Given the Grateful Dead’s cross-generational popularity and influence as a jam band pioneer, its recorded history has been far more extensively chronicled through a library of concert recordings than through its studio work. So it is immensely refreshing to find a new Rhino Records reissue campaign starting, in effect, at the beginning, with the band’s self-titled 1967 debut album. A new double-disc edition of “The Grateful Dead” comes to us two months shy of the 50th anniversary of the record’s original release date.
What you hear in the newly remastered tracks of “The Grateful Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition” might surprise fans familiar only with the countless live recordings documenting the band’s ensuing years. In the album’s nine tunes is the sound of an understandably youthful troupe steamrolling through music rooted in pop. Unlike even the Dead’s considerably trippier second and third albums (1968’s “Anthem of the Sun” and 1969’s “Aoxomoxoa”), “The Grateful Dead” uses a set of largely jubilant, elemental tunes to essentially introduce itself.
Sure, trademark sounds defining its later music are already in abundance, especially the darting, jubilant guitar work of Jerry Garcia and the shades of psychedelia provided by organist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. But mostly, there is a giddiness to this early music that the band quickly shed as it evolved. Such a spirit is most readily evidenced in “Cold, Rain and Snow,” which would remain in the Dead’s performance repertoire throughout its career, and the blues chestnut “Sitting on Top of the World.” Both sound less like the works of a jam-savvy unit and more the product of a youthful beat combo. “New, New Minglewood Blues,” in contrast to its later and sometimes more labored concert revisions, sounds like the catalyst for a hullabaloo. Ditto for “Cream Puff War,” which Garcia and McKernan pilot as though the music were rafting through the rapids
There also are suggestions of what was to come. “Morning Dew” is slowed to a psychedelic cool that brings the Dead more in line with such San Francisco cohorts as Jefferson Airplane to remind us that “The Grateful Dead” was, in fact, first released in 1967. The clincher, though, is “Viola Lee Blues,” which starts as a renegade party piece before blooming into a groove that lets Garcia loose for a furious jam that stretches the tune to 10 minutes.
“Viola Lee Blues” also is the centerpiece of the second disc that comprises “The Grateful Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition” — a previously unreleased recording of a Vancouver concert from July 1966. This snapshot from the band’s early days has Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann (then the band’s lone drummer) guiding a deliciously ragged jam in the tune that underscores the true dawn of the Dead.