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?
For the few dozen times when I could get up and stay real close (<= 20 feet) to see and hear a set, I can recall a good deal, no pun intended. Mostly it's Jerry's rounded tone and the three dimensional quality of the sound, but the visuals stay pretty well preserved. I managed to see quite a few small theatre shows, but I think the best and powerful memories are also equally arena, outdoor (Oxford!!) and shed. A true favorite memory comes from sitting on the hockey boards next to the stage in Springfield in January 1979. Next best was maybe standing next to a massive soap bubble blower at the Greek on 6/16/85, great idea for a sunny/foggy afternoon full of surprise.
Quite so. For some years after the Ally Pally (London) shows in '74 I was convinced they had played both Unbroken Chain and Pride Of Cucamonga.
Why the word verification when I have logged in? Very hard on old eyes.
Yes, Mr. Eleven, seeing the Dead at the Fillmore East was mystical and magical. My best show was 2/14/70 early, the show from that weekend that seems to get the least attention. Being sandwiched between those incredibly memorable late shows from 2/13 and 2/14 is why, but the early show was a little jewel. Cold Rain & Snow followed by the entire Live Dead suite. The Dark Star is only a bit shy of the holy grail that is 2/13, and The Eleven simply soars (my only time seeing it live!). Pig was his usual joy to behold during Lovelight. An amazing band at the peak of their powers that weekend!
It almost seems like yesterday.Next day(April 8th) those images of quasi mythical worship had been right in front of my innocent eyes.Was this dream or reality?Their sound quality blasted waterfalls of honey dripping colours which made the cavernous Wembley look like thus it had been floating.My first ever trip of Owsley sunshine,if one thing,wasn't ever being felt as in fear to loose anything but dread at being born in such realistic a world.I had been to sleep,few hours.Back from London from the first ever encounter with The Dead as I went to work next morning,at the hospital,felt like would never again be back to normality.But at my heart knew,alone,as Howard and Andy would not come.I would be back soon to the M4 to hicht back to London.Couldn't miss them,what-so-ever.I had been taken to another dimension.I would had followed them to the end of the world.At the time one just could go and get a ticket.So as I entered wouldn't even bother about the seat,but,walked along towards the middle alley between the seats.Knowing nobody would seem annoyed.My dressing too 'seemed' in tune with that southern californian spanish musicality Garcia seemed so much of a genial perpetrator.Couldn't believe my ears at the sound of so much spanish tinged colourful melodies as I had been bleesed in the previous concert.As one listens to Weir singing...'wow,truckin' home...''it was him looking in excitement as being felt at home like.It was counted few of us that had dared to freak out to the front,out of the seats.And if something was special about such band of special new kind of artists,one had to be there with the reciprocal feedback Jerry was manifesting with his honest sweet happy smiling as his notes were driving the outmost far out musical adventure the universe has ever seen.It was more than certain there was some psychic communication among kindred spirits.All that spanish feel felt more known than casual,as being like mind reading.And though this wasn't the beginning as I discovered with their albums atmospheric experiments, their live contact was the openness as the acid had unveiled out from the darkness.Such Grateful Dead !
Chicago International Amphitheater, February 19, 1973. We drove up from Purdue for this Monday night show with the New Riders. The New Riders were good, the first set of the Dead was OK. I said, Monday night isn't the best for concerts. Then the second set started. They wore the Nudie suits. I had the worst seat in the house way back in a corner. Then the brain dissection began, each cell ripped apart and spread to the farthest reaches of the universe, where you were on your own, then they brought it all back together, then they did it again, and again. Phils bass went on a jam until time stopped. Legendary, how could they do this? I saw 100 shows including all the Red Rock shows. Nothing could ever match this night of interstellar travel.
April 4th 1972 was my birthday,as a 22 years old army drafter from Spain, exiled in England.I bet the luckiest spaniard that has ever existed,as I and my two english friends.Drop the acid half way from Bath to London to see our beloved Grateful Dead,for the April the 7th concert.Next day,still in such state of euphoria hitched back to the other concert and back again to the hospital I was working.Life wouldn't be the same again.As the acid was at the peak,the band had move unto The Other One drum solo and just know I flew right across the front of the stage where still feel as I'm still there,evolving with Garcia's brilliant smile and what would never hear again as loud,as the crystal clear sound the band was cascading as a giant waterfall falling of cymbals and wha wha beautiful notes...Later,I hitched alone to Bickershaw,given a ride with a Rolls Royce right up to the main entrance to the festival.Though it was England,I've never seen as much rain as it fall during the most extraordinary of the festivals The Dead with PigPen,Beefheart,etc.and NRPS would simply open the skies wide across...At Glastombury we sincerely thought the pyramid would levitate and that The Dead would be present...I would not miss any of the Lyceum shows and bless to the two road crew,incredible kindred people, walking about with the laughing gass.I'm still sadden I never saw Pig again after.In the summer went down to see Dali and though he was very receptive to Anthem of the Sun's cover,I did show him.I'm still perplexed about his opposition to acid as it was obious he did not need it to spoilt his own sort of madness, but after would ask,in different occasions about the music I was into in England.Two things I now wonder.How do you all keep up 'cos I can't,so I can't afford to compare the magick that I experienced,futher after that tour I couldn't find again in any other form come close.
golfinhead those are two really excellent shows. The biggest memories I have surrounding those two nights was that has nothing to do with the actual show (1) the lack of shade in the camp grounds. Watched two of my friends get passed over the wall during the first set as my friend and I hug the wall and we had a great security guard handing bottles of his own water to us to keep us alive. (2) Oxford, Me. had just experience some sort of heavy metal concert and were afraid of the deadheads and had hired security guards to guard their houses and stores. One gas station had a big sign saying "No dead heads allowed" (3) the lack of water and bathroom facilities which they rectified part way through the second day with cheers when everyone saw a water tanker truck and a porta-pottie truck come in.
on 9-3-77 and ended on 6-18- 95.
The days between were some of the finest ever seen.
Have been quite fortunate to catch some incredible shows.
As for my favorite, never could reach it.
Just slips away.
But i'll try.
Oh, and we never discuss the hallways at dead shows.
You know early first set, Jerry rippin Mexicali a new one
and those lovely dancers breezing by.
Melts in to a dream.
"...Really good track record in Maine..." Absolutely! Seems that when a show is in your own backyard, it makes it all the sweeter. Especially when the band brings it! 9/17/1982: I went back to my AUD Master ( Nak CM300 Mics>Sony TCD5M) lastnight. Man o man! Rather than a Play by Play from me, Check it on Archive.org> I humbly recommend the Jim Wise AUD. Pay close attention to the sequence Space>Spanish Jam>OtherOne>Goin'Down The Road Feeling Bad>Morning Dew. You -can't -stop- running -water- forward -motion kinda deal. I recall the big lean-in as it gets quiet just before Dew. Okay okay, no Play by Play. Hey Gprof: Right on with Saratoga '83. No suprise here. I attended but did not record. Fantastic! Cheers, shwack in nh
"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."
It's all way too subjective but still you have your rave/fav
Mine was the one put me on the hook for good: Oakland Aud. Arena, 8/5/79
Brent was still new and learning but Jerry was teaching. When Jerry teaches it's like a guru giving darshan. It doesn't have to do with the music, it has to do with the energy. He (and the boys) had TOTAL control of the energy and were just playing with it all night long and having a ball. This was evidenced by the double encore: Bertha>Good Lovin' and then, as about half the crowd had already left, they come back out and ripped Johnny B. Goode.
I listen to the recording these days and it's good. But it's not good in the way that I remember it. For all of the reasons stated in the first paragraph here.