By Blair Jackson
Look, I promise not to talk about every 20th, 25th, 35th, 40th anniversary of significant events in Grateful Dead history. But I can’t resist stepping into the Time Machine once again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dead’s first shows at Frost Amphitheater on the beautiful campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Oct. 9 and 10, 1982. It was the beginning of a nearly annual tradition that also included weekend afternoon shows in 1983 and then from ’85-’89; 14 shows in all, before the university could no longer tolerate the Dead Head circus.
All things considered, Frost was probably my favorite Grateful Dead venue ever. No, not every show they played there was great. Sometimes the heat and humidity (rare for the West Coast) was oppressive. And yes, staging the shows in the middle of the afternoon meant we didn’t get to enjoy Candace’s lights. But what a setting! It provided the prototypical California outdoor Dead experience.
The amphitheater is a gently terraced grass bowl in the midst of over 150 varieties of tress, including live oak, elm, birch, cherry etc. It was built—if that’s the word; there’s no real structure, just a nicely designed space—in the mid-1930s, thanks to a $90,000 donation from Mr. and Mrs. Howard Frost, who wanted to memorialize their son, John Laurence Frost, who was part of the Class of ’35, but died of polio at the age of 23. It opened officially in June 1937 for that year’s commencement. In those days, Frost had rows of red and white roses (Stanford’s colors), planted around the stage area. It was used for commencements through 1984, after which the graduation ceremonies were moved to the larger Stanford baseball stadium, Sunken Diamond, and later, Stanford Stadium.
Through the years it was occasionally used for speeches by prominent visitors, drama productions and also a few concerts—classical performances, jazz shows by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and a handful of rock shows, such as Jefferson Airplane in 1967 and a quadruple bill in 1968 featuring the Chambers Brothers, Quicksilver and newcomers the Santana Blues Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival. After a bottle-throwing melee broke out at an Elvin Bishop/Cold Blood show in July ’71, and there were fights and gate crashing at a Miles Davis concert in October ’72, all concerts were banned from the venue for a period.
I first went to Frost on August 7, 1976 to see Crosby & Nash—a magical afternoon that is now hazy in my memory. During this era, a number of quieter shows drew large and polite crowds to see acts such as Joan Baez, Loggins & Messina, America and George Benson. So in retrospect it’s hard to believe that the Grateful Dead, of all bands, was allowed to play there in 1982. It helped that they had an “in.” By that time, Danny Scher, who had booked concerts at Stanford when he was a student there in the ’70s, was working for Bill Graham Presents, and he greased the wheels for those first Dead appearances at Frost. (The band had a history with Stanford, too: They played outside the Tressider Student Union in October 1966, and at Maples Pavilion in February ’73.)
By the time the Frost shows rolled around in October, I’d already seen the Dead seven times in 1982, the most for me since 1971. In February, they had returned to the intimate Warfield Theatre in SF for the first time since their historic 15-show run in 1980. (The 2/17/82 show is especially worth checking out for its exceptional second set). The group’s second three-day series at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley came in May (5/23 was the best of those), and July saw the first “Weekend at the Beach” down in Ventura (a tradition through 1987, excepting 1986, which was cancelled because of Jerry’s near-death). If you haven’t heard 7/18/82, you should, chop-chop!
Frost instantly felt like home. It had such a relaxed vibe, starting outside the venue in the surrounding groves of towering eucalyptus trees, which doubled as the most scenic “parking lots” you’ve ever seen. This was like a secret world itself—like something out of Middle Earth or Endor (I’m pretty sure I saw an Ewok after a show there once). Great shafts of sun would come streaming through the branches, and the ungroomed dirt floor below—covered in eucalyptus leaves, shredded bark and small branches—was fractured by dappled light. In those days, when the vending scene was still in its relative infancy, there were a few low-key merchants peddling their wares in the forest, giving it a hint of a Renaissance Faire feel. By the third time the Dead played Frost—in 1985—the bazaar outside and the number of folks looking for extra tickets had gotten much larger, and it started to become a problem in the eyes of the university. And you can imagine what it was like in ’87, ’88 and ’89, post-comeback.
Inside, sightlines were excellent, even near the back under the trees (a coveted spot on the hot days), and it seemed smaller than its 10,000 capacity. As a venue, it didn’t have that intense, focused power and majesty that the Greek had in spades. But it had a unique warmth and a mellow intimacy that made it feel as if we were all together at some giant family picnic, just dancing and enjoying our community band on a sunny afternoon. No alcohol was served there (nor at the Greek), so pot and psychedelics ruled. The sound was crystal clear—with minimal reflections, even from the surrounding trees, what came from the P.A. had a tonal purity you rarely experienced at other venues. Phil, in particular, was right in your face—as he should be! This is one venue where the audience recordings are nearly soundboard quality, the sound was so clean.
Both of those ’82 Frost shows were killer. The beginning of the second set of 10/9 marked the West Coast debut of both “Throwing Stones” and “Touch of Grey”—finally, some new tunes! Jerry didn’t quite have a handle on the lyrics to “Touch” yet, but that song’s bright, anthemic qualities were apparent from the get-go. That 10/9 concert also included my first live version of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” (reintroduced at Field Trip II in Oregon on 8/28/82) and my introduction to a third new tune, “West L.A. Fadeaway,” which I loved instantly. The superb post-“Drums” at that show featured “Truckin’” > “The Other One” > “Morning Dew” > “Saturday Night”; all powerful.
The Sunday 10/10 show is high on my list of all-time favorites I attended, and one I’ve listened to hundreds of times on tape. (I always preferred the aud. version to the chopped-up SBD that emerged many years after the show.) Both sets were incredible, with no real weak spots. The first included “Sugaree,” “Cassidy,” the best “Far From Me” I ever heard (who knew?), and a sparkly “China Cat” >“Rider” closer. The first half of the second set was sublime: It kicked off with a “Playing in the Band” that felt perfect for late afternoon in that amazing natural environment, cruised smoothly into “Crazy Fingers” (which had been reintroduced at Ventura in July), followed with “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance” (possibly my favorite versions), and then slammed into “Touch of Grey”—much better than the previous day’s—right before “Drums.”
Dancing on the grass at Frost Amphitheater, April 28, 1985. Photo: Regan McMahon ©2012
The backside included a transcendently beautiful “Wheel,” just the second pairing of “Throwing Stones” and “Not Fade Away” (it seemed like such a good, fresh idea at the time; it would eventually lose its luster through overplaying), “Black Peter” and “Sugar Magnolia.” The double encore of “Satisfaction” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” sent everyone home smiling contentedly. And if you thought the eucalyptus groves were strange and wonderful before the show, imagine what they were like after. For all I know, there might still be hippies in there looking for their cars.
I’m not sure the Dead ever quite topped those ’82 shows in subsequent visits to Frost (’85 and ’88 were close), but it was always a fabulous time, a grand weekend in another world, far away, yet close to home (for many of us).
A few highlights from other years there: The “Dancing in the Streets” >”Bertha” opener on 4//27/85. That first set ended with powerhouse trio of “Tom Thumb’s Blues” > “Cold Rain and Snow” and “The Music Never Stopped,” and the second set opened with the unusual pairing of “Scarlet” > “Eyes of the World” followed by “Goin’ Down the Road.”… The surprise opener the next day (4/28/85) was the still-rare “Gimme Some Lovin” into “Mississippi Half-Step.” The second set featured a few journeys through “Playing in the Band,” a devastating “China Doll” (the lilting little jam after the song is as pretty as can be) and then two encores—“U.S. Blues” and the finest “She Belongs to Me” the group ever played… Out of “Space,” 5/11/86 has “The Other One” > “Comes a Time.” The encore is “Miracle” > “U.S. Blues”… In ’88, the 4/30 show had a rare triple encore—“China Cat” > “I Know You Rider” > “Saturday Night.” Looks better on paper than it was (but the show as a whole was strong). The second set of 5/1/88 opened with “Louie Louie” > “Truckin’ > “Crazy Fingers”... And though Brent's "I Will Take You You Home," doesn't get much love these days, the version on 5/6/89, with Garcia on his MIDI "trumpet" for the first time, was extremely moving. That show also had a first-set "The Race Is On" for Kentucky Derby day, and "Playing" > "Eyes." Seems as though there were always a few little wrinkles at Frost shows that made them feel special.