Today in Grateful Dead History: February 12, 1989 – Great Western Forum, Inglewood, CA

dancing-bearToday’s show is an interesting little performance at the Fabulous Forum in 1989 – a strange setlist dictated, in all likelihood, by the band’s two special guests, Spencer Davis and Bob Dylan.

Now before you get your wig in a twist, I need to warn you that neither of these guests really contributes very much here – Spencer Davis is a much better addition than Dylan, but his guitar is not very prevalent (the vocals are good).  Dylan is Dylan in 1989 – he’s apparently on guitar through most of the second set, but you can’t hear it, and he only contributes vocals on part of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again and on the encore Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.  That’s it. So while this looks good on paper, the reality is not so hot.

Because of the guest stars, we have setlist rarities to discuss.  Tonight is the first performance of How Long Blues since 1970 and it will be the last time the Dead play it.  Spencer Davis kills the vocals and the guitar work you can make out is good.  This is followed by a very good Gimme Some Lovin’ which sounds much more exciting with Davis involved than when the Dead give it the typical lackadaisical treatment.  The rest of the first set is a slightly off-beat 1989 first set.

Dylan emerges during Iko Iko to start the second set and apparently plays guitar, but I can’t pick it up without headphones on.  This is followed by Monkey and the Engineer, which the band hasn’t played since 1981 and would never play again.  It is also, as far as I can tell, the Dead’s only electric performance of this song.  It’s fun, but the vocals are slightly mixed up.

The second set proceeds with this very strange lists of songs (remember, this is the second set):  Alabama Getaway, Dire Wolf, Cassidy, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again and then into Drums.  Not a lot of jamming here, friends, and the playing in uneventful and, in some places, pretty sloppy.  It’s starting to sound a lot like 1988 tonight, especially during Cassidy, which can achieve spectacular heights during this era but tonight just plods along towards nowhere.  There is a nod towards the psychedelic during The Other One out of Space, but it’s just a nod, and then we get a laid-back Stella Blue into a set-closing and pretty awful Foolish Heart.  The Not Fade Away encore is supplemented by the Dylan-led Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, but it doesn’t redeem the second set.  Still, the audience seems pleased as punch.

I wanted to like this show – really, I did.  But, honestly, like most of Dylan’s work with the Dead, it looks better than it sounds.  Spencer Davis worked well – if you’re cherry picking, take those couple of songs and skip the rest.

Listen to the audience recording (a pretty good one) here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: February 7, 1989 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bearThe Grateful Dead had its first show of 1989 a couple of days ago at the Kaiser, and while the setlist for tonight’s show looks much worse than the one from February 5th, I think that tonight’s performance is stronger.

The night starts with Hey Pocky Way, one of the only Brent songs that the band ever used to open shows (9 of the 25 performances of this tune start shows), and it sets the laid-back, slinky mood for the night.  This is a quality Brent show, both vocally and on the keys, and the groove he lays down here permeates the rest of the evening.

Speaking of Brent, tonight marks the premiere live airing of Just a Little Light, a new song that could really bring the crowd to its feet when performed correctly.  It seems to me that Brent got better and better at doing this as time went on, so while tonight’s performance is relatively restrained, he really begins to bring the heat on this song in the fall.  As I’ve said before, Brent sang with such reckless emotion that it could sometimes become overwhelming – this song rarely got there, but it remained a showstopper for the rest of his life.

This entire show is quite chill, but the middle of the set Deal that the band tosses at us is an exception.  They’re ripping and roaring here, and while there are some missed notes, it’s still a good time.  The first set ends with Bird Songone of only a few examples of a Dead tune that really developed (as opposed to regressed) as time went on.  Listening to this version, I’m reminded of how truly jazzy and free this song became in the late 80’s – a far cry from the beautiful, but much more reigned in, versions from the early 70’s.  Neither type of Bird Song is better, but it’s an interesting comparison.  This particular version is pretty par for the course for the time period.

The second set opens with a drum solo into Iko Iko, but, again, this is grooving music, not the heavy attack that sometimes comes from this song.  It’s a strange switch from this into Victim or the Crime, but I don’t think that there’s a song in the canon that wouldn’t be a strange switch into Victim or the Crime.  Later, as Space is slowly unwinding, you can hear the musical argument within the band – should they go into The Other One or not?  Eventually the decision is made to spin The Wheel instead, so we travel down that road for a while until transitioning very nicely into Throwing Stones (also laid back) and then Foolish Heart, an interesting but ultimately uneventful series of songs.  The night closes out with Good Lovin’ and an encore that fits the overall chill mood of the night, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

If you want a barn-burner, this isn’t it.  But if you’re looking for something chill from the late 80’s, you’ll be happy here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: February 5, 1989 – Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland, CA

dancing-bearToday’s show is the first Grateful Dead performance of 1989, a year where the band would pull out of the malaise of 1988 and start to produce some truly inventive, unique playing that represents a kind of golden glow before the sunset that began with Brent’s death in July, 1990.  Unfortunately, tonight’s show doesn’t offer much of a hint of what’s to come – the band is pretty ragged, although they do bring everything together at the end for a very solid Morning Dew.  In the meantime, we’re treated to two premier performances and a few other small moments of joy during an otherwise underwhelming performance.

First the premiers – We Can Run and Standing on the Moon.  We Can Run, kind of like Throwing Stones but more so, was the band’s attempt at being topical, something they assiduously avoided in previous years.  In this case, the subject is the environment, and while the lyrics are pretty clumsy and over the top, the message was ahead of it’s time and is only more important today.  Musically, this tune never really goes anywhere, so you can dig it for the message and Brent’s passion for spreading it, but don’t look to board the transport ship to Mars with this one.

Standing on the Moon presents a more complicated case.  This is a late in the game Jerry ballad and it sounds like it was almost designed to check off a bunch of boxes on the “what kind of song would a Grateful Dead fan want to hear post-Space” checklist.  Well, for starters, let’s name check San Francisco.  Throw in some cosmic analogies of dubious merit.  Add in a Central American war zones (wait, what?)  And end it with Jerry singing “I would rather be with you” over and over again as the Deadheads melt in communion.  This all sounds like a half-step above We Can Run, but for whatever reason, I think it works.  Others think it’s too cheesy.  But until we get into the 90’s and Jerry starts forgetting the words, this one was a showstopper (and even then it “worked” more often than not).

The rest of this show is pretty middle of the road.  I expected great things from the opening Touch of Grey>Feel Like a Stranger>Franklin’s Tower, but the band messed around on Touch of Grey and this Franklin’s has no soul.  Playin’ in the Band is a definite second set highlight and shows what this band can do when it’s trying, but for tonight, we’re limited to this one tune and the aforementioned Morning Dew, which is sloppy but good none the less.

Greater things are coming this year – the boys are just getting warmed up.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 18, 1989 – Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA

dancing-bearTonight’s show is the middle night of the Dead’s final stand at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, a place they played every year from 1981 on but outgrew as the decade came to an end.  The Greek shows, like a lot of the Grateful Dead’s Bay Area performances, tend to be a little laid back, but this easy-going vibe usually translates into fun performances, like this one (and the previous night’s show).

Brent Myland is all over this performance tonight, almost always making the songs better.  For instance, on the very good version of Iko Iko that opens the second set, Brent tips things over the edge into the stellar category.  However, his playing during the first set’s Row Jimmy is a little disorganized and gives the song a slightly slipshod feel.  Everyone else is playing well, and the song doesn’t suffer so much as it never achieves what it could.  He’s much more dialed in on the very sweet version of When I Paint My Masterpiece.  The Dead do some serious exploring on Bird Song (a great song for this kind of thing in 1989) and the first set closer, The Promised Land, is piping hot.

As I’ve said before, Terrapin Station is not one of my favorite live Dead songs, although it has its moments.  Tonight’s version is a full on assault on the back half of the song and it holds our attention from beginning to end.  One of the cooler moments of the evening takes place when the band transitions out of Space and into a special version of Crazy Fingers that just ends perfectly.  Stella Blue has a similar magic about it tonight.  And of course, those encores – Black Muddy River and a rare And We Bid You Goodnight are both amazing.

There are many good versions of this show on the Archive – I stuck with this soundboard, but feel free to experiment:

Today in Grateful Dead History: July 19, 1989 – Alpine Valley Music Theater, East Troy, WI

dancing-bearThis has been a good week for shows, with this explosive 1989 joint taking its place right alongside some good 70’s material from Monday and Tuesday.

Sugaree makes it clear where things are headed tonight – it’s tight, loud and expressive and not at all aimless.  Jerry continues ripping on Althea, too.  Victim or the Crime, not one of my favorite songs by any stretch of the imagination, is really on tonight, with lots of strange melodies and clashing tones.  Desolation Row features some truly nuanced singing from Bob and the set-closing Deal burns the place down.  And that’s just the first set.

The second set of this soggy night’s performance opens with an appropriate Box of Rain followed by Foolish Heart and Looks Like Rain as Bob’s contribution to the weather themed material.  This is a good version for fans of the song .  Terrapin Station comes next and flies high, with a great jam.  After Drums/Space, The Other One>The Wheel is an awesome combo, but it’s just the warmup for a stellar Morning Dew.  Jerry puts everything into it for the brave folks in the summer rain, and the ending sequence of solos stretches on and on for what seems like endless, pleasurable ages.  This is a really good Morning Dew – add it to the roster of heavy hitters.  The party ends with a fired-up Turn on Your Lovelight, one of only six times this tune pops up as an encore, and the Dead make it a good one, stretching things out for over 10 minutes.

None of these recordings is perfect, so I’m going Matrix.  You need to hear it:

Today in Grateful Dead History: October 12, 1989 – Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, NJ

dancing-bearI’ll be honest with you, fellow travelers.  Today’s show from the Meadowlands just kind of glided right by.

Blow Away caught my attention, but I think that’s just due to the driving thrust of the music and Brent’s cursing.  There was nothing unique about this particular performance of the tune.  Bird Song was fairly long, but, again, not really very interesting.  A funny moment came during Cumberland Blues, when Bob hopped on Jerry’s line “A lot of poor men got the Cumberland Blues”.  There’s a pause, and then Jerry takes over the lyric, signing it a second time.  But that’s about it for the interesting stuff here.  Looks Like Rain>He’s Gone>Drums>Space>The Other One>Wharf Rat has potential, and nothing is wrong with the sequence, but we’re not achieving liftoff here, either.  Oh well.

This matrix recording sounds pretty good, though: