In addition to being a fairly cleverly titled Grateful Dead documentary, Dawn of The Dead tells a pretty fascinating story. The newly released DVD mainly concentrates on the first five years of the band, and of the San Francisco sound in general during the mid-to-late '60s. If any group epitomizes the whole flower-power, light show, and free-flowing music scene of that era, it is the good old Grateful Dead.
The various members of the group had been kicking around the Bay Area coffeehouse folk world during the early part of the decade. Like just about everyone else though, they were inspired to “go electric” after hearing The Beatles. After some false starts as The Warlocks, The Grateful Dead came into their own during Ken Kesey’s legendary Acid Tests. They became the “house band” for these wild events, which were designed to basically recreate the LSD experience.
For a number of reasons, there happened to be a great deal of very talented musicians drawn to San Francisco during those years. There was also a budding promoter by the name of Bill Graham in town. While the Acid Tests provided the template for what would eventually become a huge industry, it took the entrepreneurial Graham to capitalize on what Kesey and The Dead had pioneered.
Most music fans know the basic hippie-trip synopsis. 1967 was the summer of love. 1968 saw tremendous strife and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. 1969 was the year of Woodstock, followed by the tragic Altamont concert. In 1970, everybody pulled back and began “tending their own gardens,” as it were.
What makes Dawn of The Dead so interesting is not so much the history, but the insider’s view of it that we get to see through the Dead‘s eyes. One very effective ploy is to show how the group’s albums during this period evolved, and reflected the world around them. While their first album, simply titled The Grateful Dead (1967) was not an unmitigated disaster, it is widely agreed that they were simply not ready to enter the studio when it was recorded. They were still in many ways a “street” band, and had not yet defined their music, outside of the jam element.