Today in Grateful Dead History: August 21, 1968 – Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesHow do you properly evaluate a Grateful Dead show from 1968 when they often played the same bunch of songs (give or take a few) every night at a consistently amazing level?  Well, I guess you can tell a bad 1968 show if you hear one, but, at least so far as it comes to this site, I’ve never heard a bad one.  I’ve never even heard a mediocre show from 1968.  They’re either otherworldly or really, really good.  This one is otherworldly.

The whole show is one big highlight reel – there aren’t any clunky moments at all.  Certain instruments stand out today – Phil, Jerry and the drummers in particular – especially the drummers, who are dialed into some other realm from the moment the recording kicks off, midway through Cryptical Envelopment.  The drumming in the brilliant Alligator is also ferocious, and what to say about where Jerry goes during that song?  You’ve got to figure it out for yourselves because my description ain’t going to work.  Phil, meanwhile, is everywhere, doing everything.

And this is only the first part of the show.  The second set has a gooey Dark Star (we had to listen to Dark Star on a day with a total American eclipse) and a St. Stephen>The Eleven that will melt your face, especially The Eleven.  Just when you think things can’t get any more intense, Jerry lowers the boom with a skull-burning Death Don’t Have No Mercy, and then it’s time for Pigpen.  And oh boy, do the boys let it rip behind Pigpen tonight, with a huge Lovelight (truncated on the tape, unfortunately) and an In The Midnight Hour encore that really brings Bob Weir’s guitar front and center for a time, which is unusual in 1968 recordings.

This is the real deal – play it loud:


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: August 17, 1980 – Kansas City Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, MO

Dancing Skeletons

For those of you out there who still doubt the potential power of audience recordings, please take note of today’s show from the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium in 1980.  There are multiple patches in the soundboard, and every time we hear one, I want to keep listening to it instead of moving back into the soundboard.  These audience clips are clear, well-blended and capture the energy in the room.  The soundboard is muddy and doesn’t pack close to the same punch.  So why not link to the audience recording on the Archive?  Because that recording is not the one used for the patches on this soundboard – the AUD on the Archive is farther away and sounds like noise reduction was layered onto it.  Sorry to start off this review with a paragraph-long discussion of tape quality, but I think that I would have liked this show more if I was listening to the right recording.

That being said, I still enjoyed this one, especially The Wheel>Truckin’>Wharf Rat that comes out of Space in the second set.  The Dead had not played The Wheel since February 1979, so it’s a welcome return for this beautiful song, and it launches right into a furious Truckin’.  This Truckin’ doesn’t plumb the outer limits, but it succeeds in blowing the roof off the joint and sounds like a very early version of the tune combined with one from the 80’s.  The energy continues into a spirited Wharf Rat, too.

Aside from this three-song combination, the second set also holds a pretty good Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain.  There is nothing particularly unique about this version, but it has a lot of energy and will keep you entertained, at a minimum.

The first set is fine, but it’s marred (on the soundboard recording) by Jerry’s guitar levels, which are unusually low, killing Jack Straw and hurting Sugaree as well.  Friend of the Devil is a good version and the set-ending Lost Sailor>St. of Circumstance is nice too.

Listen to the (patched) soundboard here:

To get a better version of those first few songs, you can hear the audience recording here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 16, 1987 – Town Park, Telluride, CO

terrapinYou don’t pick a 1987 show expecting to hear thirty-minute, gooey jamming from the Grateful Dead.  This first post-coma year was spent gelling as a band after almost losing Jerry Garcia, and the effort shows, with typically clear, solid playing from the entire band, but not a lot of risk taking.  Today’s show, like the previous show here in Telluride, is one of those 1987 performances that brightens a gloomy day but doesn’t really go anywhere particularly special.

The entire first set, other than the opening Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo (and the following Little Red Rooster, which, at nine minutes in length, is five minutes too long), is made up of short, sweet numbers like Iko Iko, West L.A. Fadeaway and Big Railroad Blues.  No harm, no foul.

The second set begins with When Push Comes to Shove, a very unusual opener that only happened on two other occasions.  I like this song, but neither the fans nor the band seemed to agree with me, as it dropped out of the rotation by the end of the decade.  Samson and Delilah is a basic version, but I would like you to take  a minute to listen to the He’s Gone that comes after it.  Notice, if you will, how solid Brent is on this song, really providing all of the color and interesting fills throughout the performance, not to mention singing soulfully on the harmonies.  The late 80’s really saw Brent bring things to a different level, and this song really shows off his contributions to the band.

I don’t normally recommend Drums to anyone other than the hard core fans, but this one is a spirited performance, especially the climax, with Mickey railing on the percussion.  The rest of the show stays true to form – well played, nothing really interesting going on.  There is a two song Jerry encore of Touch of Grey followed by Brokedown Palace, which provided something for Touchheads and old-timers alike.

The soundboard isn’t tracked correctly, but it sounds nice: 

Today in Grateful Dead History: August 15, 1971 – Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley, CA

stealiePhil Lesh is very high in the mix of today’s show at the Berkeley Community Theater, so strap in and get ready to enjoy a short course in some deep, dense, otherworldly bass.  (If you’re bothered by things like everyone else in the band being drowned out by Phil or Bob Weir’s guitar fading in and out of the recording or Pigpen’s organ being basically non-existent, then you’re going to want to avoid this one like the plague).

Tonight’s show features the Grateful Dead at an interesting moment in their history, with no Mickey Hart and no keyboardist other than Pigpen, so we’ve got a five-man fighting force that still manages to produce one hell of a racket.  There’s not a lot of nuance during the first set.  Instead, the Dead are ripping off rockers one after another, starting with Big Railroad Blues and including the likes of Big Boss Man, Casey Jones and Mr. Charlie.  China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider is really good, but it also has an unfortunate splice in the middle.

The second set roams farther afield, but none of the jamming goes on for an exceptionally long time.  The band gets ripping right away with Truckin’ before The Other One launches us into orbit.  This is a thrilling The Other One, and its brevity is a positive, because I don’t think the Dead could have kept things at this level for longer than the 11 minutes they play tonight.  Me and My Uncle interrupts the proceedings, and once that’s done, we’re back for an additional six minutes of The Other One related explorations before Wharf Rat.  This song, especially the ending, surprised me – the final solo is shockingly light even though the tone running through the piece is harsh.  This is a delicate dance that the Dead perform perfectly tonight.  After Wharf Rat, we’re putting Pigpen front and center for a standard, solid Turn on Your Lovelight to end the main portion of the show.

There’s an interesting sub-plot to this show regarding Ned Lagin’s participation on the organ.  According to this post on Lost Live Dead (the comment section is where the really good discussion goes down), Ned played with the boys during the Berkeley shows on August 14th and 15th.  Unfortunately, his playing is undetectable on any of the soundboard recordings and no audience tape exists.  So we have a phantom playing with the band, which may have been exactly what Ned wanted anyway.  Taking the concept of absence one step further, it’s interesting to think about the effect that Ned’s un-recorded playing might have had on the Dead’s jamming during The Other One, especially in their collective decision to “open up” the space between the notes a little post Me and My Uncle to let Ned in.  Of course, this is all speculative, but it’s an interesting thought exercise to work through as you’re listening.

This is a short but sweet ride with the 1971 Grateful Dead.  Listen to the soundboard here:

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: