A critic’s top Boston Grateful Dead shows
The Grateful Dead loved Boston, and the feeling was mutual. The Dead played this region many times from the late ’60s until Jerry Garcia’s demise in 1995, by the ’90s reaching the unprecedented peak of headlining Boston Garden six nights each September. Surviving members have taken on post-Garcia guises as the Other Ones and simply the Dead, but anyone who missed Garcia never really saw the Grateful Dead.
I interviewed Garcia four times as a Globe critic, and he always had wisdom to share. Asked about another critic’s comment that he would take the Dead “to Saturn” on some nights, especially during their second sets, he agreed.
“Yeah, Saturn’s about right,” Garcia said in 1984. “That’s the part of the night where I start from anywhere. Sometimes it’s from the combination of sounds I hear from the drums and the percussion. If I hear any interesting sounds or tonalities, I’ll try to imitate them, and that may suggest weird tonalities or modalities that are way out of the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do of regular Western music. It’s like architecture. At that point we’re no longer dealing with Euclidean architecture. We’re dealing with other kinds of space and time.”
Yet he added, more simply, “I don’t go on stage with some kind of messianic vision or anything. I’m basically going out there hoping my guitar is in tune.”
Here’s my Top Ten list of sharing those nights of space and time in chronological order:
April 21-23, 1969 at the Ark (on Lansdowne St.) My memory is hazy about which night I was there, but it was an extraordinary introduction. I vividly recall that Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the Dead’s hard-living organist, fell off the stage during “Turn on Your Love Light.” His bandmates didn’t seem surprised, and kept playing while a roadie dusted ’Pen off before he crawled up to finish the song. I fell in love with the group’s fortitude right there. The Globe’s Bud Collins, later an award-winning sportswriter, wrote in his review that the band “was loud enough to melt the ears.” Of course, as a head-banging college student, that’s what I loved about them.
May 7, 1977, Boston Garden The group stunned the faithful by debuting the long title-track suite from its “Terrapin Station” album. It was a complex dip into progressive rock more expected from Yes or Genesis, and a gutsy departure from the band’s folk, blues, country and psychedelia. But the Dead recaptured a lighter touch on Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” and a pleasing “U.S. Blues” with its line: “Red and white, blue suede shoes, I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do?”
May 12, 1980, Boston Garden Keyboardist Brent Mydland made his Boston debut on this night. He established himself with a beautiful version of his song, “Far from Me,” which was getting local airplay. Co-singer Bob Weir also had a big night, and romped through Marty Robbins’s country standard “El Paso.” Garcia tacked on a lovely “Althea” and “Alabama Getaway.”
Nov. 4, 1985, Worcester Centrum Supreme Deadhead Bill Walton of the Boston Celtics brought his team to the show — except for Danny Ainge, whose wife wouldn’t let him go, Walton wrote in his memoir. You had the towering sight of Walton, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale standing on the side of the stage while the Dead belted out their classics “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” Scalpers were getting $40 a ticket, low by today’s standards.
April 2, 1987, Worcester Centrum Garcia returned from a diabetic coma that hospitalized him for a month in 1986. He played brilliantly on “Black Peter” and soloed furiously on a cover of Spencer Davis’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.” He later told the Globe, “The coma gave me that midlife kick in the [expletive] that you need sometimes … I felt like, Well, as long as I’m alive, I might as well try as hard as I possibly can to do all the things I want to do.”
July 4, 1987, Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough The Dead backed Bob Dylan on this tour. It didn’t altogether succeed, because Dylan is notoriously difficult to follow, but it was capped by a great jam on “All Along the Watchtower.” It was a very humid day, with the Dead adding an opening set that scrambled four new songs in a row. (“Putting those together didn’t quite work, did it?” said Weir afterward). The band also couldn’t use its lighting effects because of the afternoon start time, but the marathon show was another example of gritty fortitude. To top it off, 12 American flags were hung over the stage to honor the July Fourth holiday.
July 2, 1989, Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough A capacity 61,000 fans, not to mention thousands more who frolicked in the parking lots, having braved hours of traffic jams to get there. They were treated to a fascinating night. Great versions of “Tennessee Jed” and “Cassidy” (named for the daughter of a Grateful Dead crew member, but also alluding to Jack Kerouac’s buddy, Neal Cassady) stood out, though the ultimate moments were reached on surprise covers of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Sept. 26, 1991, Boston Garden In the last date of its inaugural six-show Garden run, the band set the tone early with R&B standard “Let the Good Times Roll.” Roll they did, with dual keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick in tow. Highlights included a funky version of Harry Belafonte’s “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” and Weir’s tender treatment of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” For extra spice, the group added its all-time tripped-out standard, “Dark Star.”
Sept. 30, 1993, Boston Garden The Dead didn’t play in Boston in 1992 because Garcia fell victim to physical exhaustion, but Jerry & Co. rallied with a week-long Garden party in 1993. Garcia was trying to get his life together by becoming a vegetarian and scuba diving in Hawaii, and was seen backstage taking ginseng extract. It was the last show of their week-long run and then-US Senator John Kerry was backstage as well. The Dead scintillated on a cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann provided a great techno-world music ”Drums” and “Space” segment.
Oct. 3, 1994, Boston Garden This was the final Dead show in Boston, since Garcia died the following summer. The band went out on a high at this last of six more local shows, where the smell of ganja and patchouli oil hung heavy in the rafters after accumulating all week. Garcia roared out with “Touch of Grey,” the band’s only Top 40 hit and an upbeat survivor’s anthem. Weir added a thrilling “Shakedown Street,” and swapped slide-guitar solos with Garcia on blues standard “Little Red Rooster.” A rollicking “Loose Lucy” was also in the mix. While some observers think the Dead went downhill in the ’90s, the band always seemed to get up for Boston — and this was a quality send-off.