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.
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).
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?