This long-overdue retrospective collects the Dead's pre-Warner Bros. recordings in one place for the first time. Although some of these tracks have surfaced elsewhere, much of it has never been available, and it's a telling glimpse of the group's development between its inception (as the Warlocks) in late 1965 and the release of its first LP in 1967. Although its sound was an earthy blend of manifold elements, from Jerry Garcia's bluegrass leanings to "Pig Pen" Ron McKernan's blues influences, to Bob Weir's folkie tendencies, the Dead, at the outset, found itself copping the beat-group formula pioneered by the British. The back cover photo shows the group, in matching Beatle boots, doing a hilarious send-up of the Fab Four, complete with mugging-for-the-camera exuberance.
Disc 1 consists of tracks the band cut for independent labels like Autumn and Scorpio before signing to Warners (the Autumn stuff was actually produced by Sly Stone in his pre-Family days). These include a folk-rock reading of Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Mornin' Rain," the Dylan-influenced "Can't Come Down," and "Cold Rain & Snow," which Deadheads will recognize from the band's first album. "Fire in the City," cut with jazz singer Jon Hendricks, casts the Dead in an almost gospel call-and-response vein.
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By the time of the material heard on disc 2, the band had played at Ken Kesey's acid tests, and some of the trippy atmosphere that would characterize its later work was becoming evident. At this point, the Dead was still playing primarily blues -- and Pig Pen was still singing lead. However, a version of "Viola Lee Blues," one of the long trippy numbers from the debut album, hints at the kind of mercurial jamming that would become the Dead's trademark as it went on to become America's longest-living rock band.