The Grateful Dead: A Guide to Their Essential Live Songs
A User’s Guide to the Grateful Dead
By Jesse Jarnow
As avatars of San Francisco’s ’60s-born counterculture, the Grateful Dead have served as an alternative to American reality for more than a half-century. Performing from 1965 to 1995 with guitarist and songwriter Jerry Garcia, the Dead survive through a vast body of live recordings, originally traded by obsessive fans and now preserved on a long string of official releases. Though the band has an epic narrative (told in Amir Bar-Lev’s rapturous four-hour Long, Strange Trip documentary), much of the Dead’s story and significance remains purely musical. Part of the group’s staying power is due to the mysterious vastness that exists outside the bounds of their official studio recordings, a live canon shaped by generations of the still-active Deadhead music trading network.
Flourishing in an extralegal sharing economy built around the exchange of concert tapes and psychedelics (the tapes were never to be sold), most of the Dead’s live recordings could only be accessed through profoundly anti-corporate means. Rather than killing music, as an infamous British music industry campaign claimed in ’80s, home taping actually propelled the Grateful Dead to stadiums, as the Dead themselves acknowledged.
Profoundly unslick, the Grateful Dead’s anti-authoritarian creative tendencies remain palpable in the current era. Self-consciously apolitical and populist to a fault, the Dead built a diverse audience across the political spectrum while continuing to act as a catalyst for young and old seekers, music heads, counterculturalists, and psychonauts. Simultaneously, the Dead produced dancing music, folklore, and lyrics to nourish an extended community that continues to thrive at shows by the band’s surviving members and a national scene of cover bands.
Navigating the Grateful Dead’s shadow discography can be daunting, a tangle of different periods and idiosyncrasies. This list of recommended song versions—chronological, not ranked—serves as an introductory survey of the band’s different periods. Loosely, the 37 entries here chart a path from garage-prog (1966) to lysergic jam suites (1967-1969), alt-Americana (1970), barroom country & western (1971), space-jazz (1972-1975), and epic hippie disco (1976-1978), eventually arriving at the more slowly evolving band of the ’80s and ’90s, whose driving creative force sometimes seemed to be their own inertia.
It’s the latter era that is most prone to cleave even Dead enthusiasts. It represents a divide between the tighter, more critically accepted earlier band and the beloved-by-Deadheads ’80s and ’90s incarnations, when they were beset by addiction, the technologies of the era, questionable aesthetic choices, and an evolving secret musical language that sometimes made more sense in sold-out stadiums of dancing fans. While the Dead got more popular every year in their later decades—and continued to generate jam surprises and bold performances aplenty—new listeners will likely want to start with the band’s earlier epochs. One can see long-running debates even among our contributors encapsulated in entries for beloved songs like “Jack Straw” and the “Scarlet Begonias”/”Fire on the Mountain” combo, with a contingent of heads here deeply digging the chaotic stadium psychedelia of the later band.
The majority of the primary song choices presented below come from the classic years of the ’60s and ’70s; for many songs, Key Later Versions from the ’80s or ’90s highlight further developments for the discerning Dead freak. There, one can hear the band finding new places hidden in the old, mining the mountain range of material they’d generated earlier in their career.
Though the band’s proper albums have earned an undeserved bad reputation, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (both released in 1970) especially contain a small handful of songs for which the studio versions remain almost undisputedly definitive. While songs like “Ripple,” “Attics of My Life,” “Box of Rain,” and several others belong on any list of the band’s campfire standards, they’re left off here in the interest of songs that varied more greatly in live performance. Likewise, Europe ’72, which features elements re-touched in the studio, generated a number of great live tunes served perfectly well the version found on that album, including “Ramble on Rose” and “Brown-Eyed Women.” Though the Dead continued introducing new originals up through their last tours, this list focuses on something like a core curriculum of live Dead.
Nearly every selection on this list can and should be argued by anyone with an opinion about live Dead recordings. But these picks are intended to be gateways into different scenic and well-manicured corners of Grateful Dead land for those who haven’t spent much time there, places that might feel welcoming before drumz/space kicks in. From there, the paths are nearly infinite: an enormous live catalog splattered unceremoniously across streaming services (but helpfully listed chronologically at DeadDiscs), the complete fan-curated collection at archive.org (navigable via DeadLists or Relisten.net), a riot of Grateful Dead historical and ahistorical blogs, academic conferences, a nightly slate of #couchtour webcasts, or a live music venue near you.
July 16, 1966
Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Grateful Dead
Overly complicated original is highlight of album’s worth of songs scrapped before debut LP. Played in 1966 only.
“You Don’t Have to Ask” has all the elements of a great garage band song. It’s got a groovy bass line, excellent reverby guitar solos, great group harmony vocals, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s combo organ cuts right through everything. It’s a zippy little number, guaranteed to fulfill the Dead’s dance-band obligations. But while it’s catchy, it’s also totally fucking bananas. There are several verses, choruses, parts, sections, a bridge or maybe three, chords you don’t expect (maybe they were surprised too), modulation up, (spoiler alert) modulation back down, then something else entirely, all at a breakneck speed for them and wrapped up in under four minutes. It kinda sounds like they (Bob) were still learning the song, but they’re all really going for it, even if it was destined to be one of approximately an album’s worth of originals dropped from the repertoire before the band signed to Warner Bros. in 1967. If there was a version of the Nuggets compilations that consisted entirely of songs written and played by lunatics totally zonked on acid, this would definitely make the cut. –James McNew
Lore: Deadhead forensics has determined that “You Don’t Have to Ask” was also known as “Otis on a Shakedown Cruise,” an early song title remembered by band members that seemingly didn’t survive on tape; at least until an attentive listener noticed that—seconds before this version starts—a band member can be heard off-mic asking, “Otis?”
December 1, 1966
The Matrix, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Jerry Garcia
Included on the group’s debut LP, a rare original with both words and music by Jerry Garcia and early vehicle for exploratory modal jams.
It’s okay if you don’t like the Grateful Dead—even the Greatest American Band Ever isn’t for everybody. But if you’re an ardent Dead hater, I’d urge you to try just this one track. In a dimension where the Dead flamed out in obscurity, “Cream Puff War” would’ve justified their inevitable rediscovery by proto-punk collectors. Attacked with an urgency they’d never again employ, the song is on the garage-ier end of the psych spectrum, with a delinquent Farfisa and uncharacteristically fierce Garcia vocals. Of course, it’s still the Dead, so it’s a little too fussy for true garage-fuzz, with a pile of chords and sudden swerves into waltz time. Played only during the little-documented fall of 1966 and spring 1967, only a single extended version survives, the band consciously searching for new territory and exploring the modal improv mode they would soon make their own. Shelved soon thereafter, “Cream Puff War” remains an interesting thought experiment in Grateful Dead alternate history. –Rob Mitchum
Venue: The Matrix was a tiny San Francisco club co-owned by Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, where the Dead played early shows and later experimented with side projects like Mickey and the Hartbeats. In some circles, it’s more famous for live recordings of the Dead’s fellow former Warlocks, the Velvet Underground.
February 2, 1968
Crystal Ballroom, Portland, Ore.
Written by: Noah Lewis (arr. the Grateful Dead)
The Dead’s first massive jam, a hopped-up jug band rearrangement built on three volcanic improv sections. A dependable mindbender and set centerpiece, whether as an opener or closer, “Viola Lee Blues” outlasted nearly everything else from the band’s 1966 playbook, but disappeared from live shows after 1970.
Legendary Dead tape collector and vault-master Dick Latvala coined the term “primal Dead” to describe the blustery psychedelia at the core of the band’s legend. And few early performances reveal the group’s unhinged nature as openly as this prison-blues chugger, written by Memphis singer/harmonica player Noah Lewis and originally recorded in 1928 by his trio, Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Most Dead versions of “Viola Lee Blues” are a variant on its noisy appeal, including the rare excellent studio jam on the band’s 1967 Warner Bros. debut, yet what makes this show-opener special is power, precision, and compactness. The stand-alone opening chord is a universe. The sound of multiple vocalists screaming out the words betrays an on-stage good time rolling. Garcia’s mountainous arpeggios—using a deeply metallic guitar tone—are a study in Sturm und Drang naturalism; while the hanging pause on which the players reunite is big-band tightness exemplified. A perfect vehicle when secondary drummer Mickey Hart joined in 1967, here the closing jam’s leap into Kreutzmann/Hart-driven hyperspace is a premonition of future Rhys Chatham/Glenn Branca/Sonic Youth punk-jazz explosions. Strap the fuck in! –Piotr Orlov
Key Earlier Version: September 3, 1967, Rio Nido Dance Hall, Rio Nido, Calif. Recorded just before Mickey Hart joined the band, the Rio Nido “Viola Lee” is perhaps the best document of the early single-drummer Dead in full flight, with Garcia spinning out endless hypnotic turns.
February 14, 1968
Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil Lesh, Robert Hunter
Non-performing lyricist Robert Hunter’s first contribution to a Dead song became a playful springboard. “Alligator” most often segued into “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks),” a locomotive blues-fuzz groove almost wholly borrowed from Them’s “Mystic Eyes,” and in this infamous sequence into a blistering six minutes of guitar feedback.
Just before what sounds like a drum circle busts out, Bob Weir leans into the mic and says, “C’mon everybody! Get up and dance, it won’t ruin ya!” That bit of tape lifted later that year for the band’s pioneering studio/live hybrid, Anthem of the Sun. Weir’s got the earnestness of a prom chaperon gently chiding a wallflower. And why shouldn’t he? This was an era of raw fun for the Dead, prime Pigpen time, who hoots and hollers through his lead vocal, while Weir implores listeners to “burn down the Fillmore, gas the Avalon,” the two venues competing with the band-run Carousel Ballroom. Heavy competition. After the song relaxes from an early Kreutzmann/Hart drum sesh and the guitar finally returns, it’s sour but funky. Too good for even the shyest of the shy to not move their butts. –Matthew Schnipper
Key Later Version: April 29, 1971, Fillmore East, New York City, N.Y. The final version of the song is a leaner reptile but with perhaps even more bite, the now-solo Kreutzmann drum segment chomping into a thrilling Lesh/Garcia jam.
August 21, 1968
Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Robert Hunter
Cryptic lyrics, an elliptical psychedelic bounce, scorching guitar, occasionally a live cannon onstage, and always a Deadhead favorite.
For a few years in the late ’60s, “St. Stephen” anchored a suite that also included “Dark Star” and “The Eleven,” together taking up the first two sides of the pivotal Live/Dead double LP. Building sets around the rolling peaks of the suite, individually and together the songs showcased the band’s latest compositional ideas and quickly developing musical interplay. At the center was “St. Stephen.” Featuring some of Robert Hunter’s most lava-lamp-ready turns of phrase (“lady finger dipped in moonlight,” anyone?), ”St. Stephen” is alluringly simple: a bouncy psychedelic standby that may or may not have anything to do with the Christian martyr in its title.
At early performances, like this August take at the Fillmore West, it carries the energy of a band falling in love with their own sound, navigating the song’s left turns with aplomb. Bob and Jerry sing the verses together with childlike joy, before things slow down and get foggier, buoyed by spacey glockenspiel. Just a minute later, the whole band bounce back into action with a devilish energy, propelled by one of Jerry’s gnarliest riffs. The darkness shrugs, and the Dead ride on. –Sam Sodomsky
What To Listen For: The Live/Dead-era versions of the song end with several verses of a lysergic Irish-sounding jig, both a musical bridge and dramatic energy build before springing into “The Eleven” (with which it’s often erroneously tracked, as here).
Key Later Version: May 5, 1977 New Haven Coliseum, New Haven, Conn. Revived in slower, elegant form after the band’s 1976 return, “St. Stephen” attained a different kind of grace, sometimes still finding ecstasy (if not quite psychedelic fury) in the middle jam, as on standalone versions like this one, though more often segueing into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”.
February 13, 1968
Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Phil Lesh and Bobby Petersen
One of the band’s most structurally experimental songs sets a poem by band friend Bobby Petersen to music.
“It’s a very long thing and it doesn’t have a form,” Jerry Garcia told an interviewer about the Dead’s “New Potato Caboose” around the time the band started performing it in the late ’60s. The band had been writing original material since shortly after their 1965 formation, but “New Potato” was an indication of their rapidly expanding ambitions. Written by bassist Phil Lesh from a poem by Bobby Petersen, it highlights the former composition prodigy’s studied chops. What Garcia heard as formlessness, Lesh almost certainly designed—in his own hallucinogenic way—as specific movements, interconnected with an elusive dream logic.
Sung by Bob Weir with Lesh and Garcia joining for the cascading chorus, Weir sells its mystical (and maybe even proto-Sonic Youth) atmosphere with a stoney, detached edge during this Carousel Ballroom performance. Though they would never write another song remotely like it, “New Potato Caboose” foreshadows the territory they were about to conquer. –Sam Sodomsky
What To Listen For: On this classic early bootleg, a Deadhead staple sourced from an experimental radio broadcast on then-freeform KMPX, Garcia’s wild outro solo dissolves into Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed” and a powerful articulated take of the piece of music Deadheads would label “Spanish Jam.”
Venue: Operated by a consortium of bands including the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Carousel Ballroom failed as a business, and was reopened as the Fillmore West by promoter Bill Graham.
February 28, 1969
Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calf.
Written by: Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter
The band’s endlessly rehearsed double-drummer mindbender central to Live/Dead.
“The Eleven” is the Grateful Dead at their most joyous, all ascending scales, bursts of melody, shouted lyrics, and tricky meters designed to sound as if everything is on the verge of falling apart. Its essence is right there in the title: the song is in 11/8 time, meaning that three bars of 3/4 are punctuated with a quick 2/4 bash before the cycle starts again. The 11/8 frame turns out to be ideal for Garcia and Lesh, who solo in tandem on the best versions of the song. “The Eleven” was shorter, faster, and gnarlier in 1968, and the soloing—the best of which always happens before the brief verses begin—was more clipped. By the week in late February where they recorded the material that wound up on the epochal Live/Dead, Garcia and Lesh were working like two halves of the same musical mind. A Wednesday show at the Avalon Ballroom produced the Live/Dead version, but the Friday night show of that same week, one of four in a row at the Fillmore West, turned out to be the finest single moment for “The Eleven.” Garcia and Lesh are like two dogs barking and nipping at each other while running full-speed across a field, never breaking stride, taking turns being in front. Eventually, the tight three-chord structure would bore Garcia, who felt he’d wrung every idea he could out of the song. The Dead dropped it from setlists forever in 1970. But during this precise moment in February 1969 there are more ideas than they know what to do with. –Mark Richardson
What to Listen For: The overlapping three-part vocal is hard-to-sing overload, featuring some of Robert Hunter’s finest lysergic playfulness in Garcia’s trippy countdown part: “Eight-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack, seven-faced marble eye transitory dream doll…”
What Else to Listen For: The drums, man! Ideally on headphones.
March 1, 1969
Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
The Dead’s first and most psychedelic folk song has more in common with the Incredible String Band than Phish, used as a prelude to the jam centerpiece, “Dark Star.”
The peak old-folkie days of the Dead wouldn’t come until the early ’70s, but “Mountains of the Moon” was foreshadowed that era. Debuted in late ’68, the minimal ballad spent the first half of ’69 as the gentle prelude to its deeper astronomical partner, “Dark Star”; the last few notes of the February 27, 1969 version can be heard during the introductory fade-in to Live/Dead. On Aoxomoxoa, some heavy-handed harpsichord emphasizes the faux-Elizabethan melody and faerie-land lyrics, but live, a stripped-down lineup of Bobby on a 12-string, Garcia finger-picking, Lesh burbling, and Tom “T.C.” Constanten on organ made for a haunting lull in their primal phase. –Rob Mitchum
What to Listen For: Serving as a spell to put the band and audience in the ruminative frame of mind for the journey to come, Garcia essentially continues his closing “Mountains of the Moon” solo into the “Dark Star” intro, even while switching from acoustic to electric guitar.
Watch: January 18, 1969 Playboy After Dark, Los Angeles, Calif. To see a possibly-dosed Hugh Hefner swaying along to “Mountains of the Moon” with his arm around a Bunny, check out the Dead’s surreal appearance on Playboy After Dark.
May 2, 1970
Harpur College, Binghamton, N.Y.
Written by: Jerry Garcia, John Dawson, and Robert Hunter
1970 was a championship season for the devil. The Beatles broke up. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin raised the curtains in the 27 Club. The Kent State massacres compounded the 6,173 body bags airlifted back from Vietnam. And the Grateful Dead unshackled “Friend of the Devil,” the best song ever written about a cuckolded bigamist fleeing from a sheriff’s posse and 20 hellhounds, only to get stuck up by Satan for his final $20.
Apologies to ’Pac and Snoop, but this is the most immortal outlaw anthem about attempting to return to your house out in the hills right next to Chino. Written by Robert Hunter with John Dawson of stoner C&W Dead spin-off New Riders of the Purple Sage with Garcia adding the bridge, the acoustic riffs ramble like an undiscovered escape route. Robert Hunter’s lyrics shine a searchlight on a Western anti-hero—Butch Cassidy bargaining with Lucifer—sleepless, ragged, and fatal. But Garcia sings with a weary sweetness on this staple acoustic set. A bouquet in hand, six-shooter behind his back; the poetic conman with insidious alliances, he seduces with his wounded decency, at least until he disappears into a cloud of sulfur. –Jeff Weiss
Key Later Version: June 27, 1976 Auditorium Theater, Chicago, Ill. Following the band’s touring hiatus, Garcia was inspired to revive the song in a slower arrangement after hearing a recording of a live Loggins & Messina cover.
August 30, 1970
KQED Studios, San Francisco, Calif.
Written by: Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
Garcia and Hunter’s immortal farewell ballad and cosmic love song with Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired harmonies.
The massive amount of high quality archival audio makes the Grateful Dead’s video output seem minuscule by comparison. Add crummy camerawork and dated psychedelic FX, and you often don’t have too much to look at. Not so for this simple and beautiful take of “Brokedown Palace” on local California TV, which keeps the fancy tech to a minimum. But on the chorus, marked by some of the Dead’s most beautiful earthy three-part harmonizing, Weir and Garcia’s profiles overlap on screen. It’s their own Mamas and Papas or Fleetwood Mac moment: two crooners, a heartthrob and a scruff, in total rhapsody. Sometimes, there seemed to be a disconnect between the band’s solemn sound and the way they made the audience feel. In 1970, the year Garcia and Hunter churned out two albums of instant hippie standards, it paid off, with the Dead in perfect harmony, both creatively and vocally. Everyone onstage and off is blissed out. How nice it is to share. –Matthew Schnipper
What to Listen For: Not shown on camera, the high part of the band’s three-part harmony is bassist Phil Lesh.
Key Later Version: May 11, 1977 St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, Minn. Like almost everything else in May 1977, “Brokedown Palace” sounded perfect, Donna Jean Godchaux’s harmony replacing Lesh’s, who mostly stopped singing in the late ‘70s after straining his vocal cords.
September 19, 1970
Fillmore East, New York City, N.Y.
Written by: Joseph Scott and Deadric Malone
A frequent show closer from 1969-1972 and a showcase for Pigpen’s greasy raps and unfurling blues-psych boogies. From 1969-1971, especially, the Dead spent more time jamming “Love Light” than even “Dark Star,” playing it more often and usually for a longer duration as a populist get-the-heads-dancing rave-up to conclude their most far-out sets.
Defying the peak of primal Dead, the gutbucket blues of “Turn on Your Love Light” dominated set lists during the Dead’s most psychedelic era. Usually upwards of 20 minutes (and sometimes over 40), the band vamped between innuendo-filled raps by frontman Pigpen aimed at pairing off members of the audience. While conducting the band’s deft on-the-fly arrangements, Pig would spike the Bobby “Blue” Bland original’s sweetness into something more libidinal and fetishistic. “Well she’s got box back nitties/Great big noble thighs/Working undercover with her boar hog eye,” Pig sang, a bit of mojo jive that one scholar has spent ample time decoding.
By September 1970, the Summer of Love had given way to the Autumn of Fuck. Doing some crowd work, Pig whips the audience into a frenzy, perhaps creating the sort of “weird atmosphere” that led one feminist reviewer to feel alienated by the “hippie stag party” later that fall. After the band strikes the final beat, Pigpen screams “Fuck!”—issued as both punctuation and command. This “Love Light” scores 5 fucks—one for each time the word is uttered by the band. –Ariella Stok
Watch: August 16, 1969 Max Yasgur’s Farm, Bethel, N.Y. At Woodstock, as the Dead begin a 36 minute “Love Light”, a still-unidentified rando takes over the mic, soon led away when Merry Prankster Ken Babbs distracts him with a joint.