The Grateful Dead are almost equally annoying and amazing, for reasons too well known to rehash here.
To me, they’re like King Crimson in that I can just about tolerate what I don’t much like in exchange for those transcendent jams, (when they are) and even rarer, tight ensemble playing. What I don’t like could fill a post, but it boils down to the same stuff other critics of the band don’t like – the lack of discipline mostly, which manifests itself in weak singing, sloppy starts and finishes, a general sense of gears grinding and not getting out of second.
Still, I have accumulated a fair number of the band’s albums, and in particular live albums. The stage was the Dead’s great achievement (‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’ excepted) and it’s there you decide whether you really like this band or not.
The problem is – there’s just too much material out there, between the original live albums, the archival ‘Dick’s Picks’ and the rest of the various series which keep appearing. The catalog must number well over a hundred by now.
Serious fans of the band, (I’m not one) debate live performances like scholars of the Torah. A lot of it requires that you be familiar with the ‘standard’ performance of a given tune so that you can compare and contrast.
Where to start?
The classic answer is the Dead’s first live album, ‘Live Dead,’ which neatly captures the band at its early high point.
That said, I’d pick ‘Europe ’72,’ which (I think) has the best balance between the band as songsters and as jammers. It’s also unusually disciplined for a Dead album – as the years go by, I think of it more and more as the concluding act in the trilogy that started with ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and carried through ‘American Beauty.’
I’m particularly fond of the “Jack Straw/Know You Rider” medley and the “Morning Dew” at the end.
The reissued ‘Reckoning,’ an all-acoustic set, makes a good second or third choice. It’s quite wonderful and again – unlike the Dead many nights – it’s pretty tight. I think ‘Reckoning’ and the companion ‘Dead Set,’ especially in reissued form are not far back from ‘Live Dead’ and ‘Europe 72.’ After that, listen to taste.
– adopted from a post to ‘Stereophile’