Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - New Year’s Eve Memories, Pt. 1

By Blair Jackson

Even though I was a rabid Dead Head when I moved from New York to the Bay Area back in the fall of 1973, I didn’t make it to a Dead New Year’s Eve show until 1981-82.

Let’s see if I can reconstruct my thinking… In ’73 the Dead didn’t play NYE, but I spent the evening hanging out with my new girlfriend in my rooming house bachelor pad in Berkeley listening to the Allman Brothers’ marathon show at the Cow Palace across the bay in SF. The Allmans were one of my favorite bands at the time, and imagine my excitement when Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann (and Boz Scaggs, whom I barely knew at the time) showed up for the final two hours of the show!

The Dead were on “hiatus” during NYE in ’74 and ’75. In ’76, they played at the Cow Palace but I disliked the venue so much I elected not to go. (Sure do like the CDs that came out of that show a few years back, however!)

Now it gets tricky. In ’77, I went to the 12/27 and 12/29 shows and skipped 12/30 and 12/31. This was typical for me. In those days I never went to all the shows in a run—it never occurred to me, frankly. And there was something that made me think that going to Winterland to see the Dead on NYE would be a tremendous ordeal, so instead I went to the Cow Palace (oh, the irony!) to see Santana (I was a longtime fan), Journey, who in those days were practically prog-rockers, and local fave Eddie Money, who was riding high at the moment and always put on a good show.

In ’78, I went to see Van Morrison at Winterland in early December (which we all knew was the storied venue’s final month before it closed down), then I caught two Bruce Springsteen shows there mid-month, and I was back there December 30 to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who were probably my second favorite act at the time. I spent New Year’s Eve watching the Dead’s “Closing of Winterland” concert on TV in the comfort of my tiny Berkeley bungalow; never regretted that decision.

In December ’79 I went to three of the first four Dead shows at the Oakland Auditorium, in part because it was so much more accessible to me than Winterland had been. But I still didn’t go New Year’s Eve! Instead I saw Tom Petty, Chuck Berry and the Fabulous Poodles ring in the New Year at Oakland Coliseum. Petty descended from the upper reaches of the arena to the stage riding on a humongous Flying V guitar. Yeah!

In 1980, I was visiting my parents in Manhattan during the holiday season so I missed that entire series at the Oakland Aud. At midnight on that New Year’s Eve, in a restaurant high above Times Square, I asked Regan to marry me. I once calculated that if the Dead had gone onstage that night in Oakland around 8:30 or so, by 9 o’clock (midnight in NYC) they might have been playing “Cassidy” during their acoustic set. Aww, how romantic! (Or maybe it was “Monkey and the Engineer”!)

Midnight balloon drop at the SF Civic, 12/31/84

Finally we make it to ’81, and Regan and I have Grateful Dead fever, a direct result of having had our spirits gloriously uplifted and our minds thoroughly blown by the group’s three Greek Theater shows in September of that year. This time we scored tickets for all five shows, starting with December 26—Regan’s birthday; excellent “Scarlet-Fire” that night—and ending with what turned out to be the best Grateful Dead New Year’s show I would ever see (and I saw the next 10, ending in 1991, the year of Bill Graham’s death). I guess you could say I finally “got” New Year’s Eve that magical night. OK, so the 30th did often end up being the hot show in subsequent years. New Year’s Eve was always a trip in itself, a wild (and long) rollercoaster ride. True, there were often bands I didn’t want to hear as opening acts, a lot of waiting around, and jeez, the whole nightmare of trying to save seats for friends… Ugh! Don’t get me started! But hey, there wasn’t any place I’d rather have been.

Looking for some celebratory listening over the next couple of weeks? Herewith, my critical guide to the 11 Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve shows I attended, and links to the shows on

1981, Oakland Auditorium. What a night! The evening starts with a five-song acoustic set of the Dead backing Joan Baez (who was dating Mickey Hart at the time). First electric Dead set has a disappointing song list but is played OK. The pre-midnight festivities were highlighted by Ken Kesey hanging precariously from a wire over the crowd, rambling on about who-knows-what, before leading to the countdown. Bill Graham’s entrance as Father Time: Riding on a joint dubbed the S.S. Colombian (grade: A). Midnight song: “Iko-Iko” (The “Sugar Mag” purists might have been disappointed; I loved it!) Second set is killer with “Playing” and the reprise sandwiching a fantastic “Terrapin.” John Cipollina helps out on “The Other One” > “NFA” > “Goin’ Down the Road” and the set is capped with an epique “Dew.” Third set brings back “Dark Star,” plus “Bertha,” “Good Lovin’” and Joan helping out on “Baby Blue” (complete with her awkward chicken dance!). Overall grade: A

1982, Oakland Auditorium. Another so-so first set—nice “Cumberland” and “Cassidy,” but “Day Job” closer; Yikes! Jerry, how could you? Bill Graham midnight entrance: gliding across the floor on a magic mushroom that rose to the height of the balcony (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Sugaree.” Decent, not great, second set; short post-“drums” with Cipollina on “NFA” > “Deal” > “Sunshine Daydream.” Third set is worth hearing—Etta James fronts the band for sloppy but occasionally inspired versions of “Lovelight,” “Tell Mama,” “Hard to Handle” (first post-Pig) and a couple of others. (Would’ve been more exciting if she hadn’t played two of those songs during the encore on 12/30). Overall grade: B

1983, SF Civic. Not one of my favorites. Not much to highlight. Oakland Aud. was undergoing renovations, so the action switched to the Civic for two years. Bill’s entrance: Father Time emerges from a giant globe (grade: B). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Touch of Grey.” Short, disappointing second set. Four-song third set features Rick Danko of The Band (who opened the show and played well) and Maria Muldaur joining the boys for “Big Boss Man,” “Iko,” “Midnight Hour” and “Goodnight Irene.” Overall grade: C

1984, SF Civic. Much better than the previous year’s show. First set has both “Shakedown” and “Jack Straw” > “Bird Song.” Bill’s entrance: riding from the balcony on a lightning bolt (grade: B+). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Scarlet-Fire.” Second set also has a “Spanish jam” going into “The Wheel.” Four-song third set includes second-ever “Gimme Some Lovin” into “Uncle John’s.” Overall grade: B+

1985, Oakland Coliseum. Uh-oh—New Year’s moves into an arena! Solid first set with “NFA” > “Touch” opener, “Cassidy” and a good “Let It Grow” closer. Bill Graham entrance: Huge and horridious “birthday” cake celebrating the Dead’s 20th anniversary. (grade: C). Midnight songs: a disappointing “Midnight Hour”> “Sugaree.” Pretty good “Playing” > “Terrapin.” Underwhelming. Olatunji’s opening set was the highlight for me. Neville Brothers were better than the Dead, too. Overall grade: B-

Bill Graham atop the infamous
1985 NYE Birthday Cake float.
That’s Bill Kreutzmann’s “head.”
Photo by’s bradleyg

1986, Kaiser Convention Center. The Oakland Aud. returns, spiffed up and with a new name. Just two weeks after Jerry’s “comeback” shows at the huge Oakland Coliseum, it was nice to be back in a small hall. Very high energy and emotional show. Bill’s entrance: He flies in dressed as an eagle (grade: C) Midnight songs: “Touch of Grey” (had to be!) > “Let It Grow” (nice!). Powerful “Black Muddy River,” “Terrapin.” Five-song third set has “Gimme Some Lovin’” and the recently revived “Box of Rain.” Overall grade: B+

1987, Oakland Coliseum. The Dead rise to the occasion of a national pay-per-view telecast with a very well-played, if not very adventurous, show (later released as the video Ticket to New Year’s). Strong first set with "Bertha,” “Cold Rain and Snow,” “Bird Song” and “Music Never Stopped.” Bill’s entrance: He rides across the floor on an enormous replica of the Golden Gate Bridge (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Hell in a Bucket” (really, Bob?)> “Uncle John’s.” Five-song third set includes members of the Neville Brothers (who opened) on “Man Smart, Women Smarter” > “Iko,” “Day-O” and “Do You Wanna Dance” before ending “Baby Blue.” Overall grade: B

1988, Oakland Coliseum. Clarence Clemons drops by and adds sax to a number of songs over the course of the night, for better and worse. Good first set, highlighted by “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Franklin’s Tower” and “Cassidy.” Bill’s entrance: riding a giant mirror ball (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Touch of Grey.” Rockin’ back half of the second set includes “Gimme Some Lovin’” “Watchtower” and “Sunshine Daydream.” Extended encore starts with “Wharf Rat,” of all songs. Overall grade: B


1989, Oakland Coliseum. The show starts with “Sugar Magnolia” > “Touch of Grey.” Opening act Bonnie Raitt joins in on “Big Boss Man” and first set closes with “Shakedown.” Bill’s entrance: dressed as a chicken, he lands on a large egg, which hatches to reveal his young son, Alex (grade: C+). Midnight songs: “Iko-Iko” and “Victim or the Crime” (which is preceded by Bob’s immortal remark: “Well, my buddy over here tells me it’s the beginning of a new dickhead—I mean decade.”). A pretty good “Dark Star” comes out of “Victim,” but it still feels like a pretty short pre-“drums.” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” > “Hey Jude” coda out of “space.” Overall grade: B-

1990, Oakland Coliseum. The first post-Brent NYE. Opener Branford Marsalis spices up the Dead’s sets with his always tasteful and inventive tenor and soprano sax work. I love that guy! In the first set, he plays on “Bird Song” and “Promised Land.” Bill’s (last) entrance: He descends to the stage as a loincloth-clad witch doctor, accompanied by fire-eaters and acrobats on bungee cords (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Not Fade Away” > “Eyes of the World” > “Dark Star,” all with Branford, make for a spectacular pre-“drums” segment. The back side, also with Branford, is “The Other One” > “Wharf Rat” > “NFA” reprise. Worth your time! Overall grade: B+

1991, Oakland Coliseum. The final and only Bill Graham-less GD NYE concert. Just two months after Bill’s death, it felt a little weird being there on what was his night as much as ours every year. Show has its moments but there’s nothing earth-shaking. “Help-Slip-Frank” closes the first set promisingly. Midnight moment: After a video montage of Bill’s entrances through the years (grade: A!), there were fireworks and then Mickey and Airto led a contingent of drummers from Olatunji’s group onto the stage for a pounding countdown, which led to the midnight songs: “Not Fade Away” > “Eyes of the World.” Not much to see here, folks, move along… Overall grade: B-

* * *

More to come next week about strange and wonderful New Year’s reveries in the post- Grateful Dead age. Any New Year’s tales from any era you’d care to share?


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Country Fresh...

I didn't mention that the Fabulous Poodles were Chuck Berry's backup band for the night , too! (He'd get a pickup band in every city). Chuck was typically surly and insulting to them, yelling out song keys in mid-song, criticizing them after a song.... what guy! Bring your own damn band, Chuck! You get what you don't pay for! ;-)

Joined: Aug 29 2011
Fabulous Poodles

One of the greatest tongue in cheek bands ever.I bought the album the next day after I saw them open for Johnny Winter,Flying Burrito Brothers,Good Rats and Starz.All that for $5 in 1978.GBTGD

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Keystone New Years Eve 75/76, Oakland 12/31/81

OK not quite a Dead show. But when Bob Weir and Mickey Hart showed up to jam at midnight the feeling became down right euphoric. Nicky Hopkins was so drunk he was crawling on the stage at one point. Was there with Tipi Dan (burning man) Jay K. and that beautiful woman from Brazil. My first real New Years Dead show was 30 years ago. Had not seen the Dead since Winterland Dec.77.(both nights that landed on Dick's Picks). OK Kesey helped to pull me through. Onward through the fog. With Tom E.,Jay K., Hawkeye, T. Bolton. Perhaps the best Grateful Dead concert I saw in the 80s. (also 9/10, 9/11/83 Santa Fe). The other new years Dead shows that I attended seem less fantastic. So 30 years ago I checked back in. Went every night of the run. After the Dead finished at 4am Tommy and I drove to North Beach then Marin Headlands, down to Half Moon Bay(no surfers at Mavericks yet).Daybreak( or 0900) dropped Tom off at S.F. airport so he could fly to Seattle then drive home to Kiowa,MT. I then drove to Palo Alto met with friends and we drove to Ripplewood Cabins in Big Sur. The next week moved to New Mexico full time, 30 years now. What a night then the long days journey into night again.

PonchoBill's picture
Joined: Jul 29 2009

I really enjoy your blog, Blair. I always do! Althogh I never attended any of the NYE shows ( I caught the bus spring 90) I have heard them all via the vineyard. And I gotta say that countdown in 81 w/ Ken Kesey and Bill is definately way out there. My favorite NYE show hands down.

Joined: Jun 4 2007
I never got to attend a New

I never got to attend a New Years Dead show in person, but had my recorder taping the national broadcasts in '87, '90 and '91.

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
Only made it to 82/83

But completely disagree with your rating. Jerry was out of it all night. The highlight was definitely Etta James and Tower of Power horns. Ya take the good with the bad.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.