Best Grateful Dead Jams
for Travel and Road Trips
Road trips are excuses to listen to long, lazy Grateful Dead jams. I've compiled a list of the best Grateful Dead jams for road trips and travel.
This has nothing to do with great songs (like Ripple or Box of Rain), or great versions of songs (like Ruben and Cherise at Folsom Prison). This list is about the Grateful Dead's most exquisite improvized jams; the ones that go along with open car windows, solitary hikes in foreign places, and doodling travel sketches in old cafes. Many of these segments are long enough that getting caught up in them is best practiced when you are away from home, where you have big, open spaces of time to dive in to the music.
Improvised music isn't necessarily better than great studio work, but for me, the sensibility of not knowing where the music is going lends itself well to travel, because it gets your synapses firing in all the right ways.
These picks are the result of listening to Grateful Dead tapes since the age of 15, and slowly building up a list of my best picks specifically for the road, which for me is exploratory improvisation, especially when it strays far from its basic form. It is important to note that the idea of picking best jams is really counterintuitive to listening to improvised music. Anybody who uses a list to find the best version of a song is missing the point. Listening to improvised music is to get to know the many versions. It is a lifelong pursuit. Use best-of lists only as a stepping-off point.
I am adding ink spatters to go along with different jams. I am a color-grapheme synesthete, and while that is not a form of synesthesia directly correlated to music or sound, I subconsciously associate colors with jam sequences, and will often remember a jam by its color. These ink spatters are my attempt to visualize the color combinations of these jams.
1977-05-22 Help on the Way -> Slipknot -> Franklin's TowerSportatorium, Pembroke Pines, Florida
With Grateful Dead jams, choosing the best material is not just about the music, but the recording, and the sound of the hall. There is a lot going on in Grateful Dead music, and so it's easy for the sound to get muddy. This soundboard recording from the Grateful Dead's most celebrated month of music enscapsulates the two things that I look for the most in Grateful Dead: crispness and exploratory playing.
1973-12-19 Here Comes SunshineCurtis Hixon Convention Hall, Tampa, Florida
This bright song about the days following a devastating flood in Portland, Oregon's Vanport area was always in short supply in the Grateful Dead's repertoire. It was only played 66 times. But 1973 is the year for Here Comes Sunshine, and there is little argument among Deadheads that this complex and varied version is the pinnacle. Tight, uptempo jamming. Garcia is all over the fretboard and Weir's rhythm is strangely submarine. This is another example of crisp playing and crisp recording. (Dick's Picks 1)
1974-08-06 Eyes of the WorldRoosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, New Jersey
During the Grateful Dead's Wall of Sound era, the band played this fast, crystalline version of Eyes, with bright, audible Phil Lesh solos, and tight, exploratory lead by Garcia.
1977-05-28 SugareeHartford Civic Center, Hartford, Connecticut
A long time ago, I saw a graphic novel interpretation of Sugaree. The author depicted a world of lizard-riding townsmen, a heroine in a cloak, turning her back on the song's narrator, who is about to be hung. This Sugaree, which doesn't let up through its entire record-breaking 21:30 minute length, solo after scorching solo, reminds me of the intensity of that scene.
6-9-76 Crazy Fingers, St. Stephen -> Eyes of the World ->
Jam -> Let It Grow -> Drums -> Let It Grow, Franklin's TowerBoston Music Hall, Boston, Massachussetts
The centerpoint of this stunning segment is the transition from St. Stephen into Eyes of the World. St. Stephen itself starts to feel infused with Eyes notes, but when Eyes actually begins, it's pre-lyric introduction extends for eight glorious minutes. As a lifelong fan of Eyes, I have always paid particular attention to the intros. I don't know of any other Eyes intro that passes the four-and-a-half minute mark, and most are less than a minute.
1976-07-16 The Music Never Stopped -> Scarlet Begonias, US BluesOrpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California
This is an early Scarlet Begonias, before it was regularly paired with Fire on the Mountain. It's youth as a song is really compelling here, as Garcia's notes are fresh and inventive, and like most Grateful Dead from 1976, more laid-back and lazy than 1977.
1974-06-26 Intro Jam -> China Cat -> Feelin' Groovy Jam -> I Know You RiderProvidence Civic Center, Providence, Rhode Island
There are too many reasons why this China Rider is one of the greatest Grateful Dead jams of all time. It features a unique, spacey intro jam, a beautiful Feelin' Groovy jam to tie the two songs together, and fierce, tight jamming on both China Cat and Rider.
1974-06-20 Eyes of the World -> Slipknot -> China DollAtlanta Municipal Auditorium, Atlanta, Georgia
This is the first time Slipknot was ever played by the Grateful Dead, but it wasn't yet fully formed, nor was it the slipknot that would form the nearly inseparable tryptich between Help on the Way and Franklin's Tower. Pairing Slipknot with Eyes of the World works really well, and I actually believe that Slipknot is an invention born out of 1973-1974 Eyes of the World outros.
1971-11-15 Not Fade Away -> Jam -> Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad -> Not Fade Away
Austin Municipal Auditorium, Austin, Texas
The Dead spent most of 1971 perfecting their cowboy songs, and setlists were less exploratory during this year. But this November show is off-the-charts, and the jam inside this Not Fade Away sandwich has elements of 1960's primal Dead, China-cat Sunflower teases, and, deep spacey exploration.
1979-10-25 Shakedown StreetVeteran's Memorial Coliseum, New Haven, Connecticut
If the Grateful Dead ever sounded like Phish, this is it. This is funky-jammy Grateful Dead, inspired by Brent Mydland's electronic piano synth sounds.
1976-07-17 Comes a Time -> Drums -> The Other One ->
Space -> Eyes -> Jam -> The Other One -> Goin' Down the Road Feelin' BadOrpheum Theater, San Francisco, California
This unusual setlist has that laid back 1976 quality to it, but the apex of this segment is the spectacular Comes a Time, the longest ever. It's jazzy, out there and easily some of the most inventive playing in the Dead's repertoire.
1972-08-27 Bird SongOld Renaissance Faire Grounds, Veneta, Oregon
This transcendent Bird Song is considered by some to be the high point of the show that is often tied for first place with the Cornell 1977 show. The weather at this venue was unrelenting hot, and that heat created a weird tone in Garcia's guitar. Those notes are flawless, psychedelic wizardry.
1972-09-21 Playing in the BandThe Spectrum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Unrelenting jamming from Garcia, improved by some of Keith Godchaux's most creative piano.
1976-06-14 Crazy Fingers, Cosmic Charlie,
Help on the Way ->Slipnot -> Franklin's TowerBeacon Theatre, New York, New York
This is an unreal Crazy Fingers, with sublime exchanges between Garcia and Keith Godchaux. and it really describes 1976 Dead. Spanish-jam style exchanges appear. The thirteen-minute Slipknot is labrythine and exquisite.
1970-02-13 Dark Star -> The Other One -> LovelightFillmore East, New York, New York
This show is generally considered the Grateful Dead's third most celebrated, and this segment is the reason why. Garcia tears through Dark Star and The Other One with a vengeance. There are sections of deep, exploratory quiet, and sections of machine-gun guitarwork.
1977-05-09 Comes a TimeFillmore East, New York, New York
Unlike the Comes a Time from 7-16-1976, this version, from the day after the Grateful Dead's most famous show, stays on track with a more traditional Comes a Time jam, leading towards a peak. But it is just as good, and that peak is handled incredibly delicately.
1977-05-22 Estimated Prophet ->Eyes of the World ->
Wharf Rat->Terrapin Station , Morning DewThe Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, Florida
This second set segment from one the Grateful Dead's best shows features strong playing throughout.
1973-12-02 Wharf Rat, Mississippi Half-Step,
Playin' in the Band -> Mind Left Body Jam, He's GoneBoston Music Hall, Boston, Massachussetts
This psychedelic masterpiece builds and builds throughout the second set, and crescendoes at the Playin' in the Band.
1979-12-26 Uncle John's Band -> Estimated -> JamOakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, California
This standalone Estimated Prophet, sandwiched between Uncle John's Band, features standout mutron from Garcia and great keys from Brent Mydland. There is no other Estimated outro jam like the one in this set, and it's a funky stunner.
1977-10-16 SugareeLouisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
1977 yielded the longest and most creative Sugaree's. This one, which is nearly eighteen-minutes long, is one of my favorites.
1983-10-14 Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountain, Estimated Prophet
->Eyes of the World ->Drums->Spanish Jam->Other OneHartford Civic Center, Hartford, Connecticut
This is my favorite Scarlet Fire, and it may be the lazy, carefree effect that the marimbas and tropical beats have on this pairing. This was also Phish's Trey Anastasio's first Grateful Dead concert. At the time, Anastasio was 19 and heavily into metal. Seeing the Dead for the first time was, "like getting it in the head with a baseball bat." The set continues to deliver fire, and includes a rare Spanish Jam coming out of drums.
1973-07-27 Watkin Glens Soundcheck JamWatkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway, Watkins Glen, ,New York
The Summer Jam festival at Watkin Glens on 7-28-1973 was the largest rock concert in history and the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States, bringing in over 600,000 to see The Allman Brothers, The Band and the Grateful Dead. But rock fans began showing up the day before. The Grateful Dead's soundcheck from the day before the big event is one of their most inventive and unique jams of their entire career. The way that the Grateful Dead shifts between different jam themes is a rare comparison to the Phish Type II jams.
1973-11-30 Here Comes Sunshine -> Weather Report Suite ->
Dark Star Jam -> Eyes of the World -> Sugar MagBoston Music Hall, Boston, Massachussetts
The high point of this beautiful second set jam segment is the Eyes-infused Dark Star Jam that veers effortlessly towards a jazzy Eyes of the World, dense with Phil Lesh bass notes and those lazy but precise Jerry Garcia solos unique to 1973.
1979-11-09 Dancing in the Streets -> Franklin's TowerBuffalo Auditorium, Buffalo, New York
Brent Mydland's funky keys, unique to 1979, help to propel Garcia and Weir in new directions. The rare transition into Franklin's Tower is flawless.
1977-05-17 Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountain,
Estimated Prophet, Terrapin Station -> Playin' in the Band ->
Drums -> Wharf Rat -> Playin' in the Band -> Sugar MagnoliaMemorial Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
The Scarlet Fire's of May 1977 are often compared, but this one has a buttery transcendence to it. The rest of the second set is sublime.
1972-09-21 Dark Star The Spectrum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
This 37-minute Dark Star masterpiece ends with a beautiful banjo-style Mind Left Body Jam.
1990-09-16 He's Gone->JamMadison Square Garden, New York, New York
Jerry Garcia, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick improvise beautifully out of this post-Brent Mydland He's Gone.
1978-02-05 Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the MountainUni Dome, U of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Soaring guitarwork from Jerry Garcia and breathtaking keys by Keith Godchaux make this one of the best Scarlet Fire's. The transiton is especially sublime.
1972-09-21 Bird SongThe Spectrum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A jazzy Bird Song from the year that brought the best Bird Song's.
1972-08-27 Dark Star -> El PasoOld Renaissance Faire Grounds, Veneta, Oregon
Like almost any Dark Star, this one takes a while to grow on you. But patience rewards you. Something about this Dark Star from the Grateful Dead's second most famous show reminds me of a pod of space whales sailing through the galaxy. I have no idea why. The transition into the Marty Robbins cowboy song made it all that more weird, and Dead. A great jam segment for midnight drives in the desert.
1982-08-03 To Lay Me Down, Let It Grow -> Drums -> Space ->
He's Gone -> The Other One-> Stella Blue -> Sugar MagnoliaStarlight Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri
The guitar tones and vocals on this segment from a beautiful moonlit night in Kansas City are uniquely raw.
1977-10-11 Help on the Way -> Slipknot ->Franklin's Tower, Let It Grow Lloyd Noble Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
Jerry Garcia plays lightning fast, exploratory leads on this first set opener triptych, and especially in the second set opener Let it Grow, one of the most fiery and exploratory versions around.
1973-11-14 China Cat Sunflower > I Know You RiderWinterland Arena San Francisco, California
The transition between China and Rider is long, melodic and has an underylying tenderness to it that is unique in all China Rider's. A classic all-windows-open jam.
1976-06-09 Lazy Lightning -> Supplication -> High TimeBoston Music Hall Boston, Massachussetts
A summery second set segment with spidery and labrynthine playing by Garcia and Weir.
1981-05-01 Althea, Let It Grow, Deal, Feel Like a Stranger -> Franklin's TowerHampton Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia
Of these spectacular first and second jams from spring 1981, the Stranger is the centerpiece. Garcia
1974-6-23 Jam->Ship of FoolsJai Alai Fronton, Miami, Florida
The second set of this very unusual show opened with a lengthy pre-Ship jam, mimicking the themes of Ship of Fools while still staying loose and deconstructed.
1981-03-07 Bird SongCole Field House, College Park, Maryland
This longest of all Bird Songs is one of the most exquisite and unusual, with tight, consistent jamming from Jerry Garcia throughout.
1990-03-15 Terrapin StationCapitol Centre, Landover, Maryland
The 1990's would usher in an era of great outros, and this Terrapin Station, played on Phil Lesh's 50th birthday, is a beautiful example of those outros. This is also the show that brought some of the Without a Net material, and this Terrapin, full of midi and keys, also represents that short-lived creative rennaisance that occured in 1990.
1973-02-26 Dark Star -> Eyes of the World -> Mississippi Half-Step Uptown ToodelooPershing Municipal Auditorium Lincoln, Nebraska
Dark Star is now a veteran jam vehicle, and Eyes of the World is fresh and still not fleshed out. The union of these two monsters is exquisite. The Dark Star has a beautiful, blissful segment that is unlike anything I've heard, and seems to tie the song to the Eyes of the World that will unravel out of this Dark Star. This is only the third time Eyes of the World has been played, and so it has an innocent quality It's 'Stronger than Dirt' outro jam is fluid and youthful, making this one of the best Eyes of all time.
1973-11-30 Playing in the BandBoston Music Hall, Boston, Massachussetts
This jazzy 73-era Playin', which closes out the first set, goes far out there in the space of twenty-three minutes.
1974-06-16 China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You RiderDes Moines State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa
A sublime China Rider from a peak year for the Grateful Dead, with Keith's keyboards shining on the segue.
1974-08-04 Weather Report Suite->JamPhiladelphia Civic Arena, Philadephia, Pennsylvania
In the summer of 1974, the Grateful Dead were playing with their enormous 70-ton Wall of Sound speaker system behind them. This was the largest and most sophisticated speaker system ever assembled, and the idea was that the system could eliminate distortion and create crystalline, defined sound at thundrous sound levels. This Weather Report Suite, which warps into a long Mind Left Body Jam, always reminds me of that surreal PA system.
1977-05-28 Estimated Prophet -> Playin' in the Band ->
Terrapin Station -> Drums ->Not Fade Away ->
Wharf Rat -> Playin' in the BandHartford Civic Center, Hartford, Connecticut
A second set Playin' sandwich in the Dead's tightest month is filled with fast, otherworldly notes and space-voyage mutron.
1969-03-02 Doin that Rag, Cryptical Envelopment,
Death Don't Have No Mercy-> Morning Dew ->
Alligator -> Drums -> Primal Jam ->
Caution->Feedback->Bid you GoodnightFillmore West, San Francisco, California
One of the Grateful Dead's finest performances includes this early Mind Left Bodyesque jam - the Primal Jam - pure, raw, fiery Dead.
1974-06-16 Eyes of the World -> Big RiverDes Moines State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa
All of the summer 1974 Eyes of the World performances were among the very best. This Eyes is among the strongest, with a unique grasshopper cadence to it. The unexpected segue into Johnny Cash's Big River is perfect.
1977-05-08 Row Jimmy, Dancing in the Street->
Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountain -> Estimated Prophet ->
St. Stephen -> Not Fade Away -> St. Stephen -> Morning DewBarton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Nobody seems able to eloquently describe why this is the most celebrated set in Grateful Dead history. It is smooth and tight and beautiful, but what makes this show better than other similar May 1977 shows? Many say it's the quality of the soundboard tape, which was widely distributed and which helped solidify this show as the de facto best show, an unoffensive common denominator liked by everybody. Listen closely, though, and the answer is out there. The Garcia leads on this night are singular, and never repeated or even suggested again.
1973-11-17 Playin' in the Band ->Uncle John's Band ->
Morning Dew -> Uncle John's Band ->
Playin' in the Band -> Stella Blue ->
El Paso -> Eyes of the WorldPauley Pavilion, UCLA, Los Angeles, California
By far one of the best sets of the superb 1973, this segment from the second set features a crisp Playin' sandwich and standup segues on the songs to follow. The Eyes of the World is one of the best.
1979-11-06 Terrapin Station -> Playin' in the Band
The Spectrum, Philadelphia, Pennslyvania
The Playin' in this segment is not as well known as many other Playin' heavy-hitters, but it stands with the best, with rich, textured playing and a unique 1979 delivery, which includes heavy first-year Brent.
1974-06-28 Weather Report Suite -> Jam
Freedom Hall, Louisville, Kentucky
A long, jazzy Weather Report Suite is followed by a spacey jam. One of the great monsters of 1974 Grateful Dead.
1972-08-27 Playin' in the Band -> He's Gone -> Jack Straw
Old Renaissance Faire Grounds, Veneta, Oregon
Some consider this the Grateful Dead's most intense, in-sync jam of all time. Right before Playin' starts, you can hear Bob say, "Every other time we’ve been in Oregon, it rained. Today, it’s too damn hot!" That heat kept the guitars out of tune, which you can hear in this blistering track.
1973-06-22 Bird Song
P.N.E. Coliseum, Vancouver, British Columbia
This Bird Song is unique among all Bird Song's for it's dream-like voyaging tones. It's the only Bird Song that dips into territory normally pursued by Dark Star or Playin' in the Band. A remarkable must listen for twilight road trips.
1977-03-20 Row Jimmy
Winterland Arena, San Francisco, California
The entire performance this night, including many of the first set songs, are well played throughout. For example, the Brown-eyed Women in the first set features really punchy lead. But this second set Row Jimmy is on fire, and probably the best version ever played.
1973-11-14 Here Comes Sunshine
Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles, California
This sloppy Here Comes Sunshine fires on all cylinders in between the composed sections, despite its miscues. Sharp, brilliant lead, a dreamy and intense quality, and heavy experimentation.
1972-04-14 Dark Star
Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark
This Dark Star, over 29 minutes in length, explores the cosmos for seventeen minutes before hitting the first verse, and includes one of the happiest and most exploratory Feelin' Groovy jams in Grateful Dead history.
1978-04-24 Music Never Stopped, Scarlet Begonias ->Fire on the Mountain
Horton Field House, Normal, Illinois
A spacey and intense Music Never Stopped is followed by one of the best Scarlet Fires of all time. Music Never Stopped has always been, to my ears, an unusual musical take on summer. This is the summer on fire version.
1973-11-14 Truckin-> Other One Jam -> The Other One -> Jam ->
Big River -> The Other One -> Eyes of the World ->
The Other One -> Wharf Rat, Me and My Uncle ->
Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad
San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego, California
Fascinating Weir rhythms, locked-in Phil, and pulsating Jerry make this a beautiful second-set segment from the jazzy late 1973 era. I have always been interested in songs that are flavored with Eyes of the World notes, and the Other Ones in this set are a great example that.
1972-04-08 Dark Star -> Sugar Magnolia -> Caution (Do Not Step on the Tracks)
Wembley Empire Pool, London, England
A beautiful, melodic thirty-minute Dark Star that feels almost oceanic is followed by a lively Sugar Magnolia, and a vicious Caution.
1993-06-23 Terrapin Station -> Drums -> Space -> Dark Star -> Wheel
Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, Indiana
One of the last great jam masterpieces of the Grateful Dead. Terrapin Station unravels into a Dark Star-ish pre-drums jam.
1972-04-08 Dark Star -> Sugar Magnolia -> Caution -> One More Saturday Night
Wembley Empire Pool, London, England
One of the great Dark Star's takes a voyage into deep space, returns to Earth for a sweet Sugar Magnolia, and then blasts off again with a firey and intense Caution.
1976-10-09 Help on the Way -> Slipknot -> Drums ->
Samson and Delilah -> Slipknot -> Franklin's Tower
Oakland-Alamed County Coliseum, Oakland, California
1976 was a heady year for the Dead, and this segment's unusual setlist shows how out-there a setlist could get this year. While the Franklin's Tower is top-notch, the double Slipknot, which often forays into Spanish Jam, is some of Jerry's best playing in the 70s.
1973-02-28 The Other One -> Eyes of the World -> Morning Dew
Salt Palace, Salt Lake City, Utah
The very earliest Eyes of the World's had a weird sort of purity to them (the first debuted on February 9). The outro jams, heavy on Phil and proto-Slipknot segments, were extraordinary. But this second set segment contains an Eyes-infused The Other One that has includes an unusual jam known to appear only in 1973, which reminds me of the offspring of Spanish Jam and Brazilian bossa nova. Listen for it about four-and-a-half minutes in.
1978-9-2 Scarlet Begonias -> Fire on the Mountain -> Estimated Prophet - Eyes of the World
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Listen for Bob on slide guitar during a stunning and altogether unique Scarlet Begonias. This second set segment includes a Scarlet Fire masterpiece that features a Jerry going full-throttle, restless and full of ideas, as well as notes.
1974-07-19 US Blues, Weather Report Suite 1 and 2 > Let it Grow > Jam >
Spanish Jam > Eyes of the World > China Doll
Selland Arena, Fresno, California
During an inventive year of four-hour sets, some shows, particularly from summer, stand out above the rest. This second set contains Phil-heavy jamming throughout, with a unique pre-Eyes Jam and Spanish Jam.
1989-10-18 Birdsong > The Music Never StoppedThe Spectrum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Grateful Dead had a brilliant resurrection into a period of creative playing from 1989-1991. This end to the first set highlights this new sound, which often featured Jerry Garcia noodling through flute and trumpet MIDI sounds. While not all Deadheads enjoy the MIDI era, I have always welcomed it as a unique, jazzy and spacey era. This Birdsong, similar to the tracks recorded on the Without a Net double album, matches some of the greats from earlier eras - flute tones included.
1985-06-30 Shakedown Street -> Samson and DelilahMerriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland
Climactic and funky, this standout ending to a first set includes an impossibly good Shakedown Street. 1984 and 1985 were overall uneven years for the Dead, but there are many sleeper Shakedown's from this era, and further exploration is strongly recommended.