There are with the release of the enormous set of Dead Picks live albums and huge amounts of material on the internet not so much as an embarrassment of riches as a mighty and imposing towering mountain's worth of music on which any new Deadhead trucker could get easily waylaid. The band played an estimated 2500 concerts throughout its existence and most of which were recorded in some shape or form. Hence should you desire you can listen to the Dead live from the Pyramid in 1978, pick up on one of the worst albums in recorded history "Bob Dylan and the Dead" and just in case you missed it this year tap into another huge concert recording with the release of the massive CD/DVD box set "Crimson, White & Indigo: July 7 1989 JFK Stadium, Philadelphia".
The Deadhead lifestyle served to encourage all this recording not least by the bands decision to allow "tapers" to connect directly to the soundboard, which created exceptional concert recordings. Fierce debates continue until this day on when the best version of key songs occurred and in what concert did this happen. This is particularly pronounced around songs like "Wharf Rat" (Steppin' Out with the Grateful Dead: England '72?) and same applies to a host of other songs like Franklin's Tower (Without a net?), Turn on your lovelight (Dick Picks Volume 4?), China Cat Sunflower/Know you rider (Europe 72?), Scarlet Begonias (1977-05-08 - Barton Hall, Cornell University) and of course the ever expanding improvised steller jam classic "Dark Star" (Live/Dead?) .
The Dead never really captured the level of iconic and fanatical support in the UK which they generated in the US. But in iconic musicians like Jerry Garcia, their legendary guitarist, keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, guitarist Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann (later with Mickey Hart) on drums and bass player Phil Lesh they remain one of the greatest rock bands ever with a enduring legacy that makes that of some of their contemporaries look like bit part players.
Europe 72 is as good as starting point as any to the band and is well regarded by American Deadheads. Yes it was slighty reworked in the studio but it feels as "live" as any concert album can. The Dead had significant peaks and troughs in their long career but the general consensus is that between 1969 until the tragic death of "Pigpen" in 1972 they were burning hot and at the peak of their powers. The tour in Europe has yielded a range of albums (Hundred Year hall, Rockin on the Rhine and Stepping out with the Grateful Dead) and the reason is that this is the classic line up of the band. With "Pigpens" alcohol abuse reaching epic proportions and yet him still being an integral band member we also see Donna and Keith Godchaux drafted into the Dead on vocals and keyboards which beefed up their "Wall of sound".
Hence on this album the version of China Cat Sunflower/I know your rider" is at its most powerful with Garcia leading the charge and the other band members providing robust support. The gentle jamming around "He's gone" combined with Garcia's vocal is a treasure, ditto "Steel Magnolias". Then we have the brilliant "Pigpen" taking the lead on sterling covers of Hank Williams "You win again" and Elmore James "It hurts me too". Great versions of "Morning dew" follow and the album is expanded to take on a banging version of "Caution do not stop on the tracks" with a wonderful rolling piano/guitar work out from Garcia, Weir and Pigpen.
The trick with the Grateful dead is to build up slowly and over time like a good Dead concert. Start with this or the earlier "Live/Dead" 1969 one of the greatest concert albums ever which is more experimental than Europe 72 but equally brilliant. Then get both the studio recorded "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" where their songwriter Robert Hunter is on impeccable form. I assure you a love affair beckons.