The Grateful Dead and Halloween. It was a match made in heaven—or is that hell?
There's the name, of course, and the skeleton imagery. And in the early days of the Haight-Ashbury scene, it wasn't at all unusual for young people to dress up in colorful and at times outlandish outfits just in the course of their day-to-day lives. Almost every night at the Fillmore and the Avalon in '66-'67 had a bit of a Halloween feel. Halloween itself just provided another excuse to dress up. Later, Halloween Dead shows gave cover to folks who wanted to go a little crazy.
The Dead played on Halloween 13 times, and 9 of them exist on tape. They weren't all winners musically—in fact, I'd say the batting average is fairly low—but you can bet that the folks who were there still had a blast.
I know I did at the few I went to. I had only one rule when it came to costumes—I had to be able to dance in it! So no cardboard giant nitrous oxide tank for me! But I sure did love seeing those creative getups, along with the Jerry impersonators with bad fake beards, Egyptian princes, Dancing Bears and all sorts of weird ones that were beyond comprehension—but totally cool!
Here's a brief history of the Dead's Halloween shows:
10/31/66, California Hall, SF. The original plan was for the Dead to be among several groups playing what was billed as the “Acid Test Graduation” for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters at Winterland in SF on Halloween. A few days before, however, Bill Graham abruptly cancelled the event, claiming that he had heard that Kesey was planning a mass LSD dosing at the show. As a result, Kesey and his crowd held a low-key “graduation” at a small warehouse on Harriet Street in San Francisco, while the Dead joined Quicksilver Messenger Service for the Dance of Death Costume Ball half a mile away. SF Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason wrote that the venue “was jammed all night long, even though the six witches and Mimi Fariña [hyped in advance on handbills] never did appear. Or maybe the witches did. It was hard to tell. … The Quick and the Dead played for dancing … and they filled the hall with the wailing of guitars and the beat of drums all night long. At midnight, when 'Death' was supposed to ride through the hall, a lanky, dark man with long, stringy, black hair and an opulent red brocade Louis IV jacket, climbed into a rickety wheelchair and was pushed through the crowd by another man wearing a huge pumpkin for a headdress. Girls screamed in mock terror. … [Quicksilver] gave Death's wheelchair ride a wildly rhythmic accompaniment (the Bo Diddley riff at maximum volume) and the Grateful Dead did 'Viola Lee Blues' and 'The LSD Millionaire' [sic] as though they were playing for all time.”
Kelley, Mouse and Griffin's famous Halloween '67 “Trip or Freak” poster.
10/31/67, Winterland. A year later, the Dead do get to play Winterland on Halloween, along with Quicksilver and Big Brother & the Holding Company. The famous poster for this show—dubbed “Trip or Freak”—is a rare collaboration between artists Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin and features graceful psychedelic lettering and multiple images of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Contrary to Deadbase and other sources, we do not know what songs the Dead played at this show.
10/31/68, The Matrix, SF. Various sources list a Mickey & the Hartbeats show for the tiny club on this date. That's the Dead, minus Bob and Pigpen—who were on the outs with the band at that time—usually with other sit-in guests. No tapes or set list exist. OK, it's not truly the Dead. Sue me.
10/31/69, Loma Prieta Room, College Union of San Jose State. I'm a sucker for shows from the fall of '69, as the playing still has much of the ferocity and searching spirit of shows from earlier that year, but also finds new songs from what would become Workingman's Dead being dropped into sets here and there. The show features an excellent 24-minute “That's It for the Other One,” just the sixth version of “China Cat” > the recently reintroduced “I Know You Rider”; “High Time,” “Easy Wind” and a long, well-played “Lovelight” (which cuts before the end on the rather hissy SBD up on Archive.org).
10/31/70, Gymnasium, State University of New York at Stony Brook. No, it only seems as though every other aging Dead Head you encounter is from Long Island. But one reason for that may be that the Dead played at Stony Brook in '67, '68 and '70. On 10/30-31/70, the Dead and the New Riders (with Jerry on pedal steel) played both 8 p.m. and midnight shows. The Dead's early show on 10/31 opens with a rarity—a rather sloppy and out-of-tune “Till the Morning Comes”—but picks up nicely with a chunky, deliberate “Hard to Handle.” The slow, somewhat tame “Viola Lee Blues” turned out to be the band's final performance of that song. Its jam flows beautifully in “Cumberland Blues” (without returning to “Viola Lee”), and then a fine “Uncle John's Band” closes the fairly desultory set.
Poster for 1969 show at San Jose State.
The folks who scored tickets for the late show (I'm guessing many went to both) got a better—though still only intermittently inspired—concert, with a much more interesting set list that included “That's It for the Other One,” a shortish “Good Lovin',” an anemic “Cosmic Charlie” and “St. Stephen” > “Not Fade Away” > “GDTRFB” > “NFA.” Not the '70 Dead at their best, to say the least.
10/31/71, Ohio Theatre, Columbus, OH. This is the only Dead Halloween show to come out commercially—the entire second set became Dicks Picks, Vol. 2, the lone single-disc release of the series. It's a great one, too, with a lengthy “Dark Star” that goes into “Sugar Magnolia,” the last "St. Stephen” for the next five years, “Not Fade Away” > “Goin' Down the Road” > “Not Fade Away,” and a “Johnny B. Goode” encore. The 14-song first set featured many of the shorter tunes the band was playing in that era, from “Bertha” to “Playing in the Band” to a few that would pop up on Europe '72, such as “Jack Straw” and “Brown-Eyed Women.”
10/31/79, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY. Eight years after the Dead's last Halloween show, they return to Long Island for a solid concert typical of the era. “China Cat” > “Rider” was always a treat as opener, and the rest of the first set is fairly energetic, as well, with good versions of “Cassidy,” “Loser” and “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance.” Best of show is the long, fantastic workout on “Shakedown Street” that opens the second set, though there's also plenty of hot jamming on “Estimated Prophet” > “Eyes of the World.” The post-“drums” is just two numbers—“Wharf Rat” > “Truckin'”; both very strong. I highly recommend checking out the entire second set.
10/31/80, Radio City Music Hall, NYC. The final show of the group's historic eight-night 15th anniversary stand at the art deco landmark was telecast live to select movie theaters in the East and Midwest, and circulates in widely bootlegged copies. It includes three Dead sets—one acoustic (opening with “Heaven Help the Fool”) and two electric—and a number of hilarious comedy bits featuring band members and GD crew, spearheaded by the comedy team of Al Franken and Tom Davis. If you've never seen it, search it out! The music is mostly top-notch, especially the second electric set, which includes “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance” > “Franklin's Tower” pre-“drums, and then “Fire on the Mountain” > “Not Fade Away” coming out of “space,” plus “Stella Blue,” “Goin' Down the Road” and an “Uncle John's” encore. Several songs appear on the superb live video Dead Ahead, and “space” > “Fire” made it onto the Dead Set album (both released in late '81).
10/31/83, Marin County Veterans Auditorium, San Rafael, CA. The first of three Grateful Dead Halloween shows I attended ('83, '84, '91), this is one of those concerts that looks better on paper than it sounded. You'd think a second set that opened with “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin's Tower” and also included the third (and final) version of the revived “St. Stephen” and an encore of “Revolution” would be a must-hear, but sadly it was not well executed for the most part, and the “St. Stephen” was a tremendous disappointment (to me; YMMV). Well, well, well, you can never tell.
One of the coolest parts of the show is unquestionably “drums,” which finds Brazilian percussionist Airto joining Mickey and Bill for a high-energy battle, as well as a deep tribal excursion straight out of the Amazon rainforest. (At the 9:20 mark of that jam, too, Airto yells “Happy Halloweeeeeen” a couple of times, eliciting great cheers).
10/31/84, Berkeley Community Theater. This show has some seriously flawed moments, but it also has a few good performances. In the first set, standouts are the peppy “Shakedown” opener, the appearance of Weir's old Kingfish mate Matthew Kelly on harmonica for “Minglewood” and “Big Railroad Blues” (both tunes credited to harmonica player Noah Lewis of the '20s jug band Cannon's Jug Stompers), and a brisk “Lazy Lightning” > “Supplication.” Though the second set features very little jamming and Garcia's vocals are often strained and cracking, the version of “He's Gone” is good, and the back part of “Morning Dew” is fairly effective. But it's Bob who provides the fireworks—the breakneck “One More Saturday Night” becomes “One More Halloween Night,” and then the “Satisfaction” encore is appropriately crunchy and actually delivers some much needed satisfaction to an up-and-down evening
10/31/85, Carolina Coliseum Arena, Columbia, SC. This one starts with a wonderful dissonant space freak-out filled with howls, screams and instruments wailing (and distorted by Dan Healy), then drops into the first “Werewolves of London” since 7/8/78. Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about! Jerry gets a little confused late in the song, but it's still pretty rippin', and imagine how shocked folks who were there must have been. I've always loved the second set, which opens with another beefy “Shakedown” (I think I'm seeing a trend here!), moves on to “Playing in the Band,” a passionate “Ship of Fools” (marred slightly by Jerry's hoarse vocals), then into a unique, imaginative jam before “drums.” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” out of “space” is another treat in this underrated show.
10/31/90, Wembley Arena, London. Poor Jerry. Battling a bad cold as he arrived in London for the final two shows of the band's fall 1990 Europe tour (with Bruce and Vince), his voice was shot, but he still played with heart and gusto. Here, the “Help-Slip-Frank” opener lives up its promise, and though he struggles mightily to get through the verses of “Bird Song,” the jamming is fluid and you can hear the intimate communication between him and Bruce. He manages to croak through “Scarlet-Fire,” “He's Gone,” even the fragile “Stella Blue” in the second set, while Bob charges through “Truckin'” and “Watchtower, “Around and Around” and “Good Lovin'.” Jerry has almost no voice left for the “Werewolves” encore, but he still unleashes a few choice howls—what a pro! It's a pretty tough listen, but you gotta admire the spirit. Owwooooo!
10/31/91, Oakland Coliseum Arena. I've written about this show—the Dead's final Halloween concert—in a past blog. It was the last of four shows that took place the week Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter crash, so it didn't have quite the festive Halloween vibe other Dead shows on 10/31 did. But it's a powerful couple of sets of music. This one, too, has a “Scarlet-Fire” to kick off the second set, but it gets really interesting a couple of songs later when Quicksilver guitarist Gary Duncan joins the band onstage for “Spoonful,” and then sticks around for a “Dark Star” that finds Ken Kesey striding out to speak briefly about Bill Graham and then recite a short poem by e.e. cummings called “Buffalo Bill,” which closes with the heavy line, “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, mister death?” Yikes! This show had a “Werewolves” encore, as well, and has much more to recommend it, too.
Alton Kelley design for 1983 Marin Vets Halloween shirt.
(Lastly, I have to at least mention a gaggle of Garcia Halloween shows: 10/31/74 at Memorial Gym at the University of San Francisco (Saunders-Garcia); 10/31/75 at the Tower Theater in Philly (JGB with Nicky Hopkins); 10/31/81 at the Tower (JGB with Melvin and Jimmy Warren); 10/31/86 at Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland (JGB); 10/31/87 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in NYC (the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and the JGB; this was released in full in the Pure Jerry CD release series); 10/31/88, Kaiser in Oakland (JGB); 10/31/89 Concord (CA) Pavilion (JGB); 10/31/92 Oakland Coliseum Arena (JGB); and 10/31/93 Brendan Byrne Arena (NJ, JGB). Frankly, a lot of those are better than some of the Dead shows, but that's an argument for another time and place … And, equal time for Bob—Bobby & the Midnites played at a club called The Bachanal in San Diego on 10/31/82, and a version of Kingfish opened for the JGB at Kaiser on 10/31/86.