Today and tomorrow’s shows from 1989 at the Hampton Coliseum are legendary performances for a bunch of reasons, but I can’t help thinking that, musically, they’re both a little bit overrated. However, in relation to each other, tomorrow night’s show gets all of the glory, making today’s pretty good outing the underdog.
First, a little background. When the Grateful Dead played at the Hampton Coliseum in 1987 and 1988, there were a bunch of problems with the scene outside of the arena, and local officials were wary of letting the band back into town, so the Dead left the Coliseum off the 1989 tour, at least when it came to the official ticketing system. [Note – my original post said that the band didn’t play Hampton in 1988 – that was wrong, as several commentators below point out – so we’ve edited accordingly]. But they decided to play there anyway, so they booked the arena but only sold tickets through local ticket outlets in Virginia, starting a couple of weeks before the shows. Oh yeah, and they didn’t advertise the shows under the name “The Grateful Dead”. Instead, they called themselves “The Warlocks”, the band’s original name. Local heads, and those in the know, gobbled up all of the tickets, so it was a given that the crowd would be manageable and grateful for the experience.
And what an experience they got. At this show, the first of the two, the Dead broke out the Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower sequence for the first time since 1985 and the encore was And We Bid You Goodnight. Pretty cool. (In case you don’t already know, tomorrow’s show featured the return of Dark Star to the repertoire after a long absence, along with Death Don’t Have No Mercy and the first Attics of My Life since 1972).
So this show is a pretty important one that often gets overlooked because of what went on the next day. (The band did eventually release both nights as a box set called “Formerly the Warlocks”). That’s a shame, because there are some pretty interesting things going on here beyond the Help>Slipknot>Franklin’s. I really enjoyed Bob’s vocals on Walkin’ Blues – he’s much more vocally fluid than I typically give him credit for. There’s also a beautiful version of Queen Jane Approximately and today’s Bird Song is unique, too. The second-set closing Morning Dew, while not a great version, is still a decent capper on a good night.
What I’m about to say about today’s show applies even more tomorrow night, but it needs to be said here too. I think that when it comes to the Warlocks shows, the story and the song selection may cloud people’s judgment when it comes to the music, which is pretty good but not, in my opinion, even close to “best shows of the 80’s” level. I don’t think I have to reach any further than the opening song tonight, a messy, disjointed Foolish Heart, to prove my point, but if you want more, check out how Jerry blows up the vocals on Candy Man and Stagger Lee, and notice the lackluster Eyes of the World. And today’s show features Victim or the Crime. No contender for best show of the 80’s can have this song on the setlist. Period.
To top it all off, this performance is midi heavy and Brent’s piano tone, which I think gets a bad rap, is really over the top on the clinkyness. So no, this is not a great show. But it is good and certainly entertaining and historic. You can listen to it here: https://archive.org/details/gd1989-10-08.sbd.walker-scotton.miller.81532.sbeok.flac16