Notwithstanding reunions by surviving members, the Dead have been dead since 1995, when a heart attack killed guitarist Jerry Garcia. But the product keeps on coming, thanks to the group’s penchant for recording nearly everything they ever performed. In fact, if you lined up a copy of every posthumous Dead release end to end, they would stretch all the way from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to Morrison, Colorado.
OK, I exaggerate slightly. But speaking of Morrison, a 1978 concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre there is the centerpiece of the band’s latest release, a 12-CD boxed set (limited to 15,000 copies but also available for download) that preserves five shows from July of that year. Fortunately for those of us who love the Dead but realize we already own more music than we’ll be able to hear in our own time left on earth, the group’s label is also offering a three-CD set that contains only the July 8 Red Rocks show. It is reportedly the best of the bunch—and arguably among the Dead’s best live shows ever.
Recordings of the concert have circulated among collectors but it has never before been officially released. (Three of the shows in the 12-CD set have until now not even been available as bootlegs.) The tracks come from the band’s master soundboard recording and have been newly mixed and mastered, so the audio is excellent.
The Dead here include founding members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh; Mickey Hart, who joined in 1967; and Donna Jean and Keith Godchaux, who were on board for nearly all of the 1970s. Clocking in at just under three hours, the show includes 22 tracks that display the band’s wide repertoire. A wonderful cover of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” shows off their country influences, for example, while a rollicking, vocally intense “One More Saturday Night,” a cover of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’," and a spirited rare reading of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” represent the rock-and-roll-party Dead.
Most impressive, though, are the extended free-form psychedelic jams on tracks like “The Other One,” “Eyes of the World,” and “Terrapin Station,” all of which feature guitar work that is no less than thrilling. Often, such as on “Sugar Magnolia” and the funky “Franklin's Tower,” the Dead deliver rhythmic music that is as danceable as it is instrumentally adventurous.
Throughout the album, you can hear Jerry Garcia and company melding elements of rock, jazz, blues, country, and even classical music into something fresh and magical. Some of their concerts in the late 1970s and beyond were relatively uninspired, but here they consistently deliver enthusiastic, confident, and inventive performances that help explain why their live gigs meant so much to so many. If you’re too young to have witnessed the Dead in their prime, this is a great place to start hearing what you’ve missed.