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A great place to start,
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This review is from: Sunshine Daydream (Veneta, Or, 8/27/72) (Audio CD)
I've seen some strange recommendations as a "place to start" for those coming new to the Dead. People often suggest "Live Dead", which seems too early to me, from 1969, and "Dead Set", which is already too late, in 1980. One suggestion would be to start in the spring of 1977 by downloading Dick's Picks volume 3, an unbelievable feast of virtuosity - especially in the second set. But this is even better, by virtue not least of the DVD that comes with the three CDs of music. It's strange to think what a rip-off CDs were in their first decade or so and pre-amazon, clocking in at £16.99 for a single CD sometimes, for a new release. Veneta is a genuine bargain, and a perfect introduction to the Grateful Dead at a point when their early rawness was still evident but the mad versatility that sets them apart from other bands was in evidence.
The concert film is a revelation, a slice of history, catching the counterculture undefeated on its own turf - Ken Kesey's ranch in Oregon - on a very hot day. People in the crowd and backstage are freaking out; kids run across in front of band mid-song; men and women take off all their clothes and perform some early five rhythms dancing. The band seem to groove on in their own space, undistracted except by the legendary sound problems that dogged them throughout their long career. The "Dark Star" in particular is wild, scary and constantly threatens to go beyond the limits of endurance and invention, passing through phase after phase and turning into a journey all in itself. It is a piece - not really a song - that can be daunting, I know; it seems easier to stick to the country rock Grateful Dead or the melodic jams such as "Bird Song". But this "Dark Star" teaches you how to listen to "Dark Stars" in toto, bucking and weaving while the sun sets, Garcia tuning his guitar partway in, with its occasional forays into dissonance that recall modern classical composers such as John Adams. But they could do everything, really, the Dead, and certainly between 1972 and 1977 they did everything very well indeed.
As an afterthought, I would point out that they were not like any other band. Of course, it is generally not the idea with music in popular culture to be objective; the whole point is that we care about music because of context, age and generation, the people we knew or the scene we were in when a song came out. With the Dead, this is even truer. I wouldn't call myself a Deadhead, but even I would listen to stuff from the relatively empty years after the departure of Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux - and when I say stuff I mean whole gigs, and when I say years I mean decades. Objectively, they didn't really go much further than they'd already been after 1977 - although, of course, there are moments. But to really appreciate the Dead, you do have to buy into the philosophy to a certain extent. This concert, and the visual element in particular, reveal that philosophy in all its beautiful chaos. You can see it in Garcia's eyes as he plays - a commitment to an exploration that few other musicians would even dream of making.