By the time of his death in 1995, Garcia had gone on to become the most recorded guitarist in history. With more than 2,200 Grateful Dead concerts, and 1,000 Jerry Garcia Band concerts captured on tape—as well as numerous studio sessions—there are about 15,000 hours of his guitar work preserved for the ages.
A truly eclectic genius of the guitar, Garcia’s tone and touch were instantly identifiable by the sound of just one note or phrase. His work encompassed and ranged freely through bluegrass, rock and roll, blues, jazz, country, and R&B, with streaks of decidedly strong influences from experimental and world musics. A melodic and reactive player, Garcia is perhaps the most chromatic of all rock guitarists in his note choices and ornamentation. He was a team player who always chose to serve the music in the context of the moment.
Steering away from the better-known studio albums of Garcia’s work with the Dead, let’s look into the variety of the fantastic live work that’s available today. (All recordings are by the Grateful Dead unless otherwise noted.)
Live Dead, 1969
Fillmore West 1969
It’s practically unanimous that the greatest single moment in the Dead’s recording history is the version of the band’s primary vehicle for extended improvisation, “Dark Star,” that appears on the classic Live Dead. Also here is a recently released three-CD set of Garcia’s equally worthwhile work—recorded for Live Dead, but not included on that album—presenting a more complete state-of-his-art in 1969.
Rockin’ the Rhein with the Grateful Dead, 1972
Steppin’ Out with the Grateful Dead: England ’72
Hundred Year Hall 4-26-72
Here are four multiple-disc albums from the Dead’s 1972 European tour. Most Dead fans agree that this is the high point of the Grateful Dead, and some of Garcia’s very best work can be found here. It’s interesting to hear how differently the repeated tunes turn out on different nights of this tour.
So Many Roads (1965-1995)
Inspired selection is the key feature of this five-disc, mostly live anthology of the Dead’s complete lifespan. In the later years of Garcia’s life, when his struggles with tobacco, drug addiction, weight problems, and sleep apnea could too often mute his musical genius, he would still sometimes rise to the occasion with sublime guitar work. That later-period eloquence is well documented here.
Live at Keystone Vol. 1, 1973
Live at Keystone Vol. 2, 1973
Keystone Encores, 1973
These three albums by Garcia and his longtime collaborator Merl Saunders showcase some of the guitarist’s best American roots playing. The guitar tone here—a Stratocaster into a Fender Twin—is Garcia at his best, and in a less-spacey context than he usually found in the Dead. The many Jerry Garcia bands of the next 22 years re-mined much of the material presented here, where you hear Garcia exploring it for the first time.
Dick’s Picks, Vol. 4, 1970
Dick’s Picks is a series of 36 releases that document live two-track recordings of the Grateful Dead. Recorded at the Fillmore East in New York City in early 1970, this is one of the most interesting shows in Grateful Dead history. The “Dark Star” included here, with its unusual-feeling groovy jam, is one of the few to rival the musical greatness and adventure of the version on the Live Dead album.
Almost Acoustic, 1988
This live recording of the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band represents the excellent acoustic picking of the sort that Garcia also recorded in the studio with David Grisman.
One From the Vault, 1975
After some time off from the road—and the production of Blues for Allah—the Dead played the record company showcase for a small club audience documented here. The more complex arrangements and songs provided a more sophisticated playground for improvising.
Dick’s Picks Vols. 3, 10, 15, 29, and 34, 1977
The 17 CDs in these five albums were all recorded within a five-month span of touring, and you can dip in pretty much anywhere to hear a jazzier, more harmonically complex Garcia, who’s also playing with a substantially higher note count than in any previous year.
Steal Your Face, 1974
Dead Set, 1980
Without A Net, 1989-90
These sets—all released to meet major label contractual obligations—can be said to represent the nadir of the Grateful Dead’s many live albums, and they feature dull and uninspired work by most everyone involved. For an artist who is documented by hundreds of live releases, it is commendable that no other titles featuring Garcia are as lackluster as these.