Grateful Dead

Blair's Golden Road Blog - Keith and Donna's Last Days with the Dead

By Blair Jackson

Over in one of the discussion groups on DeadNet Central recently, someone was fondly recalling Keith and Donna’s final show, at the Oakland Coliseum on Feb. 17, 1979, noting it was a rare great show from their late period with the band.

My own experience of that show was not particularly positive. I went into it with a bad attitude, because I was bummed that the band had “sold out” by playing the 15,000-seat basketball arena so close on the heels of my beloved Winterland closing less than two months earlier on New Year’s Eve. I had trouble finding a good spot on the crowded floor that night, which reinforced my negative opinion of the Dead’s decision to play there, and at the time I thought the show was only OK. It wasn’t until many years later, when I finally deigned to check out a tape of the show I had dissed, that I realized what a good show I had “missed.” (It isn’t pretty, but it happens!)

I could be mistaken, but my memory of that night is that I did not know that it was going to be Keith and Donna’s last show with the Dead. (Others in the discussion group said they did know.) Though I was an editor at BAM magazine at the time and we even had a Grateful Dead news column called “Dead Ahead” (penned by David Gans), I wasn’t really privy to insider gossip in those days. I certainly didn’t know that the couple was fighting like cats and dogs offstage or that Keith was battling a serious addiction to opiates - or that Jerry was, for that matter. (I believe I first heard that in 1980.)

I remember being quite disappointed when I learned that Keith and Donna were departing. I felt the Dead’s music took a quantum leap when Keith joined in the fall of ’71, and I enjoyed Donna’s contributions when she came onto the scene the following year. I liked her vibe, she was easy on the eyes, and I appreciated that touch of gospel she brought to the harmonies. Unlike some Dead Heads, I was never bothered by her “wailing” in “Playing in the Band” or her little vocal improvs following “Scarlet Begonias.” Yes, there were occasionally pitch issues, but they were much more noticeable to me once I started seriously collecting tapes in the late ’70s than they were when I was in-the-moment at shows. I also felt a special kinship with them because I spent many a night standing 10 to 15 feet from them at Jerry Garcia Band club shows between 1976 and ’78. That’s where Keith really shone brightest, and I always loved the warm rapport between Jerry and Donna in those intimate settings. When Jerry started playing with the horn-heavy band Reconstruction in early ’79, I didn’t stop to think about why he had dissolved the group with Keith and Donna. I just chalked it up to Jerry wanting to go in another direction, as he did occasionally.

Keith in happier times.

There’s no question, however, that the quality of Keith’s playing in the Dead fell off in ’78 and early ’79. It no longer had that sparkle and imagination that marked his best work (’72-’74). Much of what he played in his last year was basic, blocky, chordal stuff. I don’t hear many wrong notes, but he’s not exactly out there on the edge taking chances and pushing the others, as he frequently did, in his own quiet way, in his peak Grateful Dead years. I guess the worst thing you could say about later-period Keith is that he was just taking up sonic space in the Dead’s overall sound. Did this affect the others? No doubt, though it can’t be measured. After all, who knows how much the personal issues of other band members at this time—as chronicled in Dennis McNally’s book, A Long Strange Trip, and other places—also colored the group’s music.

It seems that when people talk about the winter of ’79, the only shows they mention are the January 10 concert at Nassau Coliseum, the one in Buffalo on January 20, and the Oakland show. The first two are famous mostly because “Dark Star” was played at each—10 and 20 days after the song was revived for the first time since 1974 at the Closing of Winterland. I’m on record as saying that the 1/10/79 version is my favorite post-’74 take on the tune; I stand by that. The killer second set of 1/10 also features the only “St. Stephen” of 1979 (and the last until the final three in ’83). The Buffalo “Dark Star” doesn’t have the depth and intensity of the Nassau one (and Bob cuts it off abruptly to go into “Not Fade Away”), but it’s still cool, as is the hurtling “Other One” split by “Drums.” Needless to say, the appearance of these tunes early in the year led to a rash of shouted requests of both tunes in every city the Dead played for the next few months.

After digging those shows for the first time in a while, I decided to go a little deeper into the winter ’79 tour, which was marked by literal cold rain and snow at many stops. I checked out a half dozen other shows and I came away from it surprisingly impressed. True, Garcia’s voice was not in good shape at most shows. At the time, too, there were complaints from the Tour Heads about the amount of repetition of songs and combos—like the “I Need A Miracle” > “Bertha” > “Good Lovin’” trio that showed up so often. Were these same folks complaining about the repetition all through ’77? Probably not. But a lot more people were touring by late ’78, early ’79, and since the shows were hit and miss, quality-wise, during that period, the Great Grumbling about set lists began in earnest!

But what I hear on this tour is a ton of adventurous and exciting playing. There are a few excellent versions of “Scarlet” > “Fire,” including Indianapolis (2/3), Kansas City (2/10) and Oakland (2/17). “China Cat,” absent from the repertoire since December ’77, returns at that Indy show and reclaims a spot in the rotation for the first time since ’74—welcome back, old friend! The versions of “Terrapin” feature somewhat extended middle interludes, and every “Playing in the Band” and every “Estimated” jam goes someplace interesting. The “Eyes” are speedy but often dazzling, with long outro passages. In most of the shows I listened to, Jerry is in no hurry to leave the stage before “Drums” (as he was so often post-’80), instead jamming energetically and inventively for long stretches, sometimes accompanied only by the drummers—listen to the amazing jam after “He’s Gone” on the 2/9 K.C. show. Keith shines occasionally, too, playfully interacting with Garcia from time to time—a flash of the past. But there are also long stretches where he is barely noticeable.

Speaking of the drummers, Mickey and Bill’s solos still show the positive effects of their time in Egypt the previous September, with Mickey playing lots of tar and Bill working out on talking drum many nights. “The Other One” is consistently hot, and Jerry invests his ballads with as much passion as his creaky, fragile voice allows. There are a couple of heartwrenching “Stella”s and a fantastic “Comes A Time” (2/9 K.C.). The still-new “Shakedown Street” is starting to expand in compelling directions, and though you could argue that “Miracle” was a tad overplayed, these versions are all rippin’, with jammy codas (compared to most later ones). “Don’t Ease Me In,” full of pep, appears for the first time since ’74 in Carbondale, Ill. on 2/7, and “Might As Well,” on the shelf for the previous year and a half, is revived at the Kiel in St. Louis on 2/1l. The Oakland show includes two more songs not played since ’74—“Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Big Railroad Blues.” This does not sound like a band that’s just treading water or coasting on their past rep.

That 2/17 Oakland show truly was the end of an era, as the Grateful Dead that returned to performing on April 22, 1979 at San Jose’s Spartan Stadium, with Brent Mydland replacing the Godchauxs, was a totally new animal. I didn’t see the new band until their two early August shows at the Oakland Auditorium (the “new Winterland” I called it), but I was an instant convert to this latest evolution—just as I had been when Keith joined and when Mickey came back. I always trusted the Grateful Dead to do what needed to be done to keep the ball rolling forward. And until fate cruelly intervened about 15 years up the road, they did just that.


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cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007

Somewhere I read that Charlie Miller no less, rated 1/8/79, in particular the second set, as among his favourites of all time. I was so surprised that I took of a note of it, which is why I am able to share this now. I tracked down and downloaded the show, but have never got round to listening to it, as there are so many official releases there days. Also (shock horror) there are some other artists I like to listen to sometimes! Now would seem to be the time to revisit that last tour.

rdevil's picture
Joined: Nov 2 2007
Keith and Donna the album

Does anyone know where we can purchase the Keith and Donna album that Underthevolcano mentioned? It was available here a decade or so ago and I just never got around to ordering it and now am kicking myself. I'm talking about the CD, not vinyl or cassette. It seems that there should be some market for any CD that Jerry played on.
Speaking of Dicks Picks, DP2 is a great example of Keith jumping right in there and sounding great early on.

Joined: Apr 9 2011
Passing the Baton

As a charter member of the Anti-Donna club, I could easily get into "glad to see you go rant".....I won't......I was at the Nassau show 1/11/79 which from what I remember was an OK show since I was lucky to get a "magic" ticket through a friend. I didn't forsee the Keith and Donna firings , one figured they would continue "status quo". The show was good but I felt at the time where would they go musically after Terrapin Station. Much to my surprise , they were let go and there I was 9/4-5-6/79 MSG a much happier camper.It was like a kid getting a new toy. The Dicks Picks Vol.#14 and Europe'72 4/16/72 releases show how good a player Keith was, throw in Dave's Picks #3 , too. As I said the Nassau show was the last of the Keith/Donna era for me , one wonders where it would have went had they stayed???

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
best days

I love the days which included the making of the "Cats Under the Stars' album. The augmented version on the jerry box has some great gospel songs to which donna added some wonderful vocals. I like the Keith and Donna solo effort with Jer helping out. Other than keith's amazing instrumental playing in the mothership, the place to truly appreciate both Keith and Donna is in the Jerry Band. Don't forget the release from May 21, 1976, of Jerry Garcia Band at the Orpheum Theatre-withKeith and Donna and Ron Tutt. Some truly great music from a great soulful, gospelly band. donna started as a studio singer at Muscle Shoals Alabama and I think it was true that it was hard for her to do the live stage with the behemoth that was the old dead-so we may tend to dismiss her if we don't look further. 1978, on-yes i think the opiates were taking their toll all around.

Joined: Jan 13 2012
Latter-Day Keith and Donna

I think that there are two factors at play here. One is the decline of Keith Godchaux's quality of musicianship towards the end of his and Donna's time with the band. Listening to the Winterland CD, the first example of that time I heard, I was struck that there is little of that amazing musicianship that he had previously shown. His playing is unexceptional and could really have been anyone able to comp along with the band's songs. I wonder if it wasn't just the substances that were behind his decline: the CD booklet has a picture with Donna and Bob Weir with their arms around each other...

The other factor is more general. I've always felt that the band's sound changed radically after Mickey Hart returned. Although there was still some great jamming, for example the 'Playing...' on the Cow Palace CD is very good, this was more the exception, unlike mid-1971 to the end of 1974 when practically every gig had a jammed-out 'Dark Star' or 'Other One', or lengthy jams out of 'Trucking'. The 'Dark Star' on the Winterland CD just doesn't compare with those of just a few years previously. Even had Keith Godchaux kept his playing chops, I don't think he would have shone as he did during 1971-74, as the band's sound had changed.

Then, of course, there's the matter of his death, not just a personal tragedy for his family and friends but for those who appreciated him through his music. Given the right band, he could well have shone once more. Sadly, this opportunity was cruelly taken from him.

rdevil's picture
Joined: Nov 2 2007
love keith and donna

I love Keith and Donna. The vast majority of what I listen to is 71-77 Dead; this article has inspired me to search for some of these early 79 shows which I haven't listened to in probably 15 years. I suppose drug issues among Keith and other band members led to the dropoff (to my ears) in 78 but I really enjoyed the jazz element he brought to the band right out of the gate.
As for Donna, I'm a big, big fan. Not so much when I first jumped on board in the late 80s but as I listened to more and more tapes the more I liked her. I used to chalk it up to the psychology term "classical conditioning," meaning I would hear Donna and immediately get excited because that meant it was the Dead at their best.
There are several songs that just NEED Donna: WRS, GSET, Eyes, Sugar Magnolia, and then she really hit her stride in 76/77 on Dancin', LLRain, Mission and of course Music Never Stopped along with countless other songs.
Regarding the Jerry Band, Warner Theater 78 is one of my all time favorites--love that lineup with Maria Muldare, although I read an interview somewhere where Jerry mentioned how unpleasent it was to tour with two wives of bandmembers in the group.
Great article, I'm off to (re-)explore early 79.

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
Don't know if it was because I was new

But Keith and Donna were certainly excitable and fun during those first few shows and especially last before Shea's.

Joined: Dec 3 2007
The World Before The Intertoobz

I saw the February 17 show, and for me it was a terrific show. One thing I do recall, however, was how fragmentary the dissemination of information was at the time. We take the Internet for granted now. Just before the Coliseum show, a bearded hippie in a Mexican restaurant on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley (it was near LaVal's--it was the kind of place where they sold beer without checking IDs, ahem) told me that the Dead had played "China Cat Sunflower" out in the Midwest. This turned out to be true, but I had no confirmation about it for some years. Prior to the show, this was my only hint that changes in the repertoire were afoot.

My friends and I considered ourselves "connected" Deadheads, in that we tried to sort wheat from chaff, but what pathways did we have? Pretty much just the Dead Ahead column in BAM and whatever random eyewitness accounts we came across. Bay Area new year's shows had a lot of East Coasters, so I used to quiz them about different shows they had seen, which is how I first learned about all sorts of facts we now take for granted (like that the band played a great show in Binghampton in 77. Someone told me about that at Winterland a few months later).

On our way into the show, my friends and I compared rumors. I had heard about "China Cat," someone else had heard Keith and Donna had left the band, someone else had heard it was just Donna. But the whole band came onstage, so who knew? As it happened, Donna had missed two shows at the end of the February tour, but Keith and Donna (per McNally) would not quit until March 1, so that "rumor" wasn't true. People who said they 'knew' that it was Keith and Donna's last show may have heard the rumor, but it doesn't mean it was "true."

Once Golden Road (and to a lesser extent Relix) got into the mix, even without the Internet there was some continuous threads of valid information, but even so there was a huge element of randomness in any information that was circulating. I don't know how many times throughout the 80s I heard the "Garcia has cancer, this is their last tour" rumor, which no one mentions today, but that sort of tall tale was standard issue for any Dead show. It was actually more surprising when a story turned out to be true.

For me personally, the most memorable thing about Feb 17 was the random songs that I had never seen, like "Greatest Story," "Don't Ease Me In" and "Big Railroad Blues," all of which meant a lot to me at the time.

Byerly's picture
Joined: Dec 12 2011
Vocal comparison

I will state up-front that I am not a big fan of donna, but as a musician I can say that she had some very good moments nailing the harmony parts with the rest of the band. But......I have to say that my belief is that the vocals in the 80's and especially post coma were goose bump material at some times. Black Peter at the December 15th run of shows after the coma is the first to come to mind. Some of the I Know You Rider's. I will agree to disagree.

Joined: Sep 11 2007
winter '79

January highlights, I think, were both Garden and Nassau shows, Springfield, and New Haven, or at least these had at least a few great moments and spurts. (Springfield, despite comatose Keith, was a minor legend around here, surprised to see no mention by BJ.) The music was pretty uneven, with some terrible shows (e.g. Utica). I always enjoyed the tape of the Oakland show, I loved that The Wheel was still possible to hear played. When Brent came, we got a hot one right away in Baltimore in early May, and by September (MSG) and October (Cape Cod) we were pretty sure everything would be cool.


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