Once upon a time, Rock ‘n’ Roll was exciting. Not Mumford and Sons-tries-to-sound-like-Coldplay exciting. Not new-U2-tries-to-sound-like-the-old-U2 exciting. Not some-Swedish-producer-found-a-way-to-get-better-sonics-from-an-acoustic-strum exciting. But really, shockingly, I have-no-idea-what-happens-next, can-you-really-do-that-with-an-electric-guitar exciting. Buddy Holly exciting. Velvet Underground exciting. Grateful Dead exciting. Exciting like a new Kanye track is today.
Those days are gone. Holly is history. Lou Reed passed to the wild side. And the Dead have been dead for years, though the surviving members, some now in their 70s, plan a resurrection this summer in Soldier Field, a final set of shows for an act that ended, depending on your point of view, when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 or at some point before, when he fell into his heroin addiction, or relapsed back into it, over a blur of tours, triumphs and burnouts during the preceding two decades.
But as the Dead hit their 50th anniversary, it is worth remembering them nonetheless. The band—which first played together on May 5, 1965, under the name The Warlocks—developed a strand of rock that will never be matched, because the ground cannot be broken again. By grafting the discipline of backwoods American roots music to the improvisation of Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Django Reinhardt, they tied together two great eras of 20th-century American white-kid rebellion—the Beats and the Hippies—and then took it as far as their minds could stretch, with the early help of wide-eyed, West Coast LSD.
This was a band that suffered writing songs, struggled in the studio, but shot the moon on the stage. On any given night, they could be terrible or terrific, or both, and no single member of the band controlled the outcome. For at its core, it was an improv band, with each member of the group playing around his part in each song, stretching for something he had not achieved before. For years, they went on stage without set lists. For decades, they surprised even themselves.
So as a service to those who will never see a show, and who may now mistake the Grateful Dead for a parking lot scene of dread-locked dullards huffing nitrous balloons and seeking other chemical escapes from suburban malaise, here are a few of their better shows over the years, which are now archived online and available to stream for free.
Aug. 27, 1972 at the Olde Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Ore.