentation, "Seastones."
1975/09/28 San Francisco, CA.
Great, great show. The new material really shines, especially "The Music Never Stopped and "Franklin's Tower." "They Love Each Other" is sublime, and this one of the few post-1972 "One More Saturday Night" performances that comes close to the energy of Europe three years earlier.
1976/10/03 Detroit, MI.
A nice precursor to the salad days of 1977. Really good show, lots of inspired solos and song choices. Highlights include the usual great "Sugaree," a funky "The Music Never Stopped," and a touching "Comes A Time." Not my personal favorite of the year (Boston Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre in June are both better), but a great choice nonetheless.
1977/04/25 Passaic, NJ.
Can't go wrong with Spring 1977, and this is as good as any of them. Tight, near perfect playing from a band so clearly on their A-game. The whole show is pretty much a highlight, but some key tracks include "They Love Each Other" (great year overall for this song), "Brown Eyed Women," "Scarlet -> Fire" and "Wharf Rat."
1978/05/14 Providence, R.I.
Fine choice for '78. Excellent setlist and performances. Jerry really sinks his teeth into "Candyman," while Bobby turns up the passion for a touching "Looks Like Rain." "Eyes Of The World" is the money here, just a relaxed yet monstrous version.
1979/10/27 Yarmouth, MA.
Solid choice from Brent's inaugural year. The newly minted keyboardist is already fitting in great and we get several hot performances, including a potent "Jack Straw," a unique "He's Gone, and a tense "Caution" jam into "The Other One." Good choice from an already well represented year.
1980/11/28 Lakeland, FL.
I found this to be a pretty forgettable choice for a year that gets unfairly shoved aside. Some solid playing and great performances ("Let It Grow") but one of the Warfield and MSG shows should've been included to atone for the bland representations they got on "Reckoning" and "Dead Set."
1981/05/16 Ithaca, NY,
Coming four years after that other Barton Hall show, this one holds its own nicely. Nice energy in the first set, peaking with a brisk "Passenger" and very strong "Let It Grow." Set 2 begins to peak with a crescendo-tastic "Saint Of Circumstance" and just keeps on growing from there, including one of the best ever "Spanish Jam"'s and a jubilant "Uncle John's Band" to close. Nice choice from a somewhat underrated but very strong year.
1982/07/31 Austin, TX.
The band gives the Texas crowd a nice dose of Southern themed gems, with "Candyman," "El Paso" (duh), "Ramble On Rose," and several other country tinged selections scattered throughout a pretty awesome setlist. "Deal" is one of the coolest ones out there, really great playing from Jer and the boys here. "Scarlet -> Fire" is the monster it always is, but the following "Estimated Prophet" and "Eyes Of The World" is the real kicker, just 50 minutes of incredible playing and jamming. Then there's the run out of "Space": "Uncle John," "Truckin'," "Dew," and a lightning charged "Saturday Night." If only they had subbed "Don't Ease Me In" for "U.S. Blues," this show would be pretty much perfection on paper and execution. It's damn close, though.
1983/10/21 Worcester, MA.
Kickass show at the Centrum. Things sizzle right out of the gate with "The Music Never Stopped," and just take off from there. One of the very best 1980s' "Scarlet -> Fire" pairings, rivaling the previous week's version in Hartford for energy and creativity. A crimson colored "Wharf Rat" sends chills down the spine, and amazingly leads into a spirited "I Need A Miracle" (talk about sublime to ridiculous). A hot, fun show, and one of the best of the early 1980s'.
1984/10/12 Augusta, ME.
1984 is a super underrated year for the band. Yes, Jerry was slipping further and further into heroin addiction, but the rest of the band was focused and had fire in the belly, and even Jerry had many, many nights where his playing and singing were as inspired as ever. This is definitely one of those nights: a hot, spooky "Feels Like A Stranger" kicks things off, always a sign that the show would likely go in some interesting and dark directions. "Cold Rain And Snow" is a taut, rocking, almost sinister rendition, "Uncle John's Band" is as spritely as ever, and "Morning Dew" is one of the absolute best. The right choice for a great year (though I advise checking out July 13 at the Greek).
1985/06/24 Cincinatti, OH.
A great show from the great June 1985 period, this show is chock full of top shelf moments. From the first set, "It Must Have Been The Roses" is one of the most beautiful versions out there, and "The Music Never Stopped" is a blast. Later on, Bobby belts the *** out of "Saint Of Circumstance" (one of the last "Lost Sailors" pairings, as well), and Jerry as always nails "Morning Dew." Not my favorite show from the run, the two Merriweather shows hold that title, but a very solid choice.
1986/05/03 Sacramento CA.
I imagine the curators of this set had to do some digging for a quality 1986 show, a notoriously weak year for the band best known for when Jerry Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma over the summer. The show is sloppy and not particularly great, but there are some highlights to be found, particularly the rare "The Race Is On" (a former staple from the Keith days) and a haunting "Comes A Time." "Deal" is also quite energetic, and Bobby goes all in for "Beat It On Down The Line." Strong choice for a weak year.
1987/09/18 New York, NY.
The best of the band's five night run at Madison Square Garden, this show is a crackerjack from start to finish. Though solid from the top, the Hall Of Fame performances kick off with a haunting "Bird Song," followed by an energetic, muscular "Shakedown Street." "Terrapin Station" midway through the second set is one of the tightest and most elegant, while "Morning Dew" is simply one for the ages with Jerry igniting a fire with his playing, fanning the flames, than building it up all over again. Spectacular show.
1988/07/03 Oxford, MA.
The band's post-"In The Dark" renaissance keeps rolling along with this inspired show from the summer run, one of their best of the 1980s'. Jerry is solid, but this is really Bobby's show: he has a fantastic night with great performances of "Looks Like Rain" and "Estimated Prophet," as well as some fine guitar work on "Bird Song." There is also a spirited rendition of Brent's "Hey Pocky Way," one of the few tolerable songs he ever sang lead on.
1989/10/26 Miami, FL.
This might be my favorite show of the entire set just for the incredibly dark turn the show takes starting with the jam at the end of "Victim Or The Crime." The song selection and playing both have an edge to them, something sinister lurking, none more apparent than in the absolutely terrifying "Dark Star," which sounds like it could be hell's elevator music at points. Just a freaky, spooked out show, and a great choice for the year.
1990/10/27 Paris, FR.
Not sure why this or any European show from 1990 was chosen since there are so many better ones from both before and after. Even with the Spring 1990 boxed set covering the bulk of the year's best shows, there were still plenty of good ones to choose from. Since this was the year of Brent's passing, one of his final shows (R.F.K. on July 12, for example) would've been a superior pick. Personally, though, I'd have gone with September 20, 1990, which is an absolutely massive show that showed the band would survive without Brent. That said, the show does some standout performances ("Sugaree," "Black Throated Wind," and a rare airining of "Crazy Fingers"), and Bruce Hornsby is there to add punch to the keyboards and harmonies, so it's a good listen despite not being an ideal choice.
1991/09/10 New York, NY.
The band's 1991 run at Madison Square Garden is one of the most widely lauded of the Vince Welnick era, and this one is the best show from it. Hornsby's still onboard to liven things up, and Branford Marsalis attempts to surpass his 1990 appearance at Nassau Coliseum (available on "Wake Up To Find Out"), with splendid results. The opening "Shakedown Street" struts on air and is one of the coolest Dead performances out there. The transition from "C.C. Rider" into Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" is incredibly seamless. Branford's sax adds an extra layer of melancholy to "High Time," and the "Dark Star" is one for the ages, one of the last truly epic ones before they got gradually shorter and less creative with it.
1992/03/20 Hamilton, ON.
While nowhere near the firecracker that was the March 19, 1990 show at the same venue (Copps Coliseum), this is still a pretty hot show from one of the last consistent runs for the band. Bruce Hornsby is still with them and as usual his playing elevates the proceedings considerably, adding colour and vibrancy to "Shakedown Street" and a surprisingly relaxed, not too long or crazy but still enjoyable "Dark Star." Jerry is focused and on target that night (Bruce usually brought out great work from him), turning in a sexy "Althea" and touching takes on "Bird Song" and "Brown Eyed Women." Bobby has some fun tonight with "The Other One," and the closing "U.S. Blues" is a blast. Well done pick for this year.
1993/03/27 Albany, NY.
The Knickerbocker Arena in Albany was the home to many outstanding Dead shows, and this one stands along with some of the best of 'em (not quite up to the Spring 1990 run). The show roars from the start with a killer "Hell In A Bucket" -> "Bertha" combo, segueing into the bluesy gem "The Same Thing" for an outstanding three-pack to kick things off. "Peggy-O" is unbelievably tender, and the last ever "Casey Jones" is a fine send-off to maybe the band's best known song. "Eyes Of The World" -> "Estimated Prophet" -> "Comes A Time" and "The Wheel" -> "All Along The Watchtower" -> "Days Between" are two more thrilling trios that ratchet up the intensity, and all are played with a fire that would soon become more and more intermittent as Jerry's decline set in.
1994/10/01 Boston, MA.
The last full-stop classic Grateful Dead show. Jerry came prepared this night and takes charge throughout the show; his singing and playing is front and center and is excellent throughout. His solos ("Althea", "Scarlet -> Fire") and vocals ("So Many Roads," "Stella Blue") are coherent, committed and inspired throughout. Only the dire Vince Welnick-sung "Way To Go Home" and the lazy "Liberty" keep this being a 10/10 Dead show, but it comes closer than any show after.
1995/02/21 Salt Lake City, UT.
A very fine show to end the set with, though not quite the best show of 1995 (May 26 in Seattle gets that honor). Jerry isn't front and center like he is on the Boston show, but he's solid throughout, his best moments being another great "So Many Roads" and the haunting "Visions Of Johanna" cover. Bobby has a great night here, all his songs are well done, his high points being the opening bustout of "Salt Lake City" from his 1978 solo album, as well as surprisingly spirited latter day takes on "The Music Never Stopped" and "Sugar Magnolia." Phil also takes the reins on a very nice "Broken Arrow" and a surprise cover of Paul McCartney's "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" coming out of an interesting "Truckin'" / "I Just Wanna Make Love To You" combo. There's also a very nice, brisk "Friend Of The Devil" and a lovely "Foolish Heart." Overall, a very fine way to wrap up the set.