Today In Grateful Dead History: December 31, 1981 – Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, CA

dancing-bear The Grateful Dead played a Bay Area New Year’s Eve show every year from 1976 through 1991 (and several more in the early 70’s), so picking one is a difficult task.  Therefore, I’m just going to go with my favorite of the ones I’ve already heard, this monster from 1981.

Joan Baez opens this show with the Grateful Dead as her backing band.  If you like Joan Baez, you’ll dig this performance.  If you don’t like Joan Baez, this show isn’t going to convert you.

The Dead’s first set starts with an incendiary Shakedown Street that gives you a pretty good indication of where this evening is headed.  Even the short songs are booming tonight, Cold Rain and Snow and Beat It On Down the Line being good but not exhaustive examples from the first set.

There’s a break at the end of the first set prior to the New Year’s Countdown.  At this point, Ken Kesey, one of the Dead’s first champions, gets on stage and just goes hog wild, blowing on his harmonica and ranting for five or six minutes, injecting a very heavy dose of 1966 into the heart of the Reagan era.  When the clock strikes midnight (actually a couple of seconds before), the band launches into a furious Iko Iko to ring in the New Year.

What follows is a pretty epic 70+ minutes of music, some of the best the Dead played in the early 80’s.  Check this out: Playing In The Band>Terrapin Station>Playing In The Band>Drums>Space>The Other One>Not Fade Away>Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad>Morning Dew.  John Cippolina from Quicksilver Messenger Services sits in for The Other One, Not Fade Away and Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad, adding even more fireworks to this conflagration.  I don’t have to say anything else about this passage (which is something I almost never do) – just listen to it and you’ll understand.

Although the exact timing of things is a little unclear, it appears that after the Dead’s second set, Jerry Garcia married his long-time consort, Mountain Girl, backstage.  This must have been inspiring, because the band comes back onstage and busts out the first Dark Star of the 80’s and only the 4th performance of the song since the 1974 hiatus.  It’s not the best version from these wilderness years, but who the hell cares?  It’s Dark Star.  On New Year’s Eve.  After a two year absence.  We’ll take it.

Post-Dark Star the band ramps things up with high energy versions of Bertha and Good Lovin’ before an encore of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue with Joan Baez singing along.

This is prime stuff, through and through.  Plug this in tonight and ring in the New Year with style.  Here you go:


Today In Grateful Dead History: December 30, 1990 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA

terrapinSometimes you pick shows based on the setlist alone and today’s stood out from the pack with a good looking second set that didn’t disappoint once I listened to it.

I typically listen to these shows the first time on plug-in computer speakers that aren’t very good, but they offer a fair representation of the show.  On today’s recording, I had a really hard time discerning Bruce in the mix, although on headphones it’s a little easier.  Normally this can happen when Vince is playing over everyone else in the band, but today it was just a balance problem, with Bruce turned down lower than the other musicians.  This isn’t a terrible issue, but if you’re a Bruce fan, you’re going to need to look for a different recording of this show.

As I said before, I picked this show based on the second set songs, so I wasn’t expecting much from the first half, which was good because nothing very interesting happened.  This was truly a warm up set, because the second half of this show was hot, as you can tell from the band’s playing on the set opening Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.  After Looks Like Rain, we’re given a nicely done Crazy Fingers that runs into an almost twenty minute Playin’ in the Band.  This Playin’ is intense from the get go and it wanders all over the musical map – loud and soft, jazzy and rocky, but definitely good throughout.  It’s the highlight of the second set.  Drums / Space takes over from there and then we get to a fairly rare post-Drums Terrapin Station that is pretty loose but entertaining.  The jam out at the end moves nicely into what sounded a lot like the start of The Wheel or Give Me Some Lovin’ but turned out to be a good take on Sugar Magnolia.  It was fun to hear the Dead argue between themselves musically over the direction they would choose, even if the transition gets bumpy at times.

If you’re pressed for time, you can definitely skip the first set and get straight to the heart of the second, where the goodies dwell.  Listen here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 29, 1968 – Gulfstream Park Racetrack, Hallandale, FL

skeleton&rosesThis short set from the Miami Pop Festival is the Grateful Dead at their thrashiest.

You see, back before they turned into cosmic cowboys, the Dead were turning out loud, slashing space music that often ended in feedback drenched decadence.  That was the late 60’s, baby, when the Dead were truly a dangerous, primal bunch of misfits who showed almost no ability to play “mellow” music, save the occasional dalliance with a jug band tune or And We Bid You Goodnight to bring people down after that Dexedrine blaze of hysterical power that had just spewed forth from one of the best sound systems ever devised (and this was before the band really started tinkering with the electronics).  This was a loud, rockin’ band of the first order, and if you heard them coming, you’d get the hell out of their way.

Since this was a festival set, the Dead didn’t have a lot of time to work through their typical trip, so everything they played today was revved up to full speed, which you’ll hear immediately when the recording cuts in five seconds into Turn on Your Lovelight.  Everybody is already flying straight ahead, and poor Pigpen sounds like he’s having a tough time keeping up.  Twelve minutes later we stop for air before boring down into a shrieking ten minute Dark Star that works really well as a slashing piece of rock n’ roll, but not so well as a “Dark Star” if what you’re looking for is a thirty minute jazz odyssey.  But here, at the Miami Pop Festival, it likely blew minds.

Oh, but all this was just the warm up, for where Dark Star ends St. Stephen begins.  This was back when the Dead were still playing the whole version of St. Stephen with the William Tell hippie poetics tacked on, which, in some interview I read, Jerry said basically drove him nuts.  You’ll understand why it could have when you hear the Dead bust out a blast of incredible, joyous noise only to transition into the pitter-patter trappings of mid-1600’s English folk music.  But that gets cut off right at the roots as the band rears back and just throttles the second half of St. Stephen until it pours into The Eleven, a pretty basic structure that allows Jerry to just keep wailing and wailing over the smashing caveman stomp the rest of the band is laying down behind him.

Drums airs things out for a minute, but then The Other One>Cryptical Envelopment wells up, and if you’ve never heard a particularly angry version of this song, get ready, because you’re not escaping this one.  This is pure nasty, aggressive music on par with anything the MC5 was putting out there.  Don’t let the trippy lyrics dissuade you.

And then And We Bid You Goodnight, because you need it.

Listen carefully here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 28, 1986 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bear I continue to be impressed with the Grateful Dead’s late 1986 output.  As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, these shows marked Jerry Garcia’s return to performing with the Grateful Dead after he fell into a coma during the summer, and for all of the deleterious effects that the incident would have on Jerry’s ability to turn his guitar on a dime like he used to, there is little doubt that his passion remained unchecked.  In fact, it seems as if Jerry’s illness and subsequent recovery gave the band a healthy jolt in the energy department.

You can feel the Dead’s happiness throughout this show before a hometown crowd in the run up to New Year’s Eve.  Phil in particular jokes back and forth with the audience, and everyone else seems pretty loose too.  This looseness translates into an uptempo show with few if any long jams, making it the perfect show to give to someone who might be interested in learning more about the Dead but is wary of the improvisation.

Depending on how you feel about Looks Like Rain (I’m a fan), there isn’t a clunker on this setlist, which relies heavily on pre-1976 material.  Everything is well played, all things considered, and Big Railroad Blues and Sugar Magnolia really rock the room.  The “jammier” songs, Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain and The Other One, remain firmly grounded today, but that’s alright.  The Dead came to party tonight, and I doubt that anyone left disappointed.

Take a listen here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 23, 1970 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesThe setlist for this show (the only show played on this day in history) is somewhat shrouded in mystery.  It appears, from my basic research, that the original circulating copy of this show had a bunch of material tacked on from the December 17th show from the Matrix, leading to some confusion about what songs were really played on the 23rd.  As far as I can tell, this is the appropriate version, and since it’s a Charlie Miller transfer, I’m going to go with him.  Here’s what we’ve got:  Deep Elem Blues, Beat It On Down the Line, I’m a King Bee, Me and My Uncle, Cumberland Blues, Me And Bobby McGee, Dire Wolf, Good Lovin’ > Drums > Good Lovin’, Casey Jones > Uncle John’s Band.

Lost Live Dead has a fantastic post describing the circumstances leading up to this show, but neither he nor his commenters talk much about the performance itself.  That could be because there is not a lot worth discussing in detail.  The first portion of the show is very sloppy.  For instance, this version of Me and My Uncle is the only time that I can recall hearing Bob Weir laugh his way through an entire song, maybe due to the feedback that keeps creeping into the mix.  Everything here sounds pretty hollow, as if the sound crew just didn’t have it’s act together. (I would blame it on the Dead being the opening act for Hot Tuna, but there are plenty of good sounding shows where the Dead shared the bill).  However, Jerry’s solo on Me and Bobby McGee may be a contender for the best solo on that song ever taken – I can’t recall hearing a better one.  Also, if you’re a fan of Drums, this has to be one of the longer performances of that song in the early 70’s.

Here you go – have at it:

Today in Grateful Dead History: December 22, 1978 – Dallas County Convention Center Arena, Dallas, TX

Dancing Skeletons

This very muddy audience recording that is missing a couple of songs is the only version of the only show that the Grateful Dead played on December 22nd.  But the show itself really isn’t bad at all when you cut through the sound issues.

It would have been interesting to hear the Shakedown Street opener, but that’s one of the missing songs, so we start the show with Me and My Uncle, which is fine.  The rest of the first set is ok – Candyman really gets going, but alas, it gets cut off near the end.

The second set opens with Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain.  Like the December 16th show in Nashville, this version of Scarlet>Fire has some great soloing (when you can hear it) that is much better than the average transition between the two songs.

Estimated Prophet is the best part of the second set, with some very jazzy sections interspaced between the rockier passages.  The band is really giving it everything they’ve got here.

This is not a show for people who hate audience recordings, but it’s all we’ve got and I’m glad we have it.  Take a listen here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: December 21, 1968 – Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA

skeleton&rosesThis is going to be a short review of a short show that has a little bit of everything for everyone.  Do you like your Pigpen rave ups?  The show starts with Turn on Your Lovelight.  How about your psychedelic late sixties Dead experience?  There’s an epic The Other One.

But the bar-none highlight of this whole little affair is Alligator>Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), which rips down that sonic highway with pure 1968 power.  This is the real deal, folks, and worth the price of admission.

After all that, you need a palate cleanser, which the Dead provide with a nice, long And We Bid You Goodnight that ends with Bob Weir leading a sing-along with the crowd.

This show rewards multiple listens, which you’ll be able to do since it’s only about an hour long.  Enjoy the soundboard here: