5. Uncle John’s Band (Workingman’s Dead, 1970)
Perhaps the band’s best-known song, and the radio-ready single that best displayed the true heart of the band, Uncle John’s Band felt like a traditional tune but it was a Garcia/Hunter original. It beautifully exemplifies their use of harmony and the influence of bluegrass and folk on their music—particularly their early songs, like this one. A line from the song, “Are you kind?” became a slogan for people who would share tickets or drugs at shows.
This is also one of the band’s best-crafted songs. So much of their ouvre was designed simply as a platform for exploratory jamming, but this is a true song in all senses of the word.
Further listening: I suppose if you’re looking for chart-toppers, go listen to Casey Jones. But I wouldn’t. It’s hardly their best work. Or, check out the band’s biggest top 40 song, Touch of Grey.
4. Eyes of the World (Wake of the Flood, 1973)
Wake of the Flood was one of the band’s studio albums that were most like a live show (alongside Blues for Allah). Only one song was under four minutes (and it was pretty crappy), and one song, Weather Report Suite, was nearly 13. Eyes of the World is the transcendent champion of the record, and one of my favorite live tunes.
(Personal favorite version: Dane County Florida, 1972, coming out of space.)
“Eyes” is a hopeful song with a somewhat reggae-like backbeat, which is why it would so often be paired with Bob Weir’s, “Estimated Prophet” (a great GD tune that just didn’t make my top 20). As a song, Estimated doesn’t really end—it just kind of fades away into a jam—so having a song with probably the most distinctive opening of any Dead song was a perfect way to recenter the audience.
3. Ripple (American Beauty, 1970)
It’s amazing my kids aren’t hippies, as I sang several songs for them off this list. The story goes that Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics at the same time as he wrote “Brokedown Palace,” another beautiful classic off of the Band’s best studio album.
Further listening: Brokedown Palace
2. Friend of the Devil (American Beauty, 1970)
It’s tough not to have a major portion of this list comprised of songs off of American Beauty. “Friend of the Devil,” which is listed as “FOTD” on most of my trader tapes, was another song about cowboys that romanticizes the old west, and it’s another one that sounds like a traditional tune—a song that seems like it’s been around forever.
It started as an acoustic tune, but when the Dead phased acoustic guitar out of their live performances, they began playing a much slower, less bluegrassy version in concert. You can hear it on Dead Set. It sounds an awful lot like the Loggins and Messina cover version, which actually preceded the band’s own slower take on the tune.
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