When the Grateful Dead Plugged In For ‘Dead Set,’ Then Went Quiet
The Grateful Dead showcased a different side just a few months after releasing the acoustic double-album Reckoning in April 1981. Dead Set, another two-disc project which arrived on Aug. 26, 1981, instead found the group plugging in.
Jerry Garcia was meticulous in going through their recent material. "My participation in this album was to listen through to all of the tapes and pick out the performances I thought were the best," he told Jim Ladd back then. "My criterion were basically that I wanted tunes that we haven't put out an awful lot, and I wanted tunes had really excellent performances."
Dead Set ultimately became home to electric-set highlights from shows in the fall of 1980 at the Warfield in San Francisco, and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Many of the band's classics are represented – including "Friend of the Devil," "New Minglewood Blues" and "Deal" – but, as usual with the Grateful Dead, they take on a whole new dimension on the concert stage, often eclipsing the original studio takes.
"If all you're doing is a recreation of your recorded music, it's a little bit like – what does that show the audience that they haven't seen before?" Garcia said. "When I go to hear somebody live, I go to hear them be more than what their record is. Be live – you know, stretch out."
Stretching out was, however, actually kept to a minimum on on Dead Set. In fact, none of the tracks here break the 10-minute mark. Still, they never hold back, as heard during an electrifying take on the Howlin' Wolf classic "Little Red Rooster," which soars.
"We used to do this with [the late] Pigpen [McKernan], who used to sing it, and we hadn't done it for the longest time," Garcia said. "One of the things that's nice about the version on the record is that [Bob] Weir does a beautiful job vocally. He's starting to develop the kind of confidence and chops that it takes to be able to sing those kind of blues, and really be able to pull it off. He really does a hell of a job."
Elsewhere, the short but very sweet "Passenger" adds new dimension to the studio version from Terrapin Station, while the aforementioned "New Minglewood Blues" is given a total revamp from the take on their 1967 debut LP. All of it combined to push Dead Set into the Billboard Top 30, before the Grateful Dead entered a lengthy period of silence. They didn't return to the studio again until 1987's In the Dark.
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