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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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.

Joined: Jun 16 2009

Try 06/30/85 for one of the hottest Shakedown Street performances you will ever hear. 8/19/80 has a great China>Rider.

Thanks for pointing me to some new 80s shows. I was always a big fan of '80-'85, much to the chagrin of many 70s heads.

Joined: Mar 18 2010
Spinning the wheel...

I'm (almost) always wrong when I try to guess the releases. I will predict however the first Dave's Picks to be 5/25/77, so there. That said, I think the next box set, if we're lucky enough to get one, will be the Spring of 90. I don't imagine the next box will be from the 70's- After this year's Europe 72, 4 of the 5 Box Sets are before 1980 (and rightfully so). And the Spring of 90 has some similarities to Europe 72. True there are 6 fewer shows on the 90 tour- 16 compared to 22. But only one show is released in it's entirety, 3/15/90. Dozin At The Knick is a compilation release, much like Steppin' Out is. Most importantly, the music on this tour is consistently magnificent, and is entirely recorded on multi-track. All of which adds up to a Box Set of exceptional magnitude (Thanks to DL for this descriptive phrase). Though I've been often wrong before...

Joined: Jun 4 2007
box set 90s

The box set i would love to see the most is the 10-27-91- 10-31-91 shows or a set from 2-24-95-2-26-95 please!

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Lotsa good suggestions, Alex...

... A bunch of those I'm not familiar with. Duly noted!

Joined: Nov 2 2010
thinking that...

...i'd have to throw the spring of 1970 "an evening with the grateful dead" tour on this list too. the acoustic sets are incredible, and the electric sets are raw, gritty, nasty old school grateful dead music. see 5/2/70, dick's picks 8 (i think) harpur college, or 5/15/70 from the fillmore east as well for examples of how good the music could get during these shows. add a star to this tour if you're a fan of the new riders too.

blair, you said to pick any tour from the '72-'77 period, so i will. '72 is my favorite year, so i'll start there. i have to go with the fall of '72. every show, every night, every note. it's the tour where the band solidified it's post pigpen sound, and the sound of what the band would be for the next few years. three shows from the east coast september run alone were released as dick's picks, and the fun just continued on through october and november, all the way through the killer new year's eve show. see 9/17, 9/21, 9/23, 9/24, 9/26, 9/27, 9/28, 10/18, 10/19, and 12/31/72.

got to love the shows from the fall of '73 when donna was off tour being pregnant and giving birth, and i'm not a donna hater. the music is just so fluid, adventurous, and exploratory. 11/14, 11/17, 11/20, 11/21, 11/30, 12/1, 12/2, 12/6, 12/18, 12/19.

someone mentioned the fall of '77 before in a blog response, and i have to agree with them. although the spring of '77 is chock full of magic, the fall tour offers a return of some songs that the spring missed out on...let it grow being my favorite, but dupree's diamond blues, casey jones, it must have been the roses, and black peter are all given the smoking '77 dead treatment. 10/2, 10/11, 10/29, 11/4, 11/6, 12/29, 12/30

i'm a huge fan of the fall of '79. the band is playing with energy and invigoration of the excitement injected by playing with the "new guy," mr. mydland. sure there are setlists that start to look similar, but the playing is smoking...especially the playin' in the bands from this tour - they all seem to end up sounding like an air raid. 10/25, 10/27, 10/28, 11/5, 11/6, 11/24, 12/10, 12/11, 12/26, 12/28.

finally, the spring of '81. i feel like there magic in these shows. lively playing showing a mastery of the "new," (at the time, and in grateful dead time - that a two year old album could still be considered new material) "go to heaven" material, and the band fully gelled with brent at the helm of the keyboards. 3/7, 3/9, 3/10, 3/12, 3/13, 5/1, 5/6, 5/8, 5/9, 5/12

thanks for taking the time to read this post-jerry head's thoughts. in this weekend of thanksgiving, i am thankful for my family, and friends, and the tapers who recorded all of this wonderful music that i was able to discover.

Joined: Nov 17 2007
got on the bus Fall 79

Since my attended shows are only late late 79 through 87 I would put those '80 Uptown Theatre shows from Chicago as the best run musically. Fave moment was getting to front row with waay too many people for the seats and acting like crazed puppies. Some youngster aisle clerk came by and stared....and asked if we all had a seat. We stared back, laughed out loud and all said, "YES!" Beautifully, he smiled back and left. I had the best time at the Greek shows in '84. THAT was simply magical. Primarily being outside the venue made the experience all about the fans and they/we were having a marvelous time. Only saw one show from a inside seat and that was most certainly a Dead highlight. However, as a listener, the 1973 and 1974 shows, particularly fall>spring were some of the shows I listen to the most. Many thanks to Archive. Meanwhile...if I had a way-back machine it would most certainly be 1971 fall tour.
Keep up the chatter, I'll keep lisnin. Peace ya'll!

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010
mini tours

I have to agree with danc about the mini tours. There was one such tour sometime in the mid 80's where they did not repeat a single tune. Can anyone name that tour? Or reprising Playing in the Band days after the show where it originated. How about the 3 shows they did prior to leaving for Europe in the fall of '81. I was fortunate enough to have been in attendance for the 9-26-81 show in Buffalo. Then again 1981 was one heck of a year for great shows.

Joined: Nov 19 2007
85 hershey

I also loved that show - one of my all time favorites. The moment at the end of the first set when Birdsong magically mutated into Comes A Time was mind bending. Second set Music > Tom Thumb's opener, with a Terrapin and a Dew - what could be bad?

I also remember it was POURING rain, so much so that when Mickey and Billy would hit their cymbals water would literally fly off - great night of mid-80s Dead.

Joined: Nov 19 2007
and the best furthur tour?

This discussion of best Grateful Dead tours has me wondering about Furthur tours as well, and this past east coast tour just concluded was arguably their best yet. Creative and surprising setlists, long shows, very high caliber of playing night to night - Furthur has never sounded better.


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