30 years ago, today, I witnessed a spectacular show in the Philadelphia Spectrum on 9-23-87, towards the end of an emotional tour. “Touch of Grey” was a top ten hit on the Billboard charts, and Garcia’s recent guitar playing in Madison Square Garden and The Spectrum gave off the illusion that he was fully recovered from his coma, and a wondrous era of live Dead was at hand. Things weren’t as bright as they seemed, and my interest in touring waned. That was my last Philly show. It was a perfect end to a magical journey in that iconic arena. My first show in The Spectrum on 4-6-82, changed my life.
The Grateful Dead played 53 shows in the Philly Spectrum, the first coming as part of a larger billing on 12-6-68 featuring Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Sly & the Family Stone, and Al Kooper. The band’s next Philly show on 9-21-72 was a three-set spectacular immortalized on Dick’s Picks Volume 36. The band developed an affinity for the Deadheads in the Philly area, and they were always comfortable in their primetime East Coast home. There was off the hook big city energy in Madison Square Garden, and the Hartford and Providence Civic Centers, but in Philly the band was relaxed, electrified, and petrified, simultaneously.
I loved this place for many reasons. From my hometown of Nanuet, New York, South Broad Street in Philadelphia was a two-hour cruise—a road trip that wasn’t lonesome or a long way from home. In fact, I usually drove home and drove back for the following night’s show instead of splurging for a hotel or passing out in my car. The bootleg tapes saved our lives as my companions and I drove home in various states of non-sobriety. Seeing the Dead in Philly was a compressed adventure, and who among us will ever forget the Molly Pitcher or Walt Whitman service areas—greasy chicken and muddy coffee in Styrofoam cups. My Glory Days began on my way through a snowstorm to Philly on 4-6-82, and they ended without a warning on 9-23-87. Philly also had a great parking lot scene which was missing at other big city shows.Touring was never the same again for me, and maybe that’s because I never saw another show in The Spectrum.
MY TOP FIVE PHILLY SPECTRUM SHOWS
5. April 26, 1983: A statue of Garcia should have been erected alongside Rocky Balboa’s after this torrid affair. The first set opened to the funky thunder and of Shakedown Street,” and concluded with the wild guitar meanderings of Jerry during Let it Grow. Help > Slipknot > Franklin’s ignited set two, and when they broke into “Morning Dew” after Truckin’ > Nobody’s Fault But Mine, my friend hoisted me off the floor in jubilation. It was the last show of the East Coast tour, and the whole presentation was almost too hard to handle.
4. March 23, 1986: This was my 100th show. And as if the band knew the enormity of the situation, they opened with Gimme Some Lovin’ > Deal. That Deal jam was no joke. The Spectrum salivated over every Jerry syllable in a delectable Candyman. The rafters were shaking when Jerry growled, “Hand me my old guitar. Pass the whissss-key round. Won’t you tell everybody you meet that the candyman’s in town!” It was an enormous concert all the way around, but Comes a Time was ten minutes of pure euphoria.
3. April 8, 1985: After seeing two mediocre shows on the nights before, imagine my amazement when The Boys opened with Midnight Hour > Walkin’ the Dog > Big Boss Man. Garcia settled all scores. The first set had a Cumberland Blues and a stunning Supplication jam, but let’s fixate on set two. Revolution > Bucket > Touch of Grey was brilliantly performed, and an astute State of the Union address. The Eyes of the World was a speedy ‘80s version, but way sillier and more intense than anything they’d ever done before—Insane people’s music. I was never a huge fan of Weir’s take of “Turn on Your Lovelight,” but this version is rock and roll ecstasy.
2. September 23, 1987: Times were good and I felt like the youth of 1,000 summers on this evening. The set opened with Stranger > Franklin’s and merrily rolled along until it reached paradise with the best version of “Desolation Row.” This is a brilliant Bob Weir moment, and Jerry pokes and pecks away to the rolling collage from Dylan’s mind. The fun barrels over into a rowdy “Big Railroad Blues,” followed by “The Music Never Stopped.” Oh Mercy! The frenzied phrasing of Garcia’s guitar was something to behold. As he did when he played the majestic MSG Dew five nights before, Garcia screamed “I’m back,” and possibly better than ever before.
1. April 6, 1982: An unseasonable Northeast blizzard dumped eighteen inches of snow on my hometown, and much of central New York state. Getting to the show really was an uncertain adventure, but noting could deter my first road trip to see the Dead. I arrived in time for the “Cold Rain & Snow” opener. The opening set featured twelve songs that captured the essence of Old Weird America. The second set is an essential part of Grateful Dead history.
Set two erupted with “Shakedown Street.” Phil’s bombs blasted Broad Street, and after the verses, Jerry and Brent traded leads, and the jam exploded. Sailor > Saint was top notch, and the ensuing ”Terrapin Station” was a spiritual revival. After drums, Truckin > Other One set up my first “Morning Dew.” I grabbed my friend and hoisted him in the air as if he were the Stanley Cup Trophy. People were crying and yodeling. Back in these days “Morning Dew was a rare treat. The set ended with a blazing “Sugar Magnolia” You may say that’s great, but what makes this show #1. Consider this: The Grateful Dead played 2,318 shows, and this is the only time they played Shakedown, Terrapin, Dew, and Mag in the same show. If I handed the band a wish list before the show, I would have chosen those four songs.
Best of the rest of The Spectrum shows
9-21-72: This show has it al. After opening the second set with four tunes, here’s what was played: Dark Star > Morning Dew, BIDTL, Mississippi Half Step, Sugar Mag, Friend of the Devil, NFA > GDTRFB > NFA. The opening set has exquisite performances of Birdsong, Cat > Rider, Black Throated Wind, Ramble on Rose, Cumberland and Playin’.
4-22-77: First East Coast show of the most famous tour in Grateful Dead history commences with Promised Land followed by a smoking Mississippi Half Step. The second set features a sensational second performance of Fire on the Mountain. A onetime only Dancin’ > Mojo > Dancin’ combo precedes a Wheel > Terrapin Station closer. One of the underrated gems of ’77.
Books by Howard F, Weiner
8-30-80: Unbelievable first set starts with an overachieving Stranger. Garcia had the mojo rolling all night long. Cold Rain in the middle of the set is an unexpected delight. The greatest version of Althea precedes an insane Jack Straw to end the set. Set two is solid with many hot moments, but the magnitude of the Althea and Straw obliterates everything else.
Books by Howard F, Weiner
Grateful Dead 1977