On this day in 1977 one of the iconic Weir > Garcia song combos that helped define the Dead’s later-day sound was born in the City of Blues. Just as “Scarlet Begonias” found its soulmate in “Fire on the Mountain” earlier in the year, “Estimated Prophet” segued into “Eyes of the World” for the first time in the St. Louis Arena on 5-15-77. Scarlet > Fire and Estimated > Eyes would be performed in succession at the start of many second sets over the next eighteen years, and few Deadheads were ever disappointed, no matter how many times they’d seen it. These were catchy songs with danceable grooves and optimistic lyrics. The transitions between these combinations featured creative instrumental journeys that built anticipation, and the release into the ensuing tune was usually rapturous.
As Garcia tunes up at the start of set two, he teases “Eyes of the World” before “Estimated Prophet” is launched. It’s inevitable that the marriage of these tunes would be consummated. “Estimated” was played almost every night in ’77, and Garcia savored the outro which gave him an extended opportunity to experiment with the sounds of his Mutron III filter. The last jam of the St. Louis “Estimated” crackles and pops as the smoldering remains ignite “Eyes of the World.”
Phil’s bass leads the way before he hands the baton to Jerry who fills St. Louis with the living/loving spirit of “Eyes.” The initial between verse instrumental is charismatic as if the band’s reveling the secrets of enlightenment. Garcia’s guitar soars as he eventually leads his mates into a skimming stones chord progression which is followed by Garcia’s playfully taunting leads: “na-na-na-na-na-nana, nana, nana, na-nahhh!” A rousing outburst of applause from the faithful follows each solo. The distinctive statement of this “Eyes” is Garcia’s outro. Ascending notes ring out from his guitar in climatic fashion—a cast of all-star hummingbirds singing in the night.
Later in set two, Deadheads go crazy as they identify the “St. Stephen” intro. After the group harmonizes “Seashore washed by the suds and the foam. Been here so long he's got to calling it home,” they cut into what sounds like “Not Fade Away” a verse earlier than usual. The chord sequence actually leads to the Dead’s debut performance of “Iko Iko.” This is a brief one verse presentation that slides into another steaming ’77 “Not Fade Away.’ These kind of unique segues where the band tries something they had never done before, and executes precisely, exemplifies the Dead’s May ’77 mojo.
In addition to the first Estimated > Eyes and “’Iko Iko,” the band delivers their first “Passenger,” and their second-ever presentation of “Jack-A-Roe” in the first set. The “Dancin’ in the Street” that concludes the opening set is perhaps, the most extraordinary performance of 5-15-77. Donna Jean Godchaux is the preeminent singing voice here, and the extensive instrumental is packed with turbo-charged funk reminiscent of a Sly & the Family Stone. The final singing chant produces lots of yelping and giggling from Donna, Jerry, and Bob. After Weir proclaims,” We’re gonna take a short break,” the band rumbles the arena with a thunderous fanfare that makes this unique from any other rendition of “Dancin’.” Confirming the magnificence of the evening, after the “Uncle John’s Band” encore, Lesh growls, “Yeah, St. Louis, how sweet it is! Thank you all and good night.”
The Grateful Dead performed a pair of acoustic/ electric shows in the Fillmore East on May 15, 1970. Eleven days earlier, on May 4, four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State were murdered by Ohio National Guardsmen. There was chaos on college campuses across America, and the Grateful Dead happened to be performing in the thick of it as they played seven shows on East Coast campuses from May 1 through May 9. As the Dead mobilized a peaceful, hedonistic horde of followers through the years, college campuses became fertile breeding grounds for Deadheads, and that tradition may have been born during those turbulent times.
As America was ensconced in chaos, inspiration flowed like wildfire for the Grateful Dead. A week after playing on 5-15-70, the Dead made their first trip to perform overseas at the Hollywood Festival in Newcastle, England. It was there that Robert Hunter had the greatest afternoon in songwriting history as he wrote the lyrics to three new anthems. “I wrote ‘Ripple,’ ‘Brokedown Palace,’ and ‘To Lay Me Down’ all in about a two-hour period the first day I ever went to England,” Hunter said. “I sat there with a case of retsina and I opened up a bottle of that stuff, and the sun was shining. I was in England, which I’d always wanted to visit, and for some reason this creative energy started racing through me and I could do no wrong—write, write, write, write!”
Over the course of four sets of music on 5-15-70, the Grateful Dead played seven songs from Workingman’s Dead, which was recorded, but not released until June 14, and three songs that would be on American Beauty, released later in the year. The acoustic set of the first show featured “Friend of the Devil,” “Candyman,” “Cumberland Blues,” and “New Speedway Boogie” in succession. The lyrics of “Speedway” must have resonated with the audience in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings. The song was in response to the disastrous concert at the Altamont Speedway, but the One way or another this darkness got to give chorus must have sent chills through the crowd.
An intense version of “Easy Wind” which appears on Fallout from the Phil Zone, is sandwiched between “Casey Jones” and the second live performance of “Attics of My Life.” This was now a group that could sing almost as well as they jammed. The St. Stephen > Cryptical Envelopments > Drums > The Other One > Cosmic Charlie segment of the set is sensational. “Garcia’s tenacious playing during “The Other One” stands out in this psychedelic blizzard of sound.
After the Dead’s opening acoustic sets, Garcia remained on stage to play a set with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Jerry clocked in more than seven hours of stage time on this historic day. The acoustic set was once again splendid at the late show, and Dark Star > St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > Turn on Your Lovelight closed out the electric set with a heavy dose of cosmic rock. This was an incredible period of activity for the Grateful Dead as they were bursting onto the national scene and on the verge of commercial notoriety with their impending album releases.
Three weeks prior to the Grateful Dead’s May 15, 1980 show at the Nassau Coliseum, Go to Heaven was released. This was the beginning of a period of creative inactivity as the band would only release two more studio albums during their remaining fifteen years, and for the most part, their show format would remain the same. However, the band’s legend and popularity continued to flourish, but it would do so based upon the foundation they had built. Go to Heaven never took flight commercially, and critics dismissed it, although it added several strong tunes to the band’s live rotation. Garcia and company were photographed in white suits for the album cover, to give us the illusion that they were in heaven. It’s a lame cover, especially when compared to the Dead’s precious gallery of iconic album artwork.
After the closing of the Fillmore East, the Nassau Coliseum emerged as the band’s go to venue in the vicinity of New York City. There were forty-two Dead shows played at both the Fillmore East and Nassau Coliseum, but since there were early and late shows in the Fillmore, the Dead played more dates in Nassau. Eventually the Dead played fifty-two shows in Madison Square Garden, but the majority of those came after the 1987 release of In the Dark. The Nassau Coliseum, a Long Island sports arena that was home to the New York Islanders during their run of four consecutive Stanley Cup Championships from 1979 -1983, is also one of the legendary shrines of Grateful Dead folklore.
The second show of a three-night run, 5-15-80 Nassau commences with Jack Straw > Franklin’s Tower, a mighty one-two punch. From this opening set, the outstanding performances are “Straw,” Peggy O,” and Lazy Lightning > Supplication. Overwhelming electrical voltage flows through the “Supplication” jam. Solid versions of the new tunes, “Far from Me” and “Fee Like a Stranger” are turned in towards the end of a satisfying set.
“Althea” kicks off set two, and it’s not nearly as fabulous as the following night’s “Althea,” that former Minnesota senator and Saturday Night Live cast member, Al Franken called the best “Althea.” It’s one of the great versions of that song, but the “Althea” from 8-30-80 Philadelphia Spectrum reigns supreme. Garcia and mates poured a ton of passion into “Althea for a couple of years, but then the live performances of the song became more robotic and predictable. For some odd reason, songs from their latest albums like “Shakedown Street,” “I Need a Miracle,” “Alabama Getaway,” and Althea,” all exploded on the scene with inventive jamming. Garcia’s interest in pushing these songs further seemed to wane, as if he had taken them as far as they could go.
After playing Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance, 5-15-80 Nassau continues with a precisely played set: Playin’ > Uncle John’s Band > Drums > Space > Not Fade Away > GDTRFB > Good Lovin’. This is a prime example of Grateful Dead arena rock; enough jamming to satisfy Deadheads, and a crisp collection of focused top shelf songs to impress rock fans who weren’t obsessed with the band. This run of songs is immortalized on the 2002 release. Go to Nassau, a compilation of performances from the Nassau Coliseum shows of May 15 and 16. It’s a much better album than Dead Set, the compilation release of electric songs from the Radio City/ Warfield run of 1980. May 15 is a well-represented date in the band’s discography.
The early ‘80s is an era that has been slighted as far as official releases go. If there were a soundboard recording of 5-15-83 Greek Theatre, it would be a great addition to the Download or Dave’s Picks series. This night finds the band, and especially Garcia in a state of peak virtuosity. The opening set was a standard nine-song affair with a blazing “Cassidy,” and Garcia steps into overdrive during a flamboyant “Deal” prior to intermission.
Soundman Dan Healy was born on May 15, so there’s a Happy Birthday singalong before the Dead fire up the second set with Help > Slipknot! > Franklin’s. There’s a bright metallic ring to Jerry’s guitar as he storms through “Slipknot!” And the band keeps a long thirteen-minute version of “Franklin’s Tower” interesting all the way through. The other transcendent performance of this final night of a three-show run in Berkeley’s Greek Theatre is a poignant “Stella Blue.” Garcia’s fingers were ablur as he tore into a climatic outro solo. What Garcia would bring to the “Stella” outro was always uncertain. Some nights the solo would slither like a soft breeze as it leaked into “Throwing Stones,” “Around and Around,” or “Good Lovin;” On other nights, the outro was a dazzling exhibition that needed no supporting cast.
Grinding their way through their second East Coast tour of the year, the Grateful Dead turned on the students of another university of higher education when they played the Athletic Center at Rutgers on 5-15-81. The show had a festive flow to it as Mississippi Half Step > Franklin’s kicked the night off, and Scarlet > Fire opened set two. The jams are concise and there’s a light-hearted tone to 5-15-81 except for “Little Red Rooster.” This is a maligned blues tune which suffered from lack of imagination, and interest from Garcia as the decade moved on. But during the song’s infancy from 1980 -1982, “Rooster” was a wild beast. During the Rutgers “Rooster,” Garcia unloads a savage jam following Weir’s pesky slide guitar solo. When I was touring in the early ‘80s, I savored hearing “Rooster,” which alternated on a nightly basis with “C. C. Rider” during the first set. Check out the 5-15-81 “Rooster.” You too will be impressed.
This date in Garcia history also provides us with a classic performance from Legion of Mary. This Jerry Band lineup included, Merl Saunders, John Kahn , Ron Tutt (drums), and Martin Fierro (sax and flute). Legion of Mary toured together for a year and was disbanded in July of 1975. On 5-15-75, Legion of Mary was on fire in San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. The band’s arsenal included reggae, soul, R & B, and jazz standards. “Tore Up,” a number from the early days of rock and roll, opens the show. From this concert, there’s an excellent performance of “I’ll Take a Melody,” that appears on the must-have release, Legion of Mary: The Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1.
The Legion of Mary bonus disc contains two tunes from 5-15-75: Stevie Wonder’s, “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” and Dylan’s underrated classic from John Wesley Harding, “Wicked Messenger.” Just as Jimi Hendrix found the mojo in “All Along the Watchtower,” Garcia released the beast within “Wicked Messenger.” Soul meets gospel in a grinding bluesy container as Garcia turns “Wicked Messenger” into an instrumental tour de force. May 15, 1975 was the last time any Garcia Band configuration played “Wicked Messenger.” On 7-12-87 Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead played the definitive version of “Wicked Messenger” in Giants Stadium. It was the last time Garcia played the song live, and it was first time Dylan had performed it live.