Nothing says big swingin’-dick Rock Star like a box set, and the Dead’s dick swings mightily and meatily in this category.
Shh. Admittedly, they’re not alone: this is the era of the box set. Jazz musicians used to get the bulk of them: Coltrane must have a dozen; Miles has a box set for pretty much every album, each one filled with four and five alternate takes of each song. Classical music, too, although classical music cheats because sometimes just one piece of classical music equals a box set’s worth of notes. (Looking at you, Wagner. You Nazi fuckhead. Great music, but still: Nazi fuckhead.)
Other bands are more limited on the box set front. You can remaster all the records and slap some new art on it, and that’s about it. Some artists can dig into the vaults for unreleased and live stuff, but most wouldn’t: nobody’s buying the $100 worth of songs that weren’t good enough for Bon Jovi albums.
The box set format fits the Dead for two reasons: they taped everything and, more importantly in this case, they taped everything many years ago. Lots of bands tape everything now, which means all the shows are available–on a single-serving basis–afterwards, in pristine SBD quality. You go to, say, a Phish show and enjoy the boinging, then you can download it the next day. It is a post-scarcity situation.
The Dead’s shows, though, just got stuck in the Vault (or auctioned out of bus lockers) because there was absolutely no apparatus in place to share the recordings, not that the record companies would have allowed such a thing. This gives the Dead (or more precisely Rhino and the Dead as represented by DL) a supply of something people demand, but do not have.
This is how capitalism begins,
There’s been a shitload of box sets, of varying qualities and purposes, and with the July ’78 set getting ready to ship, I wanted to look at the enormous pile of chests, trunks, glossy booklets, scrolls, and eco-friendly CD packaging that constituted the Dead’s boxes.
(The arbitrary line is set at ten CDs, although the Formerly The Warlocks release should probably be included. Also, Wikipedia lists a six-CD package first in the list entitled “Box Sets” in the GD discography. Okay, let’s say that ten is the soft line, and I am free to call any audibles I please.)
Dead Zone: The Grateful Dead CD Colection 1977-1987, 1987 Oh, this sounds like a punishment. The Arista years, ladies and gentlemen. You endured these albums on vinyl, and now they’re back and most likely poorly transferred to the CD. All the big groups put out one of these during the LP/CD changeover years. Six discs, and one of them is Reckoning, so it’s not a total loss.
So Many Roads, 1999 This was the first “big” set after Garcia’s death–at five discs, it looks puny from 2016–and it’s a career-spanning overview with unreleased live stuff from the Vault; it went gold and has a ton of good stuff on it; I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to it. I can’t listen to a Dead song, and then a Dead song, and then a Dead song. Shows or nothing: when it comes to that, I’m a ride-or-die bitch.
Get out of here! I’m evaluating music I haven’t listened to!
Don’t let me stop you.
The Golden Road (1965-1973), 2001 Same thing as the first box set, but with better records. All the Warner Brothers stuff, with lots of live goodies and early early early Dead when they were still a bad surf band. Plus: while all the other records have almost an hour each of added material, they left Live/Dead mostly alone, just appending it with the single edit (!) of Dark Star and a radio promo; I like that. Live/Dead should not be messed with, or prodded at; God help us all if someone tries to improve it.
Beyond Description (1973-1989), 2004 Same thing as the previous box, and the first box, but with the albums from Grateful Dead Records and Arista. As before: Reckoning is on it, plus there’s a whole new disc of Reckoning, and that is a wonderful thing. I had never heard of this before right now, but it was twelve CDs.
The Warner Bros. Studio Albums, 2010 This is a the first five records gussied up and etched into that real high-test vinyl: it is only five records, and I am not considering it a box set, but I don’t want to erase this, so it is.
All The Years Combine: The DVD Collection, 2012 I know people enjoy watching shows; I do, too, but only up to a point. If I’m looking at my TV, I want to see wildebeests being eaten or kung fu or Archer. Do people just watch shows? Without doing anything else? Like, the six or seven unpalatable brutes making the choogly music and forgetting the words are the complete focus of your attention? Not even playing with your phone? Wow.
(On the other hand, among the 14 DVDs are the Grateful Dead Movie and The Closing of Winterland, each with an entire disc of bonus material, plus So Far and Backstage Pass for the first time on DVD.)
Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings, 2005 (Yes, I know we’re out of order now: blame Wikipedia.) Releasing this seems like the easiest decision in the world from 2016, but in 2005 it was a gamble. (Albeit a smallish one: it was limited to 10,000 copies ahead of time.) It was also a trial balloon for future small-number box sets; luckily for Deadhead everywhere, that balloon floated.
It’s a ten disc collection of 2/27, 2/28, 3/1, and 3/1 and it’s also from the 16-track; it’s one of the best sounds on the planet: if God asked you to pull His finger, this music is what you’d hear. (You would smell cinnamon and pipe tobacco.) It is Baby Dead at its Baby Deadiest and though they only know six or seven songs, they play them with gusto and balls, and loudly.
Winterland ’73: The Complete Recordings, 2008 Overlooked and underrated, this follow-up to the Fillmore box doesn’t get the attention its older sibling does. This is unfair. The Fillmore box is wild and passionate: it’ll take you for a ride on its motorcycle, and then set a library on fire, but the WInterland ’73 is the Plain Jane.
Perhaps, but a Plain Jane who is wearing suggestive undergarments beneath her outergarments, and knows not just weird sex stuff, but foreign sex stuff, and is a regular at several establishments on the outskirts of town that you did not know existed.
Are these the best shows of ’73? No, and that’s just a goddamned dopey question. The best show of ’73 is the one you’re listening to. These three shows are definitely the best Dead shows played at Winterland in November of that year.
Winterland ’77: The Complete Recordings, 2009 I’m starting to see a pattern. Another ten-disc set from Winterland. It’s fine. Spring ’77, a lot of people like that. Lot of people go see Transformers movies, and a lot of people like Spring ’77.
THIS BOX SET IS FOR NOOBS.
Oh, shut the fuck up.
Formerly The Warlocks, 2010 Semi-banned from Hampton Coliseum for being too popular, the Dead did two unadvertised shows at the venue under their former name in 1989. Only two shows over six discs, and it’s late, so Formerly The Warlocks gets nothing written about it.
Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, 2011 Just like it says on the label: every note from the Continent. 22 shows spread over 72 discs: it came in a steamer trunk large enough to hold a small child, or a large child you had cut into small pieces, or an adult you had pureed. It was ballsy: this sucker was an undertaking and a financial risk, but it sold out in four days: it is Europe ’72, after all.
The only complaint–musically–you could make is an absurd one: the band plays so consistently that the shows are a bit faceless, individually. After making this complaint, though, you should realize that you are the worst kind of picky Deadhead and go volunteer your time at an organization that helps children who have been cut into pieces and put in limited edition box sets
Also: no bonus disc. BUSH LEAGUE.
Spring ’90/Spring ’90 – The Other One, 2012, 2014 Understandably reticent to release another mega box so hot on the heels of Europe, Rhino split the Spring ’90 tour into two big sets: six shows on 18 discs, and eight shows on 23 discs. Depressing amount of Dear Mr. Fantasy>Hey Jude, but proper amount of Branford. (The proper amount of Branford is “at least some, if not all.”)
May 1977, 2014 Five consecutive shows from all around the middle of the country on 14 CDs. Great shows from Spring ’77.
And then there’s 30 Trips, which deserves its own post, and I deserve oatmeal with blueberries in it, and we all deserve what’s coming to us.