By Blair Jackson
Over in one of the discussion groups on DeadNet Central recently, someone was fondly recalling Keith and Donna’s final show, at the Oakland Coliseum on Feb. 17, 1979, noting it was a rare great show from their late period with the band.
My own experience of that show was not particularly positive. I went into it with a bad attitude, because I was bummed that the band had “sold out” by playing the 15,000-seat basketball arena so close on the heels of my beloved Winterland closing less than two months earlier on New Year’s Eve. I had trouble finding a good spot on the crowded floor that night, which reinforced my negative opinion of the Dead’s decision to play there, and at the time I thought the show was only OK. It wasn’t until many years later, when I finally deigned to check out a tape of the show I had dissed, that I realized what a good show I had “missed.” (It isn’t pretty, but it happens!)
I could be mistaken, but my memory of that night is that I did not know that it was going to be Keith and Donna’s last show with the Dead. (Others in the discussion group said they did know.) Though I was an editor at BAM magazine at the time and we even had a Grateful Dead news column called “Dead Ahead” (penned by David Gans), I wasn’t really privy to insider gossip in those days. I certainly didn’t know that the couple was fighting like cats and dogs offstage or that Keith was battling a serious addiction to opiates - or that Jerry was, for that matter. (I believe I first heard that in 1980.)
I remember being quite disappointed when I learned that Keith and Donna were departing. I felt the Dead’s music took a quantum leap when Keith joined in the fall of ’71, and I enjoyed Donna’s contributions when she came onto the scene the following year. I liked her vibe, she was easy on the eyes, and I appreciated that touch of gospel she brought to the harmonies. Unlike some Dead Heads, I was never bothered by her “wailing” in “Playing in the Band” or her little vocal improvs following “Scarlet Begonias.” Yes, there were occasionally pitch issues, but they were much more noticeable to me once I started seriously collecting tapes in the late ’70s than they were when I was in-the-moment at shows. I also felt a special kinship with them because I spent many a night standing 10 to 15 feet from them at Jerry Garcia Band club shows between 1976 and ’78. That’s where Keith really shone brightest, and I always loved the warm rapport between Jerry and Donna in those intimate settings. When Jerry started playing with the horn-heavy band Reconstruction in early ’79, I didn’t stop to think about why he had dissolved the group with Keith and Donna. I just chalked it up to Jerry wanting to go in another direction, as he did occasionally.
Keith in happier times.
There’s no question, however, that the quality of Keith’s playing in the Dead fell off in ’78 and early ’79. It no longer had that sparkle and imagination that marked his best work (’72-’74). Much of what he played in his last year was basic, blocky, chordal stuff. I don’t hear many wrong notes, but he’s not exactly out there on the edge taking chances and pushing the others, as he frequently did, in his own quiet way, in his peak Grateful Dead years. I guess the worst thing you could say about later-period Keith is that he was just taking up sonic space in the Dead’s overall sound. Did this affect the others? No doubt, though it can’t be measured. After all, who knows how much the personal issues of other band members at this time—as chronicled in Dennis McNally’s book, A Long Strange Trip, and other places—also colored the group’s music.
It seems that when people talk about the winter of ’79, the only shows they mention are the January 10 concert at Nassau Coliseum, the one in Buffalo on January 20, and the Oakland show. The first two are famous mostly because “Dark Star” was played at each—10 and 20 days after the song was revived for the first time since 1974 at the Closing of Winterland. I’m on record as saying that the 1/10/79 version is my favorite post-’74 take on the tune; I stand by that. The killer second set of 1/10 also features the only “St. Stephen” of 1979 (and the last until the final three in ’83). The Buffalo “Dark Star” doesn’t have the depth and intensity of the Nassau one (and Bob cuts it off abruptly to go into “Not Fade Away”), but it’s still cool, as is the hurtling “Other One” split by “Drums.” Needless to say, the appearance of these tunes early in the year led to a rash of shouted requests of both tunes in every city the Dead played for the next few months.
After digging those shows for the first time in a while, I decided to go a little deeper into the winter ’79 tour, which was marked by literal cold rain and snow at many stops. I checked out a half dozen other shows and I came away from it surprisingly impressed. True, Garcia’s voice was not in good shape at most shows. At the time, too, there were complaints from the Tour Heads about the amount of repetition of songs and combos—like the “I Need A Miracle” > “Bertha” > “Good Lovin’” trio that showed up so often. Were these same folks complaining about the repetition all through ’77? Probably not. But a lot more people were touring by late ’78, early ’79, and since the shows were hit and miss, quality-wise, during that period, the Great Grumbling about set lists began in earnest!
But what I hear on this tour is a ton of adventurous and exciting playing. There are a few excellent versions of “Scarlet” > “Fire,” including Indianapolis (2/3), Kansas City (2/10) and Oakland (2/17). “China Cat,” absent from the repertoire since December ’77, returns at that Indy show and reclaims a spot in the rotation for the first time since ’74—welcome back, old friend! The versions of “Terrapin” feature somewhat extended middle interludes, and every “Playing in the Band” and every “Estimated” jam goes someplace interesting. The “Eyes” are speedy but often dazzling, with long outro passages. In most of the shows I listened to, Jerry is in no hurry to leave the stage before “Drums” (as he was so often post-’80), instead jamming energetically and inventively for long stretches, sometimes accompanied only by the drummers—listen to the amazing jam after “He’s Gone” on the 2/9 K.C. show. Keith shines occasionally, too, playfully interacting with Garcia from time to time—a flash of the past. But there are also long stretches where he is barely noticeable.
Speaking of the drummers, Mickey and Bill’s solos still show the positive effects of their time in Egypt the previous September, with Mickey playing lots of tar and Bill working out on talking drum many nights. “The Other One” is consistently hot, and Jerry invests his ballads with as much passion as his creaky, fragile voice allows. There are a couple of heartwrenching “Stella”s and a fantastic “Comes A Time” (2/9 K.C.). The still-new “Shakedown Street” is starting to expand in compelling directions, and though you could argue that “Miracle” was a tad overplayed, these versions are all rippin’, with jammy codas (compared to most later ones). “Don’t Ease Me In,” full of pep, appears for the first time since ’74 in Carbondale, Ill. on 2/7, and “Might As Well,” on the shelf for the previous year and a half, is revived at the Kiel in St. Louis on 2/1l. The Oakland show includes two more songs not played since ’74—“Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Big Railroad Blues.” This does not sound like a band that’s just treading water or coasting on their past rep.
That 2/17 Oakland show truly was the end of an era, as the Grateful Dead that returned to performing on April 22, 1979 at San Jose’s Spartan Stadium, with Brent Mydland replacing the Godchauxs, was a totally new animal. I didn’t see the new band until their two early August shows at the Oakland Auditorium (the “new Winterland” I called it), but I was an instant convert to this latest evolution—just as I had been when Keith joined and when Mickey came back. I always trusted the Grateful Dead to do what needed to be done to keep the ball rolling forward. And until fate cruelly intervened about 15 years up the road, they did just that.