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?
Folsom field's 3 set spectacle in Boulder on 9/3/72 was everlastingly memorable for the music as well as for the changing weather conditions. That cool Colorado rain took away some of the sunny sizzle. The free baggies of pot, each with matches and rolling papers included, tossed out to the crowd from the stage put many of the patrons in a fun-loving mood, too. Thanks to friends Jeff Z and Pete Sutton (R.I.P.) for bringing me to the concert, and to the Rainbow family for their kind gesture!
Almost 2 years later in Louisvile, KY the Grateful Dead set up the Wall of Sound in Freedom Hall on 6/18/74. We arrived early, so leaning on the stage in front of a beardless Jerry, stage right, was quite effortless. Friend Pete D and I were blown away by the 1st set Eyes of the World > China Doll, and again in the 2nd set with Weather Report Suite into the Other One, then the It's a Sin jam, with a soothing slip into Stella Blue. I always enjoyed Donna's stage presence: great eye candy!
A monster Morning Dew chased us out the door and on our way back to Oxford OH.
having never seen jerry I have always tried to put the “ratdog,” “the other ones,” “phil&friends,” “the dead,” and “furthur” shows in the perspective of something that I was privileged to be taking part in/bearing witness to, as it was a continuation of a party that had been going on for a long time before I ever stepped foot in the door, and was something that was beloved by so many people. The music has always been the most important angle of it all, though I suppose I may not be as harsh towards the post-jerry bands as the old-school deadheads seem to get, because it was the energy that hooked me.
I suppose “my show” would have to be the second dead related show I saw, “the other ones” at Nassau Coliseum in the summer of ’98, their first tour under that name, without Billy, but with Bruce Hornsby I believe. Being a resident of Nassau County, a newbie lover of the music, and having just finished my freshmen year of college, where the excitement for these shows had grown palpable amongst us post-jerry heads, I was nothing short of psyched for the show. I attended with my two friends, rich, a friend from college, and nick, a friend from forever. Nick and I remain the biggest deadheads out of our group of friends, and we both still credit this particular show.
Truth be told, in this memory the music takes second place to the energy I remember feeling . It was all about the energy. From the moment I stepped out of our car into the Coliseum’s enormous parking lot, the festival atmosphere of the scene blew me away. The RV’s, the cars, the flags, the colors, the dogs, the people, the people, the people. So many people, flying kites, throwing Frisbees, skateboarding, grilling, eating, all with beers in their hands, walking around watching each other people watch, and more than half the place had something for sale or trade, and 100% of the place was in the market for sale and trade. Where the hell was I, and goddamn it, why had nobody told me of this before? There I stood, a nineteen year old truth seeking soul searcher, a student of dr. hoffman’s problem child, tossed into a cauldron of chaos I had only before dared to dream of…was it possible this scene was actually as cool as promised? I ventured forth and found out that it was.
Never before had I been offered such an array of mind-altering substances by every person I had met…”hey bro, you need some beads, pins or stickers? Shrooms, doses, molly, ecstacy, hash, headies?” all in one breath, was the most common sentence I heard that night…I felt like a kid in some kind of store. Even though I was a newbie, I had practiced tried and true advice that night, and brought my own stuff from home, some real fun guys, and enough thc to sedate Godzilla. Though it was still nice to have the offers; they made me feel like I was at home with good people. Drug offerings from friendly dreadies aside, the vibe of the scene was one of excitement, and genuine happiness; there was a vibration of life I had never felt before going on. As always, it only grew as show time came near.
By the time we entered the Coliseum, the fun guys I had brought along to hang out were really making their presence felt, bringing the noises and colors and energy of all the happy people to a new height…as I walked through the crowd, somebody slapped my chest, an older dude with a greying beard and glasses in a baseball cap had put a sticker on me – the statue of liberty with a rosemary face, torch lit, with the words “you know our love will not fade away” on it…I smiled and kept the sticker where it lay…had to stop for friends needed a bathroom break, not me though, “I’ll just wait right here for you guys...” funny thing about waiting when you have no concept of time is the fact that it all seems to take so long…long enough for me to gaze upon a multi-generational scene of deadheads – grandma, mom, and little toddler, all decked out in tie-dye. Long enough to realize I was standing next to what (at the time) was a state of the art computer that offered a grateful dead trivia game to play that a group of people my parent’s age were standing around and playing with…each time this lady answered a question correctly the computer screen spun into a psychedelic swirl as “sugar magnolia” would start to play, and the whole group danced while the lady shouted joyously that “THE GRATEFUL DEAD LIVES BABY, THE GRATEFUL DEAD LIVES!!!!” I had never seen people so happy; it lifted my spirit to as of yet unseen peaks.
When we got to our seats, there was a dude in the row in front of us that had the majority of the row to himself, and he was shuffling wildly back and forth with his hands on his head. He turned to us, red faced, and out of breath…I think he had been crying. He noticed us and asked us if we had ever seen the grateful dead, and only my friend rich had been so lucky – highgate, vt, 1994, he acknowledged the show, and told us we were in for a treat. I had never before or since seen a grown man all alone and unashamed that he was so happy he was practically in tears
Then, after all this, the band came out and killed it that night…the Tennessee Jed about three songs in took it all to the next level….there was a playin’-> a reggae UJB…the drums blew my mind, and they closed with throwin’ stones->N.F.A. coupled with a crowd chant of “you know our love will not fade way,” into a touch of grey and box of rain encore…
There you have it folks, the night that solidified it all for me. Sorry if it’s a long, oft-told tale, but hey, it happened to me three years after jerry passed, and countless post-jerry fans both before then and since… the magic of the music and the energy of the scene lives
p.s. in april 2009, I went to see the dead at nassau coliseum, and while hanging out with similar fun guys as years past and walking around inside before the show started, I felt someone slap my chest. It looked to be an older guy, with glasses, a baseball cap, and a grey beard who did it…the sticker was of the statue of liberty with a rosemary face, a torch lit, and the words “you know our love will not fade away” on it…I am convinced it was the same guy 11 years later…
p.p.s. – listening wise my show is 9/21/72
p.p.p.s. – god bless the grateful goddamn dead
The memories of that evening:
I remember vividly saying to myself at one point that night "I want to see where this takes me" and I have tried to keep on that path for these many years.
I remember being with my dear friend, Michael Spanner, who passed away in 1998.
It was, and is, so much more than I can describe. I feel so fortunate to have been part of this for so many years. It is a wonderful bond that we share.
My all time favorite show was always the next one I was going to. The last one I went to was usually a close second...
6/9/77, which I was fortunate enough to attend...
Well, I gotta tell you, I was there that night too Blair, and of the eight shows I saw in 1977, this was a killer for all the reasons you outlined. It's hard to put any of the eight above the other, though, including 3/18, 19 and 20 at Winterland, 5/17 in Birmingham, Bobby's birthday in Baton Rouge and 12/29, 30 and 31 back at Winterland. No wonder it's my favorite year of Grateful Dead music.
...I think that Augusta '84 show has been on MANY people's short list for many years. I'm not sure why it never quite makes the cut, unless the master is not considered good enough for a commercial release. I honestly don't know. I love the show, too, but was not there. The band had a really good track record in Maine...
This was an email I sent to David Lemieux a few weeks back:
I would like to introduce you to one of the finest shows I had the pleasure of attending. The fall tour of 1984 was in many opinion one of the better tours of the early 80's with the stop in Augusta as the tapes to get. The show opener rivals the Stranger that was released on Without A Net. Roses is very well played and sweet but not too slow. The Last ever On The Road Again was a huge surprise for all. The next three songs are peppy and well played with no noticeable flubs. 1st set closer with The Music never stops really gets your heart ponding and your feet moving.
2cnd set opener with cold rain sets the tone with Jerry's vocals just sceaming with "Run,run me!" Lost sailor, Saint is played with that intense energy oozing style with Jerry and Brent driving and Bobby giving directions. Don't Need love gives you a breather in the middle of the set which you most likely need because the High energy classic goose bump style Grateful Dead music starts with Uncle Johns and flows into a end jam reminiscent of early 70's DarkStar followed by Jerry by himself out there refusing to give up the ghost when when Micky pulls out his hand drum and takes over with billy soon joining him for a very inspirational drums. Jerry & Bobby pick up where Jerry left off and Phil joins them for a mind melting space and leads in to a Playing reprise picked up from the night before and finishes Uncle Johns. In many of opinions the Morning Dew to end this show rivals Cornell and any other show that had the pleasure of a Morning Dew. Jerry is just giving his heart and sole with guitar and vocals that just sends dead bumps across your spirit. Good lovin sends you out the door with your bones a movin and your spirit a dancing.
The main criticism that folks have with this show is Jerry's voice is not as pristine but this is part of what makes this stop on the fall tour so amazing
Thank You for your time and consideration.
John B Byerly
On the bus for 33 shows & now taking a ride on Furthur
Augusta Civic Center - Augusta, ME
Feel Like A Stranger
It Must Have Been The Roses
On The Road Again
It's All Over Now
The Music Never Stopped
Cold Rain And Snow
Saint Of Circumstance
Don't Need Love
Uncle John's Band
Playin' In The Band
Uncle John's Band
3/24/1986 has always stood out on memories as Jack Pegnam & I had the wall right in front of Jerry for the second of many Box A Rain they pull out of the archives that year. Also another barn burner Morning Dew with Brent pumping that organ making it sound like a freight train coming at you
The Oakland 12/15/1986 - 12/17/1986 shows seeing Jerry back on the stage after his coma. Those are truly 3 special shows from start to finish
Worcester, Ma 4/02/1987 where I finally saw my first & only Scarlet Fire which I may say stands up to any i have ever heard on the radio or tape. For no other reason take a listen to this Scarlet Fire. It absolutly Rocks from first note to last
Not seeing them until 1993, I sometimes felt the shows I saw could be some of the last stops aboard this train. It's a bittersweet feeling- so happy to see them, so sad to feel the twilight. This point was brought home sweetly with the Stella Blue in Richfield, in the Spring of 94. But it's really the So Many Roads from Soldier Field 95, when I felt this isn't a song- it's Jerry saying goodbye. A mixture of glory- triumph and overwhelming sadness enveloped me during the end- "Lord, I've been walking down the road." Sorry if it's a sad story, it is what it is. About 30 seconds after the song, someone behind me yelled- That was beautiful! I screamed at the top of my lungs- It sure fuckin' was! There's nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. Blair, and many are so lucky to have seen the youth. Gratefully, we have the tapes.
p.s. I hope someday we read Blair's review of March at Winterland in the form of an essay that accompanies a Release of these shows.
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
. . . . . . . .
....this I'm listening to The GD Hour posted this week. A show focusing on audience tapes. Its like Blair and David are jamming. I saw a small handful of 20 odd shows from 87 on.....my fave is still my first. Wonderland 87/06/30. Damn....how could it not be>