Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Sittin’ In

By Blair Jackson

I only got to see Duane Allman in person once—at the Fillmore East when he sat in with the Dead for three numbers on 4/26/71: “Sugar Magnolia,” “It Hurts Me Too” and “Beat It on Down the Line.” I had recently fallen in love the Allmans' Idlewild South album, which served as my introduction to the band, so I was thrilled to see Duane rockin' with my favorite group!

As a suburban New York teenager completely enamored with the mystique of '60s San Francisco, I figured the Dead probably had musicians joining them onstage at their concerts all the time, not to mention endless late night jam sessions with Jorma, Carlos, Cipollina and whoever else was around when they were back in the Bay Area. When Tom Constanten (T.C.), whom I'd never seen play with the Dead, turned up as a guest at the Fillmore two night later, it reinforced my (incorrect) notion that sit-ins with the Dead were a common occurrence. For a while, I half-expected someone cool to show up every time I saw the band. But aside from another Allmans sighting the following year at Dillon Stadium in Hartford (7/16/72; Jerry and Bob reciprocated by playing with the Allmans the next night at Gaelic Park in the Bronx; equally thrilling!), it would be many years before I saw another outside musician with the Dead—could it really have been the “From Egypt with Love” shows, with harmonica ace Lee Oskar from War, in October of '78? I think so.

As my tape collection grew in the late '70s and early '80s, I finally got to hear some of the more famous guest appearances, such as Janis joining Pigpen for an endless and not particularly great “Lovelight” at the Fillmore West on 6/7/69, and the Fillmore East late show from 2/11/70, featuring Duane Allman and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac (and a bunch of others banging on various percussion instruments) jamming on “Dark Star,” a ferocious “Spanish jam” and “Lovelight.” That one's got lots of inspired playing, but also sounds wandering and extremely cluttered in places. It's the classic “too many cooks” jammer's dilemma—the musicians want to both shred and be deferential to the others onstage. Also, not everyone is miked equally well, so some parts unfortunately get lost in the mix. Still, imagine the excitement of being there and actually witnessing this sonic tsunami gushing off the stage in giant waves!

As a serious Jefferson Airplane fan, I was also ecstatic when the somewhat muffled audience tapes of the 11/20/70 Rochester Dead show appeared, with Jorma adding his stinging leads to a few songs (such as a fantastic “All Over Now” and “Darling Corey”) and jams. I guess if a soundboard version of that existed it would have materialized by now; sniff, sniff. Oh, well—thank God Marty Wienberg taped it!

By the '80s, it seems that most of the guest shots were song-oriented rather than jam-oriented, for better or worse. Etta James' appearances with the Dead 12/30-31/82 at Oakland Auditorium were a blast—it was great to hear her and the Tower of Power horns tackle “Hard to Handle” and “Lovelight” and “Tell Mama,” and fortunately they'd rehearsed at least a little. I also dug the tapes of Stephen Stills' loose but intense appearances at Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey 4/16-17/83. But I was disappointed by the melding of the Dead and much of The Band for a short, sloppy uninspired third set at the SF Civic on New Year's Eve '83.

E Street sax man Clarence Clemons sat in at a number of shows in the late '80s (and played several entire concerts with the Garcia Band in '89; a better match) and added some nice touches to some songs, but was distracting and “off” on others. Branford Marsalis' first appearance with the Dead at Nassau Coliseum on 3/29/90 was perhaps the greatest single sit-in ever with the Dead, in my view. No other guest “got” the band and its many facets as well as he did. I wasn't at that one, but I did get to see him with the Dead on New Year's Eve '90-'91 and I can attest to their strong connection. I am not a huge fan of saxophonist David Murray and what he added to the group, but Ornette Coleman blew me away with powerful reeds work at the Oakland Coliseum on 2/23/93.

Jerry and Branford Marsalis at Nassau Coliseum, March 29, 1990. Photo: Michael A. Conway ©2012

Other cool guest spots I enjoyed (on tape or in person) include Carlos Santana at Calaveras 8/22-23/87 and Las Vegas 4/28/91 (“Bird Song”!); Suzanne Vega fronting the Dead for a version of Robin Hitchcock's "Chinese Bones" at the rainforest benefit at Madison Square Garden 9/24/88; all of Steve Miller's appearances with the band in the summer of '92 (he even elevated “Morning Dew” at Giants Stadium on 6/14/92); blues harmonica legend James Cotton at Soldier Field 6/25/92; the supremely soulful Bonnie Raitt on “Big Boss Man” NYE '89-'90; Neil Young leading the band through an emotional “Forever Young” at the Bill Graham memorial concert in Golden Gate Park on 11/3/91; Bruce Hornsby anytime he showed up to play; and, much to my surprise, Spencer Davis at the Forum in L.A. (along with Hornsby) on 12/10/89. I'm like a broken record singing the praises of Halloween '91 with Quicksilver's Gary Duncan and Ken Kesey, but it's worth mentioning again. One of the weirdest I personally saw was when Bob Dylan showed up for the encore at MSG on 10/17/94 and mumbled his way through “Rainy Day Women.” What an odd duck. Still, it was kinda fun screaming out “Everybody must get stoned!” along with Jerry.

I have to admit that sometimes, once the initial rush of excitement over the unexpected appearance of a guest had subsided, I sometimes found myself wishing I was just hearing the Good Ol' Grateful Dead instead. Having an extra person onstage invariably changed the way the group played and at times actually brought the energy level down as the band struggled to mesh with a foreign element. It was one thing to have someone out there playing on a blues or “Midnight Hour” or something simple, but when the band carried on with “Terrapin” or “Stella Blue” or something the guest clearly didn't know, it could sound awkward and forced. But at least it was almost always interesting, and weren't we all craving new and different things? I was!

I don't want to leave out Mickey and Bill's many percussionist friends. Airto, Flora Purim, Olatunji, Hamza El Din and others were always welcome visitors, and, truth be told, usually fit in with the flow of things even more than guest guitarists and singers.

It's interesting that in the post-Grateful Dead world, the surviving band members are all about playing with anybody and everybody, anywhere anytime! They are flexible in ways the Grateful Dead were not, for some reason—anyone care to speculate why?

Lastly, I am occasionally asked why there hasn't been a Grateful Dead & Friends box set, or more releases featuring guests. After all, there are more than enough outstanding tracks to make up a cool release. I don't have a good answer for you, except to note that obtaining rights from outside artists can be difficult—dealing with managers, record labels, the families of deceased players, etc.—and expensive. Of course the Dead wanted to put some Duane Allman or Beach Boys tracks from those '71 Fillmore East concerts on the Ladies and Gentlemen...The Grateful Dead package; couldn't work out a deal. Someday, perhaps.

What are some your favorite guest appearances with the Dead? Or, conversely, tell us about ones you think didn't work. What would you put on a Grateful Dead & Friends box?


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rdevil's picture
Joined: Nov 2 2007
most unusual guest?

I imagine someone can top this but as far as unusual guests, how about word-jazz artist Ken Nordine joining the band at the Rosemont in 93? What a booming voice he had/has. I didn't realize his mic wasn't turned on until someone ran out from the side of the stage and turned it on (rather embarrassing for the Dead, huh, but not unusual). At least that's how I remember it, anyone else see that? On the audience tape I've heard it doesn't sound like his mic was ever off--maybe it was me who was off.
After his "rap" the place was buzzing and most people didn't know who he was; some thought Ken Kesey, others were sure it was Robert Hunter. It was a bit of a mind blower.
"How are things in your town?!"

WCrum01's picture
Joined: Oct 14 2011

Etta and the Tower of Power horns on the New Year's Eve set has always been my favorite. Grateful Dead was always a great blues band (as Etta said, "The greatest American blues band in the world.") and it shows on that set.
I loved the way she emphasized the word American.
The Dylan shows in 1987 rate, and the guest percussionists were, I agree, always a great fit. Branford was a great fit; Hornsby was more a member of the band than a guest. After that, it kind of tails off for me.

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010

For some reason, the scratch patch was open again and the view was perfect.
That made it all the more exciting when Spencer Davis joined the boys second set
opener with Gimme Some Lovin'. Energy levels were through the roof. Sitting stage
level behind the stage provided the perfect vantage point from which to view this nugget
of history. I remember after they were done, Bobby said "Thank you Spencer" as he walked off
stage. It looked like he was totally floored by the whole experience. I'm not sure if that was
the first time he joined them on stage. Sure seemed like it.

Joined: Nov 12 2007
Zakir Hussain and John Cipollina at Alpine '82

I am usually not a big fan of guest players but...these guys fit in well.
Added some variety on a fun tour..summer '82.
I think Jerry and John had a good sense of how to play together.
Drums*-> The Other One**-> Not Fade Away**-> Wharf Rat**-> Good Lovin'**, E: Satisfaction**-> E: Brokedown Palace**

Joined: Jun 8 2007
Pete Townshend Sit-In

Pete Townshend seemed unsure what to do during the 3/28/81 TV broadcast when Jerry went into Wharf Rat. It was a blast to see Pete onstage with the Dead but they never really took off.

Joined: Jan 13 2012
A 'Jamming With the Dead' Collection -- Yes Please!

I've just listened to David Murray joining in on 'Estimated Prophet', 22 September 1993 -- amazing! It's as good as the version (I forget the date; it was quite late on) on which Branford Marsalis joined in. Both sax players take the song, or rather the hefty jams afterwards, a lot further than the band would go on their own.

A compilation of the best guest performances would make a great two-CD or three-CD set. I'm sure that the contractual problems could be overcome.

Joined: Jan 13 2010
With a very few exceptions, I have always...

said, "no guests with the GD."

my exceptions:


MAYBE a few others. Clarence Clemons?? No, thank you. Branford? Eh. The "horrid horns" of 9/73? Ick.

Gimme dat pure ol' GD, please.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
If Road Trips was still around...

...we could have put together a compilation that had the very best versions of each of the songs those guys played on (plus some other great stuff from that tour in '73). However, I suspect too many people didn't/don't like the horns to make a commercially viable release from those shows....

segan63's picture
Joined: Nov 1 2010
Martin Fierro and Joe Ellis

II'm a fan of the September 1973 experiment with horns having Martin Fierro and Joe Ellis sit in with the band. For some songs, it didn't quite work, but I loved their contributions on the Weather Report Suite. I don't know if I would have enjoyed a constant horn presence, but it would have been nice to see that periodically over the years...

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

a collection of just the Branford shows would suit me fine. As you say, he was just about unique in getting it and being up to the task of whatever the band was doing, and indeed making it better.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a random cast of SF music legends playing yet another Johnny B. Goode, because it was something they all knew, was not my dish.


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