Greatest Story Ever Told evolution, pt. 2

Hollywood Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, FL 11.26.80 | Photograph © Bob Minkin

Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today we continue examine the evolution of “Greatest Story Ever Told” by looking at different versions of the song. 

Last week we had you listen to the Ace version, then 2-18-71, and finally 3-5-72. We saw that after performing it sixteen times without a fully developed verse or even a chorus they decided to head back to the drawing board and bring it back 45 shows later sounding much more like the song we know and love today. 

April arrives and the band embarks on their legendary Europe tour.  4-7-72 at Wembley Empire Pool in London, England, the Grateful Dead begin their first show by performing “Greatest Story Ever Told.” At some point in the prior 32 days, Garcia decided to make his wah-wah pedal an integral part of his sound, specifically by adding the manual effect to the “Greatest Story.” The version I’ve heard of this show had very poor sound quality, but it’s clear the band has a firm grasp on the still newish song and is excited to be in Europe.

The remainder of 1972 saw very frequent performances of “Greatest Story,” often appearing in back-to-back shows. This trend continues all the way until 9-20-74, just six shows before the hiatus. After coming back to action in June of 1976, it’s surprising that “Greatest Story” didn’t get fair treatment in the rotation, especially considering Mickey’s return and his strong relationship with the song. That said, Weir and Garcia were both busy while the Dead were not so there was plenty of new material to explore including “Lazy Lightning,” and the return of some older material like “The Wheel” and “St. Stephen.”

207 shows after last performing “Greatest Story” it finally reappears on 2-17-79 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Ironically, this was Keith and Donna’s last show.

The year 1978 saw Jerry expand his effects rack to include an envelope filter. Even if you don’t know what that is, you’ve definitely heard it used before. Think of that vocal vowel sound on Jerry’s guitar in songs like “Shakedown Street” and “Estimated Prophet.”  Technically, it adjusts the central frequency of a peaking filter which amplifies a specific frequency and cuts off other selected frequencies. In layman’s terms, it does what a wah-wah does but automatically and based on volume. Jerry obviously had a memory of using his wah in years past on “Greatest Story” so when given a chance to use his new toy, he took full advantage by the time the tune came back in early 1979. 

As you listen to other versions of this song, I encourage you to guess the performance’s era by noticing the use of the wah (4-7-72 through 9-20-74), the lack thereof (2-18-71 through 4/29/71) and the envelope filter (2-17-79 through 6-27-95). Having recently listened to that final version, Jerry’s guitar is hardly audible and barely played until towards the end of the final jam. That said, you can hear Weir’s parts very clearly. 

Enjoy, see you next week.