Miraculous MSG Morning Dew
In his memoir Searching for the Sound, Phil Lesh writes, “In the first week of September ’79, we played our first gigs at what would become my personal favorite among all indoor venues in the United States, Madison Square Garden in New York City. Playing in that building as it bounces up and down from the sheer stomping exuberance of the audience is a sensation that must be experienced to be believed.” Never had MSG pandemonium been more palpable than it was when the Grateful Dead created a state of euphoria in that beloved building on Friday night, September 18, 1987. I was there.
Grateful Dead mania was running wild as The Boys started their five-night run at Madison Square Garden on September 15, 1987. On that evening, “Touch of Grey” occupied the tenth spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and would peak at number nine. The band had their first hit single as they joined the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Whitesnake, Huey Lewis, and Bananarama in the elite hit-makers club of September ’87.
Following their first two shows at Madison Square Garden, Garcia and Weir paid a visit to NBC Studios to appear on Late Night with David Letterman. Middleweight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who had just come out of retirement to upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler, was the other guest. It made for a nice pairing—Sugar Ray and Jerry, the comeback icons. With his sharp wit and jovial demeanor, Garcia looked reasonably healthy a year after his near-fatal coma. But if you compare this appearance to his last appearance on Letterman’s show in April 1982, Jerry looked like he aged twenty years in just five. Weir looked as if he hadn’t aged a day since 1982.
Garcia and Weir joined Letterman’s band, led by keyboardist Paul Schaffer, and played “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I’ve always been baffled as to why Weir sang lead vocals on “Masterpiece” with the Dead, since Garcia crooned it so poignantly with the JGB. After some relaxed and witty conversation with the host, Weir turned a national TV audience on to an old parlor trick. Weir, Letterman, Schaffer, and Biff Henderson gathered around Garcia and gave TV land the illusion that they were lifting Garcia out of his chair—a bit of silly magic. What happened the following night in Madison Square Garden was truly magical.
Emotions soared during the first set as New York Deadheads greeted the group’s every musical whim with vociferous appreciation. Jerry’s singing was a bit shaky during “Sugaree,” but he rolled out an impressive third solo, one of the better ones of the year. Following a decent performance of “Birdsong,” Weir announced that the band would take a short break after only six songs. Usually an abrupt set termination like this would disappoint me. Somehow, I sensed with certainty that something magical would happen in set two. Positive energy lingered in the air thick and heavy. It was inescapable.
Deadheads and the Garden bounce as one as “Shakedown Street” opens set two. After the between-verse solo, Jerry mistakenly sings the chorus. The mojo of the show starts to kick in during an above-average jam, and the Garden explodes in response. “Women Are Smarter” energizes and delights the crowd. During the final round robin sing-along, Weir cuts loose with a falsetto chorus that borders on silly. The band finishes off the final chorus with authority and Weir shouts, “That’s right!” A thunderous roar becomes deafening as Jerry strums the opening chords of “Terrapin Station.” The excitement is ridiculous!
The golden opening of “Terrapin” is wondrous on the heels of the “Women Are Smarter” hysteria. The hypnotic rhythm, tempo, and command of the band frames the wisdom coming from the angelic voice of the gray-haired and bearded guitar guru. Jerry finally has found a way to channel the abundance of energy into his precise guitar solos, linking the narrative. There’s a vibe of heavenly ascension as Garcia calls upon his muse: “Inspiration, move me brightly.” New York City is louder and louder as the journey advances towards the royal refrain of “Terrapin.” Tight drumming opens the way for passionate phrasing from Jerry and Brent. After one intoxicating Brent run, Phil unloads a blast that allows Jerry to respond with the definitive musical line of the refrain. It’s hard to rate “Terrapins,” but the in-the-moment ecstasy of this MSG version comes through on tape, making it an essential “Terrapin.”
After Drums, a quick dash through “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” elevated the excitement in the crowd. Nothing could dampen the spirit of the faithful and their desire to electrify Jerry. The big breakthrough came as Weir served up the legendary “All Along the Watchtower” riff. Garcia digs in with a lead that had us salivating and howling—game on. This was my first time seeing the Dead play “Watchtower” without Dylan, as it was for most of us in the Garden. Garcia’s first solo made everybody’s hair stand on end, and then Weir shrieked, “No reason to get excited!” The roar of the crowd just about blew the roof off MSG. It was at that point that I asked myself, What if they play “Morning Dew”? I flashed back to that time I saw my first “Morning Dew” in Philadelphia, and somehow, this moment would be bigger. After all Garcia had been through, and where the Dead were now with the success of “Touch of Grey,” did Garcia have the audacity to pull this off? The anticipation was unbearable. The thought of “Morning Dew” emerging from “Watchtower” was almost too much to bear. It had never happened before.
“Watchtower” fizzled into a few seconds of no man’s land. If the next song was “Black Peter,” “Sella Blue,” or “Wharf Rat,” it would have been a letdown. The moment demanded the Holy Grail. Garcia had no path but the “Dew,” and he bent a warning note before striking into the sanctified anthem. To be in the thick of that audience and to experience the collective ecstasy is the realization of the ultimate power of music, which is beyond anything from any other realm. It was as if New York was healing Garcia, and Jerry had just announced that everyone had a winning lottery ticket.
Jerry sings soulfully and spiritually, bestowing “The Dew” upon his devotees like a soothing prayer. This is where the enthusiastic wisdom of New York Deadheads factors in. They know every nuance of the song and treat it like a religious anthem, only expressing their joy in response to their spiritual leader. You can hear a pin drop as Jerry growls, “Where have all the people gawwwwn TODAY!” And then the silence is parted by the unified roar of his flock. “Morning Dew” was more moving than ever before for both the singer and the audience in the aftermath of Garcia’s comeback from a near-death experience.
Phil’s bass rattles the arena as Garcia leans forward and shreds a shrill solo between verses. Singing from the heart of humanity, Jerry croons: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway,” four times, each cry more sorrowful than the last, and each ensuing eruption from the audience, louder. Madison Square Garden was shaking from the last roar as it never had before. It was as if a Knick just hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the NBA Championship.
Usually Garcia builds his “Dew” solo deliberately, but due to the overwhelming emotional explosion, he went for the jugular—down on the lower part of the fretboard, a blizzard of notes. Standing there fifteen rows from Jerry was surreal. To make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I bent over and slapped the cement floor with the palm of my hand three times.
How is Garcia going to execute and extend this jam when he started with a climactic tirade? Simple. He invents pathways that never existed before. At one point he makes a circular motion with his hand, as if he’s waving a magic wand, and then seemingly discovers a frequency that never existed before, hitting the highest possible notes on the fretboard and peeling them off with speed and precision before the band joins in for the final fanning blitz. The heroics are complete with a final: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.”
Weir cuts the tension in the building by breaking into “Good Lovin’.” Halfway through there’s a subtle shift in the chord progression, and Garcia starts singing “La Bamba.” It was a great surprise for many on hand, although a healthy percentage of the audience knew they had done this combo for the first time on 9-7-87 in the Providence Civic Center, a show I was at. In MSG, the place went bonkers as Garcia crooned, “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan. Soy capitan, soy capitan,” and unleashed a devil of a concise guitar solo. The Grateful Dead were now featuring two top ten hits, because the Los Lobos version of “La Bamba” topped the Billboard charts a few weeks earlier.
This instantly legendary segment of Grateful Dead music overshadowed the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” encore. Just listening to the tape decades later is an emotionally draining experience. However, revisiting this encore thirty years later, I’m amazed by the performance. Garcia had to be exhausted, yet he deliberately moved through Dylan’s tune and conveyed the solemn poignancy of the lyrics. Jerry had knocked on heaven’s door, only to return to triumphantly create one of the great nights in Madison Square Garden history. I can’t rank 9-18-87 MSG as an all-time great show, or that “Morning Dew” as the best, but starting with “Watchtower,” it may be the most thrilling finale in the band’s history.
The only live event that I’ve participated in that came close to this was the 7-12-87 Dylan/Dead show at Giants Stadium. Sometimes the music plays the band, but on 9-18-87, the sanctified venue and the desires of the faithful propelled the Grateful Dead. And for a little while, these brilliant musical segments allowed me to dream that a new golden era for the Dead was on the horizon.
Of the four shows on this date in the ’90s, my favorite single performance comes from 9-18-94 Shoreline Amphitheatre. Overall, this show exceeded my expectations, as have most fall ’94 shows. After Drums, there’s a moving performance of “The Days Between,” one of the two last great Garcia/Hunter compositions. “So Many Roads” is the other gem, and it was the fourth song of the second set. To simply call this performance poignant is an understatement.
To this day, I don’t enjoy looking at pictures of Jerry from the ’90s. The eerie sense that he was aging rapidly and dying before my eyes is one of the reasons I stopped touring. In the years after Built to Last, enough original tunes arrived on the scene for a new album, and the Garcia/Grisman acoustic collaboration was a breath of fresh air, but “So Many Roads” is the undeniable masterpiece of this period. Once I wind down this endeavor, I’m going to line up all the versions of “So Many Roads” and listen to them all. This was often the high point of the shows when it was played, as is the case on 9-18-94, which is the finest “So Many Roads” that I’ve heard.
This song suits Garcia so well—it’s a sad farewell as Jerry heads down the final road that will take him home. Jerry croons the California blues smooth, “Call me a whinin’ boy if you will. Born where the sun don’t shine.” That line instantly gets me thinking of Hot Tuna, Jelly Roll Morton, and “Dark Hollow.” Hunter’s lyrics are simple and wisely sprinkled with old musical references. This is the type of songwriting style that Bob Dylan would embrace for Time Out of Mind, and much of his best work in the twenty-first century. Jerry’s singing is alive and attentive on the 10-18-94 “So Many Roads,” and his moody opening solo creates perfect ambiance.
As he sings, the song eases Jerry’s soul. “So many roads I tell you, New York to San Francisco. All I want is one to take me home.” This is the Grateful Dead’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with a touch of “Crazy Fingers” sadness—never could reach it just slips away but I try. And to hear Garcia release the pain as he cries, “So many roads to ease my soul,” is heartbreaking, but like much great art, it’s cathartic for the performer and extremely rewarding for the listener. Garcia passionately sheds the final solo as if he were young a man. The momentum from this tune carries over into Garcia’s fine opening solo in “Samson and Delilah.” The 9-18-94 “So Many Roads” is heroic. Garcia bares his soul and pours all his energy and essence into this performance, which is symbolic of Jerry’s relentless commitment to enriching people’s lives with music, sometimes to the detriment of his own physical well-being.
Jerry made it to fifty-four and gave his admirers more music than they can ever listen to during their lives. On September 18, 1970, the Grateful Dead took the stage in the Fillmore East saddened by the news that Jimi Hendrix had died in London that day at the age of twenty-seven. There were no announcements from the band, but the heaviness of the tragedy seemed to hang over their performance. It may have only been audio problems, but during the second song of the acoustic set, Garcia pulled the plug on “Black Peter” right before he was to sing, “See here how everything leads up to this day. And it’s just like any other day that’s ever been.” It’s very unusual for the Dead to just bail on a set like that, and perhaps the tragic news of the day added to Garcia’s frustration with the sound. During set two, when the band returns to “Cryptical Envelopments” after “The Other One,” Jerry is barely audible as he reluctantly sings, “He had to die.” And repeating the refrain after a solo doubled the pain. The band slips into “Brokedown Palace,” but they can’t escape the sadness. “Fare you well my honey. Fare you well my only true one.”
With a song debut and a final performance, the electric set of 9-18-70 Fillmore East has an eclectic menu. The first half of this set is a rough but listenable audience recording. Pigpen sings like a man possessed on the Dead’s last offering of “It’s a Man’s World.” As valiant and interesting as it was to cover James Brown, this tune still needed fine-tuning. The debut of “Till the Morning Comes” follows.” It sounds good to me, but the band only played it four more times in 1970 before laying it to rest. “Till the Morning Comes” could have been an upbeat tune that would have made a nice prelude to a “Sugar Magnolia” set-ender.
The soundboard portion of the show starts with “Me and My Uncle” and the second version of “Operator,” the folk-based Pig tune that sounds better on American Beauty. “Dancin’ in the Street” has a multi-faceted jam, but it’s not in the same league as the one from the Fillmore West earlier in the year on April 12. A slamming St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > Good Lovin’ combo concludes 9-18-70. The shifting evolvement of “Not Fade Away” is the most interesting part of this segment.
Since September 18 is a dark day in music history due to Jimi’s death, it’s fitting that the Dead made it one of their most memorable days thanks to the Watchtower > Dew that will forever immortalize Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Madison Square Garden.
For more highlights from other September 18 shows, check out Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History.