I’ve never hidden my dislike of jam bands and their extended, indulgent, often pointless meanderings. I make an exception for the Grateful Dead, because they’re just so damn good. But even so, I tend to prefer their studio recordings to the endless iterations of their live shows. I commend the Dead’s commitment to their fans by having special recording sections at their concerts. And I admire the fans for their relentless sharing and trading of those recordings. I just don’t have the patience to listen to fifteen minute versions of songs that should have been done in three and a half. Or to have nineteen versions of that same song.
What gives the Grateful Dead such an edge over most other jam bands is the quality of their songwriting. Primarily written by band members and de facto Dead member Robert Hunter, their catalog runs the gamut of emotions–sad, tender, joyful, rebellious, melancholic, easygoing songs that ring true even if you’re not a California hippie. “Friend of the Devil” is one of my favorites because it’s a little tougher to classify. It can lift your spirits, quiet your soul, and soothe your wounds. All at the same time.
It’s also a tight little package that doesn’t need too much extraneous window dressing. While the Dead might be well-known for their drug-fueled jammy live shows, they were formed musically by the Rock & Roll singles of the 50s and 60s. (Covers of songs like Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” were staples at their concerts.) Their musical sensibility was three and a half minutes long. Mind expanding drugs like LSD led to time expanding music, but the heart of almost all their jams were simple tunes that told a story or conveyed an emotion easily and compactly. If those songs weren’t the roadmap of the Dead’s musical journeys into the light fantastic, they would’ve become lost in the ether. Yeah, you can take a song like “Friend of the Devil” and create a sonic mural that goes on seemingly forever. But the key that makes the Dead so good is that you don’t have to.