Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Best Dead Tours?

By Blair Jackson

Finding a consensus on almost anything in the Grateful Dead world is a daunting proposition. There are as many opinions about the “best” shows or tours as there are Dead Heads. Each of us has his or her own prejudices about songs, tours and eras based on a million different factors, from personal experiences at shows to associations we have with specific songs and myriad other circumstances that affect what we like and dislike.

What got me thinking about this was writing essays over the past year about a couple of tours that nearly everyone seems to hold in high regard: Europe ’72 and the spring ’77 East, Midwest and South jaunt. The June ’74 Wall of Sound tour has many true believers, as does the short Midwest tour in February ’73. (I’m with ya on both!) Once you get beyond the ’70s, however, there are a certain number of Heads who will automatically tune out any discussion of best tours—they believe that nothing post-Keith and Donna was up to the level of what came before. And jeez, better not even bring up the post-Brent era!

Personally, I loved every band lineup on some level, and I can find shows and tours I like in every year. OK, it gets a little tougher by ’93, and in ’94 and ’95 we’re talking about the best of a not-that-great lot. By that I mean, I can say that I believe the fall ’94 East Coast tour was the best of the year, but mostly in comparison to the wretchedness of so many shows earlier in the year. (In ’94 I turned down an offer to write a book called 30 Years Dead because I was so depressed after seeing two Madison Square Garden shows on that tour I was just lauding!) But I was never one of those guys worrying that the “Scarlet-Fire” I was seeing in 1991 wasn’t as good as ones I had on tape from ’77. Or the ’92 version of “Here Comes Sunshine” was inherently lame because it wasn’t jammed out the way it had been in ’73. I rarely met a “Scarlet-Fire” that didn’t thrill me to the core, and as for “Here Comes Sunshine”—I was happy any time I could hear that, in any form. (I can say the same thing about both in this post-Dead era.) During my time putting out The Golden Road magazine (1984-1993), I was attacked by some for liking too much and by others for occasionally being too critical. What can I say? I loved this band every step of my own journey with them (’69-’95) and, experientially speaking, never particularly favored one era over another.

So, getting back to the alleged subject at hand—best Dead tours—I will happily rattle off a few of my favorites from different eras. I will start in 1971, when Dead tours really start looking like organized excursions of a region more than they had previously, and we also have a solid body of tape evidence to evaluate.

Though my first serious burst of going to clusters of shows was in the winter-spring of ’71 — two Capitol Theatre (Port Chester), two Fillmore East, two Manhattan Center — it’s the fall ’71 tour — Keith’s first outing—that makes this list. (I saw the two Chicago shows.) You can truly hear the excitement and enthusiasm as the group absorbs this new instrumental voice, and the many songs that were introduced earlier in the year (and on the fall tour itself) begin to take on an unexpected richness that will become even more obvious on the Europe ’72 tour.

I’ll skip over ’73-’77 (pick a tour, almost any tour, and it’s got something to recommend it—yes, even ’76, which some Heads just don’t like), and mention the April ’78 tour of the South and Midwest. The playing is a little more ragged than the best of ’77, and you can feel Keith starting to drift away at times, but there are still many high points in most shows.

Stanley Mouse created
this poster for the
underrated Europe 1981

In 1980, all the attention goes to the three-set September-October shows at the Warfield in San Francisco, Saenger Performing Arts Center in New Orleans and Radio City in New York, but for my money some of the best shows of that year are the August-early September ’80 Midwest and East Coast shows. The Uptown (Chicago) run is my favorite and the Lewiston, Maine, concert is chock full o’ good stuff. A lot of the Warfield/Radio City material sounds pretty tame and tentative by comparison.

The September-October ’81 Europe tour doesn’t get the props it should in part because the tapes aren’t that great—the Rainbow (London) series sounds dry and oddly balanced and Bob’s guitar barely registers on many of the other shows (c’mon, Healy!). But the playing is frequently quite electrifying, and of course there are the three Melk Weg oddities from Amsterdam in the middle.

Maybe because I traveled to the late August, early September ’83 shows in Eugene, Boise and Santa Fe, I’ve always been partial to that Western tour, Portland through Manor Downs (Austin).

The Summer ’83 Western tour was a hot one.

Summer ’85, beginning with the Berkeley Greek 20th anniversary concerts in mid-June through Pittsburgh in early July, boasts several outstanding shows, as does the late August to mid-September tour that hit Red Rocks, Kaiser in Oakland and Chula Vista. All in all, ’85 is one of my favorite years.

So is 1988, and there I have to go with the mid-June to early July shows, incorporating fine outings at Alpine Valley, Saratoga and ending at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine. (Surely 7/2 is release-worthy, no?)

Moving up a couple of years, the March/early April 1990 tour—particularly the stretch including Copps Coliseum in Ontario, Knickerbocker Arena in Albany (some of which became Dozin’ at the Knick) and Nassau Coliseum (Branford!)—is mostly killer (and was all multitracked. I’d buy a Nassau box!). And though the Europe ’90 tour was not universally great, there’s lots of good stuff in there.

I could see a box set featuring the best of the September 1991 Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden shows (that’s right, a compilation!), but the real gold in ’91 — with the Bruce Hornsby-Jerry dynamic in full bloom—is the June ’91 tour, which includes several favorites, including both Deer Creek concerts, the two Giants Stadium shows, Soldier Field (tops on my list) and Sandstone in Kansas. I luv me my ’91 Dead!

So, those are a few of my choices. What tours do you want to turn us onto?


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Mr.Dc's picture
Joined: Apr 7 2014

If I had a time machine, id be at the winter/spring 1969 shows. Everything after that is a plateau of greatness with some drops and peaks until about 91. Id love to see the 1970 spring/fall acoustic shows, and the crazy long sets and jams from 73. Here Comes Sunshine should have been played more imo, I love that song.

A Flip's picture
Joined: Feb 10 2014
In terms of TOURS....

For tours, It's
1. Fall '89
2. Fall '73
3. Spring '90
4. Summer '90
5. Fall '94
6. Europe '72
7. Spring '73
8. Summer '89
9. Fall '91
10.Summer '94 (the best time I ever had...)

A Flip's picture
Joined: Feb 10 2014
Best Dead years

1.'89-'91. Hyper-trippy jams, Jerry's best tone and solos, can't miss!
2.'72-'74. On fire! 1973 really stands as the ultimate dead year.
3.'68-'70. Listening to the Dead grow exponentially is a great hobby of mine!
4.'76-'77 (plus the few '75ers) Intro'ed and refined many classics in these great years!
5. EVERYTHING ELSE! There is great stuff to be mined in every dead year!

A Flip's picture
Joined: Feb 10 2014
Best Dead years


WestBoundRambler's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2012
Dead eras from my point of view

Nice article. I've always had a hard time listening to any full shows from late summer 72- spring 1979. Donna just ruins 90% of the live material she appears on. You take her out of the picture and I'd have a lot more dead to listen to. Here's how I see the eras of the dead best to worst.

1. 1970-end of spring 1972 (I understand Donna started in March with them, but I can't pick out her voice on the europe 72 discs), that was their absolute peak as far as I'm concerned. Skullfuck, Europe 72, Workingmans, American beauty. That's the stuff I show to people who say they're "not into" the dead and it generally changes their attitude.

2.1979-1982, The early Mydland years were fantastic, the band seemed to have a new energy and things were "new" again. Reckoning and Dead set are absolutely incredible (especially reckoning). And through 82 they brought new "juice" to classics such as brown eyed women.

3.1966-1969, They hadn't achieved the great level of song writing they soon would but their musicianship (especially in 1969) was incredible, and the psychedelic dead era was real fun and an important part of their growth (PLAY ST STEPHEN! haha)

4. 1975 Blues for allah, One from the vault. That is all.

5.1987-1990, I know the tours from a fans point of view turned into a shit show when they attainted their mega stardom, but after years of financial struggle maybe not having to worry about dough made them relax a bit more? I dunno I just know they were generally tight and on point during a lot of these years, especially the 89 tour.

6. 1990-94, sorry.... There was some slop here and well Vince is vince, but Jerry had some hauntingly beautiful solos and So Many Roads is one of my favorite songs, also collabs with hornsby and marsalis heated things up.

7. 73-74 & 76-77, there was some killer stuff from these years, you take out Donna and this era gets moved to second place.... to bad she doesn't know what the words "on key" and "Appropriate" mean....

8. 83-86 The years leading up to and the year of the coma...

9. 1978 & 1995. fuck.

Joined: Jul 1 2009
Cumberland County 85

Cumberland County Arena on Portland Maine. Great town and one of the best a places to see a show. Day Tripperwas awesome. the crowd was awesome. Synchronous clapping through drums was transcendent!!!

Joined: Jul 1 2009
Tours - the odd years

So, so many tours - cant list, discuss review them all. You really cant compare them to each other, all so unique. That being said..1983, 1985, 1987 all great, great years. 1987 felt like it was channeling 1977. Jerry out of the coma with a new life. The first East Coast Post-coma shows being in Hampton, VA. Three unbelievable shows. I say - now please, remain calm- that the Scarlet-Fire from Hampton 87 was better than Cornell 77! Not only that, but it was A LOT better. Cornell was quiet, groovy, and smooth whereas Hampton blew the roof off. So, they are different, at least. Give it a good listen, the whole show, through and through, uninterrupted, at high volume with a good sound system. You'll agree.

Joined: Jul 1 2009
85 Heshey

Yeah, little bit of rain at Heshey. They ended 1st set and Bobby said "we're going to take a short break but we'll be right back to continue our..uhhh...'singing in the rain', then Brent and Drummers chimed in with a little piano riff and drums.

Joined: Jul 1 2009

1985 was great year all around. The East Coast summer tour was fantastic. SPAC and Hershey were great. Nice comfortable light rain at Hershey. Merriwhether Post was another great venue, loved all songs both shows and, you are correct, that Shakedown is absolutely one of the best!!! Tried to demonstrate to a non-believer how great the Dead are and to not underestimate them by playing them that Shakedown. Unfortunately the beginning had a rough start but man I tell ya that was a smoker!!

Joined: Dec 16 2011
Dead Tours

Two of my favorite Dead tours were very short, but sweet. The February 77 shows at the Swing auditorium and the next night in Santa Barbara, and the 79 Golden Hall shows followed by a show at Pauley Pavillion. The Swing Auditorium show is still my favorite show of all time. It is the show that made me a Dead Head. I had seen 3 or 4 shops in 76, but the Swing did it. Unfortunately I did not go to the next night in Santa Barbara, and have not heard a SBD from that night. The audience tape is fantastic! The Swing had the first Terrapin and Estimated and ended the firstset with a monster Playin->Wheel->Playin. We thought the show was over. But no, a searing second set with one of Phil Leshs best Bass solos ever!
The 79 shows were just damn fun. Brent was new to the band and although the set lists may seem good but not overwhelming to the average onlooker, the playing was stellar. Phil Leshs playing on Jack Straw, the opener to the Sunday Pauley show was mind blowing and he was in fact doing things to my body that weekend that were unnatural. OK I am a huge Phil fan. The rest of the band was great too!
That's my 2 cents.


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