The top 5 Grateful Dead concerts

To mark the 40th anniversary of what is widely considered one of the best Grateful Dead concerts of all time, we take a look back at the top 5.

Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux takes us through his picks.

The Grateful Dead. (Warner Bros. Records. )

Forty years ago, the Grateful Dead performed what is today widely considered one of their greatest concerts of all time. To mark the occasion, the Dead are releasing the first officially mixed and mastered version of that night.

We asked Dead archivist David Lemieux, who has personally seen the band 100 times, to take us through the best concerts in the band's history.

He says the "the bulk of" their best shows are largely drawn from the '70s, but what makes one concert the best? "It's that perfect moment, where everything is in perfect sync and the audience is giving you everything back."

Below, in chronological order, are Lemieux's top 5 Dead concerts, which he says is a "personal list but it's also largely consensus." You can also hear him talk with Tom Power about the Grateful Dead's new four-hour documentary, Long Strange Trip

1. May 2, 1970: Harpur College, Binghamton, N.Y.

"This was a tremendous show. They were on fire. They did the acoustic set and then some absolutely crazy electric sets. We call it the X factor, where everything came together perfectly, which isn't to say there weren't some miscues, and there were some out-of-tune moments and stuff, but the energy comes through those tapes. That was one of the first ever archival releases the Dead did 20 years ago, it was that good of a show and a cornerstone for many of our tape collections."

2. May 8, 1977: Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

"This one is widely considered the best Dead show in history, which is actually coming out now [today]. Finally, after 40 years, we reacquired the tapes, which had been missing. An old recording engineer had them, they ended up in private hands, a storage unit, and just floating around. We got them six months ago. When you talk about definitive live versions of Dead songs, it would come from this show. It's also the most accessible Dead show when you want to turn someone onto them. For most people this is number 1. There was a bootleg, it sounded fine, but it sounds nothing like it sounds now."

3. Aug. 22, 1972: Veneta, Ore.

"It was right after Europe '72, widely considered the best Dead tour ever, and they got asked to do a show to benefit the Springfield Creamery. Ken Kesey's family was involved with the creamery, and they had some financial troubles. The Dead went up and they did a benefit show and the music — again, the X factor was there, but it was also filmed on 16-mm film, in a field, in Oregon, which is about as hippy/liberal a state you can get. It's run by the Merry Pranksters, it's 100 degrees out and there's lots of naked people, there's kids, there's dogs, Frisbees, everything. If I could go back in time and go to any Dead show, it would be Veneta, Ore., because to me, visually, it is the quintessential Grateful Dead experience."

4. Oct. 8 and 9, 1989: Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Va.

"They were at the height of their popularity. It was a smaller venue for the Dead, everyone knew that they always played well in Hampton, it was a destination, so you'd get too many people. Finally, city council said we don't want you anymore. There's too many fans, we can't handle them, you're not welcome here anymore. So they announced the fall tour of 1989, starting in New Jersey ... and then about five days before the tour was to begin, all of a sudden the word gets out, pre-internet, 1989, that the Warlocks, which is the Grateful Dead's original name, are playing the Hampton Coliseum two days before the tour. No phone orders, you had to go to the box office, and it sold out instantly.

"So they play these two shows, and the tickets and the bill say 'Formerly the Warlocks.' They came out and played a number of songs that they hadn't played in many years. 'Attics of my Life,' 'Death Don't Have no Mercy,' they played 'Dark Star,' the song that everyone wanted the Grateful Dead to play. … The Oct. 8 show was magnificent, but the Oct. 9 show was special. It is the one where they brought back 'Dark Star' and you can just feel the crowd rising."

5. Feb. 13, 1970: Fillmore East, New York, N.Y.

"This was a 2,000-seat theatre in New York's East Village run by Bill Graham. When Bill Graham owned a venue and ran a show, you knew it was going to be a special event because Bill cared. He really did. He cared about giving everyone who came through that door a great experience, he cared about the venue, the sound, everything. And he cared about the Grateful Dead. When they played at a Bill Graham venue — Fillmore East, Fillmore West, Winterland, the Fillmore Auditorium — I don't know if they played better, but they stood a little taller. They knew they had to put on their A game.

"There is a version of 'Dark Star' from this one that is widely considered one of the most dynamic, the most engaging version they ever played. ... There was a lot of great music that night, and if it wasn't so weird, it would be the show I gave people to turn them onto the Dead."

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin, q digital staff


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