If I had the impossible task of summarizing the Grateful Dead, I’d choose words like “chimeric,” “alchemical,” “manifold” and “perennial.”
But I’m not here to summarize the Dead or even try to convince you to like them. You are either on the bus or off the bus. If you need a good way on the bus, try the four-hour documentary Long Strange Trip, the critically acclaimed album American Beauty, or, better yet, go see Dead & Co. live at an outdoor venue.
I’m here to talk about the magic of the Grateful Dead live in 1973, a year that’s featured on the band’s new album, Pacific Northwest ’73–’74: Believe It If You Need It, which is also available as a box set for completists like me.
Ask 10 Grateful Dead fans what their favorite year of Dead shows is and you’ll get 10 answers. Ask a thousand, though, and some patterns start to emerge. 1972 is legendary and widely known thanks to the triple live album Europe ’72. 1987 is fondly recalled as a major entry point for thousands of fans thanks to the band’s only top-10 hit “Touch of Grey,” featuring Jerry Garcia’s passionate cry “I will survive,” made poignant by his then-recent recovery from a diabetic coma. 1977 is rife with amazing performances, and has what may be the single most popular show in the band’s immense catalog of live music, Cornell 5/8/77. 1969, the band’s acid rock heyday, blisters with energy and adventurous forays into improvisation as heard on Live/Dead. I’ve loved all of these years at some point, but lately, shows from 1973 keep pulling me back in like a magnet.
1973 was a fresh start for the Dead. 1972 had brought significant highs, including a triumphant tour of Europe with a seven-piece band, and lows such as the ill health and retirement of founding member Pigpen. His death in early 1973 left a hole at the front of the stage and in the band’s repertoire. Abandoning the blues rave-ups for which Pigpen was famous, Garcia and fellow guitarist Bob Weir had to step up their act. Initial sets consisted largely of Bob and Jerry alternating lead vocals on original compositions and covers pulled largely from country music. The band was often at its smallest and their improvisations, embedded in Jam Launchers™ like Garcia’s sparkling “Eyes of the World” and Weir’s mighty “Playing in the Band,” were mercurial modal odysseys heavily inspired by jazz legends like John Coltrane. The size of the band allowed turns on a dime, and the modal nature of these jams meant the Dead could really stretch out, often reaching the depths of outer space with hair-raising, feedback-laced explorations. I love the Dead for a lot of reasons, but I particularly appreciate the sense of adventure they brought to improvisation. You really didn’t know where they might go. And few years in their career feature as many moments of pure freedom as 1973.
This Grateful Dead ’73 playlist is my humble attempt at putting together a sort of “super show” culled from the many excellent releases documenting that year. It loosely follows the format of a typical show, with a tight, song-oriented first set and a sprawling, cosmic second set. Maybe this will be your way onto the bus. In any case, it’s guaranteed to be a long, strange trip.