Blair's Golden Road Blog - The Persistence of Memory
By Blair Jackson
I’ve been asked many times through the years about “the best” Grateful Dead show I ever attended. With 365 concerts spanning 1970 to 1995 to choose from, that’s an extremely difficult choice. “Best” in what way? Some supposedly objective evaluation of the music? Good luck with that. “Favorite”? Even that is completely loaded. I’ve had unimaginable fun at shows that I know were not that spectacular, and I’ve had so-so times at shows that were revealed later to be magnificent. It’s the setting, your mood, who you’re with, who’s around you, your ability at that show and on those songs to tune in to the band and the vibe in the venue, and so on.
As I’ve said before, I don’t like to compare shows from different periods of the band’s history. Let’s pick two shows I attended that I loved unequivocally: 5/15/70 late show at the Fillmore East and 10/10/82 at Frost Amphitheatre in Palo Alto. It doesn’t even feel like the same band to me. I was a 17-year-old newbie in the spring of ’70 and every show was a complete revelation. That first year-plus I saw the band, half the songs at a given concert were new to me. Give me a “Dark Star” or a “St. Stephen” and I was blissful.
By the fall of ’82 I was 29 and a wily veteran, yet there was something so perfect about that second Frost show—particularly the pre-drums—on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, in what was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen the Dead, that has seared the show in my mind in a way few have. Certainly there have been many others that are as memorable to me in other ways, from the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in ’71, to the final night of the Warfield run in ’80, to the 9/11/83 show at the Santa Fe Downs, to Sunday Red Rocks in ’85, and on and on. We all have a million stories.
But there is one show I went to that probably persists into my memory more than any other: March 18, 1977, at Winterland. I had last seen the Dead in October 1976, two shows (with The Who) at Oakland Stadium, so it was a relief to be back “home” in a smaller place again. I’d been hanging out a bit with my new Dead Head friend David Gans and he had passed along glowing reports of the Dead’s first two shows of ’77 down in Southern California. He told me about a new epic tune Garcia had introduced, called “Terrapin” (“Huh, like a turtle?”) and a new reggae tune by Bob Weir. Intriguing.
My girlfriend and I met up in line with my roommate from sophomore year at Northwestern, also named Blair, and we landed choice seats in the top (seventh) row of the little balcony that outlined the floor, about a third of the way back. The first set was typical for the era, which is to say completely inspired. Jerry’s solos in “Mississippi Half-Step” soared and screamed—there was something that happened to the sound of his guitar (a Travis Bean at the time) in that smallish arena that was different from any other place. The room’s natural reverb, which played havoc with Phil’s bass lines, let Jerry’s sound ring into every inch of space, it seemed. “Sugaree” was never better than it was in ’77, and on the version this night, something cool happened right before the final verse, at about the 9:55 mark. Jerry stepped on a pedal—an octave divider, I learned years later—that changed his sound to a warm but sharp tone I’d never heard him use before. It felt like being bathed in hot liquid. It lasted only a minute or so before he switched back to his regular tone, but for me it had the shock of the new—whoa, what was that?—and it was just a hint of things to come. The real guitar fireworks started a couple of songs later.
“Scarlet Begonias,” probably my favorite of the band’s recent songs (it was two years old at that point) had everyone in the place happily dancing and singing along, but the instrumental coda, which opened with Donna’s soft moans and cries as usual, didn’t expand and spread out this time; instead, it moved quite deliberately into a catchy new groove that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite. (It was from “Happiness Is Drumming” off the Diga Rhythm Band album, which I’d worn out on my turntable over the previous year.)
It turned out this was a new song, debuted that night, “Fire on the Mountain,” and it introduced another novel guitar tone—courtesy of Jerry’s envelope filter, which gave every note a wonderful thwacking wah. What a song! It had the fattest groove of any Dead song since “St. Stephen,” and that chorus, with Bob and Donna helping out, jumped in my head and has stayed there for the past 35 years. And when the final jam after the last chorus made a quick descent and dropped back into the original opening riff of “Scarlet,” my head snapped back in amazement—whaaaaa?—as if some master magician had just made a tiger disappear in front of my eyes. How did they do that?
A few songs into Set Two, Jerry was back with the magical envelope wah for my first version of “Estimated Prophet” (which I called “California” before David Gans educated me about the correct title a few days later). I was a huge fan of reggae in this era—The Harder They Come soundtrack, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Toots & the Maytals—so I was thrilled that Bob and the band had put a characteristically weird and dark spin on the genre.
Then came “Terrapin,” rising quietly at first, glistening rhythm guitar accents from Bob, as Jerry began the tale. That first time through I couldn’t quite piece together details of the story—the girl, the sailor, the soldier, the lion’s den. But it felt timeless, maybe even from another dimension, an invitation to go on a mysterious journey. The notes in Jerry’s first solo were like molten gold. The song moved through different sections, its rhythm changing a couple of times along the way, until it arrived at a point where all of us—5,000-strong—were shouting “TERRAPIN!” along with Bob and Donna, because we knew we had to, and the band kicked into this enormous instrumental bombardment of guitars and piano and drums rising and falling in unison and harmony and contrapuntal lines; the most magnificent and majestic bombast I’d ever heard.
Once that jam had dwindled to its natural conclusion, the group went into a hypnotic jam that sounded Spanish or Arabic—this was the only time the Dead ever played the “At a Siding” section of the “Terrapin Station” suite (the album came out in late July ’77), but without Garcia’s vocal part (“While you were gone…”) attached. (I had to wait for Furthur to play the complete suite decades later to hear that great swooping entrance to “At a Siding” live again; it still gave me chills.)
Following a short drum solo, it was back to terra firma for a long, slow but simmering version of “Not Fade Away,” which, incredibly enough, contained the most mind-blowing musical passage of a night filled with them. At 11:00 into the song, Jerry flips on what sounds like a combination of an octave divider and a flanger and launches into this rotating figure against the beat that builds slowly and then gets faster and wilder until it’s spinning completely out of control and he’s “fanning” high and fast. It hits a peak and just stays there for a few bars and then he really cuts loose on the chaotic descent. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since and it never fails to leave me breathless; it’s still astonishing.
At the time I was so stunned by that short jam I think I was still recovering during the “St. Stephen” that followed and didn’t even notice they skipped a verse and the middle jam of that song! “Uncle John’s Band” was the encore that sent us home. Sweet ecstasy! It was one of those totally transcendent and transformative nights the Grateful Dead occasionally provided (when I least expected it) that made me feel completely alive and alert and in tune with everything in the universe. (It sounds goofy, but you know what I mean.)
Within a week or two, Gans had tracked down an excellent audience recording of the show and I played it endlessly, reliving the night each time. As time went on and more tapes and more shows competed for my attention, I listened to the show less, but the glow never left me.
In preparation for writing this, I listened to good ol’ 3/18/77 from beginning to end for the first time in a few years and I was frankly surprised by its flaws—the lyric lapses in “Uncle John’s” and “Fire on the Mountain” (which is still raw and formative), the sloppiness of what I remembered being a perfect transition going from “Fire” back to the “Scarlet” intro, that missing chunk of “St. Stephen,” etc. By the time the band hit the road the following month for the fabled May ’77 tour, they’d worked out the kinks in “Fire” and tightened up their sound in general. But everything that excited me that night is still etched in my imperfect memory and washes over me again whenever I hear the show.
I went to Winterland the following night, too, and though I’m sure I had a good time, here’s what I actually remember of the 3/19 show: nothing. And you know what? All in all, it’s probably even a better show (the tapes told me years after the fact). But 3/18 was my show, and it always will be.
Is there a show that stands out in your mind as The One?
nobody noticed the Carl Sagan reference?
bless you Carl .... you were a true space cowboy!
It's amazing to think that forty years ago,this week,I was resetting from a 'space shuttle' like return back to Bath(England) from the Bickershaw festival.I'm convinced that the good scoring of west-country's Owsley sunshine would've had help preserve such great cinematic & colourful memory.I still feel holding intact.Which was long time kept as lovingly reserved.Thus from,none ever let it be known free,as if fom misunderstanding,long time.Two days after such fateful event.Chris was,as we were sharing the communal living at Cavendish Crecent in Bath,desinfecting my long hair from the flies I had caught from the murky muddy garbage which piled up during the weekend that serve as sleeping,without shelter or any other sort of,short brake from the insistent rain and absolute humidity.Often I thought as Woodstock being a picnic in comparison.After the Wembley gigs was determine to follow any other gig,no matter,what responsibility that would be holding me back though it meant plenty of risk.But,even if the dawning of the 5th was overcasted as for the rest of the weekend.No thing could stop me.Without tent,raincoat and on my own again but,a colourful thick blanket with a hole ripped in the beautiful textile turn to a poncho reminiscent from the Navajo and Hopi blankets,was my only protection,which soon would be soaked to the marrow of my bones.Anyway,feeling like I didn't know where I was going,as I was hitch-hiking on the motorway to the North.A Roll Royce stops!Bless would be the man I can not name,who got me up even past the 'artist entrance' for free.How could I ever found such remote place?So there I was at the fate of the festival bath.The weeks before in between I knew as I thought about several other extraordinary festival's artists I had been.Somehow,this one had to be unique as it held outmost an unseen aura of pure counter-cultural underground 'misfit play power' as heading to ever such unequal highs.Throughout the rainiest weekend could had been the most miserable experience one could ever had,had not been for such strange conbination of magical thinking,but what music?The Grateful Dead/Beefheart/Kinks/Country Joe/Cheech&Chong/NRPS/Family/Incredible String Band(Robin Williamson as the sole individual I ever have spoken about it that was there)Donovan/Pacific Gas & Electric/Brotherhood of Breath/Nigth Tripper,etc.but the even more ecletic crowd one would be finding in the middle of more &more rain.The Dead's creative apex,though,we did not know,even as Pig Pen's weak sounding voice still raved but was last time,I,at least,saw him last but still miss.Would finally appear for one of the longest concerts I had ever seen performed,in a field by any other.Right there,what seemed more than a festival but,a dispirited swamp being stoically enjoyed with the Dead's celestial golden sweetness going,rendering beyond any limits what the mind would meet as gratifying pleasure over matter.As I,had felt before going,knew,I couldn't miss.What had discovered as promising shinning,brigthly.And as won't ever experience as felt,and as it was happening becoming such extreme adventerous field experience.Near the 'Release' tent on the rigth,some other stall by some Hells Angels and 'Frends' a PA was blasting on a 'Don't need no doctor',before as paradigm of the festival.So the NRPS turn up and turn the atmosphere soaring angelic.Thru their performance the sky openned up and as the stage's gray background was waning into a miracolous colourful dusk becoming almost like a Turner's evening.Three old planes that had been roaring across suddenly bashed over and reappeared over the stage leaving espectacular smoke trails behind.The Riders played on,and next the aeroplanes sort of splitted apart from over the stage leaving a purple triangle of smoke to what would be announcing the Dead's eminent reappearance,most of us had been waiting for in such long weekend.With all the technology might now be possible to know better,what was,without being there but none other event if it was missed could had been as real as it happened.The playing of such classic rendering that the Dead did of their 'Going down the road feeling bad' almost reached supernatural connotations.And the grateful Dead played it all at such utopian happening,as they played high time longer that one would feel from anybody,at the time.Giving such higher pleasure sharing with the musically felt,as well as a mind changing experience/mind expansion or the feeling what change really was meant was in itself even greater.Thus was Beefheart's surreal weird strangeness or the drunken Kink's unending encores of 'Lola' as Country Joe's genuine serious warning about ''that fucking tower sinking,endangering the ones underneath...''Bickershaw might be the ONE, but that one 'cos of the rain many may regret having had missed but not those incredible local people or the heavy drinkers which probably meant Scotland was near,or perhaps we were in another world. And the Dead stoned out the field to a plane difficult to forget.
Hartford earthquake show. Deadheads are speechless for the first time.
What a great story! I love a happy ending. :-)
I'm glad that NO was sandwiched between SF and NY for the band's 15th anniversary shows! Being a small market we only got 2 shows at the Saenger on Canal St. and what shows!!!!! 31 years later I still cherish these shows. Only 3 cities for this acoustic/2 electric set shows and NO (the other coast) was one. First shows in NO since the Warehouse run in '70 (1-30,1-31,2-01). "Busted down on Bourbon Street..." I was a little too young for those shows so I thought I'd never see them in my hometown. So on so many levels these shows were very special to me. Did see them in Baton Rouge (10-16-77) but thats an hour away and not home. However still remember the second set Scarlet/Fire/Estimated/Drums/Other One/Good Lovin'/Terrapin/Black Pete/Around and US B as the encore. Freakin' unreal!!!!!!! OK, back to '80. Highlights: 10-18: set 1 started with Dire, full set well played, but nothing that would not wind up on Reckoning the extended version. set 2 Big River with its NO nod, Althea (one of my favs), and one of the best Lost/Saints that I've ever heard. set 3 China/Rider started it off and I honestly felt like I entered another diminsion during Prophet/Eyes/Drums/NFA/BP I still float back there from time to time! Ended with OM Saturday N on a Saturday night!
10-19: set 1 started with On the Road and ended with Ripple (same as last night). set 2 started with Jack, I really remember Row (very mellow and hopin'), LLRain and Jed. Good set but nothing special, OMG that was about to come! set 3: This set hit me very hard as the setting of the Saenger came alive! I felt as though I was in an old Berlin venue in Germany or something. I had gotten some blotter from a beautiful angel by the name of Alexis that I had met at Armstrong park north of the French Quarter proper prior to the show. Remember her name. Anyway, back to set 3, started with S/F (just like set 2 in BR 3 years prior at LSU), Sam & Del (when Bob made references to tearin' this building down I was scared shitless-the blotter-I felt like we were going to hear air raid sirens like London during WW2, Jer Bear calmed me down with a beautiful Terrapin (could not have come at a better time) this is where the real magic starts. When Jer sang about the lady down in Carlisle I couldn't stop thinkin' about Alexis and I felt feelings I had never felt about a total stranger. The lyrics " eyes alight with glowing hair " just painted a picture that I actually saw and meshed with my feelings. Drums beat the shit out of my mind and I couldn't wait for it to end! Wow man TRUCKIN' was up next (first in New Orleans ever-the place went nuts when the city and Bourbon St. came up!) This would be the only NO performance as it was not played at U of NO (10-18-88). Wharf Rat followed and I thought about the docks of the city along the moonwalk at the edge of the Mississippi River. Sugar and Lovin' was next but I have no memory of either. The encore was Brokedown Palace-it's like they knew I had to hear this to make peace with this building that Bobby was going to tear down-TRUE MAGIC!!!!!-it did indeed settle my soul.
After the show me and my uncle (just kiddin'-he was and is my best friend Clay) went to the the 24hr Cafe' Du Monde for Coffee au Lait. While I was telling Clay about my Lady with a Fan trip I saw her right in front of me!!! I had to take a double take, yes it was really her. She asked why did I stare at her during Terrapin Station the entire time! She said I looked like I reached Nirvana and was wild-eyed albeit calm. I didn't know what to say. We went down to the Moonwalk and took another dose. The rest is history. We just celebrated 31 years of married bliss with two grown, beautiful and smart kids.
The GD gave me my family man! Can you Dig on that? The GD is in my Soul and Heart, shit my DNA! I loved Jerry like I really knew him. I can't listen to Black Muddy River or So Many Roads without falling apart, I just bawl like an infant.
Thanks, Peace and Love
if you have to log in to post... what's the point?!
I've posted this elsewhere, but am sending it to you as well...
Okay, guys. Since I've been a long and vocal critic of exclusivity, here's my not-just-bitchin' resolution to this most bothersome issue that should make everyone happy:
Grateful Dead needs to adopt the same copyright system used to track editions in books. In this way, just like a Steinbeck novel, some lucky few would get first editions and, depending upon demand, the Grateful Dead are free to make second and further editions as required, while also preserving (ending?) their mindbogglingly Quixotic windmill quest to first achieve, and then curiously lock down, that most perfect yet elusive balance of exclusivity. My solution also serves to permanently take all the locks off the Vault and offers the beginnings for establishing a functioning catalog system - remember all of those album versions and mixes of Anthem of the Sun? -, thereby both preserving and keeping, at least as well as any old treasured record collection ever was, the Grateful Dead's musical legacy for the years and generations to come.
Now that wasn't so hard, was it? No longer need we fear those most dreaded and totally unnecessary words: "...Never to be released again.."
"Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down
And dug for him a shallow grave, laid his body down..."
...for some reason I had gone to this show in someone else's car, despite having one. But we didn't have a ride back. We ended up hitching back to Binghamton in a truck (for some reason we couldn't get a ride at the show) and having to walk from the Binghamton highway exit to our off campus house. I think we rolled in around 6 the next morning. Ah...........college.
I don't remember enough to give a long detailed description of the night, but I was going to SUNY Binghamton at the time and caught a ride up to Buffalo for this show. The energy of this show was AMAZING! The first set it was obvious that the band was on, and on in a big way. Then the second set started with a Dancin'>Franklin's. I can't imagine that they ever started a second set better. I didn't have a tape of this show for the first 20 plus years after seeing it, but remembered the electronic jam in this song pairing. The entire show was just on fire and it seemed like the band and the audience just had an extra "dose" of energy and enthusiasm. It was the one show that really stood out in my mind that I wanted to hear again.
I think when I first started collecting CDs rather than tapes, this was A number One on my list to get, and I did, although I think there was a problem with the tape deck for a few shows around this time and all the soundboards were a bit substandard. Anyway, it's the show I always wanted to hear again, and when I did, 20+ years later, it was as good as I remembered. Then, of course, Dick blessed it by making most of it part of the first Road Trips. I'm glad everyone now can hear it in all its pristine glory, if a bit chopped up. But I recall that most or all of the second set has been released between RT1.1 and the bonus disc. Great stuff, and a great choice by TPTB to release it.
I have enjoyed your blog (as I did with the fanzine) for a long time, and finally had to weigh in. This is as good a point as any. My favorite show is always the next one -- Furthur at McCoy Stadium in Providence in July hopefully. Second favorite show is always the last one I have seen -- Oakdale a week ago. Here are a few others I remember being at and having a ball being there. The July 18, 1989 Alpine show they are about to air at the movie theatres; I will never forget hauling my sleeping 5-year-old son over my shoulder to the car as Quinn the Eskimo wafted over the horizon. The February 11, 1970 show at the Fillmore East with the Allmans and Fleetwood Mac. (yeah, I was there.) Farm Aid Show at MSG in September 1987. The Cape Cod shows in 1979 . . . hot, hot, hot! One show i DIDN'T attend that I love is the 7.13.84 show at the Greek; I think the Scarlet Begonias at that show is my all-time favorite. Jerry takes some some unique and magical turns in his solo on that, and you get the feeling they are never gonna come back to the last verse. More recently, Furthur at the Vibes in 2010 was amazing. I can't decide whether to laugh or cry everytime I hear Althea from that show ... JK is a joy machine and his technique supports his musicality to superb effect.
One show I cannot help but mention was my first show, hence the subject line of this post. I first saw (but didn't see) the Grateful Dead at Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY, on August 16, 1969. I had been up two days, walked five hours from our car to the site, and after seeing Santana, Canned Heat, etc. burn up the stage, I nodded off during the Dead and CCR's sets. Can you imagine sleeping through your first Dead experience? No wonder they had such a lousy time; why waste a good show on a sleeping fan? (Of course, I had barely heard of them at that time.) It hasn't happened since. In fact, my NEXT show was at the Fillmore on Jan. 3, 1970, when I was a freshman at Columbia University. I was in the fifth row, spitting distance to Pigpen. By the end of that show, I had clearly started off on this road we all share. We are blessed with a music that ain't never gonna end, with the band beyond description, with each other, and with all the dreams that have emerged from this magical world we live in. Cool or what!