Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Deadology: Halloween

            Since the band reveled in the art of trick or treat and their fans loved to masquerade, it makes sense that the Grateful Dead turned in many memorable performances on Halloween. Cornell and Englishtown are legendary shows that need no introduction to any Deadhead. Surprisingly, there’s a sensational ’71 Halloween show, released as Dick’s Picks Vol. 2, that’s the Rodney Dangerfield of elite performances. Perhaps that’s because the official release is just a single CD containing set two of 10-31-71 from the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Or maybe it’s because the show took place under the radar in the Midwest and it didn’t start building its reputation until it was released for public consumption in 1995. Pushing this contemplation aside, here are the facts. The second set of 10-31-71 is rockin’ improvisational perfection personified.
            Dick Latvala was a genius. Although it defied the expectations of Deadheads who clamor for recordings of complete shows, his decision to release this short set as a single CD was ballsy, and it brought glory to a standout segment that deserves to be immortalized. In an interview with Steve Silberman before the release of this CD, Latvala said, “This show was like getting hit with a brick in the face, I couldn’t believe it. I put it on again, and said, ‘Man!’ I must have played it ten times before I could talk.” Believe the man when he tells you how stunning this segment is.
            If you were trying to impress a classic rocker by playing “Dark Star” for them, and this individual had no predisposition for liking the Grateful Dead or jazz, then the 10-31-71 “Dark Star” is the ticket. Right from the opening notes Garcia’s playing is lyrical, hypnotic, and focused. Lesh and Kreutzmann lock into a comfortable and confident tempo. Garcia’s licks sparkle in a series of rolling waves. The music hurls the listener into timeless space travel while simultaneously building anticipation for the first verse. Many of the best “Dark Stars” can disorientate a listener and the musicians themselves. This “Star” brilliantly glides along and unfolds as if it’s a predetermined masterpiece.
After the opening verse goes down, the band goes into one of the longest and hottest “Feelin’ Groovy” riffs of any “Dark Star.” The momentum of the jam seems to fuel some of the great moments to come later in the set. “Feelin’ Groovy” dissolves into a few minutes of cosmic space that rises into a crescendo that gives birth to “Sugar Magnolia.” This is a compelling, fully explored twenty-three-minute “Dark Star” without superfluous noodling.
            The Halloween Columbus show gives us the first Dark Star > Sugar Magnolia combination. I love the way “Mag” is launched in this configuration. And the beast unleashed in “Feelin’ Groovy” rolls in the best “Sugar Mag” jam to date. Europe ’72 would take this cowboy rocker to the next plateau. As Billy lays down the final beats of “Sunshine Daydream,” the rest of the band takes a collective breath prior to the majestic intro of “St. Stephen.”
            Coming after “Sugar Magnolia” instead of “Dark Star,” “St, Stephen” seems to have a new sense of purpose. Little did anyone know that “Stephen” would not be played again for five years. Every lyric and lick matters, and the jam is volatile. Garcia and Weir take off in unison, fanning quicker and quicker until they burst into the final verse: “Saint Stephen will remain. All he’s lost he shall regain. Seashore washed by the suds and the foam. Been here so long he’s got to calling it home. Fortune comes a-crawlin’, Calliope woman. Spinning that curious sense of your own. Can you answer? Yes I can, but what would be the answer to the answer man?”
            The answer was a common but thrilling transition into “Not Fade Away.” There’s an infectious bounce to the beat. The song advances with uncanny bravado, and you can sense that Garcia and company are going to tear this up. Describing listening to this “NFA” jam, Latvala said, “I have to put myself in a seat belt. I start shaking, it’s so exciting.”
            I don’t like to restrain myself when I listen to this “NFA.” I just remove all sharp and breakable items in the room before cuing this up. Garcia’s fingers bend and pick in a blur, and what he does with this jam is silly. It’s easily his best guitar work within the Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road > Not Fade Away framework, which is where this adventure is headed. Every time I listen to a different version of this combo, I pray it approaches what Garcia does in Columbus. It never comes close. Jerry’s out in front of the band, guitar tirades surging to the pulsing rhythm as Garcia refuses to consider the transition into “GDTRFB.” Inexplicably, the jam rotates hotter and hotter, and Jerry makes it seem as easy as unspooling yarn.
            “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” feeds off the swirling momentum. This is a vibrant version with two powerful jams, but it’s only better than about 75 percent of the versions out there. However, the GDTRFB > NFA transition is in the elite stratosphere of the Scarlet > Fire transition from Cornell. Out of the GDTRFB outro, a wondrous jam emerges. The band is conflicted, yet united. Half of the band steps towards NFA, while the other half tinkers with GDTRFB. Garcia’s in full tease mode, alternating soft, controlled playing with rebellious outbursts, and somehow, the rest of the band rides the wave. The “Feelin’ Groovy” energy is permeating the proceedings again. How does the band know what Garcia’s thinking? And it’s amazing how they instinctively respond when they’ve never improvised a segue like this before. Maybe these are the rewards of passing the Acid Tests. This type of spontaneous group synergy is unique to the Grateful Dead.
The return explosion into “Not Fade Away” disrupts physics and gravity in Columbus, Ohio. Garcia’s voice bubbles as he chants the reprise with Weir. As Weir shrieks falsetto screams, Garcia unleashes frenzied riffs. The climactic crescendo is worthy of The Who and an equipment-bashing tantrum. This is the definitive Grateful Dead rock and roll extravaganza.
Oh yeah, they did play a first set in the Ohio Theatre, and it’s a good one. “Playin’ in the Band” rockets for six and a half minutes in the fourth slot. You can hear the creaking of psychedelic expansion. “Tennessee Jed” is more of a tipsy dash as opposed to the Southern marathon it would become. A spirited “Casey Jones” is followed by hyped renditions of “Cumberland Blues” and “One More Saturday Night” to end the opening set. By only releasing set two, Dick framed this masterpiece perfectly.
The year before the Dead stormed Columbus, they played an early and late Halloween show in the Gymnasium at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. The early show begins with “Till the Morning Comes,” an ironic choice since this is from American Beauty, an album that would be released the following morning. This early show was one long set with a clever mix of songs, including “Hard to Handle,” “Cold Rain and Snow,” and “Brokedown Palace.” The evening comes alive when “Viola Lee Blues” is launched. As the jam spirals towards paradise, the band smoothly shifts into the opening riff of “Cumberland Blues.” Being that this is the last “Viola” ever played, it would have been nice to hear it played through to its climactic conclusion. On the bright side, this is the hottest opening for “Cumberland Blues.” The one and done trifecta of Viola Lee Blues > Cumberland Blues > Uncle John’s Band makes for an epic set ending.
“Casey Jones” and “Sugar Magnolia” start the late show Halloween festivities in Stonybrook. The 10-31-70 “Sugar Mag” has a folksy vibe with a bright jam and vocal harmony like the studio track. The show moves along somewhat sluggishly until the Dead close out with St. Stephen > Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad > Not Fade Away. The band rocks this full blast. Both Stonybrook shows give us memorable segue jams. The “GDTRFB” outro ramps up as if it may charge into something else, but it eventually dashes back to a “NFA” reprise. This finale foreshadows the mayhem that would be unleashed upon Columbus next Halloween.
The third Halloween, “St. Stephen” was performed in the Marin County Veteran’s Auditorium on 10-31-83. It was the first time it was played on the West Coast in five years, and it would be the last performance of “St. Stephen” ever. It had been many years since I heard this show start to finish, and it’s a set list packed with tricks and treats. Wang Dang Doodle > Brother Esau kicks off the show, and the set ends with an LSD-dosing: Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance > Deal. Sandwiched between the desirable opening and closing combos are “Peggy O,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Brown-Eyed Women.” This set looks potent on paper, but most of the performances are mediocre. The “Deal” doesn’t have the length or fire of the last two versions from the East Coast fall tour, 10-17-83 Lake Placid and 10-20-83 Worcester.
Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower fires up the faithful in Marin County at the start of set two. This doesn’t compare to the 10-12-83 MSG version, nor the ones from the summer tour, 9-2-83 Boise or 9-10-83 Santa Fe, but it’s still an aural delight. The night of dazzling combinations continues with Estimated Prophet > Eyes of the World. Jerry digs in for an excellent second solo and outro in “Eyes.”
Jazz percussionist extraordinaire Airto Moreira joined Billy and Mickey for Drums. This leads to Space, which evolves into a fifteen-minute jam session thanks to the presence of Moreira. It’s rare that the post-Drums > Space is a highlight of a quality show, but this is a must-listen Space. Garcia’s actively improvising over the funky beat with “Eyes”-like noodling. The jam unwinds back into a more typical Space and hints of “St. Stephen.” The tease is no trick as the place goes nuts when the band ascends into the sacred anthem. The tempo of the performance is spot-on, and Garcia’s voice is as sweet as pie. Weir botches a few verses, and Jerry’s guitar work isn’t on par with what he did on 10-11-83 MSG and 10-15-83 Hartford, but this is a fine and historic farewell to “Stephen.” The ensuing Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away was a throwaway, and the Dead finished their State of the Union Address with “Revolution.”
The Marin County ’83 Halloween bash had a best of the fall tour feel, although the band didn’t cook as they had back East. The Dead tapped into the energy created by their rabid East Coast fans, but there are other factors to explain this phenomenon, especially in the 80s. It was easier for Garcia to lose himself in his Persian habit and still make the local shows than it was to travel from New York to Hartford to Lake Placid and play on the road. It takes a certain amount of tenacity, and it was certainly more of a challenge than showing up for a hometown show.
Another factor was that the Dead would heat up as a tour rolled along. Usually the best shows of a Northeast tour would start to manifest on the third or fourth show of the tour. When the Dead played these short runs at places like the Greek Theatre, Ventura Fairgrounds, Frost Amphitheatre, or Marin, the band didn’t have the same opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and build momentum.
When the Dead played their ’84 Halloween show in the Berkeley Community Theater, it was the fourth gig of a six-night stand in the same venue. This had the effect of being a mini-tour and backing my theory. The best shows of this residency were the last two on 11-2 and 11-3. The “Shakedown Street” Halloween opener sets the crowd in hyper-motion. Matthew Kelly blows harp on the opening solo of song five, “New Minglewood Blues.” Deprived of a chance to solo, Garcia opens jam two on fire, disturbing the normal pecking order as Brent and Bobby follow with their solos, and the remainder of the instrumental is a raunchy mix of all of the above. This is a refreshing change of pace from the usual “Minglewood” formula. Kelly stays on board as a speedy “Big Railroad Blues” rolls on down the tracks.
As they had the year before on Halloween, the Dead close set one with LSD. This time it’s Lazy Lightning > Supplication > Don’t Ease Me In. There’s something about Halloween and final performances because, sadly, this is the last go-round for “Lazy Lightning” and the verse of “Supplication.” This performance is a bit disjointed, but Garcia’s smoking all the way through. This nine-minute “Supplication” is among the longest. This electrifying Weir combo was in its prime in ’78 and 79. Even though it was played with less frequency in the years that followed, the exhilaration factor intensified. I can only imagine that the tricky chord changes and the need for precise execution led to its demise. The ensuing “Supplication” jams were always a letdown in the moment, but they sound good on tape.
Set two of 10-31-84 starts with rockin’ fun in the form of Touch of Grey >Samson. Matt Kelly is back for the fourth song of the set as the band works its way into “I Need a Miracle” with a patient blues beat, performing it with a loving feeling. “Miracle” segues into the Dead’s debut of “Superstitious.” With Kelly’s harp playing and the patient tempo, this may be the best rendition of “Superstitious,” which went on to be a first-set staple for a while.
Drums > Space leads to a brief “Mind Left Body” jam and “Morning Dew.” It’s a strong “Dew,” although it’s not as brilliant as the last one played in Augusta on 10-12-84. Garcia locks into a nice lead pattern that he repeats as he works his way down the fretboard. The lack of a chord-fanning crescendo keeps this from being a special “Dew.” Jerry is finished for the night as Weir delivers a kiddie cookout: Around and Around > One More Saturday Night, sung as “One more Halloween Night.” A “Satisfaction” encore concludes this masquerade ball.
The Grateful Dead returned Halloween to the East Coast in 85. After tuning up to “Funiculi, Funicula,” a ghoulish Space filled the Carolina Coliseum. Phil’s howling into the mic and Healy’s working the special effects. It was an exhilarating buildup to “Werewolves of London.” This was the first “Werewolves” since it was played as an encore at the legendary 7-8-78 Red Rocks affair. Garcia fumbled through some lyrics, but the energy in Colombia, South Carolina, was unreal. Jerry’s solos captured the essence of Warren Zevon’s signature tune. Ah hooo!
It had the makings of one of those nights as “Music Never Stopped” followed “Werewolves.” This “Music” had a sparkling jam, especially for this early in the show, and it was one of the best of ’85. After the surreal opening, Weir cleverly proclaims, “Thank you and good evening ‘Music’ [Never Stopped] lovers.” The rest of the show tanked due to short sets combined with meager creativity. That being said, a sweet “Shakedown Street” opened set two. This fall ’85 tour had several outstanding shows with interesting song twists. The Werewolves > Music opening alone makes this show loveable. 

The 1980 Halloween shindig was a historic night in New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The Dead decided to televise this show live in sixteen theaters throughout the East Coast and Midwest, making this the first rock and roll closed-circuit telecast of its kind. Al Franken and Tom Davis, of Saturday Night Live fame, hosted the show and engaged in a few quick skits with the band and crew. This was also the last night of the Dead’s twenty-four-show acoustic/electric tour. The acoustic set began with instrumental performances of “Heaven Help the Fool” and “Sage and Spirit,” and then Jerry sang “Little Sadie.” This was the last time the Grateful Dead would perform those three songs. Garcia’s performance of “It Must Have Been the Roses” is hypnotic. Deadheads were elated with the set-ending Birdsong > Ripple, which was included on the Dead Ahead video.
A blazing “Jack Straw” opens the first electric set. Garcia’s lightning licks are highlighted by two surging tirades. Phil bombs Radio City as the band fans “Straw” to a rowdy conclusion. Add another 1980 “Straw” to the elite Top-Twenty Club. Great expectations flow as “Cold Rain and Snow” ensues, and then the band remembers they have business to attend to and the nature of the show changes. The spontaneity and chaos of a Dead show unfolding ceases as the band goes into studio mode, trying to create clean, mistake-free performances for their upcoming electric album, Dead Set. During “Little Red Rooster,” Garcia and Weir focus on making their guitars sound like roosters crowing instead of really cutting loose. “Ramble on Rose” is a clean version, but the perfect “Rose” already exists on Europe ’72.
Set three was doomed as the band decided to promote their new album Go to Heaven to the closed-circuit audience by starting the set with “Don’t Ease Me In” and Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance. Before Drums, the Dead played a standalone “Franklin’s Tower,” and after Drums, they played a standalone “Fire on the Mountain.” These were attempts to garner more material for Dead Set, and the sluggish 10-31-80 “Fire” made the regrettable album. Both “Franklin’s” and “Fire” usually benefit from the momentum of the songs preceding it; consequently, these versions don’t have their natural pizzazz. The actual musicianship in “Fire” is high quality, but the band’s taking no chances. If I were to take the best electric performances of this Radio City run and align them for a compilation CD, it wouldn’t come close to matching the brilliance of the 9-2-80 Rochester show.
Sweeping my critique of the 10-31-80 performances aside, this Halloween show, and the entire tour, was a major success. The acoustic performances that ended up on Dead Ahead are essential footage that has become iconic. Between the video and the release of Reckoning, the music world was turned on to another side of the Grateful Dead, a band with deep folk roots. And with all the hoopla surrounding this show, it signaled that the Grateful Dead were committed to what they were doing while other big rock acts of the 70s were in decline. This was a group with staying power that created its own musical universe. What they were doing was irresistible to a new generation of fans who got on the bus thanks to this Halloween performance. As the band’s popularity soared in the early 80s, it’s clear that the officially released videos and recordings from this tour did more for the Dead’s fame than any albums since Europe ’72 and American Beauty

For more on other Halloween shows, check out Deadology: The 33 Essential Dates of Grateful Dead History


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