0202: “St. Stephen/The Eleven/Turn On Your Love Light” by Grateful Dead

Yeah. I know. You probably don’t like the Grateful Dead.

The fans were annoying. You find tie-dye to be unacceptable in any situation. Their live songs were too long and/or too boring. They possessed a je ne sais quoi that you couldn’t overcome. You don’t really like ’60s or early ’70s music in general. Some or all of these things. I get it. The Dead are a tough sell; they are a polarizing group. I was not a fan of them at all until the series finale of Freaks and Geeks opened my eyes to American Beauty (beyond “Truckin'”). From there I became hooked on the Dead, specifically the years between ’67 and ’77. The Dead of 1978 and beyond never really connected with me, which makes sense as I tend to gravitate towards the psychedelic and more towards weed-and-alcohol rock than coke-and-heroin rock. The 10-year run the Dead had after the release of their debut album shows a band that went from standard Haight-Ashbury fare to a more polished presence, especially live, as the group and Robert Hunter began crafting songs about outcasts (“Me and My Uncle”), refining and reshaping older favorites (“China Cat Sunflower”), and generally embracing storytelling (“Wharf Rat”).

The early years with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Tom Constanten also showed a wild and raucous improvisational side. In 1969 the Dead released their first live album Live/Dead, a landmark album that not only perfectly encapsulates the band’s essence but also one of the greatest live albums ever released in general. In its vinyl incarnation, it was a double album and Robert Christgau wrote thusly about side two (“St. Stephen/The Eleven”) upon its release: that it “contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded” and this I still believe holds true. “St. Stephen” sounds like its studio counterpart but is more raw and includes the additional “manzanita” lyrics before bleeding into “The Eleven.”

“The Eleven” is high-energy rock right from the get-go and it shows that Garcia was a helluva raucous guitarist when he wanted to be. Are the vocals great? Probably not for most casual music fans, but goddamn that music though. Mickey Hart is just beating the shit out of the drums and Garcia is just unleashing riffs and Phil Lesh is doing Phil Lesh things with the bass and Constanten is hitting the right improvisational notes on the organ. I get it. You might not like the Dead but goddamn this is quality live craftsmanship. “The Eleven” bleeds into “Turn On Your Love Light” and, yes, there is a bit of lull for a few minutes in the latter half as the song slows down and Pigpen gets repetitive but the Dead’s touches overall on this cover are tailor-made for a live performance—the lull and the downshifts are all about the buildup at the end, and the end doesn’t disappoint (neither does the eruption that occurs around the 6:48 mark either). The buildup finally gives way to the explosion at the 13:00 mark and all hell breaks loose. Guttural screaming, inscrutable screaming, and the band playing so damn loud for about two minutes straight. And the recording quality for all of this is excellent. I get it that many people don’t like the Dead but this is some top shelf live rock. I’m not looking for conversion here, just a chance to point out that the Dead’s improvisations early on had a rowdiness that maybe a lot of people are unaware of. This troika of songs shows this in spades.

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