Uniondale ’81. The last great Dead show?

It seems that somewhere around the fall of 1978, Jerry Garcia started showing signs of wear and tear due to his ongoing love of the persian. He still played many, many tremendous shows before his life would come screeching to a halt, but ill health and a drug-induced slow-down of motor skills caused this immense and energetic musician, this one-of-a-kind talent, to become nearly immobile onstage while his playing grew increasingly sloppy.

They were never the same band after keyboardist Keith Godchaux and singer Donna Godchaux left the band in 1979 and were replaced by keyboardist Brent Mydland. I was never a huge fan of Brent’s stylings –though I recognized his immense talent– but in the early Brent-days especially, there could be a real dynamic energy between band members. Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY on May 9, 1981 is just such an example of this band bringing everything to the table and then some. Just when you thought Garcia might have sunk into a stupor never to return again, he could surprise everyone (including his fellow players) by surging to life with a vengeance.

You can’t listen to this show (and particularly this sbd/aud matrix by Hunter Seamons) and not jump to your feet with excitement and joy. It may well be the tightest and most energized show of the second half of the Dead’s career. The lilting, danceable melodies of MISSISSIPPI HALFSTEP build slowly to a fantastic peak. But that’s just a small taste to whet your appetite. Each song in the first set is better, stronger, than the one before it with Garcia just giving it his turbocharged all! If it weren’t for Brent and a couple of new songs, we would think this show HAD to be pre-1979. But it’s not. By time we get to the opening notes of the first-set closer, CHINA CAT SUNFLOWER->I KNOW YOU RIDER, we know this familiar combo is gonna knock our socks right off our feet. The band simply explodes into their set break leaving the audience breathless and smiling and yearning for more.

The second set kicks off with some newer songs for the era, LOST SAILOR-> SAINT OF CIRCUMSTANCE. Never have you heard these two songs played with more fervent energy and mastery. The peak in CIRCUMSTANCE is ecstasy-inducing. But it’s the ESTIMATED PROPHET-> EYES OF THE WORLD that will prove to you that there really has never been a band like the Grateful Dead. The mid-lyrics-jam in ESTIMATED goes higher than any other version I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard (and seen) many. Jerry is just pushing the envelope as far as he can take it and the rest of the band is right there with him in tight formation, almost too perfect to be believed. They are soaring! Then the EYES… This is one for the books with rhythms and flourishes completely unique to this version and this version only. It is both Jerry Garcia and the band at their most playful, their most experimental, their most joyous.

The post-drums portion of the second set is tight and beautiful and almost note-perfect. Garcia is happy to take his time and explore the spaces between songs and you can feel him smiling throughout. AROUND & AROUND almost gives way to a JOHNNY B. GOODE that suddenly twists itself into ONE MORE SATURDAY NIGHT. Even the BROKEDOWN PALACE false start is met with laughter and a sense of joy and humor that only makes you love these guys all the more.

If you feel like hearing the Grateful Dead with Brent in what may be their best, tightest show from this era (or at least one of the top five), I beg you listen to this one. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Oh, and do yourself a favor. Play it loud. Real loud.


Uniondale ’81. The last great Dead show?

8 thoughts on “Uniondale ’81. The last great Dead show?

  1. James Hood says:

    Kieth wasn’t the dead’s best piano player, he was the world’s best piano player. The pitch and tone was perfect, and no piano player ever played more fantastic leads than Kieth. I miss him as much as Jerry, James Hood

  2. matt says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I listened to playing in the band the other day, and so many songs just needed Donna. She was a really important part of the band. Also I love the comments about the dead space that disappears when Brent joined. Also, the synthesizer effect is just so awful and does not stand the test of time. I keep wanting the end of the story to be different, or at least a better explanation, but D&K leaving the band was in some ways the day the music stopped. A little dramatic, but I can’t listen to a lot of 80’s shows, and I can’t stop listening to the 70’s shows.

    1. halmasonberg says:

      I’m right there with you. That “Grateful Dead sound” that folks talk about. That really started to get lost the farther we got away from Keith and Donna. They really became a different band after that. They lost something special that day, even though I understand the personal dynamics were untenable.

  3. John B says:

    I was at those Uniondale shows and I couldn’t agree more that they were simply out of this world. To say that the Deads best shows were behind them after 1979 is just absurd. I was also at Keith and Donnas last show in Feb of 1979 in Oakland CA. At the time we of course were not aware that this would be their last show. I feel that when Keith left the band and took Donna with him that it was a rebirth of the band. Towards the end of their run with the Dead I was long tired of both of them. Especially Donna. When Brent joined the band they achieved new musical heights in the 80s ; their best decade I feel , until Brent and Jerrys lives started to be overtaken by drugs. Just my opinion though.

    1. halmasonberg says:

      I appreciate the opinion. And of course, all of this is about taste. I was never able to personally embrace Brent the way I did Keith and Donna. Brent just brought a “pop” edge and a particular style that was not one I loved. He was supremely talented, but I found his playing to be overwhelming and it coincided for me with what I saw as a steady decline in the band’s level of musicianship over all. That was not, clearly, all due to Brent, but I do believe that his style filled in some of the quieter spaces and allowed the rest of the band to get a bit sloppy knowing that Brent would cover some of the slack. Just an opinion. Something certainly changed and the band lost that “sound” that I loved so very much. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of shows post ’79 that I adore, but they rarely reach the level of musicianship and creativity that I witnessed (and revisit regularly) from the band up to the departure of Keith and Donna. Though I will admit that Keith and Donna had become an untenable force behind the scenes and it was effecting the band on stage. Having to let them go seems to be the only reasonable choice. I just wish they had replaced them with someone other than Brent.

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