Recommending a new edition of the Grateful Dead’s second album “Anthem of the Sun” on the basis of a bonus disc boasting previously unreleased concert material might seem a tad perfunctory. After all, the quintessential psychedelic jam band’s performances have been plentifully preserved on countless officially sanctioned live albums.
But the hour-long disc accompanying this new “Anthem” is a stunner because it captures the Dead at a pivotal stage of its youth, a point where its creative zeal and performance exuberance possessed a rawness that would quickly recede and mature in coming years.
But first, a quick look at “Anthem” itself, which was released in July 1968. With the Dead’s self-titled 1967 debut album deemed a commercial bust, the band enlisted three new contributors — drummer Mickey Hart, keyboardist Tom Constanten and lyricist Robert Hunter. What emerged were sessions where the resulting songs were collages of live and studio tracks that began with “That’s It for the Other One,” a suite that would became a dynamic and long-running concert staple, and end with a 10 minute mash-up of groove and musical anarchy called “Caution (Don’t Step on the Tracks).” This 50th Anniversary Edition presents the original 1968 mix of “Anthem” as well as a subsequent (and slightly cleaner) 1971 remastering.
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Now, on to the real reason to pick up this new “Anthem” — a disc featuring a short (for the Dead) performance from 1967 at the Winterland in San Francisco where the band was sandwiched on a bill with Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company. With Hart on board for just a month, the Dead tear into “Morning Dew” with a deep, muddy charge. Jerry Garcia’s singing is typically clear and wistful, but the rhythmic turbulence is led as much by Phil Lesh’s thick-as-molasses bass work and Constanten’s churchy keyboard orchestration as the guitar work. Then we get a summary of a somewhat primal sounding Dead at work that includes Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s pop-soul tent revival delivery of “Turn on Your Lovelight,” a reading of “Cold Rain and Snow” taken at breakneck tempo and darkly turbulent versions of two “Anthem” gems – the aforementioned “That’s It for the Other One” and a whirling, delirious take on “New Potato Caboose.”
Ultimately, what makes the Winterland disc and the renewed “Anthem” so vital is that they collectively form such a telling document of its time. By the close of the decade, the Dead would alter its course for the rootsier terrain of “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead.” In 1968, though, it was an ensemble student of psychedelia, experimenting with textures, melodies, feedback and no small amount of aggression.
In short, what we have here is the dawn of the Dead as we would come to know it, a musical institution in the midst of a stunning and stubborn adolescence.