Saturday, September 21, 2019


            The first of fifty-three Dead performances in the Philadelphia Spectrum occurred on December 6, 1968, during the Quaker City Rock Festival. Their set list is unknown, but the Dead were part of a lineup that included Sly & the Family Stone and Iron Butterfly. The Dead’s second performance in The Spectrum on September 21, 1972, is an epic extravaganza that has been immortalized and released as Dick’s Picks Volume 36.

            A lovely “Birdsong” appears as the second tune of the night and gives flight to an overwhelming display of the band’s new material. A fetching run of songs forms the nucleus of the opening set: China Cat > Rider, “Black-Throated Wind,” “Big Railroad Blues,” “Jack Straw.” The “China Cat” jam stands out; there’s a feisty/ornery tone to Jerry’s playing throughout 9-21-72. The set closes with a rollicking “Cumberland Blues” and a tight seventeen-minute “Playin’ in the Band” workout. “Playin’” is hot, but it’s not as fiery as the 8-27-72 Venita version. However, this is one of the better opening sets of the year, and the concept of time becomes irrelevant when the band returns from break.

            Set two completes the spectacular display of how far the band has come since their initial Philly rendezvous, as well as previewing yet-to-be-released songs that would be on Europe ’72 and Wake of the Flood. At the center of this presentation is an astounding Dark Star > Morning Dew. If you remove that from the set, 9-21-72 would still be a classic. An upbeat “He’s Gone” starts the ceremony. Garcia’s stinging outro leads slither into “Truckin’.” The Spectrum salivates as the Dead pound out a rocking instrumental at the end of the emerging FM radio classic.
            Before their mission of transcendence, the Dead play “Black Peter” and “Mexicali Blues,” and out of the between-song silence they gently glide into “Dark Star.” The Spectrum transforms into a flying saucer hurtling through space. Garcia’s firing cosmic debris with soothing brushstrokes. The band’s ensconced in the essence of “Dark Star.” Around the ten-minute mark, Garcia’s guitar screeches and squawks—evidence of alien existence. The opening verse follows, and one can sense it’s going take a while before this vehicle returns.
            Bob and Jerry strike up a groovy riff and suddenly there’s a jazz jam on Mars. Kreutzmann steers the ship for a while as Phil and Keith ping-pong leads back and forth. About twenty-minutes in, Jerry starts to channel a dark disturbance as Keith slashes electric piano riffs and Phil furiously thumps away. The Dead are sounding like a Miles Davis fusion group as the music spirals round and round like a cyclone tearing far into another universe. They take it to the limit, and then the jam floats around in a vacuum of timelessness—sparse music trying to find a way back home. The Dead rise into a jam that loosely resembles “Feelin’ Groovy,” and for the next five minutes they ride an intergalactic trail. This is September 21, 1972, and the show must go on, so the Dead nonchalantly tumble into “Morning Dew.”
            It’s a concert once again as Jerry’s soulful singing stirs deep emotion alongside his mates’ astute playing. The band is relaxed and bold as they play in one of the major East Coast sports venues as the main event for the first time. The final “Dew” jam is a steaming wave of cascading heat—pure aural paradise and the best version of the year. This is a D Star > Dew for the ages, and the set is still only slightly past the halfway point.
            The Dead hammer “Beat it Down the Line,” an unusual choice on the heels of a brilliant musical segment, and a radical serving of “Mississippi Half-Step” follows. Sparkling and concise electric instrumentals are chased by enthused group harmonies. Weir seizes the moment to trot out “Sugar Magnolia.” The Philadelphia Flyers, who were nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies, used to bloody their opponents on The Spectrum ice during these years. The Grateful Dead are the antithesis of violence, but this “Sugar Magnolia” has a volatile energy as if it’s drawing its power from the crushing and bruising of human flesh inside this legendary hockey venue.
            The mood shifts as the Dead snake and scramble through a “Friend of the Devil” that’s ideal for swing dancing. If the Dead were exhausted from this marathon set, they showed no signs of fatigue during the exhilarating Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road > Not Fade Away finale. The NFA > GDTRFB segue cooks, and Garcia whips up a screaming second solo on “GDTRFB.” This is one of the elite versions of a breakout year for “GDTRFB.” The “One More Saturday Night” encore rocks South Philly into submission. 

            It’s September 21, 1982, and after individually introducing the members of the band, John Scher exclaims, “Would you please welcome back to New York, the GRATEFUL DEAD!” Rapturous Madison Square Garden applause fills the arena as a four-beat count-off explodes into “Playin’ in the Band.” I was at this show, and I was in Landover on 9-15-82 when the Dead thrilled us with the first-ever Playin’ > Crazy Fingers opener. In Landover, they followed that with “Little Red Rooster” and the first East Coast “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” in five years. The carpet too is moving under you, sings Dylan, and that’s what it felt like being in Landover. Just when you think you are a master of understanding their patterns, the Dead steal your face right off your head. The Landover opening turned out to be just an elaborate warmup for the better performance of Playin’ > Fingers on 9-21-82.
            The excitement of the sung portion of “Playin’” in front of an electrified Madison Square Garden is unreal. Weir croons like a conquering hero as the band rampages through chord changes. Garcia’s noodling rushes through the audience as Billy and Mickey push the pace—hotter and hotter—on par with a ’72 version. This type of psychedelic purge is just about unprecedented at the start of any show. One song in and Madison Square Garden has landed on Pluto.

            The transition into “Crazy Fingers” is magic, one of the coolest segues I’ve ever heard. These ’82 versions of “Crazy Fingers” are richer than the ’76 offerings, and Brent’s keyboard is an important ingredient in that mix. This instrumental intro has an abracadabra, sprinkling pixie dust aura. Garcia’s moved as he restates the opening theme. Half of the Garden is cheering, the other half is breathless in suspended anticipation. “Your rain falls like crazy fingers.” As Jerry lets Hunter’s lyrics fly, Madison Square Garden is the happiest joint in the galaxy. “Crazy Fingers” has all the ideal and idiosyncratic Grateful Dead ingredients: evocative lyrics, a fleeting and hypnotic melody, and pure Jerry on guitar. After Garcia’s melancholy between-verse solo, he starts singing the wrong word for a split second, recovers, and delivers the remaining chorus as beautifully as he’s ever sung. The almost blown lyric is a lovely mole on a gorgeous face.
            The emotion in Jerry’s voice on the last verse stops time in its tracks. “Midnight on a carousel ride. Reaching for the gold ring down inside. Never could reach. It just slips away but I try.” The outro solo rides the enchanted vibe and virtuosity, and unexpectedly dashes into “Me and My Uncle,” the most-performed Dead song of all time. “Uncle” never received a grander intro than it did on this night.
            The band and the audience are riding an incredible high as Weir vibrantly sings and Garcia’s guitar reels in rhyme. “Mexicali Blues” or “Big River” will be next. The bursting pace suggests the inevitable as the band streams into “Big River.” Uncle > River has never been so striking. Brent is on fire as he bangs out a honky-tonk middle solo that has the Garden bouncing as one. Spit flies from Weir as he snaps out the final verse and the band revs the engine for Garcia’s glory as he turns the jam over seven times. This is twice as long as an average “River” solo. Garcia charges out of the gate, shifts gears, and repeats as the instrumental climaxes. Everybody in the band pulls their weight.

            The Garden goes berserk as the music stops for the first time. The funky/blues beat of “West L.A. Fadeaway” emerges. This is the lucky seventh version of this tune born in Veneta, Oregon, on 8-28-82. Of all the new In the Dark tunes that emerged in ’82 and ’83, “West L.A. Fadeaway” seemed to be the immediate favorite amongst Deadheads. With Brent’s slick licks greasing the speedway and Phil’s bomb’s clearing the tracks, it was green lights for jamming Jerry. A fine “Beat it Down the Line” follows, and practically segues into “Loser.” There was little dead air or indecisiveness.
            “Looks Like Rain” shines on 9-21-82 thanks to Garcia’s moody licks. Weir had an electric night as a vocalist, and his embellishments towards the end of “LLR” are overenthusiastic bordering on silly. Jerry has Weir’s back all the way, attentively playing off his every vocal whim. The Garden crowd roars as Weir howls, “All my life I’ve seen rain, rain, rain, can’t take no more fuckin’ rain, no!” Garcia’s garrulous guitar rolls on after Weir screams his final “AH-HAHH!” The noodling ends and the Dead top off the set with a succinct China Cat > Rider—explosive, dramatic, and climactic. 

For more on September 21 in Grateful Dead history check out Deadology


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