50 Years Later- Revisiting Grateful Dead’s ‘Skull & Roses’ Live Compilation LP

Grateful Dead, the second album of concert recordings released on Warner Brothers Records on 10/24/71, resides squarely in the sweet spot between the expansive likes of its corollary, Live Dead,  and the economical studio recordings this iconic group issued in between, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. With a half-century of hindsight, the clarity of its position in the band’s history could not be more apparent, especially as the album features more of the wealth of originals that first appeared on the aforementioned studio LPs and would continue to populate Europe ’72 the very next year. 

This opener of “Bertha” is perhaps the most ebullient piece of music Jerry Garcia and Hunter ever composed together and in the context of these eleven tracks, it’s a perfect foil for the poignant cinematic drama that permeates this penultimate cut “Wharf Rat.” Played with the appropriate combination of enthusiasm and grace, both of these brilliant compositions are proof positive of the earned collective self-confidence the Grateful Dead had developed by this time. The range of other selections, taken together with “Playing in the Band,” effectively constitute a veritable primer on the vast self-composed canon of these psychedelic warriors. 

Yet, cover material also peppers the song sequence. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir’s wry rendering of country star Merle Haggard’s  “Mama Tried” and keyboardist/harpist/vocalist Ron ‘Pigpen’ Bernanke’s gruff growl on blues icon Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” are just two such selections and they appear along with “Johnny B. Goode,” whose author, Chuck Berry, was a perennial favorite source of outside songs for these musicians synonymous with San Francisco. Comparatively quick takes on such tunes counterpoint the most exploratory likes of  “The Other One.” 

Yet the latter, an improvisational staple for the group, times out at only (!) some eighteen minutes-plus even with drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s solo (he had been playing drums in the group alone since rhythm devil partner Mickey Hart’s abrupt departure the previous February during a run at The Capitol Theater); launched as usual with a bomb from bassist Phil Lesh, the brevity of the latter is indicative of the cut’s relative overall economy. The same is true of the “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad:” one of a few de rigueur closings for the Dead during its thirty-year history, the traditional is sandwiched between two intervals of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” 

It’s one of the multiple reminders within this seminal work of the way this quintet (with keyboardist Merle Saunders overdubbed) could dramatically yet subtly alter familiar elements of its performances. Similarly, Grateful Dead in its enlarged 50th-anniversary form, posits something of a mirror image of the terse original by featuring with ten tracks from Fillmore West in July of release year. Yet the milestone package also captures its subject with clarity and accuracy all its own offering of a more broad perspective akin to the double-fold cover artwork that has long given this album its most common moniker. 

Known colloquially for years as ‘Skull & Roses,’ based on the striking artwork of Alton Kelley (taken from an illustration in an old edition of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), the eponymous title was assigned to the release as something of a compromise between these inveterate pranksters and their record company: the former had a more graphic, near-epithet name in mind. Still, a Skullf*#k by any other name still functions as originally intended fifty years later, a durable refresher for Grateful Dead fans of longstanding as well as an almost ideal introduction to the iconic band for those not so anointed.

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