Today in Grateful Dead History: March 20, 1986 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

dancing-bearAlthough no two Grateful Dead shows are exactly alike, each era in Dead history featured a fairly consistent repertoire of songs.  For instance, the late 60’s was the time of Turn on Your Lovelight, Dark Star and St. Stephen>The Eleven, while Althea and Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance dominated the early 80’s.  In the 60’s and 70’s, there were not nearly as many surprises in the setlists as there were during the 80’s and 90’s (the band hadn’t released as many albums).   Sometimes the Dead would play a song to death (for example, 79 Playin’ in the Bands out of 86 shows in 1972 and 51 Estimated Prophets out of 60 shows in 1977), only to dramatically scale back or completely retire the same song in subsequent years.  But on a whole, the core songs (like The Other One and Playin’) remained the core songs, with additions and subtractions here and there, throughout the Dead’s career.

Because so many shows from a given era have similar songs (albeit with vastly different arrangements and in infinite combinations), many dedicated Grateful Dead listeners crave the unique live moments where new songs emerge or where old songs reappear after long absences.  And one of those legendary bust-outs occurred at tonight’s show, when Box of Rain, a beloved song from the early 70’s, reappeared for the first time since July, 1973, a gap of 777 shows.

Box of Rain is one of my favorite Grateful Dead album tracks.  Live, it’s a wonderful moment, but there is almost no room for jamming – one live Box of Rain typically sounds like the rest.  This is perfectly fine – another one of my other favorite Dead songs, Brokedown Palace, is the same way.  But because the lyrics to Box of Rain are so meaningful, and because the music can truly transport you, I’m always hoping that the Dead don’t blow it when they play it.

So it’s a little worrisome when the Dead break this one out tonight.  After all, this is 1986.  And the Althea which immediately precedes it is an atrocious train-wreck.  And they haven’t played it live in almost 13 years.  But, all that being said, this is a pretty good version of Box of Rain.  Yeah, Phil gets a little tripped up at the beginning, but the song is about his dad dying, so he’s more than forgiven.  And once the Dead get rolling, the song just takes over and the music plays the band.  The boys must have been happy with how it went, because Box of Rain would never drop out of the regular rotation again.  In fact, it would be the very last song that the real Grateful Dead would ever play together on stage.

As for the rest of the show, it follows a similar pattern to last night’s performance in Hampton.  The first set kinda rolls along, with good tunes played without serious issues (other than Althea, which is truly a mess).  The second set is pretty weak, although Bob’s hysterical, soundboard assisted yelps at the end of Estimated Prophet do get pretty far out there.  The second set highlight, for me, is the four-plus minutes that Brent spends on stage with the drummers jamming out before Drums.  The three of them produce some excellent noises together.  But a post-Space, 1986 Wharf Rat>Throwing Stones>Not Fade Away?  Nah.  The boys were probably looking forward to the backstage buffet, and it shows.

Come for the Box of Rain.  Stay for the rest here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: March 19, 1986 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

dancing-bearWe’re going through one of those stretches where work / weather is making posting difficult.  Sorry about all of the gaps last week – there will probably be more to come.

Today’s show is the first of three from Hampton, Virginia that opened the 1986 spring tour after some scattered California dates in February.  Given the time between shows and the year in question, it’s actually pretty remarkable that the Dead play anything well tonight, but they manage to absolutely crush China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider>Playin’ in the Band to open the second set.  Jerry, of course, is the catalyst here and he rips and roars for a couple of minutes during the China>Rider transition, which is enough good playing to ask “why can’t he do more of this”.  I think we all know the answer.

The first set features the first ever Grateful Dead performance of Visions of Johanna.  A few of the commentators on the Archive really love this version, but I just don’t think it’s good at all.  This song is simply too slow and too lyrical to work well with Jerry in this condition. Feel free to complain if you want.

Other parts of the first set are fine, but no highlights really grab you.  The setlist itself is larded with good tunes, so if you are in the mood for mid-80’s Dead, you’re not going to get a bad song tonight (maybe C.C. Rider isn’t for everyone).  But, in general, the 20 minutes of 1986 “magic” occur at the start of the second set and then it’s quickly downhill from there.  Truckin’, for example, is a disaster, due, in part, to problems with Bob’s mic, but he messes up the words to this tune 95% of the time anyway, so you can’t use that as an excuse.  I think the boys are just gassed post-Space, although they recharge enough to lay down about 45 seconds of bliss at the end of Black Peter.  But hey, it’s 1986, and the band has big plans for tomorrow’s show.  Maybe I’ll even write about it . . .

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 8, 1986 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bear1986 was a huge turning point for the Grateful Dead, and not in a good way.  As many of you probably know, this was the year that saw Jerry Garcia lapse into a diabetic coma, almost die, and have to relearn guitar.  For a band already marked by tragedy and dramatic changes in both personnel and tone, Jerry’s coma is still the single most consequential cataclysm to strike until his death – that huge “what if” that haunts all of those late 80’s and early 90’s shows.  (Pigpen’s death would probably be the other one, but he was already being sidelined, musically, and it was clear that the Dead were moving in a different direction before he died).

The Dead in 1986 were, in many ways, a band of contrasts that had strayed quite far from the days of three and a half hour marathon concerts.  The songs were shorter but they sounded fun.  The jams weren’t as intense but Space, in particular, was more interesting than it had ever been.  Lyrical flubs abounded, but the boys were playing a lot of different tunes.  Jerry was strung out on heroin and french fries.  But yet, in 1985 and at the start of 1986, there was an energy there.  The setlists were more dynamic than they’d ever been.  The boys were taking limited chances but they were still taking some risks.  There were possibilities . . . And then the coma happened and nothing was the same.

The fans in attendance at tonight’s show, the first of 1986, probably couldn’t have known exactly what was to come.  I’m sure there were hints that all was not well with Jerry – you’d have to be a fool to look at him nodding off on stage, dirty and nicotine stained, not to notice.  But yet, if you closed your eyes and just listened to this show – things go pretty well.

We’re lucky enough to have a couple of monster audience recordings from this show.  I constantly say that the soundboards from the mid 80’s are lacking, and this show will show you exactly what I’m talking about.  Take a quick listen to one of the soundboards from tonight and then switch to this audience recording.  There is no question in my mind as to which is better.  All of the instruments are balanced, the audience noise is quite low, and the ambiance of the room is in full effect, especially during Space.  This is a nearly perfect audience capture.

As for the show itself, well, the second set is really good by any standard.  The first set is more hit or miss, as if the band isn’t truly engaged and just wants to get on with it.  But whatever happened at intermission threw everyone for a loop, because the Dead charge out with a very good Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo>Franklin’s Tower that will stand with any other version from this era.  This segues into Playin’ in the Band, which is punctuated with lots of Phil and Jerry runs and a couple of in-sync drummers (not always the case in 1986).  The band downshifts into China Doll, but boy oh boy do they pull out all of the stops, with a sparkling mid-song Jerry bridge solo and a simply brilliant passage to transition back into Playin’ in the Band.  When the band takes the leap at the end of China Doll, I usually hold my breath, worried that they won’t stick the landing. (I get the same feeling at the end of Stella Blue).  But here we have a perfect moment, and the musical highlight of the night.  Drums / Space, which, as I said earlier, have a new power in 1986, are a fitting denouement before Give Me Some Lovin’ kicks off the back end of the show, which is fairly typical and ends with everyone’s favorite encore, Day Job!

Listen here (it’s good): 


Today in Grateful Dead History: June 26, 1986 – Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Minneapolis, MN

dancing-bear Since we ended last week with a pretty foul sounding audience recording of a good show, I thought that we’d start this week with a foul sounding audience recording of a mediocre show.

Why is sound an issue at this show?  Because it was held in the Metrodome.  For those of you who don’t live in the U.S., or don’t follow North American sports, or both, please feel free to peruse the Metrodome’s entry on Wikipedia.  Especially the photos.  Now picture the Dead playing there as the opening band for Tom Petty and Bob Dylan in 1986.  Yup.  You got it.  If you want additional information, there are some great contemporary sources here.

Or you can just listen to this one-set show to get the idea.  Since this was a co-headlining tour, the Dead condensed their shtick so that Dylan and Petty had more time, but since this is 1986, the show isn’t all that much shorter than a normal 1986 Grateful Dead show.  Maybe Space is cut down a little, but that’s about that.

Good songs?  Not many.  Sugaree is ok until (according to a comment on the Archive that sounds true to me) Jerry hits his head on his own microphone and gets discombobulated.  Iko Iko is always fun in 1985 and 1986 and this one is fine, but it’s really short.  Terrapin Station, which follows Mexicali Blues (how’s that for a pair), is not a dome kind of a song.  Like, not at all.  Truckin’ could probably be a dome song, but no . . . And on and on we go.

I think you get the idea.  1986 Grateful Dead playing in a huge dome in Minneapolis two weeks before Jerry lapses into a coma and almost dies – not the recipe for transcendence.  If you want the full dome experience, you can listen here:

(All kidding aside, the recording here could sound a lot worse – all credit to Danny Taggart for doing what he could under the circumstances.  Listen to it loud and it won’t sound terrible.  But that reverb . . . )

Today In Grateful Dead History: March 21, 1986 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

dancing-bear Things got really busy last week so I wasn’t able to write up a few of the shows – we missed some good stuff.

Speaking of good stuff, today’s show from the Hampton Coliseum has it.  But before they get warmed up, the Dead start off with the first ever performance of (I’m a) Road Runner, a song that Bob Weir played on occasion with other bands but the Dead only played once more.  You’ll know why when you hear it.  Still, it’s a song debut and worth hearing for the history.

After a few hit or miss tunes, the band fires up Bird Song, one of those tunes that they played consistently well in 1985 and 1986.  This version doesn’t feature any transcendent moments, but it’s a good listen.  The highlight of the entire show actually comes at the end of Tons of Steel, when the band goes into a Supplication jam that eventually turns into Let It Grow.  Bob Weir is so fired up by this transition that he sings the entire first verse of Let It Grow while the rest of the band is still wailing on Supplication, which makes for an interesting rhythmic dynamic but also for a cool moment.  Once the boys light up Let It Grow proper it’s all hands on deck, with a couple of false endings and some ripping guitar solos.  This is a great passage.

The second set begins with a pretty bungled version of Uncle John’s Band into a mediocre Terrapin Station, however, at the end of Terrapin, the Dead shift into a reprise of Playin’ in the Band and the resulting jam is well done.  Drums>Space>I Need a Miracle is nothing special, but Stella Blue is its usual stellar self – a sparkling Jerry solo caps off the song and makes up for several “interesting” passages at the start of the song.  The rest is fine.

The good parts of this show are very nice and show a band that can still be very engaged when it wants to be.  Nothing here feels particularly rushed like things tend to sound during 1985-86, and everyone makes substantial contributions to the music.  It’s a good show from a difficult year, which makes it all the more worth your time.

None of the recordings of this show are great – here’s the best I heard:

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 15, 1986 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, Oakland, CA

dancing-bear It’s been a busy week since my last post and I haven’t had the time to finish listening to a full show until today, so I’m pleased to be back with this one – my first show review from 1986 (giving us at least one show from every year).  This is also a particularly special day, since it marks Jerry Garcia’s return to the Grateful Dead after falling into a diabetic coma earlier in the year.

If you don’t know the story, here’s a brief summary.  After the Dead’s July 7th show at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Jerry’s health rapidly declined and he ended up in a coma.  How much of this was due to the drugs remains a mystery, but suffice it to say, he didn’t lead the healthiest lifestyle even if you remove heroin from the equation.  In any case, Jerry almost died and the band was forced to cancel the fall tour.  When Jerry came out of the coma, he had basically forgotten how to play the guitar, so he had to relearn the instrument by practicing incessantly.  Keep that history in mind when you listen to this show, because it makes Jerry’s performance here even more remarkable.

The Dead sound good tonight – much better than they did in early 1986, pre-coma.  Seriously, this is a damn fine show for the mid 80’s under any circumstances, let alone these.  And they lead off the night with one of those Grateful Dead moments – Touch of Grey, with it’s chorus of “I will get by . . . I will survive” having so much more meaning after Jerry’s brush with death.  Tonight is also the first time the Dead played Black Muddy River and When Push Comes To Shove.  This is a very strange part of the narrative since Black Muddy River premiered at Jerry’s first post-coma show (the first show of the “new era”) and it was the last “Jerry song” at his final show in Chicago nine years later.  Weird . . .

You’d expect that everyone would be rusty tonight, but that’s simply not the case.  The second set has a great run with Playin’ In The Band>Terrapin Station>Drums>Truckin’>Wharf Rat>Playin’ In The Band>Good Lovin’ that should be played at full volume.  Jerry rocks out all over these songs and it’s wonderful to hear the crowd go wild with every lick.

Add this one to the collection – between the history and the music, it’s a good one.  Here’s a matrix version that really captures the crowd without losing the soundboard mixture: