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: 


Today in Grateful Dead History: February 4, 1979 – Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI

Dancing Skeletons

We spent yesterday in Madison, Wisconsin 1978, so today I thought it would be fun to travel forward in time to Madison, Wisconsin 1979.

Things have changed in the space of a year.  We’re sitting at the tail end of the Keith and Donna era here – February 17th is going to be their last show with the Grateful Dead.  By this point, the road had taken its toll on Keith in particular and his playing here tonight is definitely limited.  However, the rest of the band’s energy is just fine, and this is an above average musical performance from start to finish.

The Dead played a bunch of Mississippi Half Step>Franklin’s Tower openers in 1979, and this one hums along with the best of them.  But for my money, the highlight of the first set is the fantastic Peggy-O, with some crystalline guitar work from Jerry.  Lazy Lightning>Supplication at the end of the set is also fiery, with Bob Weir playing his heart out and Jerry shredding relentlessly.

The second set is not exactly larded with my favorite Dead tunes, but the band is playing well.  There are a couple of really sweat moments in Terrapin Station and portions of Playin’ in the Band are also fairly dynamic.  You’ve got to stick with it to hear the band rip Around and Around to pieces.  This is one fired up version of that song – one of the better ones I’ve heard recently.

So, in conclusion, this is a well played concert for the  beginning of 1979, with some really good first set songs and not as much going on in the second set, due primarily to the choice of songs and not the band’s approach.  Catch Keith and Donna while you can.

For some reason, this show is split in two on the Archive.  Here’s the first set: and here’s the second:

Today in Grateful Dead History: January 20, 1979 – Shea’s Theater, Buffalo, NY

Dancing Skeletons

There was no recorded show available yesterday, but today finds us back in 1979 for one of the only performances of Dark Star in the late 70’s.  Thankfully, it’s captured for posterity on one of the better audience recordings you’ll ever hear.

When I originally heard this show, I thought that the highs were high and the lows were low.  I stand by that assessment today – when the Dead are on, they are really on, and when they are off, well . . .

The band blazes through a pretty cool version of Sugaree in the first set, but the highlight is the slow burning Peggy-O, with a lot of great Jerry guitar work.  It’s songs like this, and the ragged versions of Stagger Lee and Jack-A-Roe, where you can truly hear (thanks again to the quality of the recording) and appreciate just what Bob Weir brought to the band.

Of course, the second set is why this show has a reputation, and it stems from this sequence: Estimated Prophet>The Other One>Drums>Space>The Other One>Dark Star>Not Fade Away>Sugar Magnolia.  This is pure gold, with a laid-back but challenging Estimated Prophet and a huge The Other One.  The transition into Dark Star is so well done that most of the people in the audience don’t even acknowledge the moment until it’s already taken place.

Dark Star itself, one of only five performances of the song between 1975 and 1988, is not a good version of the tune, but its better than a majority of the versions from the late 80’s and 90’s when it returned to the normal rotation.  The band doesn’t seem to have any direction here, but there are a couple of nice build ups that get you excited before spinning off into nothing.  Still, you need to check this out, for no other reason than it’s rarity.

In closing, don’t expect too much from this show.  It’s really not that great, but the second set, especially that middle part, is worth hearing.  As an audience recording, however, it’s superb.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: January 18, 1979 – Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI

Dancing Skeletons

A couple of weeks into the new year and we’re still hanging out in the late 70’s, because there are no other recorded options available.  That’s just fine, since the Dead are playing at a fairly high level in January 1979, especially considering that Keith and Donna were about ready to depart, ending the Dead’s longest era of concentrated musical success.

We’re in Providence, Rhode Island for today’s show, and the New England winter must be wearing on the band a little bit, as things in the first set seem somewhat unfocused.  Mexicali Blues is the surprise hit of the first half, with an interesting back beat (once it gets up and running) and some great moments between Jerry and Bob.  The rest of the set is pretty basic.

The Dead come out with some fire in their bellies with a second set opening trifecta of I Need A Miracle>Bertha>Good Lovin’.  Two of these three songs (need I say which ones) aren’t exactly my favorite tunes in the world, but they definitely up the band’s energy considerably.  Of course, the Dead then immediately transition into From the Heart of Me and Ship of Fools, which could have torpedoed the show.  Fortunately, they rally with a fun (but not exceptional) sequence of He’s Gone>Truckin’>The Other One>Wharf Rat>Around & Around.  Phil is all over He’s Gone and The Other One, so turn up your bass knob up as loud as it’ll go and enjoy.

Did you notice that there is no Drums sequence in the second set?  Well, now you know.

The soundboard here isn’t wonderful, but it’ll do:

Today in Grateful Dead History: January 12, 1979 – The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA

Dancing Skeletons

The Dead started out 1979 at the Spectrum, then ran up to New York for four nights at Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum before returning to the Spectrum for today’s performance (the only January 12th show available), which made up for the cancelled 11/27/78 Philadelphia show.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is one busy-ass week, and the Dead in general, and Jerry’s voice in particular, are suffering for it tonight.

The first set features a bunch of good songs, but nothing really takes off save Peggy-O.  Sometimes this works to our advantage – the muted playing reduces Donna’s shrieking on Deal to acceptable levels, whereas last night Donna’s “heightened energy” made Deal almost impossible to listen to.

The second set is make up of a bunch of throw-away burners, but there are a couple of items of interest.  First, Garcia’s ragged voice on It Must Have Been the Roses ads a bit of gravitas to the song and elevates it to “listen to it” status.  Second, Jerry stays out on stage with the drummers after Dancin’ in the Street and just lays into his guitar without mercy for approximately eight minutes.  Jerry doesn’t appear to care what is being played behind him, leading to some interesting moments of catch up from the drummers, but this is a very interesting and quite unique opportunity to hear Jerry go off without any guitar, bass or keys behind him.  You should definitely check this section out – it’s part of Drums on this particular recording.

Let’s just take those two songs and be happy with them.  Here’s hoping everyone went back to the hotel and slept for a day after this crazy week.

Check out the audience recording here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: January 11, 1979 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY

Dancing Skeletons

Nassau Coliseum was one of those east coast arenas, like Madison Square Garden and the Spectrum, that always seemed to bring out the best in the Grateful Dead.  I don’t think that I’ve ever heard a sub-par show from the Coliseum, and while tonight’s show is definitely not transcendent, it’s a good listen and an entertaining ride.

First off, don’t listen to the soundboard recording of this show.  The pitch is terrible and there are a ton of drop outs.  Check out the audience version instead, which is the correct speed and is well recorded.

The first set of this show is energetic, beginning with a nice Sugaree and ending with a very good Jack Straw>Deal.  I’m not a Donna Jean hater, but even I have to warn you that her contributions at the end of Deal are “unique”.  Everyone else sounds good, though.

The second set begins with I Need a Miracle, which is fine, and then some of the energy dips with Ship of Fools.  But after a brief aside to say a fake happy birthday to Mickey, the Dead ramp things up for the meat of the second set: Estimated Prophet>He’s Gone>Drums>Truckin’>The Other One>Stella Blue>Good Lovin’.  I love the transition from Estimated Prophet into He’s Gone, as well as the buildup from Drums into Truckin’.  The band plays The Other One with passion and Stella Blue is sublime.  None of these moments goes too far off of the tether, but it’s a really easy listening sequence in the best possible way, especially given the condition of the band at the start of the year.

Again, please avoid the soundboard and listen to the audience recording here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: January 5, 1979 – The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA

Dancing Skeletons

There was no show yesterday, and today’s 1979 performance from the Philadelphia Spectrum is the only available show for January 5th, so we’re going through a fairly dry patch.  So be it.

This slightly shoddy audience recording captures the Dead at the tail end of the Keith and Donna era in a building known for its fabulous Dead shows.  The first set on this night starts with a long, slowish (for 1979) version of Sugaree that leaves you thinking that this is going to be a laid back affair.  The rest of the set doesn’t do anything to persuade us otherwise.

But the heart of the second set, Estimated Prophet>Eyes Of The World>Drums>Truckin’>Black Peter, is quite good, especially Estimated Prophet, which takes off midway through and gets into some very jazzy territory by the end.  Truckin’ is a pretty thrilling ride with a long Nobody’s Fault jam that transitions into a booming Black Peter.

Although the sound quality here isn’t awesome, it’s nice to hear everyone dialed in and seemingly having a good time, even though the band dynamics were apparently seriously strained.  If you don’t have all day, just check out the middle of the second set for a taste of what the Dead were capable of doing at the start of 1979.

Listen to it here: