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.
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.
1979-05-12 Uncle John's Band -> Estimated -> JamUptown Theater, Chicago, Illinois
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 Fires 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 Fires. 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.