Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Frost Memories

By Blair Jackson

Look, I promise not to talk about every 20th, 25th, 35th, 40th anniversary of significant events in Grateful Dead history. But I can’t resist stepping into the Time Machine once again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dead’s first shows at Frost Amphitheater on the beautiful campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Oct. 9 and 10, 1982. It was the beginning of a nearly annual tradition that also included weekend afternoon shows in 1983 and then from ’85-’89; 14 shows in all, before the university could no longer tolerate the Dead Head circus.

All things considered, Frost was probably my favorite Grateful Dead venue ever. No, not every show they played there was great. Sometimes the heat and humidity (rare for the West Coast) was oppressive. And yes, staging the shows in the middle of the afternoon meant we didn’t get to enjoy Candace’s lights. But what a setting! It provided the prototypical California outdoor Dead experience.

The amphitheater is a gently terraced grass bowl in the midst of over 150 varieties of tress, including live oak, elm, birch, cherry etc. It was built—if that’s the word; there’s no real structure, just a nicely designed space—in the mid-1930s, thanks to a $90,000 donation from Mr. and Mrs. Howard Frost, who wanted to memorialize their son, John Laurence Frost, who was part of the Class of ’35, but died of polio at the age of 23. It opened officially in June 1937 for that year’s commencement. In those days, Frost had rows of red and white roses (Stanford’s colors), planted around the stage area. It was used for commencements through 1984, after which the graduation ceremonies were moved to the larger Stanford baseball stadium, Sunken Diamond, and later, Stanford Stadium.

Through the years it was occasionally used for speeches by prominent visitors, drama productions and also a few concerts—classical performances, jazz shows by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and a handful of rock shows, such as Jefferson Airplane in 1967 and a quadruple bill in 1968 featuring the Chambers Brothers, Quicksilver and newcomers the Santana Blues Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival. After a bottle-throwing melee broke out at an Elvin Bishop/Cold Blood show in July ’71, and there were fights and gate crashing at a Miles Davis concert in October ’72, all concerts were banned from the venue for a period.

I first went to Frost on August 7, 1976 to see Crosby & Nash—a magical afternoon that is now hazy in my memory. During this era, a number of quieter shows drew large and polite crowds to see acts such as Joan Baez, Loggins & Messina, America and George Benson. So in retrospect it’s hard to believe that the Grateful Dead, of all bands, was allowed to play there in 1982. It helped that they had an “in.” By that time, Danny Scher, who had booked concerts at Stanford when he was a student there in the ’70s, was working for Bill Graham Presents, and he greased the wheels for those first Dead appearances at Frost. (The band had a history with Stanford, too: They played outside the Tressider Student Union in October 1966, and at Maples Pavilion in February ’73.)

By the time the Frost shows rolled around in October, I’d already seen the Dead seven times in 1982, the most for me since 1971. In February, they had returned to the intimate Warfield Theatre in SF for the first time since their historic 15-show run in 1980. (The 2/17/82 show is especially worth checking out for its exceptional second set). The group’s second three-day series at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley came in May (5/23 was the best of those), and July saw the first “Weekend at the Beach” down in Ventura (a tradition through 1987, excepting 1986, which was cancelled because of Jerry’s near-death). If you haven’t heard 7/18/82, you should, chop-chop!

Frost instantly felt like home. It had such a relaxed vibe, starting outside the venue in the surrounding groves of towering eucalyptus trees, which doubled as the most scenic “parking lots” you’ve ever seen. This was like a secret world itself—like something out of Middle Earth or Endor (I’m pretty sure I saw an Ewok after a show there once). Great shafts of sun would come streaming through the branches, and the ungroomed dirt floor below—covered in eucalyptus leaves, shredded bark and small branches—was fractured by dappled light. In those days, when the vending scene was still in its relative infancy, there were a few low-key merchants peddling their wares in the forest, giving it a hint of a Renaissance Faire feel. By the third time the Dead played Frost—in 1985—the bazaar outside and the number of folks looking for extra tickets had gotten much larger, and it started to become a problem in the eyes of the university. And you can imagine what it was like in ’87, ’88 and ’89, post-comeback.

Inside, sightlines were excellent, even near the back under the trees (a coveted spot on the hot days), and it seemed smaller than its 10,000 capacity. As a venue, it didn’t have that intense, focused power and majesty that the Greek had in spades. But it had a unique warmth and a mellow intimacy that made it feel as if we were all together at some giant family picnic, just dancing and enjoying our community band on a sunny afternoon. No alcohol was served there (nor at the Greek), so pot and psychedelics ruled. The sound was crystal clear—with minimal reflections, even from the surrounding trees, what came from the P.A. had a tonal purity you rarely experienced at other venues. Phil, in particular, was right in your face—as he should be! This is one venue where the audience recordings are nearly soundboard quality, the sound was so clean.

Both of those ’82 Frost shows were killer. The beginning of the second set of 10/9 marked the West Coast debut of both “Throwing Stones” and “Touch of Grey”—finally, some new tunes! Jerry didn’t quite have a handle on the lyrics to “Touch” yet, but that song’s bright, anthemic qualities were apparent from the get-go. That 10/9 concert also included my first live version of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” (reintroduced at Field Trip II in Oregon on 8/28/82) and my introduction to a third new tune, “West L.A. Fadeaway,” which I loved instantly. The superb post-“Drums” at that show featured “Truckin’” > “The Other One” > “Morning Dew” > “Saturday Night”; all powerful.

The Sunday 10/10 show is high on my list of all-time favorites I attended, and one I’ve listened to hundreds of times on tape. (I always preferred the aud. version to the chopped-up SBD that emerged many years after the show.) Both sets were incredible, with no real weak spots. The first included “Sugaree,” “Cassidy,” the best “Far From Me” I ever heard (who knew?), and a sparkly “China Cat” >“Rider” closer. The first half of the second set was sublime: It kicked off with a “Playing in the Band” that felt perfect for late afternoon in that amazing natural environment, cruised smoothly into “Crazy Fingers” (which had been reintroduced at Ventura in July), followed with “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance” (possibly my favorite versions), and then slammed into “Touch of Grey”—much better than the previous day’s—right before “Drums.”

Dancing on the grass at Frost Amphitheater, April 28, 1985. Photo: Regan McMahon ©2012

The backside included a transcendently beautiful “Wheel,” just the second pairing of “Throwing Stones” and “Not Fade Away” (it seemed like such a good, fresh idea at the time; it would eventually lose its luster through overplaying), “Black Peter” and “Sugar Magnolia.” The double encore of “Satisfaction” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” sent everyone home smiling contentedly. And if you thought the eucalyptus groves were strange and wonderful before the show, imagine what they were like after. For all I know, there might still be hippies in there looking for their cars.

I’m not sure the Dead ever quite topped those ’82 shows in subsequent visits to Frost (’85 and ’88 were close), but it was always a fabulous time, a grand weekend in another world, far away, yet close to home (for many of us).

A few highlights from other years there: The “Dancing in the Streets” >”Bertha” opener on 4//27/85. That first set ended with powerhouse trio of “Tom Thumb’s Blues” > “Cold Rain and Snow” and “The Music Never Stopped,” and the second set opened with the unusual pairing of “Scarlet” > “Eyes of the World” followed by “Goin’ Down the Road.”… The surprise opener the next day (4/28/85) was the still-rare “Gimme Some Lovin” into “Mississippi Half-Step.” The second set featured a few journeys through “Playing in the Band,” a devastating “China Doll” (the lilting little jam after the song is as pretty as can be) and then two encores—“U.S. Blues” and the finest “She Belongs to Me” the group ever played… Out of “Space,” 5/11/86 has “The Other One” > “Comes a Time.” The encore is “Miracle” > “U.S. Blues”… In ’88, the 4/30 show had a rare triple encore—“China Cat” > “I Know You Rider” > “Saturday Night.” Looks better on paper than it was (but the show as a whole was strong). The second set of 5/1/88 opened with “Louie Louie” > “Truckin’ > “Crazy Fingers”... And though Brent's "I Will Take You You Home," doesn't get much love these days, the version on 5/6/89, with Garcia on his MIDI "trumpet" for the first time, was extremely moving. That show also had a first-set "The Race Is On" for Kentucky Derby day, and "Playing" > "Eyes." Seems as though there were always a few little wrinkles at Frost shows that made them feel special.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
sweendog67's picture
Joined: Jan 12 2009
Alpine Valley

I have been following some form of The Grateful Dead for over 30 years now. Sadly I had to pass on Chi Town last year due to health. However I did get to see them in Philly and if not for seeing Phil at the Cap I would have made MSG as well....
Well thanks to some cool self healing, mushrooms and some fine herb I am feeling better than I have in years. So good that I just booked my trip for 2 nights at Alpine Valley. Yeay me, and thanks to my best friend and first REAL tour buddy Slick for getting us everything but tickets for under 5 bills. That includes airfare from an airport that I can see from my house.. 4 nights, 5 days, air, hotel and rental car. Tics go on sale tomorrow. This price is soooo good that if I get a chance at GOOD tics I am so getting them. Peace to my fellow heads.

nfpaine's picture
Joined: Nov 1 2013
Thank you for this great writeup!

The 10.10.82 show is my all time fav, and you captured it in all its glory. I was an east coast kid, had seen the Dead maybe 6 times before then at cavernous MSG and Nassau Coliseum -- great shows but echo-y and jammed and slightly... dangerous feeling. Moved out to LA in 82 for school, took a road trip with newly met dead head pals and caught both 10.9 and 10.10 -- my very first west coast outdoor daytime shows! The Frost was such a cool environment, you nailed it, the trees, the air, crystal clear acoustics. Bill Graham intro'd the shows, and I remember a rumor after 10.10 that he said it was the best he'd heard them play in 10 years. All I know is it was the best I heard them play ever, Jerry was totally ON, not one false note, just check out Sugaree and Sailor/Saint (best ever version? - yes!), and then check out every other tune. Pound for pound, song for song, this show stacks up with the best of them. We taped it and wore that out, then I found a matrix from a friend that's pretty good -- although I always hope the show gets released officially.

Thanks again for the write up, finally someone does right by this AMAZING SHOW.

-- NFP

PS -- one more thing, the opening "Minglewood," you just knew this show was going to kick ass by the way they cycled through the instrumental jam about 5 times, Brent then Bob slide then Jerry then Jerry then everyone all at once over a Phil carpet bomb bass attack. We looked at each other and knew we were in for a one helluva ride. East coast boy breaks out of his coliseum shell into the sweet west coast sunshine daydream. And I'm still here.

smarcus's picture
Joined: May 20 2010

I guess I would probably know the capacities of the various venues better than anyone...
For Frost the legal capacity was 9,500 which included 500 "comp" tickets, although when you added in all the various Grateful Dead and BGP laminates and Backstage passes the capacity was more like 11,000 plus.

Winterland's legal capacity was 5,400 but I remember a CSNY show which was a reschedule of canceled concerts where all 5,400 tickets from the canceled show was honored as well as the 5,400 ticket that were sold to the rescheduled show...unbearable! When The Rolling Stones were set to play there in 1972 they actually had a clause written into their contract that limited sales to 4,500 tickets and that the upper balcony had to be empty. It was the least crowded and most comfortable sold out show I ever saw at Winterland!

Oakland Auditorium had a capacity of 6,200, but when it reopened as Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center the capacity was 7,200.

The Greek Theater was 8,500 but when you added in comps and laminates that would bump it up to over 10,000...

What I liked about Frost was that it was just under a mile from my house...

Joined: Nov 2 2010
what was the saying i once

what was the saying i once read? something like "it's not spring until the dead melt the frost." much like your blog a year ago about the greek theatre shows (9/12/81 - such a wonderful, wonderful show, it became an instant favorite), i think i'll be hitting up some shows from the Frost. the '89 shows were some of the first tapes i ever got, and the show you always rave about blair, 10/10/82 is as good as you say, but other then that, i haven't heard many. so thanks again for giving me ideas for shows to check out. also, thanks for the great description of another famous venue in the "dead" world, and of the shows themselves. your blogs lead this post-jerry head to believe that he's not crazy for being so crazy about this band, their music, and the scene that followed them. for until time travel is nailed down, the music and the stories of the memories of the fans are what's going to keep this thing going on and on.

Joined: Sep 11 2007
'82 Frost tapes...

were played to death in my home, car, Walkman. The new material was played really well, and '82 shows in the east were kind of beat scenes, or so I thought. So, Greek + Frost = hope, and what am I doing here in New York? It took three more years in my case to get to the promised land (Cali-show), and while I did not move out west, I could see why many had.

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
Frost '85

Frost '85 was one of the first audience taped shows I recieved and concidering these times of Internet access, I thought it was amazing to recieve 4-27 and 4-28 just three weeks after they went down. It almost felt as I was present. ^_ ^

Good shows btw but it's been years since I last listened to them.

Micke Östlund,
Växjö, Sweden

Joined: Jun 4 2007
Thanks for sharing your memories of Frost Blair!

I never had the opportunity to see the Grateful Dead in California, let alone the Frost Amphitheatre, but after reading your description of the venue, it really sounds like a beautiful place to see a concert.

One of my favorite late-80s versions of The Other One is from 5/7/89. It has all of the bells and whistles (and other assorted odd midi-fied sounds) that one would want. From the Drumz>Space lead in, to Healy's audio processing experiments to various elements in the mix is about as intense of a version as I've heard. Just over the top. Kind of like the sinister brother to the Dark Star from Miami 10/26/89 later in the year.

Not intending this to be an obvious pun, but I truly am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the Dead as often as I have. The bulk of the shows I attended were a mix of outdoor sheds in the mid-west located in agricultural areas with a view of corn fields and pastures like Deer Creek and Alpine Valley, or more urban surroundings like Pine Knob and World Amphitheatre (incidently, they never played a bad show at Pine Knob). Other than Buckeye Lake, with it's similar landscape to to Alpine and Deer Creek, and besides all but one show at the concrete jungle next to Lake Michigan surroundings of Soldier Field, the only other outdoor venue I attended Grateful Dead concerts at was Compton Terrace (most of the shows at Compton Terrace were pretty decent too). Not much in the line of trees other than cacti, but still a pretty cool desert surrounding in a suburban area. The rest of the shows I attended were in basketball and hockey arenas. Great for light shows and inclimate weather. Not so much for scenery and adventure.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
and that's without

the oft told tale of the same tickets getting sold multiple times...

Joined: Jun 6 2007

In the Dead era, the capacity of the Greek was supposedly 9,000; I've seen Frost various listed from 7,000-10,000. At the time it seems like people BGP people said it was 10,000. Capacities were pretty fluid in a lot of places--like sold-out Winterland was always more than 5,000, Oakland Aud./Kaiser several hundred more than 7,500...

Joined: Dec 3 2007
Frost and Stanford

A great overview, Blair. I agree that the Oct 10 '82 show was pretty special. One of the things that made the Frost shows memorable was how rarely it had been used over the years.Stanford University had its own agenda, so they only allowed occasional concerts. All of the acts who played were--as you say--'good mannered.' The mantra seemed to be 'no R&B, no metal, no low-life."

Other little known "Grateful Dead" appearances at Frost

Oct 3, 1971: Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders/Bobby Hutcherson/Big Black (a 'jazz festival' gig)
Oct 1, 1972: Miles Davis/NRPS (yes, Garcia had left, but with Miles headlining it was 'jazz')
Aug 9, 1975: Eric Clapton/Kingfish
Jul 18, 1976: Dave Mason/NRPS/Cate Brothers (a member of the New Riders staff ended up on stage at the Orpheum that night, I believe as "Miss Keith")

I was under the impression that the official capacity of Frost Amphitheater was 6,900, not 10,000. Of course, "capacity" at places without seats are a tricky thing indeed, with no one inclined to tell the truth even if they know it. In any case, it felt a lot more like 6,900 then 10,000 (Berkeley's Greek Theatre has an official capacity of 7,500).


Comment viewing options

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