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: November 29, 1980 – Alligator Alley, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL

Dancing Skeletons

I took issue with yesterday’s show from Lakeland being included in 30 Trips Around the Sun because I thought it was a basic, good but not great, 1980 show.  Today’s show from just up the road in Gainesville, on the other hand, is incredible and will be added to my personal best-of list immediately.

It’s actually amazing that I loved this show as much as I did, because the first set, at least on paper, is pretty ho-hum.  But there are a couple of good things going on here.  First of all, this is a primo, A+ audience recording that sounds better than most soundboards ever will.  Second, the band is dialed in and there aren’t a lot of errors.  Third, even the slower numbers, like Row Jimmy, have an electric feel to them – you can sense the tension building in the band as the first set progresses.  By the time we get to Lost Sailor / St. of Circumstance, you can hear the boys beginning to boil – they pour everything into these songs, and the set-closing Don’t Ease Me In is barely holding on.

Now sometimes (especially in the 80’s and 90’s), when the Dead have a great first set, something happens at intermission (I won’t speculate) that tends to depress the second set, as if the band cannot sustain that kind of energy for a full show. But not on this night in Gainesville.  Here, the boys come out with the one-time only combination of Shakedown Street>Franklin’s Tower, and we’re off on the flight path to Mars.  Shakedown Street is massive, and Phil is all over the place (and easy to hear on this recording), blasting everything in his way as Brent wails into the tune.  The transition into Franklin’s actually sounds a lot like the breakdown in Stagger Lee, but at the last moment, after some temporary confusion, the band picks up the tune and races ahead with it, driving the audience crazy.  This is an above-average Franklin’s – it’s not as long as some other favorite versions, but the playing is concise and more than a little enjoyable.  From there, we keep things popping with a fiery version of Estimated Prophet that shouldn’t be ignored.  The band dials things down very nicely into a subtle He’s Gone, but don’t sleep on this version, because at the end the song gets twisted and turned and finally accelerates into a huge version of Truckin’.  This song goes out there quickly, and sometimes it’s hard to remember we’re there and not listening to The Other One.

Drums follows, but please, don’t skip it – this is one of those Drums that fits perfectly with the rest of the evening and transitions beautifully into a full, jammy, semi-structured Space.  Everyone is completely dialed in here, listening to one another and feeding the beast that slowly becomes The Other One, twenty minutes after I thought we were going there with Truckin’.  The first part of this song is the craziest, a wild, runaway ride that eventually gets reigned in for the proper part of the song.  As the band concludes you can hear the beginnings of Stella Blue.

Now, I, like most of you, love Stella Blue, but there are times when it makes me really nervous, because it comes at such a crucial emotional moment and I want the song to be perfect, and we all know that perfect and the Dead don’t go together very well.  So when the boys began playing Stella Blue tonight, after this whole sequence of magic, I was praying that Jerry wouldn’t completely blow the solo with those flat notes he often hits and that Bob wouldn’t begin whatever rocker you know he’s itching to play ten bars too early.  Well, today, everything works out – Jerry is just on the edge of perfection and Bob holds off until the right moment to launch Good Lovin’, making this a special and much-need Stella that brings the whole second set together.  And the Casey Jones encore ain’t bad either.

This show is a keeper – fortunately, since it’s an audience recording, you can.  Listen (and copy) here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 28, 1980 – Lakeland Civic Center, Lakeland, FL

Dancing Skeletons

It’s been a few months since we traveled to 1980, a fun, dynamic year for Grateful Dead performances.  Today’s show is stop two on a four-stop mini-tour of Florida and Georgia, and it’s captured on this lovely audience recording that I believe offers much more depth than the soundboard or the matrix.

Things start off tentatively with a muddy Jack Straw opener, but the band quickly settles down with a good version of Peggy-O and an up-tempo Little Red Rooster that suffers, as it often does during these years, from some serious Bob Weir guitar mishaps.  After a couple of lyrical miscues in Tennessee Jed, the band begins firing on this smoking version of Passenger, which is followed by the first electric version of Deep Elem Blues since 1970.  After hearing a lot of this tune during the acoustic performances earlier in the year, it’s fun to find the band switching things up and rocking it out instead.  Looks Like Rain maintains the show’s upward trajectory and a scorching Deal ends things on a high note.  For a first set, this is nothing spectacular (aside from the rare Deep Elem) but it sounds great and keeps your foot tapping.

The second set doesn’t rise to any serious heights either, but the setlist choices are notable.  After starting off with a typical Feel Like a Stranger to open, the Dead calm things down with a very nice rendition of To Lay Me Down.  As several commentators on the Archive point out, the crowd is very quiet during this piece, and with good reason – Jerry pours his heart and soul into the lyrics and his guitar work is like a cool shot of ice.  Like Deep Elem, this is the first electric version of To Lay Me Down since the 70’s (in this case, 1974), so it’s a treat for the Florida crowd.  From here, we get the jammy highlight of the night (and an unusual selection in this position), Let It Grow.  The boys aren’t doing anything supernatural here, but they’re doing it well.  The strangeness continues as they transition into Terrapin Station, which is loose but fun.

A key, short moment of bliss takes place on the way out of Drums / Space and into Not Fade Away.  It’s unclear if everyone is heading in the right direction, and as the guitarists start to join forces, Brent keeps his fingers on the keys and lets the sound of the notes sustain over the slowly forming song, brightening everyone’s night as Phil finds the right groove and the band takes off.  It’s a cool transition and one of those special, quick pieces that always pop up in unintended places.  The rest of the show is fine, but nothing surprising takes place.  For what it’s worth, everyone seems to enjoy digging into Sugar Magnolia tonight, but that’s about it on the back end of things.

This isn’t going to be a first-team all 1980 show, but it delivers the goods if you’re looking for a good groove and a couple of interesting songs.

UPDATE:  It has come to my attention that the folks at Grateful Dead, Inc. determined, in their infinite wisdom, that this show indeed should be a first-team all 1980 show, since they selected it for inclusion in 30 Trips Around The Sun.  They are wrong.

As I said before, I think the audience recording is the pick of the litter today.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 22, 1985 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bearI had to leave the office early today, so if I was going to review a show, I needed I short one.  Thanks for being there, 1985!

As I’ve said basically every time I review a show from 1985, even though the Dead don’t play a long show, it doesn’t mean they play poorly.  Most of the tunes today are well-played – you just shouldn’t expect a ton of jamming.

The first set opens with a raved-up Hell in a Bucket.  I don’t know what got into the band before this show, but they come out raring to go.  Sugaree slows things down a bit, but Jerry is still on point and slinging darts.  Cassidy surprises – it sounds like it’s going to tank, but somehow the band pulls through it and delivers a nice ending sequence.  Ditto Let It Grow to end the first set – here, things really do go off the rails for a while, but when the boys recover, all is forgiven.  It’s a fun version of a fan favorite.

I can’t say for sure what went on at intermission, but if I were going to bet, I’d say that the Dead may have bathed in cocaine backstage, because when they launch into Touch of Grey to start the second set, the tempo is, shall we say, elevated.  Of course, there are lyrical flubs galore here, but the playing itself is nice.  Then we’re on to Estimated Prophet.  This is a really nice version, quite spacey considering how fast everyone is playing.  Bob Weir doesn’t even go too far out with the vocal gymnastics at the end.  It’s probably the highlight of the show, for me.  Estimated drives 100 mph straight into Eyes of the World.  It’s shocking that everyone is able to keep up with the drummers here, but the Dead deliver what can charitably be called a spirited version of the tune before running off stage for Drums / Space.

From here, you’d assume it would be your basic rock out Dead show, but coming out of Space the boys manage to put together an unexpected and thrilling Morning Dew. From there, it’s your basic rock out Dead show.

Listen to a pretty ok Matrix here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: November 16, 1985 – Long Beach Arena, Long Beach, CA

dancing-bearLike today’s show at the Long Beach Arena, my review is going to be short.

In the first set, the Dead play an advanced 1985 version of Sugaree and at least make an effort at Let It Grow.  That’s about it.

The second set opens with the very rare combination of Tennessee Jed followed by Cumberland Blues.  Both are pretty good versions.  After that, the boys are mailing it in.  They sound like they are going to call it a night after Gimme Some Lovin’, but Jerry decides to throw the crowd a bone and fires off a Truckin’ that is barely longer than the album version (Bob of course screws up the vocals) before an anesthetized Black Peter and a corny Good Lovin’ close out the show.

The encore is Day Job – the boys put more into it than the entire post-Drums segment.  Says a lot about this show, right?

All that being said, if you need a really short dose of 1985, there aren’t any complete clunkers here either.  Just not a lot of passion.

Listen here: