These 14 discs deliver an experience that any self-respecting, bootleg-tape-trading Deadhead alive in the 1970s and 1980s would have considered nothing less than a miracle at the time. Famously reluctant around cameras, the Dead nevertheless managed to allow for the capture of many hours of prime performances, the majority of which are now available in a single package. Beginning with The Grateful Dead Movie, shot at the Winterland over five nights in 1974, this luxury box set rolls forward through to the early 1990s with the assuredness and all-encompassing propulsive power of “Bertha” or “Turn On Your Lovelight.” The full concerts include sessions from the closing of the Winterland in 1978, Radio City Music Hall in 1980, New Year’s Eve at the Oakland Coliseum and various stops on the Dylan and the Dead tour both from 1987, and great individual shows from 1989, 1990, and 1991 at venues like RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
The best thing about this set is the immersion factor. At a certain point—say six or seven discs in—you begin to feel like you are growing old alongside the band and that you know them more completely through their music than ever before. There are some shocking elements—the visible, rapid deterioration of Garcia’s health can be hard to watch at times, and in the late ’80s Bob Weir was sporting some cutoff jeans that are just so wrong, but overall the Dead are a great family to be a part of in this way, and its incredible to see in the faces of their audience members such joy and, well, gratitude, even when looking at their eyes can reveal a wilder, less natural gleam. Ultimately the true strength of the band was their musicianship, and that’s on abundant display. Kreutzman and Hart dance around one another with extra-sensory sympathetic perception, and Phil Lesh has to be the most underrated bassist in the history of jazz. The keyboard players all sound pretty good, too, and sometimes more than that, as in the really impressive second set from the Moutain View, California, Shoreline Amphitheatre of June 16, 1990, on which the late Brent Mydland really shines, or the Blues for Allah medley with Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick from the next summer at RFK. Yes, this one is for the heads, but it will impress just about anyone who gives it the time to do so.