Today in Grateful Dead History: April 6, 1984 – Aladdin Theater, Las Vegas, NV

terrapinThe Grateful Dead in Las Vegas.  Sounds like a punchline, right?

Here’s a couple of interesting tidbits about the Dead in Sin City.

Their first show, way back in 1969, was at the Ice Palace.  The Ice Palace.  In Vegas.  In 1969.

The band didn’t play Vegas again until 1981.

Upon their return, the Dead played the Aladdin Theater in 81, 83 and 84.  This was a theater in a casino.  In Vegas.  In the 80’s.

The Dead didn’t play Vegas again until 1991.

When the Dead came back to the desert, they and their fans were safely contained at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl.  They played multiple-show runs there until the very end.

Why is this history important?  Well, first, the thought of the Dead and their traveling circus being allowed anywhere near a casino is just an incredible image.  But, hey, things were different back then.  (The 1969 Ice Palace show takes this to a whole other level). Second, at tonight’s show in particular, it seems as if the band may have fully embraced the Las Vegas experience, as the playing, especially in the second set, has a slightly “frenetic” quality to it.

I’m sure that it was just the natural excitement from being in Vegas (and not any of the various substances so capably documented by the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in his ode to this city) that caused the Dead to fire through one of the fastest, sloppiest versions of Eyes of The World that you’ll ever hear.  And it must have been the tinkling of all those slot machines and not chemically-induced onstage madness that made Jerry and Bobby argue, via their competing guitar riffs, between at least three songs at the end of Eyes of the World before settling, barely, on Truckin’, which also spins out at a pace so fast that Bob can’t even get the words out, let alone utter them in the correct order.  Ditto The Music Never Stopped, which was clearly supposed to end the first set, but was so botched, lyrically, that Jerry took the reigns and forced everyone into a version of Might as Well that no one other than him seemed excited to play.  Yeah, none of this had anything to do with stimulants, no sir.

This is not a criticism.  Tonight’s show is fun, and it’s captured on an ideal audience recording that is much better than the soundboard.  There are some genuine great moments here, like the (very fast paced) China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider.  The jamming after the similarly loaded Saint of Circumstance is the best of the night, even though it’s balancing on the razor’s edge of sloppy.  But that’s the Grateful Dead in 1984.  During 1984, they could typically make this kind of act work.  By 1985, that became much more difficult.  So rejoice in the quality of this recording and in the free spirited yet not terrible playing you’re hearing, captured live in the middle of the beating heart of one of the most decadent and depraved places in America at the height of the Reagan Era in the year George Orwell made infamous.  Buy the ticket and take the ride.

Listen here:


Today in Grateful Dead History: April 5, 1969 – Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA

skeleton&rosesThis show, captured at the Avalon Ballroom at a time when the Grateful Dead were running off epic performances like their lives depended on it, features something for everyone – a few acoustic numbers, some blistering rock, Pigpen at the height of his powers and the occasional deep space feedback.

But on a night filled with fireworks of all kinds, my favorite moment is the bifurcation of St. Stephen and The Eleven, which were typically played together during this era.  But tonight, St. Stephen flows seamlessly into Turn on Your Lovelight, leaving the listener slightly confused, like when Scarlet Begonias doesn’t turn into Fire on the Mountain.  Please understand, substituting a 17-minute, well-played Lovelight for The Eleven is not a downgrade – it’s just unexpected.  But the true surprise comes about forty minutes of music later, when The Eleven does appear, after The Other One / Cryptical Envelopment, something that almost never happened.  And what an appearance this is, in the midst of a swirling, psychotic version of The Other One / Cryptical (tonight its somewhat difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins, although they are separately tracked on the recording).  So you’re already engaged and drawn in and then, out of the blue, as it were, The Eleven knocks you right on your ass for another 8 minutes of fury.  This is the kind of surprising, fluid playing that makes 1969 such a great year in Grateful Dead history.

But wait, there’s more.  Would you like a nice 1969 Dark Star with some syncopated back and forth playing in the the middle?  We’ve got that tonight.  How about a quiet Mountains of the Moon with Jerry on acoustic guitar that transitions into said Dark Star?  Or, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, a nine and a half minute Doin’ That Rag that may be one of the better ones I’ve ever heard?  That’s here too.  There’s also one of only twelve versions of It’s a Sin and an eight minute blast of Feedback to drive your blues (and your hearing) away.  You’re going to want to avoid Hard to Handle for the time being – the band is still working the kinks out.  Come back in 1971 for the really amazing versions of that tune.

Long story short, this 1969 show deviates from the norm in a lot of good ways.  I promise you’ll find something to enjoy here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: April 4, 1988 – Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, CT

terrapinI was more than a little worried when all of the comments for this show talked about how Jerry’s voice was shot – this is 1988, after all, and the Dead aren’t really playing in peak form to begin with.  But, like many shows where Jerry loses his voice (and yes, there are quite a few of these), he makes up for it with some really good playing, and the rest of the band seems to pick up the slack, energy-wise, at least until the final quarter.  The result is a pretty good 1988 Grateful Dead show in the midlands of Connecticut.

The night starts out with a typical version of Alabama Getaway, but then we’re surprised with a second place Johnny B. Goode.  This is the first time that the Dead played this song during a first set since 1976.  Out of the 19 times Johnny B. Goode was ever played in the first set, the Dead played it as a set closer 13 times, so this is truly a bizarre tune at this juncture of a show.  But the crowd seems to love it and Bob Weir is actively engaged on the vocals.  Brent follows this with a smokin’ hot version of Never Trust a Woman, so by the time we get back to Jerry, singing a slightly diminished They Love Each Other, the building is rocking.  The rest of the first set keeps up the pace, with a fast and furious Cassidy coming right before the closing Don’t Ease Me In.

The boys look to keep the pace up, opening the second set with a sloppy Touch of Grey into a good Looks Like Rain, complete with thunderous sound effects that I can’t place with the drummers or the sound board.  Either way, it’s an interesting noise.  A short Truckin’ evolves into a lengthy, casual He’s Gone before Drums and Space.  You’d think that at 13 minutes long, something would happen during He’s Gone, but somehow, we get to the end without any major memorable moments.  The band really throws a lot into The Other One after Space, but after that the energy seems to ebb, even if Brent is trying hard (like always) on Dear Mr. Fantasy>Hey Jude.  Jerry’s voice goes out completely on the U.S. Blues encore.

Despite my documented dislike of 1988, I’m going to rate this show as a 7 for 1988, despite the lack of jamming.  The first set is fun and the second, while risk free, is still a good one to listen to.  I think this show gets at least one extra point for the quality of the audience recording, which is so good, I thought it was a soundboard at points.

Check it out here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: April 3, 1990 – The Omni, Atlanta, GA

dancing-bearMost bashers of the 1990s version of the Grateful Dead will probably concede that their complaints don’t apply to the first half of 1990, when Brent Mydland was still alive and Jerry hadn’t fallen off the wagon.  These spring shows, in particular, are almost uniformly strong and you could sense that the band was striving to create something dynamic again and mostly achieving it.

Tonight’s show at the Omni in Atlanta, which is the last of the spring tour, is nicely done, and even if there aren’t tons of spaced-out jams, what the band is attempting here is quite solid and often interesting.  There are also a couple of surprises.  For instance, after opening the second set with Estimated Prophet, the band switches to Scarlet Begonias (Estimated Prophet frequently moved into Eyes of the World).  Fine, that’s not too weird.  But to follow Scarlet Begonias with Crazy Fingers instead of Fire on the Mountain is downright unusual, and to have Crazy Fingers transition very nicely into a sparkling Playin’ in the Band is just icing on the cake.  And all of this is strong, musically.  Estimated has a lot of cool runs hidden within a fairly mellow rendition and Scarlet Begonias rips.  As I said before, the switch from Crazy Fingers to Playin’ in the Band is awesome, and the band doesn’t slack during Playin’, either.  Most of the jamming is driven by Brent, who really takes ownership of things during the second half of the song.

The rest of the show isn’t as strange, but there are lots of good moments.  The first-set opening run of Shakedown Street>Hell in a Bucket>Sugaree is great (especially the Sugaree).  Likewise, the post-Space Going Down the Road Feeling Bad is up-beat and enjoyable and the encore And We Bid You Goodnight is a mellow, gorgeous tour-ender.

Don’t sleep on spring 1990 shows – they’ll surprise you, time and again.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: April 2, 1993 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York

dancing-bearI missed last week and will surely miss more – sorry about that.

We’re back today with a show from 1993, a year that I don’t seem to find myself thinking about very often – it’s kind of the black hole of the 90s where things aren’t usually that great but they also aren’t remarkably bad.

Today’s show is a classic of the genre – it starts with a pretty fair version of Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower and the second set is highlighted by an entertaining Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain.  But before and after those pairings, you’ve got a lot of pedestrian stuff like a half-hearted Corrina (which can be a good song under the right conditions) and a shambling Picasso Moon that ends the first set.  Using this song as a set closer seemed pretty strange to me, and I thought that it could be a fairly unusual setlist position, but a glance through DeadBase only confirms what most of you daily readers already know – I often don’t have a clue.  It seems that the Dead frequently closed the first set with this song.  I still think it’s a crummy choice.

I’ve spoken about the mid-90’s drudgery before, so I’ll repeat myself quickly here.  Until the very end in 1995, when Jerry was almost completely gone, most of the problems with these shows weren’t related to the band’s execution of the songs, per se.  It’s more a lack of enthusiasm and ideas.  Take a listen to The Last Time from today’s show and you’ll understand.  You’ve got Bob Weir howling away while the rest of the band sits back like a casino band rehearsing for that night’s lounge show, plodding along. Ditto the Wharf Rat that follows.  Most of the show is like this.

So you’ve got nothing too shabby here, and a couple of worthwhile songs.  The rest is take it or leave it.


Today in Grateful Dead History: March 23, 1975 – Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, CA

stealieOooooooooh boy do we have a doozy today.  The Grateful Dead’s 40 minute contribution to the massive SF SNACK benefit concert is one of the jazziest, purely jammed-out pieces of continuous music the Dead ever performed in concert.  And joining the boys (and it was just the boys – there’s no Donna here, because there’s no lyrics until the encore) on stage are two additional keyboardists – frequent Jerry Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders and Seastones creator and 1974 tour buddy Ned Lagin.  This show is the Grateful Dead at the pinnacle of whatever attempt at jazz fusion they were working on in the mid-70’s – everything funky from 1974 and all of the complexity of 1976 mix together here in a swirling pot of pure bliss.

It’s really hard to even summarize what exactly is going on tonight: the band opens with a fairly pure rendering of Blues for Allah, the first time the band played this piece that wouldn’t actually be released until September, but this quickly stretches out into an almost ten-minute jam centered around the vaguely Arabic-sounding theme.  Soon they transition into Stronger Than Dirt /Milking The Turkey (another premiere).  Although snippets of this jam had shown up in 1974, this was another piece that would not be widely released until it appeared in truncated form on the Blues for Allah album.  Here, the Dead launch a very tightly wound seven minute exploration before Drums intervenes for a few moments.  When the full band resumes the song, everything is much freer – Saunders’ playing, in particular, drives this part of the jam to ridiculous heights.  After nine minutes of almost-but-not-quite Miles Davis level work, the final section of Blues for Allah emerges, with the band “singing” together in harmony.  The crowd goes bonkers.  And then the encore: don’t sleep on this version of Johnny B. Goode – the added keyboard attack boosts this version far above the Dead’s standard treatment.

Keep in mind when you are listening to this that: a) the audience had never heard any of this music (other than Johnny B. Goode) before and b) the band had only been working on this for, at the most, a few months.  Also, not everyone was convinced that the Grateful Dead were going to return as a touring apparatus – they were, after all, on hiatus, and this was their first appearance together since the “final” show at Winterland on October 20, 1974.  So this performance was a “big deal”, and it was a massive change in direction for a band that was still firing off loose versions of classic Dead songs like China Cat Sunflower and The Other One back in the fall.  And it was broadcast on the radio.  So if you were a Grateful Dead fan in 1975, used to the “good ol’ Grateful Dead” and suddenly this monster jazz blast hit you right between the temples, I could imagine that it would have caused a little consternation in some quarters.  But judging by the reaction of the crowd, at least as an in-person experience, tonight was an unqualified success.

So now we’re three-quarters of the way through the four shows of 1975 – as I’ve said before, they are all amazing performances.  When it comes to this one in particular, it’s a great night to keep in your back pocket, when you’re looking for a short (in Dead land, 40 minutes is short) burst of amazing Grateful Dead music to get you through the day.

Listen here:

Today in Grateful Dead History: March 22, 1995 – Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte, NC

dancing-bearI’ve got five minutes to post this, so I’m going to work fast.

This is a pretty good 1995 Grateful Dead show.

Lazy River Road allows us to hear Vince playing nicely and Jerry singing soulfully.

When I Paint My Masterpiece is one of those late-era Dead Dylan covers that almost always works well.  Credit to Bob Weir on this version.

The Music Never Stopped doesn’t hit all the notes but the feeling is there and the band’s heart is in it.

The lead in to Victim or the Crime, which opens the second half, is unusual – the song doesn’t start for at least a minute, with some weird drumming patterns and noodling first.

Foolish Heart>Saint Of Circumstance>He’s Gone looks strange on paper but it works here.  This is the best part of the show.

The rest is very short.  Like this review.

If you want something ok from 1995, this will certainly meet your needs.  And the audience recording is pretty nice, too.

Listen here: