::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Steal Your Face: The 12 Greatest Grateful Dead Tunes

My buddy, an accountant for a national auditing firm, bought a brand-new tie-dye t-shirt the day before a Grateful Dead concert at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts.

He looked like a walking Life Saver. The colors were so vibrant – so damn bright that you had to squint when you looked at him. The tie-dye was accompanied by a pair of pressed khaki shorts and a short, bristled corporate hair cut.

This was back in the early 1990s – and despite not having had a hit album in several years – the Dead continued to be a hot live act. There was a reason for that – few bands reached the musical achievements of the Dead in concert. Their shows were free-wheeling jam sessions that infused listeners with a remarkable sense of joy, freedom, and fellowship.

Before the show, my accountant friend and I walked through the camp village that cropped up at any Dead concert. These camps – filled with diehard Deadheads – resembled gypsy caravans; nomadic villages filled with campers, tents, food stands, and T-shirt shops. It was also a thriving black market for illegal drugs.

As we strolled through, we were accosted by dozens of Deadheads convinced my friend was an undercover police officer. The shouts of “Narc! Narc!” followed us through the windy corridors of the camp. It got so bad that we had to flee.

The concert was amazing – per usual. I lost track of my friend and after the show, we couldn’t find him. We looked everywhere. Finally, on the ride back to my house, we saw him staggering down the side of the road. A red bandana was wrapped around his haircut, his shirt was off and tucked into the pocket of his know filthy shorts. He was singing “Little Red Rooster” at the top of his lungs.

At the show, he had graciously accepted an offer of water from a Deadhead. Said water was laced with acid.

His transformation was complete: from alleged Narc to one of the messy, free-spirited fellowship.

What follows is DaRK PaRTY’s attempt to list the greatest dozen Grateful Dead songs of all time:

Little Red Rooster

This song was originally written by Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1962. It’s been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. But it was the Grateful Dead who commandeered Dixon’s tune and made it their own. The Dead’s version is a sultry jammer that lets Jerry Garcia’s guitar do most of the squealing and howling. It never appeared on a Dead studio album, but can be found on several live albums. It was also one of the band’s favorite concert tunes.


“Althea” can be found on the band’s much maligned 1980 release “Go to Heaven.” Critics and Deadhead’s panned this album, yet it contains a surprising number of excellent songs – of which “Althea” is one of the best. While the studio version is decent, the live version is hard to beat. The song features a cascading, funky backbeat and some lyrical guitar work that gets your head bobbing.

Franklin’s Tower

Featured on the band’s “Blues for Allah” album released in 1974, “Franklin’s Tower” is a jazz-infused funker. This rich, multi-layered song is a jazz riff turned into a rocking space jam. It’s also one of those songs that seems to capture the essence of the band – like a grilled cheese sandwich in a gravel parking lot outside a sport stadium while the sun sinks low in the sky.

Scarlet Begonias

“Scarlet Begonias” (often called “Scarlet Fire” because it was paired with “Fire on the Mountain” during many live shows) may be the Dead’s best pop song. It has a carefree Top 40 appeal to it, yet it feels like the Dead. The song comes from the underrated “The Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel” made in 1974. It has been covered several times by Sublime, Jimmy Buffet, and Phish.

I Know You Rider

This song appears for the first time on the band’s famous live album “Europe ’72” and was a popular song for the Dead to play in concert. It often followed “China Cat Sunflower.” “I Know You Rider” was usually sung in chorus with a heavy reliance on piano rather than on Jerry’s guitar.


“Ripple” appears on the Dead’s second album “American Beauty” (1970). It’s a country-infused ballad driven by the mellow strummings of an acoustic guitar. Simple, infectious, and one of those magical songs that makes you think about walking along a sun-drenched beach in the summer.

Fire on the Mountain

The second part of the “Scarlet Fire” duo. “Fire on the Mountain” first appeared on the album “Shakedown Street” in 1978. The album is generally panned by critics as a mess – especially since the Dead tried to “disco” up some of the songs (the terrible “Shakedown Street” comes to mind). But “Fire in the Mountain” was a highlight and became a live favorite.

New Speedway Boogie

This song rocks. It’s a twangy folk song with a terrific backbeat. “New Speedway Boogie” appears on the 1970 album “Workingman’s Dead” (which is one of the band’s best). You can’t listen to this one without feeling like you need to get up on your feet and twirl.

Terrapin Station

The title song from the 1977 “Terrapin Station” album sounds like it could have been performed by Genesis on acid. It has a big, booming sound with multiple layers – horns, strings, and symphonic movement. But “Terrapin Station” is lyrical and harmonic. Every time you listen to it there’s a hidden bit that reveals itself.

Tennessee Jed

Try not to think about moonshine, creeks, and hollows when listening to this southern-fried country rocker. This is another song that made its first appearance on “Europe ’72.” “Tennessee Jed” wants you to sing along and its hard not to.

Mountains of the Moon

One of the Dead’s best acoustic songs is “Mountains of the Moon.” It was born on the album “Aoxomoxoa” in 1969 and has remained an underrated Dead song. “Mountains” captures the essence of the Dead when they strip down their music to its essential roots.

Estimated Prophet

Another great song from the “Terrapin Station” album. This one a rollicking, reggae-influenced song that sounds like Bob Marley rocking out with The Band. The backbeat keeps this one kicking as Jerry really lets his guitar twang. It was a popular live song for the band.

Read our picks for the best of R.E.M.'s more obscure music here

Read our Five Questions About interview on Led Zeppelin here

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