Today in Grateful Dead History: October 25, 1985 – Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, FL

dancing-bear The Sportatorium sounds like the name of a team handball arena in Bulgaria, but it happens to have been located in South Florida, which is pretty close.  (If you’re looking for a good read, check out the venue’s Wikipedia page.  In case you’re too lazy to do this, I’ll give you the highlights: a Robert Plant concert was rained out at this indoor venue, Roger Waters called the acoustics a “real compromise” and there was a massive riot at a Rush concert.  Seriously – Rush.)  Despite the arena’s shortcomings, the Grateful Dead typically played well here, and tonight’s show is no exception.

I have to warn you that the pace of tonight’s show is somewhat rushed, as in crackhead on a mission rushed.  The first set opens with Deal (unusual, but not the most unusual thing about this show) and the band maintains that energy throughout.  It’s All Over Now, tucked in with a bunch of other good songs, may be the first set highlight since the song fits the band’s energy to a T.  Even Loser can’t be slowed.

The second set opens with Morning Dew (see, I told you there would be stranger things than Deal).  You’re not going to believe this, but the band rushes into it and it takes a few seconds to mesh, but then we’ve got a pretty good version.  Even better is the Estimated Prophet that follows – a real killer performance that segues into a completely out of control Eyes of the World.  I always like to wait for the moment when these mid-80’s cocaine versions of Eyes get completely ridiculous.  Tonight’s version stays coherent for about 10 seconds, which makes it a middle of the road attempt.  Drums / Space are their typical good 1985 selves, and the rest is a little mushy.  But the fact that things stayed relatively unhinged for 2/3 of the show makes it a damn good listen.

As this project marches one, one of my main takeaways to-date is how much I’ve enjoyed the shows from 1985.  They’re not typically intricate and they’re certainly fast, but in certain scenarios, that’s just fine.  I grooved throughout this entire show, and I think that you will too.  The soundboard is augmented with the audience recording in some places, and be forewarned that the pitches on the two recordings don’t match up.  Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: September 2, 1985 – Zoo Amphitheater, Oklahoma City, OK

dancing-bear The Zoo Amphitheater is one of those venues, like Pirate’s World (3/24/70), that brings to mind legions of clapped out Deadheads terrifying people in a normally benign public place like a zoo or an amusement park.  A little research reveals that the Zoo Amphitheater is actually located next to, but not in, the Oklahoma City Zoo, thus separating the animals and children from the Heads, which is probably for the best.

Today’s show is frustrating because it is so damn good, but the band’s playing is, I don’t want to say wasted but I’m going to say wasted, on a C+ setlist.  Everybody is completed tuned-in throughout the entire performance, which is often not the case in 1985, and the interplay between the boys is tremendous.  I noticed this within the very first notes of Bertha and it only gets better from there.  The synergy between Phil, Jerry, Brent and Bob is most apparent on West L.A. Fadeaway, but that is by no means the only place – Ramble on Rose is filled with subtle wizardry and even Minglewood stretches the bounds of dynamism.   There are some bass problems throughout the first set, the most obvious coming during Me and My Uncle, with Phil dropping a series of bombs in an apparent attempt to isolate the offending amplifier and creating awesome sonic results.

Normally when the Dead fire off an excellent first set in 1985 (which they frequently do), they lose energy in the homestretch, but today they’ve still got the goods after intermission.  China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider is awesome and the transition is altered just enough to call it unusual.  Once again, the Jerry/Brent/Phil/Bob connection is strong throughout this sequence.  Playin’ in the Band is the other second half highlight (although everything the Dead play tonight is good).  Playin’ stretches out a bit longer than you might expect and the move into Drums is subtle and fun.

So what’s the problem?  The Dead play both Iko Iko and The Women Are Smarter in the same show, which is like playing the same song twice.  (The worst thing about The Women Are Smarter in this context is that Jerry and the drummers are clearly trying to take the band into The Other One out of Drums, which would have been awesome, but Bob overwhelms and overrules them).  We also get Around and Around, I Need a Miracle, Good Lovin’ and a Day Job encore.  And while I loved the performance in the first set, it’s not exactly filled with the best songs on the roster.

A while ago, a commentator on this site named lgreen666 noted that ” things markedly improved in 85 compared with 82 to 84… heard as matrix recordings I think summer and autumn is possibly as good as summer and autumn 89!”  I didn’t remember this comment until I found myself with a huge grin on my face throughout this show.  The Dead were killing it on this night in OKC – I just wish they played the songs to match the effort.

Check out the pretty darn nice audience recording here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: November 11, 1985 – Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, NJ

dancing-bear The most notable thing about this typical 1985 show from the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey is the opening sequence of Walkin’ the Dog>Deal, which is a strange way to start a show.  Going into this, I was worried that Walkin’ the Dog would be one of those train wreck Grateful Dead covers that the band doesn’t take seriously, a la Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, but today the band plays the song with purpose and it leads into a perfectly adequate Deal.  This is a good one-two punch to get things going at the Meadowlands and the energy carries through the first set, as it often does in 1985, with good versions of Big River and Bird Song.

Things come slightly off the rails in the 2nd set, as Jerry’s voice and guitar start to slur.  Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain would be ok were it not for Bob Weir’s incredibly assertive playing during the transition – this is not typical Bob Weir playing and it sounds like he was trying to shoo a bee off of his guitar for about twenty seconds before he lets up.  Very strange . . .

Later on in the 2nd set, I turned off the music in the middle of Eyes of the World to go do something.  When I resumed listening an hour later, mid-song, I was surprised at how sloppy it was.  It think my mind got used to the 1985 messy vibe and the break reset my synapses – this is not a good version of Eyes.  As for the rest of the performance, you’ve got Drums>Dear Mr. Fantasy>Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad>Throwing Stones>Turn On Your Love Light which goes about exactly as you would expect.

In summary, first set good, second set not so good. Typical 1985.  Check it out here:

Today In Grateful Dead History: October 29, 1985 – Fox Theatre, Hotlanta, GA

dancing-bear 1985 is the Mr. Hyde to 1976’s Dr. Jkyll.  Both are truly unique years musically – nothing else sounds like ’76 or ’85 – but where the 1976 shows have the reputation for being slow burners, 1985 is the crystal meth version of the Grateful Dead – 110 mph at almost all times.

I won’t belabor the comparison between 1976 and 1985 because it’s too much of a contrast.  Instead, let’s compare the show opening Mississippi Half-Step>Franklin’s Tower from yesterday’s 1979 show from the Cape Cod Coliseum with today’s 2nd set opening 1985 version of that same sequence.  In 1979, the Dead played those two songs for almost exactly half an hour.  In 1985, we’re down to a combined 14 minutes.  And that is 1985 in a nutshell.

Now even though the length of the songs has shrunk, this does not necessarily imply that the performance is worse, but I think that the pacing belies the real problem with a lot of shows from 1985, which is a tendency of the band to rush through things.  At today’s show, for instance, there is literally no solo before the “across the rio grande” portion of Mississippi Half-Step.  None.  And at the conclusion of a very nice Wharf Rat, which follows a four minute The Other One (also good), the band shifts gears immediately, with no transition to speak of, into Johnny B. Goode.  The only places where things get stretched out here are in Drums / Space, which has some cool, eerie passages, and on Bird Song in the first set, which is very well done and worth your time.

The most frustrating thing about this show is that you can sense the power in the band, waiting, behind all of the drug problems and burn out, to be unleashed.  Jerry can still rip off great solos.  Brent sounds fantastic throughout the night.  The drummers are into it.  But nothing really takes off.  It’s like you’re revving the engine of a Corvette and then you peel out at 35 mph.

Don’t get me wrong – 1985 is a fun year, and I like this show – it’s a good one for the time period.  I just wish there was a little more to it.

Here’s the soundboard:

Today In Grateful Dead History: June 24, 1985 – River Bend Music Center, Cincinnati, OH

dancing-bear The powers that be have selected this show as the 1985 entry in the 30 Trips Around the Sun box set, so you’ve got to figure that it’s held in high regard and rightfully so.

The first set is a high energy performance, typical for 1985, but there really isn’t much that stands out until Let It Grow at the end, which wails.  Jerry shreds several passages and the drummers just pound the heck out of their instruments.  It’s a nice way to end the set.

The second set is fantastic for 1985 (it’s actually a really good 80’s show, not just an ’85).  Iko Iko features some “interesting” lyrical digressions from Mr. Weir, but sets the tone for a strong Samson & Delilah and a burning Smokestack Lightning (apparently there was a lot of real electricity in the air during a huge summer storm).  The meat of the performance is Cryptical Envelopement>Drums>Comes A Time>The Other One>Cryptical Envelopement>Wharf Rat.  Unlike the bust out show from Berkeley on the 16th, here Cryptical works like a dream on both ends.  The Comes a Time, sung in Jerry’s strained, smoked-out 1985 rasp, is wonderful and then The Other One blows the place down.  At the end of Wharf Rat, the whole band turns it up another level and just powers over the audience.  It’s a great segment.

The usual caveats about the sound of 1985 shows apply here – the soundboards are horribly tinny, so you get a Matrix instead:


Today In Grateful Dead History: June 16, 1985 – Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA

dancing-bear This show is notable due to the bust out of Cryptical Envelopment, which hadn’t been played since 1972.  It is part of a full sandwich around The Other One, which the band had not performed this way since the end of 1971.  The crowd on this Matrix recording goes predictably crazy.

The cool thing about this particular passage is that the opening Cryptical is pretty terrible – Jerry forgets the words, the chords are messy and everyone is really tentative.  But then we get to the start of The Other One and Phil drops in with several mighty bombs and the band is off to the races with a heavy version of the song that would not have been out of place in the late 60’s.  When we come back to the closing Cryptical, it’s much better.

There are some other highlights here (highlights for a show from 1985 – not career highlights).  The Big Railroad Blues is fast and frenetic, so much so that Jerry, once again, forgets a bunch of lyrics and just starts humming, but the playing is good.  The opening portion of Scarlet Begonias is also interesting.  It’s one of those versions where you doubt the band was actually trying to play the song that particular way, but it gels anyway.  Brokedown Palace, sung in Jerry’s mid-80’s warble, is an extra special way to end the show.

I think that soundboards from 1985 are awful, so here’s a matrix instead.  There’s just enough from the AUD to fill in the gaps: