Today in Grateful Dead History: August 14, 1991 – Cal Expo Amphitheater, Sacramento, CA

terrapinToday’s show is one of several California shows from the summer of 1991 that all tend to blend together for me.  I’ve already written about the August 17th and 18th shows at Shoreline, and neither one of those nights was anything special.  The same goes for today – there’s nothing really wrong with this show, but there’s not a lot of liftoff either.

The first set is short – I’m counting maybe 52 minutes of music, which for the Dead isn’t that much.  And nothing goes on of any real import during that first set.

It started to rain during this show, which is unusual in Sacramento in August, so the Dead come out for the second set with a trio of rain songs – Cold Rain and Snow, Box Of Rain and Looks Like Rain.  Of the three, Looks Like Rain is the best, if you like Looks Like Rain.  Following this, you get the jammiest part of the evening – it begins with a fairly standard Crazy Fingers (“Your rain falls like crazy fingers” makes our 4th rain reference in a row) that leads into a pretty jazzy Estimated Prophet.  But it’s more of a noodling piano bar type of jazz instead of the fusion powerhouse that this song could be in better iterations.  A quick jam leads into Uncle John’s Band, which is one of the few Dead songs I prefer to hear on the studio album and tonight is no exception, although they do better with it than they usually do in the 90’s.  Following Drums/Space, The Other One tries but doesn’t really get there and neither does the Wharf Rat that follows.  After another piano bar rendition of Around and Around, we have a sloppy Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door encore that is worth hearing for Bruce’s accordion and not much else – how’s that for an endorsement?

I realize that this comes off as a pretty negative review.  The playing is not terrible here, but as far as Dead shows go – even Dead shows in 1991 – this one is pretty boring.  Jerry is definitely not blasting out solos and the rest of the boys are just grooving behind him limply.  It was probably still fun to be there.

Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: June 7, 1991 – Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN

terrapinCacophony n. 1. Frequent use of discords of a harshness and relationship difficult to understand  see also 6/7/91

The Grateful Dead circa 1991 were a massive band – two guitarists, two drummers, two piano players and Phil.  They could be slightly discordant at times.  Tonight’s show at Deer Creek was one of those times, as evidenced by the above referenced cacophony that blasts us right out of the gate during Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.  There is just too much going on here for anything to work well, but somehow the Dead pull things off without going completely off the rails.

That’s the story for the entire night.  Lots of noise, lots of Bruce Hornsby (who is turned up very high in the mix), lots of conflict.  But sometimes, the conflict breeds interesting results, like during Loser, where Jerry plays off of Bruce, or in the transition between Truckin’ and New Speedway Boogie.  However, even the relatively quiet moments get the Wall of Sound (Phil Spector version) treatment, for instance, Standing on the Moon, which is solid but burdened with a lot of extra background notes.

This isn’t to say that this is a “bad” show.  But the mix of instruments never really works and we’re left with a somewhat muddy evening of good Dead tunes.  Perhaps if Bruce wasn’t so loud, I wouldn’t complain about this so much, but that’s what we’ve got.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: September 22, 1991 – Boston Garden, Boston, MA

terrapinToday’s show falls smack in the middle of the Grateful Dead’s six night run at the Boston Garden on their 1991 fall tour.  As was their want on this tour, the Dead settled into the building for multiple nights in a row, trying not to duplicate many of the songs.  While the approach rewarded the fans who bought tickets for every night of the run, you could definitely get stuck with a strange setlist if you only showed up for one night.  Take the second set of tonight’s show, for example:  Samson And Delilah, Iko Iko, Looks Like Rain>He’s Gone>Nobody’s Fault But Mine>Spoonful>Drums>Space>The Last Time>Stella Blue>Sugar Magnolia E: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.  This is probably not many fans’ dream concert.  Thank God the Dead rock out hard tonight, because this one had stinker potential written all over it.

The boys get things moving with an energetic (and short) first set.  The highlights are both Dylan covers – It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry and Maggie’s Farm.  Let It Grow closes the set and is filled with the lovely little examples of interplay between the band members that make this tour so solid.  Bruce Hornsby, as always, gives this set the extra oomph.

Now for that second set.  This is a really dynamic Looks Like Rain that stacks up well with any version from any era.  He’s Gone sticks to the basics, but then it devolves into what I thought was going to be the Nobody’s Fault But Mine jam.  Instead, Jerry actually sings the lyrics to the Blind Willie Johnson song. I can find a couple of shows where this happens after today’s show, and one from 1985, but this is a rare occurrence indeed and it segues into a cool Spoonful, which has a very similar feel, so we’ve got ten minutes of blues in as pure a form as the post-Pigpen Dead are ever going to play it.  Drums/Space>The Last Time are normal, and you think that Stella Blue is going to be pedestrian too, but then Jerry launches into one of those 1990’s Stella Blue solos that just rings perfectly true and brings the house down.  It’s a keeper.

Lesson from tonight’s show – don’t judge a show on its setlist alone.  This one is a good one.

Listen to the soundboard here (this one has more high end than the other versions – the more popular version is muddier but has better Phil):

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 18, 1991 – Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, CA

terrapinI went to see Dark Star Orchestra over the weekend, and Sam Cutler, the Grateful Dead’s former road manager,  introduced the band.  As part of his talk, he said that he thought that the Dead were really a Dixieland band, with multiple soloists all improvising at the same time over the melody.  Nick Paumgarten makes the same point in his wonderful 2012 article about the band in the New Yorker.  Today’s show, the third and final night of the band’s 1991 summer run at the Shoreline Amphitheater, really hews to this Dixieland formula, especially when it comes to Bruce Hornsby, who is all over this recording.

As I said last year in my review of the August 17th Shoreline concert, the Dead’s two pianist iteration had a tendency to get in its own way, but at today’s show, Vince is turned way down and Bruce is even more up front, which is a positive development as far as the music is concerned.  One of the best moments of the first set is Bruce’s piano work on It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, a pretty boring song that is brightened considerably by the keyboards.  This is followed immediately by a total breakdown at the beginning of Beat it on Down the Line, but Bob Weir picks up the pieces and the band keeps playin’ on.  Continuing on with the Dylan theme, When I Paint My Masterpiece is a well done addition to the first set and Stagger Lee is a good time too.  Then the Dead end the set with Johnny B. Goode, one of only 19 first-set performances of a song that they played 285 times.

We start the second set with Deal, always a rocker, which segues into a fantastic Samson and Delilah that rips from start to finish with Bruce (once again) leading the charge.  The other second half highlight comes at the end of China Doll, when Jerry takes a majestic solo that transports us all away to a late summer night in California.  Unfortunately, the rest of the show is Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad>Throwing Stones>Not Fade Away.  Thankfully, the band closes its run with a Brokedown Palace encore to send everyone home happy.

This show fixes some of the Bruce/Vince issues from the 17th, but it substitutes a bunch of filler songs for yesterday’s much better setlist.  Pick your poison.

Here’s the matrix:

Today in Grateful Dead History: May 5, 1991 – Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA

stealie NOTE: This material was originally published in 2015 on my previous site. It has been updated and edited, sometimes heavily, and was posted in several batches in August, 2016.

It would have been easy to just pick the all-time great 1977 New Haven Coliseum show and be done with it, but where’s the fun in that? So instead, we’re headed to Sacramento in 1991 for a very different experience.

This show starts with Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower and while this version isn’t going to win any awards, it’s a nice way to start the show and Vince does some interesting things in Slipknot. Brown Eyed Women is another highlight from the first set.

Vince blows whatever goodwill he accrued in the first set by trashing Eyes of the World in the second, playing all over everyone else and not contributing anything. This version of Eyes features some very heavy Midi effects from Jerry, who sounds like a less-talented version of Ian Anderson during some parts of the song. I’ve never liked the band’s use of unnatural sound effects during anything other than Space and if you listen to this particular Eyes you’ll see what I mean.

After perfunctory versions of Man Smart Woman Smarter and Ship of Fools, we hear a very good Truckin’ with a fun breakdown into Terrapin Station. If you’re going to listen to anything from this show, listen to that. The Other One follows Drums/Space and is also good.

Listen to the soundboard here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: April 28, 1991 – Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, NV

stealieNOTE:  This material was originally published in 2015 on my previous site.  It has been updated and edited, sometimes heavily, and was posted in several batches in August, 2016.

Yesterday the Beach Boys sat in and today we have Carlos Santana playing on Bird Song – it’s a good one that clocks in at over 18 minutes.  Santana seems to fit seamlessly into the mix here, weaving his magic right along with the rest of the band.  The length of the song is questionable – sometimes things get a little bogged down, but as a whole, this is certainly a Bird Song worth savoring.

Unfortunately, once you get away from Bird Song, this show suffers from the usual array of 1990’s problems like Vince playing over everyone else and no one really interacting with one another for long stretches, but the setlist is, for the year, top-notch and there are no major clunkers.

There’s also a blistering second set Deal, a Space featuring recorded slot machine noises and a good jam into The Other One.

Here’s the Charlie Miller transfer of the Soundboard:

Today In Grateful Dead History: September 10, 1991 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

dancing-bear Branford Marsalis played five shows with the Grateful Dead throughout the 90’s.  The “big one” was the March 29, 1990 show at Nassau Coliseum, but in my mind Branford’s performance at this show is just as good, if not better, than that one.

This is not to say that the band’s performance tonight is better than the 3/29/90 show.  A lot went down between March 1990 and September 1991 – Brent Mydland died, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick joined the band, things started to move downhill.  Musically, the stage was a little more cluttered and a little less focused in 1991 than it was in 1990, and it shows during this performance; Bruce sometimes plays over Vince and there is a lot of noise without purpose, especially during Cassidy.

To me, this crowded musical landscape is the foundation that makes Branford’s performance all the more amazing.  Throughout this show, no matter the tune, he’s gliding in and out of the messy structure being laid down all around him, and he’s making it sound effortless.  Sometimes (a lot of times – that’s why this is a cool show) the members of the Dead play right off of Branford’s ideas.  Other times, they’re not quick enough.  But all in all, it makes for a very dynamic, exciting, jazzy night of music in the Big Apple.

My personal favorite from the first set is a spectacular High Time.  This song can be mournful or celebratory depending on the mood – Jerry in particular threads the needle between both here, with Branford weaving a spell in the background.  The set ending Deal is also a tour de force.  And lets not forget about It Takes a Lot to Laugh it Takes a Train to Cry, which jumps right off the stage – I can’t tell you why it does, but you’ll notice it immediately.  There’s just something in the air.

The second set has highlights all over the place.  To me, the best part is the Help On The Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower that gets things started.  This sequence has something for everyone – jazz up front with Help on the Way and Slipknot! and rock on the back end with Franklin’s.  The Estimated Prophet that follows is deep and very intricate.

I’m not a huge fan of the Dark Star sequence here – I know a lot of people are.  I think it’s just too much.  And Standing on the Moon would be a middling performance if it wasn’t for the Branford parts, which are sentimental and spectacular.

This show has a lot of fans.  You can hear why here: