New Year’s Eve: A night that looms large in Grateful Dead legend. Indeed, it has held an honored place as the night on many a Dead Head’s social calendar – uh, that is, if social calendars are actually a thing in our universe. Between 1966 and 1991 the Dead played 22 New Year’s Eves, all but one in the band’s Bay Area backyard – the lone outlier being 1969, when they chose to venture to Boston - and it was almost always the most eagerly anticipated show (and toughest ticket) of the year, with many Dead Heads dressing up for the occasion, whether in elegant formal wear or elaborate costumes (although plain ol’ hippie civilian clothes were more than welcome). Although the music was the main attraction at Grateful Dead shows, once a year it had some real competition from the traditional midnight extravaganza and countdown to ring out the old and ring in the new – a spectacle that was a pet project of the great rock impresario Bill Graham, who in his younger days had hoped for a career as an actor. That didn’t work out as he’d hoped, but on at least this one night he got to perform on a grand scale, assuming the role of Father Time, heralding the coming of the new year (although as the years wore on, Bill, as the presentations became ever more ambitious, assumed different guises and used different conveyances to get him from the rear of the venue to the stage – from a gorilla Uncle Sam riding an airborne motorcycle one year and a giant joint the next to a butterfly or eagle flying in from way up in the rafters. Other vehicles included a scale-model Golden Gate Bridge, a giant egg (which hatched to reveal Bill in a chicken costume) and many more. The man knew how to make an entrance.
Bill Graham became so synonymous with New Year’s Eve in the Bay Area that after his death in a 1991 helicopter crash, the Grateful Dead, feeling that it just wasn’t the same without Bill, only played on that night one more time before retiring the custom. But some of the Dead’s various musical offshoots eventually got back in the New Year’s groove, with Dead & Company being the latest to revive the tradition. They closed out 2019 and welcomed 2020 with a marathon show that included two full sets before they even got around to the midnight mayhem.
Given the sheer length and number of songs the band delivered on this night, we won’t try to be quite as detailed as usual in our descriptions, but will instead point you to a few highlights – we’re sure you’ll have no problem picking your own favorites as you listen.
The band opens things up with a perfect selection – the Wilson Pickett-Steve Cropper soul classic “In The Midnight Hour,” as a nod toward the fun to come when the clock strikes twelve. Other first set standouts include “Iko Iko,” “Loser,” “Sugaree” and “New Speedway Boogie.”
Set two brings out some of the most improv-friendly items in the repertoire, including the “Help On The Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower” a nearly 16-minute “Eyes Of The World,” Drums and Space segments featuring a guest appearance by a longtime friend and collaborator, the great Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain, Miles Davis’s “Milestones” and a joyous “Not Fade Away” to take us to the break before the coming of the new year.
What came next was one of the most spectacular renditions of the annual countdown ritual in recent memory – one we think Bill Graham himself would have been proud to have dreamed up. We note this with a special degree of familial pride, as the midnight madness was conceived and directed by someone who quite literally grew up around the Grateful Dead: Reya Hart, daughter of Mickey and Caryl, a wonderfully creative young woman who came up with a brilliant concept perfectly attuned to the particular year and decade about to begin: The Roaring Twenties redux. As midnight approached, a model of a vintage biplane (bearing two more offspring of the GD family, Trixie Garcia and Sunshine Kesey) rose to the rafters and navigated a zig-zag course from the back of the hall toward the stage. While this was going on, the stage was occupied by a line of young women in 20s flapper garb, doing a snappily choreographed Charleston. As the plane descended, Father Time and the New Year’s baby (looking a whole lot like Bill Walton and Wavy Gravy), called out the countdown, the balloons dropped, and the band launched into “Sugar Magnolia” – the song the Grateful Dead had played more times - 10 in all - than any other to mark the midnight celebration on NYE, at the request – no, make that the demand – of Bill Graham, who always called it his favorite Dead tune.
The rest of the set is perfectly attuned to the happy occasion, as the band delivers some of the best-loved items in the Dead songbook – “Uncle John’s Band,” “Scarlet Begonias>Fire On The Mountain” and the “Sunshine Daydream” bookend to “Sugar Magnolia.”
Given all that’s gone down in the ensuing year, the first encore of 2020, “Touch Of Grey,” might seem in hindsight a bit eerily prescient and on-the-nose with its theme of optimism, good humor and perseverance in trying times. But the refrain of “We will survive” always provides inspiration and encouragement – things we can always use. Happy New Year!