Five days after Garcia brought Madison Square Garden to its knees with the legendary 9-18-87 Watchtower > Dew, the Dead played the middle show of their three-night run in the Philadelphia Spectrum. I usually attended all the shows on any Philly run, but this time I only caught the second show, September 23. Lady Fate was on my side because this was the one not to be missed. Although the crowd was boisterous, there was nothing extraordinary about the first five songs: Feel Like a Stranger > Franklin’s Tower, “Walkin’ Blues,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Tons of Steel.” There was no extracurricular jamming, and Garcia’s “Devil” solo was half its usual pre-coma length. There was an optimistic buzz in the air, but there was no reason to expect a mind-blowing ending to the set.
I saw the Dead’s first performance of “Desolation Row” in the Philly Spectrum on 3-25-86, and I saw them play it with Dylan in RFK Stadium. I wasn’t impressed on either occasion, in part because I didn’t know the tune at the time. By September 23, 1987, I’d become a hardcore Dylan fanatic, well-versed on his entire catalog. On the sixth song of the first set, when Weir strummed the driving opening of “Desolation,” I was drooling. Weir vividly brings Dylan’s narrative to life from the opening lines, “They’re selling postcards of the hanging. They’re painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors. The circus is in town.” Yes indeed! The traveling caravan of freaks had returned to South Philly.
Jerry’s the Maestro when it comes to tapping into the spirit and essence of a Dylan tune, but the 9-23-87 “Desolation Row” is an extraordinary performance by Weir. His inspired delivery breathes life into the historically and literarily famous characters in timeless procession: Cinderella, Bette Davis, Romeo, Cain and Abel, the hunchback of Notre Dame, Ophelia, Noah, Einstein (disguised as Robin Hood), The Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, and the brawling poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot. It’s a comedy, tragedy, poem, play, novel, and epic anthem rolled into one. The fluidity of the Dead’s musical arrangement and Jerry’s subtle licks in response to Weir’s excited phrasing creates an aural wave that sets off the film projector in our minds.
Everything falls into place. After Weir howls, “He was famous long ago for playing the electric violin on Desolation Row,” Garcia takes over with a stinging yet lyrical solo as if he’s the electric violinist in Dylan’s mind. Weir’s phrasing is dramatic throughout as he ramps up the intensity and pulls back when necessary. The band is with him all the way, functioning as one. And for good measure, Garcia tops this off with another smooth solo. As much as I love Dylan’s original “Desolation Row” track from Highway 61 Revisited, it’s not the type of thing I can listen to repeatedly. After at least 1,000 listens to the Philly “Desolation Row,” I crave it more each time.
This wheel’s on fire, and proper song selection is crucial. Garcia bounces into “Big Railroad Blues,” a powder keg that will keep the momentum flowing. “Althea,” “Tennessee Jed,” or “Row Jimmy” would not have done much to capitalize on the energy bubbling from “Desolation Row.” This “Big Railroad” is an uplifting rush with an ample fret board workout for Jerry. The power surge demanded “The Music Never Stopped.”
There’s barely a pause as Phil and Bobby charge into “Music.” After Bobby sings, “Fish are rising up like birds,” Brent plays a riff that sounds like “Fish rising up like birds.” Weir chuckles as he continues, “It’s been hot for seven weeks now,” and in response to Brent’s riff, hollers, “Did you hear what I just heard?”
There’s a great vibe as the ending jam develops. You know Jer’s going to rip it. As the temperature rises, Garcia latches onto a startling run in an impossibly high frequency that separates this “Music” from any that’s ever been performed. Jerry quickly eases the intensity so he can seemingly redirect the jam. Ah, but he’s just playing possum again. Instead, he charges back to the previous high-frequency run and improbably builds upon that—lightning strikes twice. The Spectrum roars in awe. At the conclusion of this elite “Music,” Weir slyly announces, “And we’ll be back in a little bit.” You mean there’s more!
Set two brings a steady flow of desirable tunes, including “Bertha,” “Cumberland Blues,” Playin’ > Uncle John’s Band, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and Good Lovin’ > La Bamba > Good Lovin’. This final version of “La Bamba” wasn’t as dramatic as the one five days earlier in Madison Square Garden, and the set had few jaw-dropping moments. On the other hand, everything was performed efficiently, and the set was a celebration in the aftermath of greatness. After the 9-18-87 Watchtower > Dew and the killer first-set ending in Philly, I believed this was the dawn of a Dead rebirth. The best performances of ’87 were better than the pre-coma gems from ’86. I knew there were many lackluster Garcia segments on the comeback trail, but these MSG and Philly shows, along with the Dylan/Dead spectacular in Giants Stadium, were miraculous, and had me feeling bullish about Señor Garcia’s future.
On September 23, 1972, the Grateful Dead played their first of two gigs in The Palace Theatre, Waterbury, Connecticut. This glorious theater, with its opulent décor, was opened in 1922, and it had a seating capacity of around 2,500. Two days after a marathon extravaganza in the Philadelphia Spectrum, the band must have felt unstoppable as they rolled into Waterbury. Playing a show on par with what they did in Philly was an almost impossible task, but on 9-23-72, San Francisco’s finest found a way to carve out another compelling show in a remarkable year.
This gig is a Deadhead stat lover’s feast, starting with the “Big River” opener. This the seventh rendition of “Big River,” and the first of only two times it would kick off a show (6-26-74 Providence is the other time). The freewheeling country vibe of the opener remains in effect as the band rolls through upbeat versions of “Mexicali Blues” and “Friend of the Devil.” As in Philly, the mid-set Cat > Rider is the nucleus of a powerful set that ends with “Playin’ in the Band.” My commentary on this set is brief because there’s much to discuss in set two.
After “Promised Land,” a mad dash through Bertha > Greatest Story Ever Told had the hippies in Waterbury sweating early in set two. The fifth, sixth, and seventh songs of the set, “Around and Around,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and “Cryptical Envelopments” were all played for the first time in ’72, and “Around” and “Baby Blue” were firsts with Keith in the band. Weir’s in his howling, scowling glory in a blitz through “Around and Around.” Although it’s a beautiful presentation, “Baby Blue” would only be played two more times (9-26-72 and 2-24-74) before it disappeared from the rotation. When it reappeared as an encore in 1981, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” found its rightful place.
After the last performance of “Cryptical Envelopments” for thirteen years, a brief Billy drum solo gives way to a sensational and focused “The Other One.” The spacey meandering is limited. This twenty-one-minute psychedelic smackdown packs as much punch as any thirty-minute rendition. There’s wonderful continuity throughout as the band climbs, swirls, spins, and redirects. On the path to the first verse, Phil pumps out some leads that resemble “My Favorite Things” as Garcia’s colorful leads multiply. Jerry bends an orgasmic riff on his rusty strings and repeats the beloved riff as a prelude to “Spanish lady come to me.” The ensuing jam brings Grateful weirdness, but Billy’s focused drumming keeps it flowing. The relaxed confidence and joy for what they were doing in the moment is evident. The jam glides into “Wharf Rat” and the Dead regroups.
There are two standalone tunes before the final assault. “Beat it on Down the Line” is as crisp as possible, and the 9-23-72 “Ramble on Rose” has become my favorite. It’s as gorgeous as the Europe ’72 performance, and Garcia’s torrid solo ends with a dramatic flurry. After “Rose,” Bob boldly proclaims, “Ah, you’re going to love this.” It was one of those nights.
A blazing “Sugar Magnolia” follows Weir’s brazen proclamation. The “Mag” jam is a celebratory romp, and “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” materializes out of the last chord of “Sunshine Daydream.” This was the first time these songs were ever segued. The flamboyant second solo ends with one of Garcia’s furious flourishes. The Dead followed their natural instincts by stomping into “Not Fade Away” after a beautiful “GDTRFB” refrain. At first it sounds like a “NFA” reprise, but “NFA” hasn’t been played yet. The band takes off on an instrumental and returns for another verse before unleashing the raving fanfare finale. This hybrid “NFA” is longer than a reprise and more compact than a standard version. Weir’s prognostication was accurate. They loved it in Waterbury on September 23, and the Sugar Magnolia > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad > Not Fade Away onslaught is an essential rock and roll segment of Deadology. For more on other great shows from this date including 9-23-82 New Have and 9-23-76 Duke, check out