As you’ve probably heard, the four remaining members of the last incarnation of the Grateful Dead plan to perform together for the last time in July, to mark the band’s 50th anniversary (and give themselves a much-needed break from the draining task of signing off on vault releases.)
This rekindled a thought I’d had on and off for years, one that Deadheads of all stripes have entertained:
If I could design the ultimate Dead set list, what would be on it? And conversely, if I could construct the single most torturously hellish Dead set list, what would be on that?
For the most part I tried to stick to established convention — Weir and Garcia alternate lead vocals; shorter stand-alone songs get played in the first set, jammier songs in the second; and set lists must be of typical length, not overstuffed to breaking so I could include all the songs I liked.
I also limited myself to songs the Dead had actually played live. It would have been fun to hear them stretch out on “John Henry Was A Steel-Drivin’ Man” or “Having My Baby.” But they never actually did … so, no go.
(I did not limit myself to any one era of the Dead. In my magic set list, Keith Godchaux on piano might morph into Brent Mydland on Hammond organ, right in the middle of a jam. It’s a theoretical exercise; I’m allowed to do this.)
Tonight I’ll post my dream show; tomorrow or the next night, I’ll swing back for the nightmare.
(One last caveat: The videos below are posted as representative examples, not necessarily definitive versions.)
Good Lovin’ – We open with a gutsy Pigpen-era version of the pop standard, with long funky drum breaks, a lovably ragged lead vocal, and the Dead playing bad-ass choirboys behind. Something maybe vaguely like this:
Promised Land – Bob Weir decides he’s gonna rock out too, and whips out maybe the only Chuck Berry tune the Dead ever played with the proper propulsion. Garcia (he’s reasonably clean and sober tonight) spits double-stops the entire time. I’ve heard respectable versions from the Seventies to the early Nineties; this one’s from ’78:
I Second That Emotion – I vowed not to haul out too many rarities but here’s one. This was more common in Jerry Garcia Band set lists; the Dead only played it a handful of times in the spring of ’71. It’s a great song, and Garcia’s not-yet-cooked voice usually sounded pretty good singing it.
Big River – Given the Dead’s deep songbook, it’s weird that my dream Dead show starts with four straight covers. But every Deadhead knows a first set has to have at least one Weir country tune … and of all the overplayed tunes in the Bob Weir Cowboy Songbook, I always liked this one the best. Garcia once said his favorite role was to sing backup and play lead guitar, and he gets to do that in spades here, showing off his James Burton chicken-pickin’ skills.
Ramble On Rose – It was a toss-up between this one and its ’72 cousin Tennessee Jed, but I went for the ragtime, ’cause how many bands play ragtime? While some of the other tunes could be sourced from the ’70s, ’80s or even ’90s, I insist on a ’72-’73 version here so Bill Kreutzmann can play with the beat, turning it upside-down and inside-out the way he only could when he was the Dead’s sole drummer.
Cassidy – The much-maligned Donna Jean Godchaux comes out to sing harmony, and whaddya know, she sounds pretty good. I figure this dream-concert is probably happening in an outdoor stadium or amphitheater, and this song would be a great time for the sun to go down in honey and the moon come up in wine.
West L.A. Fadeaway – I doubt many Deadheads would put this plodding Garcia blues in their dream set list. I happen to like it, maybe because it reminds me of the period in the ’80s when I discovered the band. Or maybe because Garcia singing the blues is a fine thing. I met an old mistake / Walking down the street today …
Next Time You See Me – A lot of covers in the first set, and a lot of blues, too. Pigpen, who has been in the wings rolling cigarettes for the past few tunes, comes out to sing and blow some harp on a rowdy shuffle … and the ballpark in which this concert is taking place begins to take on the aura of a smoky blues joint.
Playing In The Band – Things have been a little too rootsy a little too long; plus it’s time for a break; so Weir counts to ten, and the band coalesces into a classic 18-minute version of their early-’70s first-set closer. The riff that leads into and out of the jam is my absolute favorite Grateful Dead musical moment, and not even a few rawrs from Donna can ruin the buzz.
Weir, as always, promises the band will be back in “a few short minutes.” Remarkably, given how many times he said that, I couldn’t find a standalone YouTube video of it. Anyway, back they come …
Green Onions – The only time I ever saw the Dead (June 30, 1988), they trooped back from the set break and started playing a familiar tune. The local paper’s music reviewer dismissed it as a “blues riff,” but I knew what it was, and so did thousands of other Deadheads — the band’s only known performance of Booker T. and the MGs’ classic. They didn’t play it very well … but this is my dream-show, and in my dream-show, they play it. Hot damn, there’s a YouTube video:
Man Smart, Woman Smarter – Brent Mydland hangs around to play and sing on this one. Too damn much blues already, Weir figures; time for something tropical. This could just as easily be Iko Iko, but lots of bands play that; this is at least somewhat more distinctive. They wring as much funk as they can out of two chords, then wind down to a stop.
I really wanted to work Terrapin Station into this set somewhere, but I couldn’t do it without running long. It would have gone here.
Estimated Prophet – Garcia is off having a smoke or tuning his high E string or something, so Weir commandeers his turn on the set list and counts to 14 while Mydland magically turns into Keith Godchaux. There are OK Eighties versions of this, but they never played it better than when it was new, in the spring of ’77. A long and spirited jam leads them into …
St. Stephen/The Eleven – St. Stephen is a beloved Dead classic, and I like it fine, but it’s really in the set list because it sets up The Eleven, and you can’t really do The Eleven without its saintly companion. (The Dead did, once or twice, but I’m trying to be at least vaguely realistic here.) There’s not much to the song, but in its best ’68/’69 incarnations, it catches a wave of lopsided momentum that reminds me of tobogganing down a hill at high speed. Here, the Dead alternate between nimbleness and brute force to dizzying effeect … with a cameo appearance by Tom Constanten, the band’s sole surviving full-time keyboardist. On the way out, the band gets into …
Jam – Not a meditative space jam from Eighties second sets, but eight or 10 minutes of something fiery and unplanned, like the free jam from June 8, 1974, in Oakland. No YouTube vids for this one; imagine it in your head; it’s better that way. Finally things simmer down and head into …
Days Between – A droning Garcia/Hunter ballad that I find more memorable than most of the other originals introduced during the Nineties. Not long ago I was listening to a show from ’95 in which Garcia — a passenger for most of Set Two — unpredictably woke up long enough to sing a genuinely emotional and convincing Days Between. Ever since then, I’ve considered it a rare jewel of the ending days. Come out and play some keys, Vince Welnick:
Throwing Stones – Another one I like ’cause it was a mainstay of the Dead’s repertoire at the time I got into them. Maybe not their greatest song … but it’s Weir’s turn to sing, and after Days Between it’s time to swing back to something upbeat. Weir lends it the proper spirit, but mercifully does not wear the short-shorts. Out of the ashes of the “ashes, ashes” chant, Garcia leads the band into one more …
Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad – … a nice simple boogie to ride out the show. Most any era will do, though the Seventies were particularly funky. Garcia takes a couple extra choruses; he keeps landing on unexpectedly cool notes, as he did on good nights, and no one wants to stop.
Stella Blue – I don’t know if they ever played my favorite Garcia ballad as an encore; it might have been a little too much of a downer. But I love this song, and the show is kinda short on Jerry weepers, so we’ll go out on a dreamy, regretful, oceans-of-time-between-each-beat mood, and everyone leaves with their heart broken and seeing stars at the same time.