Today in Grateful Dead History: August 4, 1979 – Oakland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA

Dancing Skeletons

Today was a historic day for the Grateful Dead.  Not only did the band premiere two songs – Althea and Lost Sailor – but this was also the debut of Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger” guitar, the instrument he would exclusively play for the next eleven years.

Since I (shockingly) haven’t done this before, I’m going to spend the next little while talking about Jerry’s guitars.  If you don’t care about guitars, you’re going to want to skip the next three paragraphs.

Jerry Garcia was “particular” when it came to guitars.  Unlike a lot of major rock performers, Jerry only played one instrument during the course of an entire show (except for the acoustic portions of the 1970 and 1980 tours, which required a second guitar, and a brief time in the late 80’s when he used a second guitar to play Midi components during Space).  In addition, once the early 70’s rolled around, Jerry would choose one specific guitar and stick with it for years.  So if you saw the Dead play at any point between this date in 1979 and New Years Eve, 1989/90, you almost certainly saw Jerry play the guitar he debuted tonight.  (There are some exceptions).

Tiger was custom-built for Jerry by Doug Irwin, who also built Wolf, one of the two guitars Jerry played between 1973 and 1979.  (The other was a Travis Beam aluminum guitar that Jerry used during 1976 and 1977).  Tiger is no joke – it weighs 13 1/2 pounds (for reference, an average Fender Telecaster is around 8 pounds) and has two humbucker pickups and a single pickup at the neck.  The tiger inlay actually protected a battery pack used to power a preamp that was built into the guitar, allowing Jerry to maintain a consistent signal to and from his effect pedals – on a normal guitar, if things aren’t dialed in perfectly, you are going to get a change in power whenever you step on a pedal.  Not with Tiger.

Of course, since we’re talking about Jerry Garcia, the full story behind this and all of his other guitars is a lot more complicated.  In a nutshell, Jerry specified in his will that Doug Irwin would get all of his guitars.  But after Jerry died, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead alleged that the guitars never belonged to Jerry, since they were purchased with Grateful Dead money.  (This episode makes my skin crawl).  Irwin, destitute and living with his mother, had to actually sue the Dead to get his guitars back, as Jerry intended.  You can read all about it in this fantastic story in the San Francisco Gate.  And for more on Tiger and Jerry’s other guitars, you can travel to Jerry’s official website, or you can get all of the tech specs here.

OK, enough guitar talk (for now).  What about the music?  As mentioned earlier, tonight was the live debut of Althea and Lost Sailor (without Saint of Circumstance – one of only five performances of Lost Sailor that don’t immediately transition into Saint).  Both of these songs sound like the Dead have been playing them for years.  While Jerry doesn’t let the line very far out on Althea, he certainly enjoys soloing all over Lost Sailor, which sounds amazing given that it’s a first attempt.   The rest of the first set is peppy but nothing strenuous – a pretty typical Bay Area warmup.

The boys ramp it up in the second set, starting with Passenger and flying from there.  Playin’ in the Band is the highlight tonight – it’s a twenty minute blast of psychedelic fury, waaaay further out there than one would expect in 1979, and it crashes into an amazing Drums.  Stella Blue is powerful too.  So, all in all, a great second set on a historic night.

My one complaint is that the recordings aren’t very good.  Both soundboards are missing the Jack Straw opener, and the volume varies greatly from song to song, as does the volume of the individual instruments.  Unfortunately, the audience recording is muddy and sounds like noise reduction was applied.  So here’s the soundboard: 


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