Dead Best: 7 Must-Hear Versions of “Not Fade Away”

by Peter Wendel
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GD72Of all the songs in The Grateful Dead’s hefty live repertoire, “Not Fade Away” may be the most underappreciated (excluding “Drums” and “Space” for a moment).

In an effort to put an end to that distinct lack of respect, we’ve gathered seven stellar, must-hear “NFA” performances (listen below) from the early-’70s, the late-’70s and we even drop one in from the late-’80s with Brent Mydland. Hearing the best “NFA” has to offer will (hopefully) change minds.

“Not Fade Away” produced some of the band’s most expressive and explorative jams, particularly in the early-’70s. Primal and raucous to the core. Performances of the song and its sandwiches could take nearly 20 minutes to fully unspool, and since it isn’t burdened with an abundance of lyrics, there was a big open area for the band to stretch out and jam – and they did.

THE HISTORY

“Not Fade Away” is credited to rock-n-roll icon Buddy Holly and record producer, Norman Petty. The song was originally recorded by Holly’s band The Crickets in 1957 (and later by The Rolling Stones among others). Here’s Buddy’s original (2:23), which The Dead strung out into a 15-minute barnburner:

As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons for the lack of “NFA” respect from Dead fans: (1) later renditions from the ’80s and ’90s replaced much of the song’s jam with what is disparagingly referred to as the “bop-bop” segment of the song; and (2) it was played very frequently. Here’s a sample of the “bob-bop” segment from 1990 that (in my opinion) cheapened the song (no offense to Buddy Holly or Bo Diddley):

NFADeadJerryYouKnowOurLove“Not Fade Away” is a member of The Grateful Dead’s “Over 500 Club” – an elite group of frequently played songs that includes “Sugar Magnolia,” “Me & My Uncle,” “Playin In The Band” and “Truckin.”

It was almost never a surprise when the band broke into “NFA,” which perhaps led fans to underappreciate the song. Hey, you’ll eventually get sick of filet mignon if you eat it every damn night.

According to my DeadBase, Jerry and the boys debuted “NFA” on December 21, 1969, at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The band went on to perform it more than 520 times – roughly once every four to five shows.

The versions from the early-’70s are uptempo and primal – featuring extensive, explorative jams. The late-’70s brought slower, more deliberate performances, like the slo-mo burner from Barton Hall ’77 and the super-gooey version that closed the Winterland in 1978. Sadly (again in my opinion), the ’80s ushered in shorter, shallower performances – many of which seem to give more attention to the sing-along “bop-bop” segment of the song than to the wild jams that melted so many minds in the ’70s.

THE BEST VERSIONS

February 14, 1970
Fillmore East, New York, NY

One of the very finest early-day performances. Raucous, primal Dead at its best – indicative of the uptempo, extensive exploration that dominated early-70′s versions of the song. You can hear GDTRFB banging around inside (10:55).

April 28, 1971
Fillmore East, New York, NY

Superb execution from the early-’70s – NFA> GDTRFB> NFA. This version is as brazen and badass as the day is long. It gets my vote for best vocal performance ever, and the jam breathes fire. Jerry comes out with his guitar blazing red-hot – cutting loose early (1:07) like he’s trying to put the Fillmore in full rotation. The sandwich contains a sweet and breezy GDTRFB (3:30-10:00), like it’s straight out of the Europe ’72 tour. Bobby goes fucking berserk with his vocals (11:45) going into the close. This version was released commercially on Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead.

November 15, 1971
The Austin Municipal Auditorium, Austin, TX

My favorite from the early-’70s – NFA> China Cat Jam> GDTRFB> NFA. This one fucking smokes! Phil shines particularly during the extensive jams – a reminder of why he’s hailed as one of the most talented bassists of his generation. Jerry, not to be outdone, plays flawlessly clean guitar. The interplay between Phil and Jerry is worth the price of admission, and newcomer Keith Godchaux adds some wonderful fills from the keyboards. Check out the magic at 2:42 and again at 8:43 – mayhem ensues and by 11:27, there’s nothing left but a smoking crater.

May 8, 1977
Barton Hall, Ithaca, NY

Towering attitude coupled with crystal-clean execution – St. Stephen> NFA> St. Stephen. A top-10 performance for sure, indicative of the more deliberate, slow-boil versions of the late-’70s (also check the rendition below from Winterland ’78). Tremendous team effort, including the vocals. It’s prime time, folks!

September 3, 1977
Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ

HEATERRRR!! My personal favorite of the late-’70s – He’s Gone> NFA> Truckin. This is nasty guitar-slinging madness. Jerry breaks out the flamethrower and gets busy torching the place – laying down quite possibly the biggest, baddest performance of all time. It’s a unique, blast-from-the-past version, more emblematic of the early-’70s than of the late-’70s with its high-energy, uptempo pace and deep-groove jam. Jerry comes out swinging, winds it up and lets the genie out of the bottle at 2:32. He never looks back – bouncing up and down his fretboard at full tilt with Phil right there with him. The spidery groove runs deep and wide, spinning out into the Jersey night. Released commercially on Dick’s Picks Vol. 15.

December 31, 1978
Winterland, San Francisco, CA 

Super-slow, super-gooey groove – rising like steam off a dark, deep swamp of molasses. This is the smoldering Winterland performance – with multiple sit-ins – that closed the legendary venue on New Year’s Eve ’78. Haunting harmonica from Lee Oskar, adds to the nasty, slinking blues-laced vibe. Jerry unloads some simmering, cough-syrupy solos. Drummers Bill and Mickey are crisp as can be. John Cippolina (Quicksilver Messenger Service) sits in and tears it up (video 55:51), bringing some long-haired rock-star flare to the stage. Matt Kelly also contributes on the harmonica. The vocals are nearly perfect with a little extra gusto from Donna. Phil bombs the fuck out of it! Just sayin.

July 4, 1989
Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, NY

Here’s one of the best-played, latter-day versions (from an epic show). The band has fun with it. Jerry and Brent work their legendary interplay, taking each other higher and higher. Garcia smiles with approval. Mydland adds a new bluesy layer to the backup vocals. The “bop-bop” segment starts 6 minutes in.

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Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach Mountain Jam, The All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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