One of my favorite things about the Grateful Dead is that their style changed tremendously over time, making each era unique. Since I’m loath to say that there are “best” shows, I’ll use this page to highlight the shows that are my current favorites from each era, adding things as we go along and removing stuff that I don’t like as much any more. (A lot of these are consensus great shows that you’ll probably find on other “best of” lists. Hopefully some are surprises). At the end, I’ll throw in an ever-growing list of other shows of note, even if they’re not great performances. Most of those will be included because of the “weirdness” or “historical” factor. If I’ve written about the show, I’ll provide a link to my review, and if I haven’t written about it, I’ll just link to the show directly. Finally, when it comes to the word “era”, like everything else with the Grateful Dead, there are very few rules, so I’ve defined them as I see them.
1965 – 1969
You could certainly sub-divide this category, but since there aren’t a ton of shows available from this time period, I’m going to lump them all together. Key attributes of this era are heavy Pigpen involvement, Tom Constanten on keyboards beginning in November 1968, lots of distortion and a very primal feel. For some, this is the only era worth hearing.
07/30/1966 – PNE Garden Auditorium, Vancouver, BC. No one knows if this is the correct date for this recording, but there’s no denying the force of the music.
10/12/1968 – Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA. The amazing opening Dark Star is the worst part of this stupendous show that just gets better and better as it goes, culminating in a second set that will blow you head off.
01/26/1969 – Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA. This show starts sloppy but becomes an all timer with Clementine>Death Don’t Have No Mercy and the entire second set with Dark Star>St. Stephen>The Eleven>Turn On Your Love Light . Peak primal Dead.
1970 – 1971
Again, this category is ripe for sub-division, but for me these shows mean the addition of acoustic music and a heavier country influence and a little less edge to the playing, although on some nights they still go off like in the “old” days. Tom Constanten left the band at the beginning of 1970 and Mickey Hart departed in February 1971, significantly changing their style. Keith Godchaux joined the band in October 1971.
02/13/1970 – Fillmore East, New York, NY. A typical contender for best show of all time, the whole show is a highlight but the Dark Star>The Other One>Turn On Your Lovelight is the best part.
11/06/1970 – Capital Theater, Port Chester, NY. A long, maniacal second set of pure rock / bluegrass / blues steamrolling Dead.
02/18/1971 – Capital Theater, Port Chester, NY. Another great show from the Capital Theater with live debuts of Bertha, Greatest Story Ever Told, Loser, Johnny B. Goode and Wharf Rat plus a really good Dark Star.
07/31/1971 – Yale Bowl, New Haven, CT. Premieres of Sugaree and Mr. Charlie plus a Playin’ in the Band>Dark Star>Bird Song combo and one of the best Sing Me Back Home’s you’ll ever hear.
08/06/1971 – Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles, CA. One of the best audience tapes ever recorded and my personal favorite Hard to Handle. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this classic show.
1972 – 1974
A massive change in direction with the band moving towards much more exploratory, jazzy pieces, especially in 1973 and 1974. Donna Jean Godchaux brought her own vocal style beginning in 1972 and Pigpen played his last show in June 1972, dramatically altering the setlist. The band would go on hiatus at the end of 1974.
04/17/1972 – Tivolis Koncertsal, Copenhagen, Denmark. This is one of my favorites from Europe ’72, the Dark Star>Sugar Magnolia>Caution is bliss.
07/18/1972 – Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ. You’re going to want to hear this raw show with a stunning, new Stella Blue, a classic, relatively short Playin’ in the Band, and a Truckin>Dark Star>Comes a Time that is like no other.
08/27/1972 – Old Renaissance Faire Grounds, Veneta, OR. The beginning of the post-Pigpen era, with all-time best versions of Bird Song, Playing in the Band AND Dark Star.
03/16/1973 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY. Dark Star>Truckin’>Morning Dew. Think about that.
06/22/1973 – PNE Coliseum, Vancouver, BC. My favorite Bird Song and one of the best Playin’ in the Band. Phil Lesh takes over during Truckin’>Jam>The Other One>Jam>Wharf Rat.
07/27/1973 – Watkins Glen Soundcheck. One the all-time classic jams, not even part of the real show from the next day.
08/01/1973 – Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ. A long-time personal favorite with an astounding Dark Star>El Paso>Eyes of the World>Morning Dew.
02/24/1974 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA. My candidate for best Dark Star ever and it’s followed by a top five Morning Dew. That’s all you need to know.
08/06/1974 – Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ. There was just something about this place. This show has a Playin’ In The Band> Scarlet Begonias>Playin’ In The Band and the Sugar Magnolia>He’s Gone>Truckin’>Drums>Spanish Jam>The Other One>Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad>Sunshine Daydream is just out of control.
09/18/1974 – Parc des Expositions, Dijon, France. Huge Phil Lesh show and probably the best performance from the Dead’s short European tour. There is a lot of very slow, jazzy playing here.
10/20/1974 – Winterland Arena, San Francisco, CA. The final show before the band’s hiatus. A little sloppy (everyone was dosed), a few rarities and Mickey Hart playing with the band for the first time in a few years make this one hell of a party.
1975 – 1976
Even though the band didn’t tour in 1975, I’ve included that year here because they did play a couple of epic shows during their year off. 1976 is a stand-alone year with much slower arrangements and a bunch of new songs. Mickey Hart came back at the last show in 1974 and remained with the group for the duration.
09/28/1975 – Lindley Meadows, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA. A short set during the hiatus, but a killer audience recording of the Blues for Allah material and some other great songs too. Honorable mention for 1975 shows goes to 06/17/1975 at Winterland, with first ever versions of Crazy Fingers, Help on the Way and Franklin’s Tower.
06/03/1976 – Paramount Theater, Portland, OR. The first official post-hiatus show is a classic – slow moving but classic none the less.
07/17/1976 – Orpheum Theater, San Francisco, CA. The Comes A Time>Jam>Drums>The Other One>Jam>Eyes Of The World>Jam>The Other One>Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad is amazing.
09/30/1976 – Mershon Auditorium, Columbus, OH. This hidden gem has a great Music Never Stopped, Crazy Fingers, unusual playing on St. Stephen and a very rare Morning Dew encore.
1977 – 1978
These two years are similar musically but not at all alike in terms of quality. 1977 is one of the most consistent years in the band’s history (whether it’s consistently epic or consistently mediocre is the subject of endless debate) but 1978 is all over the place. In general, the songs aren’t very long but they are played faster than in 1976.
05/07/1977 – Boston Garden, Boston, MA. Contender for my favorite first set of all time. Drops off a little during the second set.
05/08/1977 – Barton Hall, Ithaca, NY. Contender for my favorite second set of all time and lots of people’s favorite show.
05/17/1977 – Memorial Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, AL. A massive 25 song show with incredible versions of a lot of the best 77 material. A sleeper best of the year show, and that’s saying a lot.
07/08/1978 – Redrocks. The 2nd set of this show is one of the best from 1978, with this block of power as the main course: Estimated Prophet>The Other One>Eyes Of The World>Drums>Wharf Rat>Franklin’s Tower>Sugar Magnolia.
12/16/1978 – Nashville Municipal Auditorium, Nashville, TN. If you want a pure Jerry Garcia experience, you’re not going to do any better than this show, with solo after ripping solo for 3+ hours.
1979 – 1982
Keith and Donna left at the beginning of 1979, marking the end of an era and ushering in eleven years of Brent Mydland on keyboards and backing vocals. There are a lot of great and unique shows during these years and the addition of Brent brought a positive change in direction to a band that some (misinformed people) were calling irrelevant.
10/27/1979 and 10/28/1979 – Cape Cod Coliseum, South Yarmouth, MA. I can’t pick just one. Both feature incredible versions of Half-Step>Franklin’s, but 10/27 probably gets the nod over 10/28 for the incredible second set.
08/19/1980 – Uptown Theater, Chicago, IL. Huge songs in the first set (another Half-Step>Franklin’s combo) and a second set of nuanced beauty.
The fall 1980 acoustic / electric shows (I’ve reviewed 9/29/1980, 10/3/1980 and 10/7/1980). The Dead played a bunch of shows in San Francisco and New York that featured a first set of acoustic music and a “normal” electric concert after that. I’m not going to try and pick one – just explore them all.
11/29/1980 – Alligator Alley, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. The first set doesn’t properly prepare you for what’s to come in this massive 2nd set that starts with a one-time only Shakedown Street>Franklin’s Tower and launches into the ether from there.
03/09/1981 and 03/10/1981 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY. Both nights have their moments, including Bird Song & China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider on the 9th and Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain on the 10th.
10/16/1981 – Melk Weg, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Played on borrowed instruments in a hash bar with the first Lovelight in ages, an acoustic first set and Gloria to boot. Classic.
12/31/1981 – Oakland Arena, Oakland, CA. My favorite New Year’s Eve show and one of only several post-1974 Dark Stars until 1989.
07/31/1982 – Manor Downs, Austin, TX. One of those early 80’s second sets where everything is on fire, especially Estimated Prophet>Eyes Of The World>Drums>Uncle John’s Band>Truckin’>Morning Dew.
1983 – 1984
I used to lump these in with 1979 – 1982, but I think that they should stand alone as the “mailing it in years”. Although there are some outlining incredible shows during this period, in general things started getting faster and less “jammy” as the years progressed. However, the quality of the playing is still pretty good compared with what’s to come.
10/17/1983 – Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY. An epic first set that starts off with a 16 minute Sugaree and keeps rolling from there. Honorable mention goes to 10/21/1983 at the Worcester Centrum with a classic 80’s Scarlet>Fire.
07/13/1984 – Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA. One of the only post-74, pre-89 Dark Stars and it’s played as an encore to boot. The rest of the show is ok. too.
10/6/1984 – Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA. An all-timer with a monster Playin’ in the Band>China Doll>Space for the ages and a really nice Scarlet>Fire to boot.
1985 – 1988
I don’t think anyone would argue that things went downhill fast in 1985 and 1986 , culminating in Jerry’s diabetic coma in July 1986. After relearning to play guitar, Jerry slowly began his journey back to functionality (although he was never the same) so that by the end of 1988 the band was starting to sound good again.
06/24/1985 – River Bend Music Center, Cincinnati, OH. I think this show outclasses the popular June 30th show from Merriweather Post Pavilion, with a very solid Cryptical Envelopement>Drums>Comes A Time>The Other One>Cryptical Envelopement>Wharf Rat.
12/15/1986 – Jerry’s first show back after his diabetic coma. (And it’s good, too).
07/24/1987 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA. The Dead played a mini-tour with Bob Dylan during the summer of 1987. I think this is one of the better Dylan sets from that tour, showcasing just how good the Dead could be as a backing band.
10/18/1988 – Keifer Lakefront Arena, New Orleans, LA. I have a hard time with shows from 1988 – this one, with special guests the Bangles (seriously) and the Neville Brothers, is the best I’ve heard so far.
1989 – 1991
This could be split into 1989 – 1990(a) and 1990(b) – 1991 with the division point being Brent’s death in July 1990 and the addition of Vince Welnick on keyboards and Bruce Hornsby on piano. (Bruce missed a bunch of shows during these years – here’s a list.). Although the band was still inconsistent during this period, there are a lot of great shows to be heard.
10/09/1989 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA. Played as “Formerly The Warlocks”, this show features the return of Dark Star in a second set for the ages. This was the start of a two year renaissance for the band.
10/26/1989 – Miami Arena, Miami, FL. Considered a “creepy” show by attendees, the Dark Star here is amazing – much better than the bust-out at Hampton two weeks before.
07/06/1990 – Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, KY. Nearing the end of the line for the Brent era, the second set of this show, especially the Standing On the Moon> He’s Gone>Jam>Drums>Jam>Truckin’>Wharf Rat>Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad, is pretty special.
09/15/1990, 09/16/1990, 09/18/1990, 09/19/1990 and 09/20/1990 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY. These shows are Bruce Hornsby’s first as a member of the band (I skipped 9/14 since he doesn’t play on that one) and feature great versions of almost the entire canon. You can’t pick one so get them all.
1992 – 1995
The end of the road. Bruce Hornsby left in March 1992 and would play nine shows as a guest thereafter. Obviously, Jerry’s death in August 1995 marked the end of the band. You have to really dig to find the gems here, but there are some good moments left.
09/22/1993 – Madison Square Garden, New York, NY. David Murray joins the band on tenor sax for an evening of very exploratory jams and James Cotton sits in on harmonica for some blues. The Dead play well too.
10/5/1994 – The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA. A really nice 1994 night, with a smokin’ Deal and a Playin’ in the Band>Uncle John’s Band that’s worth hearing a few times through.
05/26/1995 – Memorial Stadium, Seattle, WA. I needed to include something from 1995 that wasn’t just me being sentimental (see below), so here is my favorite ’95 show to date. The setlist is great, the playing is from 1995.
06/19/1995 – Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ. The only Grateful Dead show I saw in person. That’s why it’s here.
The Strange, Unusual or Just Plain Historic
Here is my growing list of unusual and historic Grateful Dead shows. Some of these are on this list because they are truly bizarre, others because of interesting song selections or pairings, or maybe because of the guest stars. In any case, none of these shows are, in my opinion, all-time great performances, but they document the weirdness, flexibility and fluidity that made the Grateful Dead the Grateful Dead.
08/03/1969 – Family Dog at the Great Highway, San Francisco, CA. Free jazz explosion with added violin and saxophone. One of the most “out there” nights you’re going to hear from the Dead.
08/16/1969 – Woodstock. The Dead blew it at Woodstock. Here’s what happened.
09/30/1969 – Cafe au Go Go, New York, NY. The first pairing of China Cat Sunflower with I Know You Rider. Not a good recording.
03/08/1970 – Travelodge Theatre in the Round, Phoenix, AZ. Vince Welnick’s first Dead show (as an audience member) was this ridiculous affair featuring an intoxicated guest who the Dead just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) throw off stage.
08/05/1970 – Golden Hall Community Concourse, San Diego, CA. A purely acoustic show with a bunch of rarely played songs.
09/20/1970 – Fillmore East, New York, NY. An incredible acoustic set with Davids Grisman and Nelson and the last acoustic Truckin’. The rest of the show is “only” a B.
04/27/1971 – Fillmore East, New York, NY. The Dead are joined by . . . the Beach Boys! This would be the first and only performances of Riot In Cell Block #9, Help Me Rhonda and Okie From Muskogee.
08/4/1971 – Terminal Island Correctional Facility, San Pedro, CA. The Dead play the jail where the most famous LSD chemist of the 60’s (who happened to be their benefactor / soundman) was locked up.
05/13/1972 – Lille Fairgrounds, Lille, France. The Grateful Dead play a (very good) free show after radical students sabotaged their equipment truck. Aaah, Europe.
9/17/1973 – Onondaga County War Memorial, Syracuse, NY. Did you know that the Dead brought a horn section on the road with them for 8 shows in 1973? Now you do.
09/11/1974 – Alexandra Palace, London, England. In mid-1974, Phil Lesh and Ned Lagin used to perform a feedback-laced piece of electronic music called Seastones during the set break. It was a challenging listen. This particular Seastones is actually good, with Jerry and Billy sitting in.
10/14/1977 – Hofheinz Pavilion, Houston, TX. The Dead start Playin’ in the Band during the second set, play a bunch of other stuff, end the show, play Brokedown Palace and then complete Playin’ in the Band as the second encore, the only time Playin’ in the Band was ever played as an encore. Good stuff.
09/14/1978 – Giza Sound and Light Theater, Cairo, Egypt. The Dead blew it in Egypt. Here’s what happened.
04/21/1986 – Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA. This is the famous Brent Mydland meltdown show. Not a high point.
05/27/1987 – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA. The Dead play an AIDS benefit with Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia serving in John Fogerty’s back up band before the Dead play with E- Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons. This is the link to the Dead’s show, but you should search for the video with Fogerty.
09/23/1987 – The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA. You want to hear the Dead play LaBamba, right? This is your last chance to hear it. It’s also the last Tons of Steel ever.
06/25/1988 – Buckeye Lake Music Center, Hebron, OH. The first time Bruce Hornsby would play with the Dead (as a guest, for now).
09/03/1988 – Capital Center, Landover, MD. The last Ripple ever played.
10/08/1989 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA. The other Warlocks show with the first Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower since 1985.
07/23/1990 – World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, IL. Brent Mydland’s last show with the Grateful Dead before his death three days later. His final lyric – “I’ve gotta go but my friends can stick around”
09/07/1990 – Richfield Coliseum, Richfield, OH. Vince Welnick’s first show with the Grateful Dead. I defend Vince from the haters here.
12/9/1993 – Los Angeles Sports Arena, Los Angeles, CA. Ornette Coleman sits in.
07/09/1995 – Soldiers Field, Chicago IL. The last show. Not a good one, but included for sentimental reasons. Check out So Many Roads and wonder at Jerry’s last song being Black Muddy River and the band’s final tune being Box of Rain.