Birth of the Dead
Before the Grateful Dead were signed by Warner Brothers, they woodshedded their style, playing live in a variety of capacities (such as their work as the unofficial house band at the various Acid Tests up and down the California coast) and also cut a handful of studio demos around the Bay Area. The double-disc Birth of the Dead includes the bulk of those incipient sessions, as well as some of their primordial concert performances -- all predating their 1967 self-titled debut album. Appropriately, for a primarily historical release, the contents are configured chronologically. The disc begins with six tracks from November of 1965 for soon-to-be legendary Bay Area underground FM DJ Tom Donahue and then-partner Bobby Mitchell, whose Autumn Records label yielded sizable sides by the likes of the Beau Brummels. Under the moniker of 'The Emergency Crew,' Jerry Garcia (guitar/vocals), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (vocals/harmonica/organ/percussion), Bob Weir (guitar/vocals), Phil Lesh (bass/vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) recorded a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" -- purportedly at the behest of producers -- the communally-credited "I Know You Rider" and the originals "Mindbender (Confusion's Prince)," "Only Time Is Now," "Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)" and "Can't Come Down." ("I Know You Rider" stayed in the Grateful Dead's revolving repertoire for the next 30 years, while "Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)" would become a powerful blues-meets-psychedelia vehicle in the months ahead.) The last batch are from a mid-1966 session at Buena Vista Studios (which wasn't connected to Walt Disney) with overdubs done at Western Recorders. The results netted their first 45 rpm "Stealin'" b/w an early speedy reading of "Don't Ease Me In." (The latter resurfaced every once and a while throughout the remainder of their long, strange trip, including another studio remake for the 1980 album Go to Heaven). "Fire in the City" is an interesting footnote as the Grateful Dead back up legendary jazz singer Jon Hendricks. The number was part of a soundtrack to the anti-war documentary film Sons and Daughters (1967). The 'Live Sides' are derived from several gigs circa July 1966 and the juxtaposition provides a glimpse of how the quintet developed by leaps and bounds onstage, in real time. Extended workouts of "Viola Lee Blues," "I'm a King Bee" and "Keep Rolling By" are harbingers of the next step in their perpetual evolution, while the compact arrangements of "In the Pines," "Sitting on Top of the World," "Nobody's Fault but Mine" and "Big Boss Man" hearken back to the earlier material. All said, Birth of the Dead aptly encapsulates the band's formative era, bridging the gap between the seminal single-CD Rare Cuts and Oddities 1966 and the 1967 self-titled debut on Warner Brothers.