Once you start compiling a Grateful Dead ‘best of’ then, like ole Casey Jones was told, there is trouble ahead and behind. Given that aficionados must own the 32 tracks on this two-CD set – a chronological investigation of the studio albums 1967-1989, designed to celebrate their 50th anniversary – chances are you’d be better off consulting lists from a messageboard – except you’d find no consensus there either.
So what do we have? It starts with two amphetamine-rush items from the debut – The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) and Cream Puff War, jagged SF psych that’s Dead fast as opposed to their normal modus operandi – Dead medium. The single version of Dark Star is trailed as a rarity (it isn’t), but then experimentalism breaks out and Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the troupe have moved up country and absorbed harmonised anthemic sunshine.
The selections from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty fit the bill – stick a pin down here and you couldn’t go wrong. The lovely Box Of Rain, written (with Robert Hunter) and sung by bassist Phil Lesh is exceptional. Composed as a farewell to his dying father, Lesh’s elegy is magnificently poignant, with Garcia playing piano and Dave Torbert (New Riders Of The Purple Sage) taking the four-string part. It was also the last song the Dead played live on stage before Garcia’s own death in 1995.
To give the rest some context: China Cat Sunflower was partly inspired by Edith Sitwell, while the Terrapin Station suite, considered by Garcia to be his finest hour, is as densely allusive and elusive as the Lowell George-produced Shakedown Street is light and immediate.
And to throw some stones, there’s not enough Wake Of The Flood, or Blues For Allah (no Stella Blue, no Franklin’s Tower – meh), and too much Built To Last.
It was a long, strange trip, one that went from LSD to heroin. A better title for this magnificently flawed collection might be Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks).
This summer, the remnants of the Dead’s line-up will reconvene for one last time at Chicago’s Soldier Field, an apt memorial setting for a band who in playing it to the hilt lived up to their own credo: the music never stopped. If only that were true./o:p