Bob Weir and friends were passing by Dana Morgan’s music shop on New Year’s Eve 1963 when they were drawn to the sound of banjo picking. They entered the shop and one of Bob’s companions knew the banjo player, Jerry Garcia. The noodling musician mentioned that he was waiting for some students to show for lessons, although he was quite content to be playing by himself. Weir and friends found some instruments and had an impromptu jam with Jerry. They discussed forming a jug band, and shortly thereafter, Weir, Garcia, and Pigpen were performing as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. In Garcia’s wildest thoughts, he never could have imagined that he’d be performing live music with Weir almost every New Year’s Eve for the rest of his life.
In addition to all the extraordinary music created by the Grateful Dead on New Year’s Eve, this is easily the best-documented day. The band played twenty-two times on this date, out of which there are twenty existing audio recordings, and many of these shows were filmed and can be viewed on YouTube. These year-end celebrations gave the band an opportunity to deviate from the unofficial rules of how a show was constructed in the Grateful Dead Universe.
Whenever the Dead resumed touring after New Year’s Eve, a new chapter in their archive took flight. And within any given year, the shows would seem to feed off each other and the tours would get hotter as the year went on. I believe that’s why October is the best-represented month in this book. New Year’s Eve represents an ending and a beginning. For Deadheads, it was the end of a musical odyssey, and a glimpse into what may lay in store. Each year the band seemed to create a distinctive sound that couldn’t be mistaken for any other year, and it all crystalized naturally. The band never significantly changed their philosophy or approach, but the music mysteriously evolved on a yearly basis.
One could write a book solely about the Dead’s New Year’s Eve history. Being that there’s so much material to consider, I’m going to discuss just the ten best shows from this date without ranking them. Closing out their most productive decade, the Dead opened their 12-31-79 New Year’s bash with a Jack Straw > Franklin’s Tower that’s as ferocious as any one-two punch they ever opened with on any night.
The excitement of the crowd is unreal in anticipation of their heroes taking the stage. When the Dead come out, the Oakland Auditorium Arena explodes as if it’s Madison Square Garden. Go to YouTube and watch this fantastic black-and-white video! The end of the decade and the raucous environment helped fuel this stunning opening, but I’d love to know what Jerry was smoking, snorting, or ingesting on this night. Garcia’s en fuego, and the sound of his guitar is terrifying.
The amped audience is enthralled with the “Jack Straw” opener. The music thunders, although the vocals are unusually subdued. Weir sings, “You keep us on the run,” without his trademark enthusiasm, but his guitar strumming’s fierce. The combined effect of Garcia and Weir’s playing comes off like a buzz saw effortlessly mowing down a forest. The jam is dramatic as the music ricochets across the auditorium. Jerry’s scalding chord-playing is wildly imaginative as Phil’s concussive punctuation accelerates the tension. The 12-31-79 “Straw” is one of the three best from a banner year for the outlaw from Wichita. The “Straws” from 1-10-79 Nassau Coliseum and 11-6-79 Philly Spectrum are the other elite versions.
Even after the tenacious instrumental, the return vocals are somewhat timid—an odd distinction for a smoking “Straw.” The aural tidal wave rolls into “Franklin’s Tower.” The early part of this tune has a reckless edge to it, like a car speeding down the highway in the wrong direction. There’s a substantial solo before the first verse, and then Garcia takes the next solo into a realm no “Franklin’s” has ever traveled. Weir and Lesh are huddled on the right side of the stage, almost frightened to look at, or get too close to, the Great Garcia. The jam is so ridiculous that when Garcia returns to the mic, he sings the wrong verse.
The second solo scoots along, and just when you think the music’s returning to an ordinary flow, Garcia rips it up again. And before Jerry bids this “Franklin’s” farewell, he shreds one last brilliant solo. A swarm of killer bees couldn’t be any more tenacious. This was already a great show an hour before the New Year’s Eve countdown.
Garcia savors every syllable of “Tennessee Jed,” and slices and dices an attentive solo. The eight-song set ends with Alabama Getaway > Promised Land. This early performance of “Alabama” features two extended Brent/Jerry instrumentals. In 1980, the “Alabama” jams became more predictable. The set-ending “Promised Land” is a searing thriller. Through much of the ’70s “Promised Land” had been a cookie-cutter opener, but the with right momentum, it could be a satisfying closer.
At midnight, a truck slowly rolled into the arena and Bill Graham was launched above the crowd in a butterfly costume—a very entertaining spectacle—and when he landed on stage, they played his favorite song, the Dead’s New Year’s Eve standard, “Sugar Magnolia.” The balloons were dropped, and the stage was covered with un-popped balloons as the band delighted the revelers with a Sugar Magnolia > China Cat transition. After “Rider,” Garcia’s on the rampage again during “Samson and Delilah,” and even Weir pauses to look at Jerry in awe. Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance >Deal closes set two. A third set is on the horizon because it’s New Year’s Eve.
During the third-set opener, Garcia sings the “You know this space is getting hot” bridge twice as he peppers this neophyte version of “Althea” with fluid guitar flurries. “Uncle John’s Band” in the third slot is the highlight of this way-after-midnight set. Following a healthy rendition, Garcia digs in and noodles the “UJB” outro theme until the sun begins to rise. John Cipollina grabs an axe and joins the Dead after Drums. The ensuing “Not Fade Away” is a snoozer of superfluous length. Stella Blue > Sunshine Daydream closes the “Sugar Mag” loop, and the “Good Lovin’” encore leads the Dead into what would be a trying and triumphant decade.
Halloween in Radio City Music Hall was the end of the Dead’s legendary acoustic/electric tour. Their final acoustic/electric show was on 12-31-80, back in Oakland. I’ve fixated on this acoustic set like no other, with the possible exception of the 5-5-82 Garcia and Kahn performance at Oregon State Prison. Garcia kicks off the New Year’s Eve acoustics with “Dire Wolf,” and his next selection is “To Lay Me Down.” It doesn’t get better than that . . . or does it? The show rolls on with Reckoning tunes. The last three songs of the set are transcendent, as fine as anything The Boys have ever played acoustically.
It’s easier to get the X factor rolling in an electric set as opposed to an acoustic set. By the time they hit the eighth song, “The Race is On,” the Dead are loving this last chance to revisit their residencies in the Warfield and Radio City. Weir croons this George Jones cover and attentively portrays the heartache as Jerry’s snaps a juicy solo. Jerry and Bob are in tune with the gods of harmony as they bring it on home. Without any delay, Garcia segues “Race” into “Birdsong.” It’s pure heart and soul as Jerry sings, “All I know she sang a little while and flew on.” He sings as if he’s in touch with a realm beyond. It’s acoustic-picking paradise as the “Birdsong” instrumental chirps from branch to branch. Garcia’s golden tones ease “Birdsong” to the peak performance, “Ripple.” The Dead, and Garcia and Kahn, have played many “Ripples,” but none are fairer than the last Dead jingle of 1980. Every second of this “Ripple” comes off like a measured masterpiece. It equals, and perhaps surpasses, the majesty of the American Beauty track. This is my go-to “Ripple.” Check it out on YouTube or download it from your favorite app or site.
Set two is completed before New Year’s Eve. It begins with Alabama Getaway > Greatest Story Ever Told and ends with Lost Sailor > Saint > Deal for the second year in a row. The band’s finest work comes during a mid-set Cat > Rider. With all the combos, this set looks like a Chinese menu.
The New Year arrives and here come the balloons, thousands of them, as they play Bill Graham’s tune. The Dead hammer this “Sugar Mag.” Weir’s in his rock star glory and Garcia’s licks are connecting the dots of aural euphoria. When the jam ends, Garcia noodles exotic transition licks, the ones that make you salivate for “Begonias.” The band taps out the “Scarlet” intro like a Morse code, one hypnotic layer pulling the next one in. A groove like this could entertain people like myself for hours. The stupendous Mag > Begonias instrumental is so stunning, you almost don’t want to hear Garcia sing. But he does, and it’s a very good “Begonias.”
John Cipollina joins the band during “Fire on the Mountain.” Garcia sets aside room for him to jam during solo two, but John’s guitar is low in the mix and the momentum fizzles. The rest of the set is meek, but the stuff that was great on this night is unforgettable, timeless, and up there with the best performances from New Year’s Eve.
Well, well, well, you can never tell. The New Year’s Eve ceremonies keep getting better as we look at 12-31-81 Oakland. “Shakedown Street” opens the last show of another hectic year (officially, the show starts with Joan Baez performing a short set with the band). Jerry dazzles the crowd with his wide smile as the music slides down a funky path. The band’s not going through the motions; they’re savoring the wonder of their distinct creation. The “Shakedown” jam has a fleeting quality that’s similar to “Feel Like a Stranger.” Sometimes the inspiration flows and the jam peaks and takes on a life of its own, and other times the direction of the jam gets lost as the band fills time within the funky perimeter. Even when the “Shakedown” jam isn’t popping, the groove keeps the merry crowd dancing.
As the New Year’s Eve instrumental develops, there’s a compelling cat and mouse exchange between Brent and Jerry. And then Garcia shifts into domination mode. The beloved bearded guru is on a mission as he strings together a series of beautiful ideas in an elegant musical passage—a splendid blend of emotion and execution. The focused band creates a vacuum that draws everyone into Jerry’s universe. The escalating intensity comes off like a stellar “Hard to Handle” jam. This is one of the most engaging “Shakedowns,” and a helluva way to kick off another New Year’s Eve extravaganza.
Following Uncle > Mexicali, there’s a fine “Cold Rain and Snow.” Garcia sings brightly as the band swings hard. Jerry’s voice has that angelic gleam as he eases through “It Must Have Been the Roses.” Bobby handled the return of most of the Pigpen classics to the rotation, but at the start of this run on December 26, Jerry sang lead as the Dead played their first “Big Boss Man” since ’72. Matthew Kelly joins the New Year’s Eve festivities by joining the band on harp for “Boss Man,” the last version until they break it out again two years later on the same date. The impressive opening set of 12-31-81 closes softly with “New Minglewood Blues” and “Don’t Ease Me In.”
A few minutes before the countdown, Ken Kesey is dangling from a wire above the revelers and leading a group gong bong before Bill Graham comes in riding the rocket ship USS COLOMBIAN to the stage. There’s a Steal Your Face logo on the ship’s tail. It’s a surreal scene as Graham and Kesey are hugging during the massive balloon drop and the Grateful Dead break into “Iko Iko,” interrupting a run of five straight “Sugar Mags” to celebrate the New Year. Joan Baez joins the jubilee by adding some vibrating harmonica sounds. Once a sufficient number of balloons are popped, Garcia and mates dig in for an uplifting instrumental.
Things stabilize with “Playin’ in the Band,” and just when it sounds like Drums are forthcoming, Jerry strikes up a “Terrapin.” There’s a dreamy flow to the royal anthem as Deadheads swoon and sway. The instrumental refrain has a resounding eternal ring to it, perfect for the turning of a new year. Once again it sounds like the drummers are ready to take over, but The Boys are dishing out thrills as they decide to passionately close out the loop with a “Playin’” reprise.
On the other side of Drums, mediocrity arrives in the form of Not Fade Away > The Other One before Jerry takes over with “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.” The second solo is a bull rush that elevates the stakes—this wheel’s bound to explode. The silky outro unwinds into the foreboding bass blast for “Morning Dew.” Oakland was blessed on this night in an era when “Dew” was still relatively rare. This is a solid version that helps build the case for 12-31-81 as an all-time classic, but you probably won’t go back to these tapes solely for “The Dew.”
The third and final GD set is launched by the first “Dark Star” in almost three years. This is also the first time “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew” have been played in the same show since 1974. This version’s fifteen minutes of unexpected bonus bliss, but “Dark Stars” after ’74 don’t have that magical celestial patience and atomic fusion of their predecessors. Regardless, everyone inside the coliseum is overjoyed. After the second verse, “Dark Star” darts into a Bertha > Good Lovin’ dance-off finale.
The marathon evening comes to an end with an “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” encore. Joan Baez is back to join Jerry for a heartfelt performance of an anthem from their mutually revered peer, Mr. Dylan. It’s a strange clash of legendary voices—the wise guru singing sweet and true against the bleeding heart/operatic wails of Baez. Their love for the song is a touching tribute to the man who wrote it. This is a one-of-a-kind “Baby Blue,” symbolic of a goodbye kiss to the end of a year and the start of a new one—Strike another match go start anew. It’s all over now, Baby Blue.
More Deadology New Year's Eve tomorrow