Grateful Dead

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.

Salvador Dali: “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931.
This is your brain on Dead.

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.)

July ’77. Say, is somethin’ funny goin’ on around here?

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?

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Mr.TheEleven's picture
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Joined: Nov 28 2010
Nothin like the first time

No, not sex. That was horribly awkward. And no, not that first line of coke, as wonderful as that is. Attending my first Dead show, of course. July 1970, Fillmore East, NYC. It was like seeing the face of God. And a True Believer was born. P.S. - It didn't hurt that my first Dead show was at the greatest rock palace ever - rather than some bland college - complete with mind blowing light show and opening act NRPS. I was truly fortunate.

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Joined: Jun 7 2007
John B. Byerly, where, oh

John B. Byerly, where, oh where, is the soundboard of 3/24/86? That Dew is apocalyptic. The best one I ever saw, far and away. That lick that Jerry does before he "fans" at the end of Morning Dew is one of a kind.

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Joined: Jun 7 2007
"It is the next note, not the

"It is the next note, not the last..." J. Garcia

Well played cumberlandcase, well played.

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Joined: Jul 25 2011
This one's pretty easy.

This one's pretty easy. Merrriweather Post Pavillion 6/20/83. I was 18, a beautiful venue, my first show (not counting 9/15/82- nevermind, a long story), the parking lot scene-discovering there were other people who loved the Dead as much as I, getting to the lawn a little late but in time for one of the most beautiful songs I'd never heard before "Peggy-O", Tennessee Jed, where I felt I wasn't so much dancing as my muscles were quivering along with the musician's instruments. The epic second set. It's a huge understatement saying the second set thunderstorm was the most apocalyptic storm I've ever been in. It was a warm, warm rain, more like a warm shower. Crazy people on the lawn writhing and squirming to the music covered with mud. The young man who kept, several times, grabbing my wrist and screaming "this is the end of the world man!". Crazy people slippering and sliding all over the muddy lawn.Yes, lighting struck the pavilion and the power dropped out during "Wharf Rat" - Phil responded with the most incredible bass bombs ever. Oh yeah- the music!- Really, I saw 27 shows but nothing was like this one- every single note by every band member totally inspired! If ya don't believe me, read the other comments on this site about this show! I'm not alone! If I didn't see that show - I'd pick Hampton 4/14/84. I have an indelible memory of that show- seated, waiting for the first set, looking around us and seeing the most ego-clobbered gentle people ever- Willie Nelsons "Always on My Mind" playing through the hall. Fantastic show, the jamming more like 74 than 84! And if I could choose a non-concert? I have a vivid memory of really flipping out on my first Europe 72 Dark Star. Near the end of a 3 day cross country Amtrak train ride to Reno, NV, circa 1986 . Early morning hours on the California Zephyr, pitch black, crossing the Utah-NV desert, I seemed to be the only one awake on the train. Listening to the 5/4/72 Dark Star on my Walkman and just flipping out! Incredible. I'll always have a soft spot for that Dark Star!

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Joined: Nov 2 2010
Doh!

Typo--all dates in last post should read 3/18/77.

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Joined: Nov 2 2010
Yes indeedy!

I'm with you, Blair--that entire stand at Winterland remains memorable for many reasons--great stories of sneaking in, scoring, etc.--but 3/18 transcends all other shows for me. Nice description of the amazing first set, especially. I had the tapes within days (from Don Wolf, as I recall) and 3/18 became the official late-nite soundtrack in my dorm for a time. I've always thought that run would make a good box set.

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Joined: Nov 1 2010
Oxford '88

For me, it was two shows. Oxford 1988. I was 16 years old and my father took me, my sister and my friend up to Maine for a weekend of really good Grateful Dead/Little Feat music. I was not old enough to see The Boys in thier prime, so this was the closest it would ever get for me. The scene was AWESOME!! These were my 3rd & 4th shows, and to have Little Feat reunited open up for them was exactly what put me on the bus forever. I can still see the glider up in the air during Bird Song. I am pretty sure that it cut the 1st set a little short. Phil dropped a bunch of bombs over the weekend, and the band was having a lot of fun with the crowd("We want Phil"). I have seen other pretty good shows(relatively speaking) after this, but this definately got me hooked. It's too bad that the scene declined very quickly after this, but at least I was able to experience the magic of what so many other people had known for 20 something years already.

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Joined: Jun 7 2007
The best show no one knows about

For me, "THE" show that stands out in my mind as being the greatest one I've ever attended, as far as musical performance and personal enjoyment goes, was by far, MSG 9/14/91. It was the Saturday night show of the nine night run at MSG that year, so that lends itself to this choice, as Saturday is absolutely my favorite day of the week. Also, it was the hottest show of those nine nights. Yes folks, better performance-wise than 9/10/91 when Branford blew all night and they played Help>Slipknot>Franklin's>Estimated>Dark Star, and hotter than any of the Boston Garden Shows that followed. There, I said it.

I attended the show with my beautiful wife to be, the lovely Deborah, and my best friend, Coz (also known as The Cozzer.) Now, I know that historically Fridays and Saturdays are usually not the best nights of a run as The Dead usually saved the special stuff for the nights that mostly only the faithful would attend (week nights.) This night was no exception to that rule save for the fact that, simply put, the band was on fire.

The setlist was nothing special, but the performance was the finest I've ever seen. First off, there are no flubs musically or vocally to speak of, save for one note that Jerry plays at the 1:04 mark of Jack Straw, but after that, this show is sheer perfection. I'm sure Jerry was fueled by Hornsby sitting in on keys, thereby fueling the rest of the band. It was so obvious, too. They knew it and we knew it. All of them were smiling on stage, and many, many times Jerry did that gentle rocking motion that he did when the Dead were cooking up something special.

This night also had the distinction of the one and only appearance of "The Happiest Man Alive." Though we did not speak a word to him, he was given that moniker by his body language. The Happiest Man Alive was in the row directly in front of us, which for some reason, he shared with no one. For the entire duration of the show, THMA chugged the entire length of his row back and forth all the while smoking joints of incredibly kind bud and passing them back to us. All night. Kind bud. Not a single spoken word passed between him and my group of three. Could you ask for more?

Every song was performed with precision. The vocals were (for The Dead) spot on. Each song was a treat this night: Let the Good Times Roll gets things started with Bruce, Bob, and Jerry respectively singing their verses with great enthusiasm over Hornsby's driving piano. Jack Straw reaches dizzying heights during the second solo section. Friend of the Devil features nice solo passages from Vince, then Hornsby on accordian, then Bob, and then 'Ol Jer. Jack-A-Roe is succinct and very tight. Rooster rocks, even Desolation Row (not one of my faves) is vastly entertaining. The first set highlight however, is the gargantuan, epic version of Tennessee Jed. Always one of my favorites, this night's perfect rendering features Jerry slamming down on a C chord as Hornsby finishes a short descending run, that the entire Garden felt, to start the second pass of the solo section. They then build up a monstrous head of steam that leads into the head guitar lick that starts the outro chorus. Certainly, the best Jed I have ever seen (it's not even close) and one of the best I've ever heard. A frenzied version of Promised Land closes out the first set. The final jam section after the last verse is just shy of two minutes long, and is an absolute carnival of sound.

The flawless second set has a six song pre drumz sequence. It starts off with a fantastic China/Rider. Again the band is firing on all cylinders, and freakin' Jerry is all over it. Jerry is all over everything this night. Next, the band slows things down with a note perfect reading of Ship of Fools which leads into a very nice three song sequence in the key of E: Truckin'->Spoonful->He's Gone.

Now bear in mind while the Dead have been playing this incredibly well executed music, Coz, Deb, and I have been dancing our asses off, having a blast, and getting completely fired up courtesy of The Happiest Man Alive who, after wordlessly disappearing at the end the first set (we thought he would never come back), silently slipped into his seat in his solitary section (can anyone say alliteration?) and picked up right where he left off. Joints included.

Ah, but I digress, the three song medley in E is wonderfully played. Inspired jamming, great crescendos, no throw aways, no missed cues, really strong vocals, Bruce spurning Jerry on, and Jerry spurning the rest of the band on. It was such a sight to hear (wait, that makes no sense.) Oh well, anyway during Drumz/Space the three of us caught our breath and sat, but not THMA. He just chugged on and on, back and forth pausing only momentarily to fish yet another bone out of his pocket to share with us.

Post Drumz, the boys picked up right where they left off. A rippin' Watchtower got things started that led into the most well played version of China Doll I have ever seen. The show proper ended with an over the top version of Saturday Night. Then the Dead played, quite nicely, my second favorite encore: The Weight (Quinn the Eskimo is #1.)

Again, and I cannot state this emphatically enough; the band was perfectly right on. Just simply smokin'. The best I have ever seen them.

As we walked out, blitzed out of our minds, I knew I had seen something special. Over the years I have listened to this show many, many times and the proof is in the pudding. It sounds on tape/CD/mp3 just as hot as the night I saw it live. If you have the means, check this show out. You will not be disappointed, I promise you.

unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
this is your brain on dead :)

Blair, for you to remember 1 or 2 shows after seeing 365 is just incredible, I would love to pick your brain about some of those shows, I mean, you saw the dead and the who in 76, and those 70 shows and those warfield shows, I am green with envy. While your were doing that, I was into Led Zep and Ten years after and pink floyd and Moody blues, in fact all of it but the dead, then, one day, I was introduced to the dead the right way, by old time travelers like you who had seen them lots, it was 1980 April and a road trip up to Atlanta to the Fab Fox theatre, to see the boys, what a nite, etched there forever in the "good stuff" part of your brain. Your see, Jerry smiled at us that nite, just after space, it was like mescalito winking at ya, you never believed it would happen, you had heard of it, but never really believed it was real, then, bam, it happens and you are changed forever. I wish I had seen the boys more, but everytime, it was bliss. I would give alot for just one of those nites again.

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Joined: Nov 2 2010
12/31/81

is a favorite of mine as well...i do the gong bong along with kesey most times i listen to it and boy can that make things strange in a hurry. the playin' in the band jam gets out there, the terrapin in beautiful, the lead into the other one from space is great, and the morning dew is one of my favorites. The third set is a great way to close out the night...happy new years to all indeed

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