Artist Spotlight: Grateful Dead

A master of the perfect quote (something that’s oh-so-simple yet also deep), Jerry Garcia once said this of his band: “The Grateful Dead are like black licorice: some people really can’t stand black licorice, but people who like black licorice, really really like black licorice.”

While that’s very much true, what is impossible to deny is how the Dead’s sonic vision incorporated the full spectrum of American music. In a single concert -- albeit one that probably lasted at least four hours -- they could play the most pastoral of folk blues, launch into jazz-inspired improvisation, stomp through roadhouse honky-tonk and unleash feedback-stained cosmic music perfect for space travel. It’s an expansiveness that also showed up on recordings. It really is mind-blowing to think that the band that released the 20-minute version of “Dark Star” on 1969’s Live/Dead is the very same one that, no more than a year later, captured rustic perfection with the country rock landmarks American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.

If the Dead occasionally bit off more than they could chew, that was also what made their mission so striking. After all, their love for both roots music and the avant-garde reflects a contemporary tug of war that has shaped American life: how the always-on-the-move descendants of pioneers still desperately crave home and hearth (even as many of us make way for industry and technology with unprecedented speed).

In hopes of capturing a small taste of this roots/avant-garde dichotomy, my Artist Spotlight playlist isn’t limited to hits and fan favorites (you know, the typical introduction). Now, don’t get me wrong: The track list certainly boasts beloved songs such as “Casey Jones,” “Box of Rain” and “Touch of Grey.” But I’ve also included several extended cuts from the Dick’s Picks series, like the sublime “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire on the Mountain” stretch from volume 18, recorded in 1978. Moreover, I threw in a few cuts from some of the Dead’s key side projects, including New Riders of the Purple Sage and Old & In the Way. Who knows, maybe by playlist’s end you’ll be craving even more of that black licorice.

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