Today in Grateful Dead History: December 15, 1978 – Boutwell Auditorium, Birmingham, AL

Dancing Skeletons

Longtime readers of this site know that 1978 is by far my least favorite year of the 70’s.  However, I really liked tomorrow’s 1978 show from Nashville, so I figured that maybe the boys were on a hot streak during this part of the tour and I gave today’s show a shot.  (It was also cool to listen to a very rare Alabama show during this week in politics).  Well, the stars aligned and the Dead, in Donna Jean’s backyard, provided a warm bit of music for a cold cold day here in the Northeast.

This is not a very exploratory show – the songs don’t stretch out much.  But the band plays well and there are some thoughtful bits of music throughout the night and the energy doesn’t flag.

My favorite part of the show comes during Terrapin Station, which is thankfully not an excessively long version.  In this case, Jerry busts out a gorgeous solo prior to the transition into the “inspiration move me brightly” portion of the tune.  It’s unexpectedly moving.  Jerry’s not done with the poignant playing, either.  During Stella Blue, he delivers a perfect closing solo that just shreds the audience.  It’s worthy of hearing twice.

Hidden here is an interesting Playin’ in the Band sandwich, which starts six songs in to the second set, after Terrapin Station, and concludes at the end of the set after Stella and a rocking Truckin’ (plus Drums / Space).  I had almost forgotten that the band didn’t finish the song when they came back to it, and Jerry and Phil tease around a bit before bringing us to the final conclusion. It’s a neat trick that would turn up more and more during the 80’s and 90’s.

In terms of the shorter songs, the big surprise of the evening is how good I Need a Miracle sounds.  I’ve noticed this before about this song in 1978 – it’s still new and the band seems to enjoy riffing on it.  (This would change).  But, for now, enjoy the fireworks as it opens the second set.  Brown Eyed Women is also good tonight, anchoring a first set that opens with Promised Land (and its shout-out to downtown Birmingham) followed by a mellow Shakedown Street.  The boys even let Donna do her thing in front of the hometown crowd with From the Heart of Me.  It’s not a good song (the performance tonight is fine, as far as it goes), but it’s nice to hear her get the chance to sing in Alabama shortly before she would leave the band.

Well, the Grateful Dead have gone 2 for 2 on this 1978 southern tour.  Hopefully there will be more fun in store during the rest of it.

There’s only an audience recording of this show available – if you play with the EQ, it’s going to be fine, but the levels definitely move around a lot:


Today in Grateful Dead History: December 14, 1990 – McNichols Arena, Denver, CO

dancing-bearToday’s show is an unusual one because it’s a rare post-Brent, pre-1992 show with no Bruce Hornsby, so we get to hear a pretty healthy version of the Grateful Dead with just Vince.  And he rises to the occasion.

The first set of this show is a pretty typical 1990 Dead show – the songs are fine, nothing to get too excited about.  The easy highlight of the set is To Lay Me Down, which is a very good 90’s version – Jerry gets the words right, the guitar solo is golden, the harmonies are great, there’s a little something extra on Jerry’s vocals at the end and Vince (yes, Vince) sounds just like Bruce on the piano.  Good times!

The second set suffers a little bit from poor song selection at the start (Foolish Heart works well), but by the time we get to He’s Gone, things are going swimmingly and we hear a dialed in band give the song all it has.  Drums/Space breaks things up and proceeds into Dark Star, which is a continuation of an unfinished Dark Star from the 12th.  The strange thing here is the staccato playing and Jerry and Phil’s back and forth guitar / bass duel, plus some interesting rhythmic choices from the drummers.  This changes into a very energetic I Need a Miracle and Wharf Rat, both worth hearing, and a set closing Lovelight.  All and all, a good but not exceptional, second set.

It’s nice to hear Vince here, on piano, playing his heart out and not being drowned out by Hornsby.  It’s definitely a different Vince from the one you’ll frequently get annoyed at post 1992.

Listen to the audience recording here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: December 12, 1972 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA

stealieToday’s show is from 1972, so it’s a good one (haven’t heard a bad one yet).  But the meat of the performance is definitely in the 2nd set, so if you don’t have a ton of time, you can skip the beginning and jump right to Playin’ in the Band, which clocks in at a smooth 17 minutes of psychedelic fun. There’s nothing here that a fan of 1972 hasn’t heard before, but that’s why you’re listening to this show, right?  So dig in.

Right after Playin’ in the Band we get the extended jam of the night, a He’s Gone>Truckin’>The Other One that seems to go on forever in the best possible way.  There are not a lot of wasted notes here and Phil and Billy play off each other for several minutes in the transition into The Other One.  This is high quality 1972 Dead and it flows into a pitch perfect, beautiful version of Sing Me Back Home, with Jerry playing a heartfelt, gorgeous solo that will sweep you away.  The rest of the night is spent rocking, and let me tell you, something must have gotten into Bob Weir, because he brings everything up to 11.5, hollering away at another level.

If you have time for the first set, Box of Rain sounds really good today, as does Bobby McGee.  But, honestly, everything is clicking tonight – you’re going to like this one.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: December 11, 1988 – Long Beach Arena, Long Beach, CA

terrapinWhen looking at a Grateful Dead setlist, there are certain clues that indicate you’re probably going to get a clunker of a show.  For instance, a six song first set that opens with Iko Iko. Or when the show features the Women Are Smarter in addition to Iko Iko.  Or when most of the comments encourage you to skip it.  Of course, I ignored all of this because I hadn’t tried a 1988 show in a while, and I was rewarded with . . . not a damn thing.

Like most shows from 1988, this one isn’t garbage, it’s just completely bland and uninspired.  None of the playing tanks – it just doesn’t really go anywhere.  There are a couple of Brent-related exceptions.  After a few minutes of mindless work on Foolish Heart, Jerry decides to let Brent have a go at it, and he rips into a long solo that lifts the stage about three feet off the ground.  Unfortunately, this lasts for all of two minutes.  Later, Brent really seems to try to make Dear Mr. Fantasy>Hey Jude work – if you just listen to him and ignore the lifeless playing around him, you’ll enjoy these tunes.

Beyond Brent, the band gives Bird Song a last semester senior year college try.  That’s about that.

If you really have your heart set on some 1988 Grateful Dead, this one isn’t going to hurt.  But in all other cases, there’s not a lot here.  Listen if you’d like:

Today in Grateful Dead History: December 7, 1971 – Felt Forum, New York, NY

stealieThe New York metropolitan area served as the Grateful Dead’s East Coast base as the band rose from humble beginnings in small clubs to larger venues like this theater in the basement of Madison Square Garden to the big house upstairs and Giants Stadium across the river in the great state of New Jersey.  If there was a consistent thread that linked all of these shows together, it was “intensity”.  The Dead almost always brought the heat in New York, and tonight’s show is one of the hottest ever.

What’s missing from tonight’s show is any semblance of deep space jamming.  This is a pure rock and roll show, fronted by Pigpen (newly returned after sitting out the previous month due to health issues) and played with fire by the rest of the band, including the band’s relatively new piano player, Keith Godchaux.

You’ll pick up on the rock and roll dynamic from the first notes of Cold Rain and Snow, one of the best versions of this song that I’ve ever heard.  Sugaree, usually a slower song, is forceful tonight and it’s followed by a Jack Straw that sounds very similar to versions from 1972.  Since it’s the Christmas season, we also get to hear one of the Dead’s seven attempts at playing Run Rudolph Run.  This is not Springsteen playing Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but it’s a fun and unusual romp that would only happen during the 1971 holiday season.  To top the first set off, we get a smoldering version of Cumberland Blues that is almost too intense to describe – this is hold on to your seats manic music of the highest order and unlike any Cumberland Blues I’ve ever heard.  This is followed by a Casey Jones set-closer that knocks the roof off the joint.

The real Pigpen magic takes place in the second set during Smokestack Lightning.  This is a slow burner, but oh  boy does it burn.  Between Pigpen on vocals and Jerry whittling away behind him, this is a classic take.  (And yeah, Pigpen ain’t Howling Wolf – he’s not supposed to be, so don’t compare them, ok)?  After a nice Deal, the boys reach into their bag of tricks for Truckin’, which is not an experimental jammed out version but a muscular rock exercise that transitions into a Not Fade Away rave out featuring Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.  This whole stretch is peak 1971 Dead, and even though it’s not exploratory, it’s going to peal your ears back anyways.

This is a great first-timer show to play for skeptical folks who don’t think that the Dead can rock.  The 40 minute Dark Stars can wait.

The Dead released this as Dave’s Picks Vol. 22, but if you don’t have it already, you’re not getting it (it’s sold out), so listen to the great soundboard here: