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: Oct 23 2008
My favorite tour was....

My favorite tour was anyone in which I was able to attend a show. I was a "local" deadhead (imagine that! I waited for them to come to me instead of the other way around!), so I was only able to see them a handful of times. However, anything from 71' through 78' was good. I really enjoy the sound of the Wall of Sound shows, so I guess 74' would be my favorite era.

Joined: Sep 11 2007
Touring.... double-edged sword

I found generally that short tours, mini-tours and occasional one-off shows were better than weeks-long tours. (I got my start on 9/3/77.) Post-'77 and after Terrapin, I think there was too little focus on composition, no notable achievement in the studio worthy of comparison to their best. (These are my snotty opinions, and ok, Althea is a GREAT track.) Too much touring to support overhead, that is what exhausted Garcia's spirit, in addition to his addictions. I always hoped for the band to slow it down and re-reach the consistent heights of Blues For Allah.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I admit...

I've rarely listened to much '87 through the years. Really enjoyed it at the time, of course, but '88 always seemed stronger to me. the Great Inundation of '87 after "Touch of Grey" has probably colored my memories a little, too. But yeah, that Greek "Watchtower"--one of my all-time favorite GD moments, for sure

Joined: Sep 29 2007
Summer '87

And you left out the solstice shows at the Greek! Might have been that I was standing in front of Jerry when they did the Watchtower break out but my GoodOlDead! I'm sure it was just me but there was a psychic growl through the universe. I'll take your word on the rest of the tour! The three at the Greek were amazing on every level. (Barlow sitting on stage looking like he was hearing some of his songs for the first time, Kesey wandering around...fine stuff)....Healy not fritzing with the sound too much but too much of every thing is just enough. Harley being revved behind Mickey and Billy in the Hell in a Bucket... perfect.

Joined: Mar 18 2010
Thanks for the tips!

I haven't checked out 6/22/91 or 9/4/91 in a long time...This sounds like a great plan for this evening- Thanks!

Joined: Jun 4 2007
1990_1995 tour

Please any box set from 1990 through 1995 would be super

Joined: Jun 4 2007

The Hershey Park show was always one of my favorite recordings from '85. Another favorite is 3/31/85 Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland, Me. Greek and Alpine are other favorite runs of mine from '85.

...while I'm able to post again ...

In regards to Fall '91, I think the Richfield run, 9/4-6/91, is every bit as strong as MSG and Boston. Despite a fairly orthodox setlist for this particular tour, I believe 9/4 is every bit as good as 9/10 and 9/26. The first set from 9/4 is performed to perfection from start to finish and the Scarlet>Fire is one of my personal favorites.

Spring '89 is also great. Pittsburg (as released in the download series), Ann Arbor, Rosemont and The Mecca are more of my personal favorites.

Joined: Jun 6 2007

I also like that Hershey show (6/28/85) a lot. How can you go wrong with a first set that ends with "Bird Song" > "Comes a Time" > "Deal"? Love that "Tom Thumb's" and "Morning Dew" in the second set, too! We'll even give the "Day Job" encore a pass... ;-)

I wasn't there but heard it was a cool scene. Rained a lot, I gather...

I'm also a fan of the SPAC show the night before with the "Stranger" > "Eyes" > "GDTRFB" to start the second set... They definitely shook it up a bit on that tour...

pomo1's picture
Joined: Jun 5 2007
The Best Tour

Any tours where you were lucky enough to attend one or more shows are the best. Period.

mp51's picture
Joined: Sep 19 2007

i loved some 85 shows. i did that summer tour, and my fav show was hershey park (but weird how my favs seem to never be everyone else's favs!) i don't "study" shows and tours, so maybe 85 was sloppy at times, but i interpret that to be taking more chances. sometimes when the band is "on" they just follow the groove. i like it when the search is on, and you never know what may happen, and sometimes the surprise hits. sometimes they hit it, sometimes not, but i love the search. red rocks 85 hey jude for example. the other 85 show that i loved was maine, the day tripper to end it. that one song may have knocked my socks off more than any other moment. and when i asked my seat neighbor what they thought of the show.."well, they repeated don't ease from last night..." really, that's your critique of a show? oh well, to each... personally, i needed phil to be killing for me to put a show on the top. the only saving grace to some of the outdoor stadium shows was phil could just turn himself up to 11 and not worry. the 86 akron show (when dylan came out in the first set) wasn't that great, but phil killed!!! hershey he was insane. i was at and loved both 88 maine shows too.

i loved it when i was standing on my tip toes in anticipation of whats next!


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