I sometimes forget just how many amazing and high-energy Grateful Dead shows I managed to see. I missed seeing the Dead in the mid-70’s and as a result missed my favorite era for them live (I started seeing them in ’79), so sometimes I forget that I DID manage to see some truly amazing shows while the band was still active and vibrant.
The later 80’s into the 90’s had some spectacular moments, but something was always missing for me from that period. Partially it was the huge crowds that gathered after the popularity of TOUCH OF GREY. Gone were the smaller venues and the sense of community. The “scene” had simply gotten too big and oftentimes felt like the beast had grown wild and out of control. And I think that effected the band. We all know from his own words that Jerry preferred the smaller venues to the big crowds. He never managed to fully shed his stage fright. Which is probably why Jerry Garcia Band shows always felt more relaxed, more like home. And then there was Jerry’s physical health, drug addiction, etc. It took its toll and, though he came out of it for a short time and new life was injected into the band around the Spring of 1990, enough damage had already been done and Garcia’s decent into ill health persevered.
All this is to say that sometimes I revisit shows that I attended, either via audio-only or by the grace of online magicians and gift-givers like Youtube’s Voodoonola, and am instantly reminded of just how lucky I was. The Fall of ’83 was the first full tour I ever did with the Dead. 11 shows from Richmond, VA to Syracuse, NY. In fact, I remember that my friend Gary and I didn’t have tickets for the Richmond show and managed to get on the guest list in exchange for tightening bolts in one of the Dead’s equipment trucks. It was a time when the barrier between band, crew and audience was still small. They were accesible. That experience opened a new door for us and placed us one-step closer to the Dead’s inner-circle (for which I must thank Gary. He was my generous tether to that side of the experience). A great place to be when that barrier started to rise.
The fall of ’83 was an amazing time in my life. I had just started college (majoring in Grateful Dead touring, it would seem) and that glorious tour, with new friends at my side, saw the return of ST. STEPHEN. That long-desired breakout (the song hadn’t been played since early ’79) infused the entire journey with a vibrancy that is still discussed to this day.
The show shown here took place on the evening of October 18, 1983. It was the show just after one of my favorite concert memories: Lake Placid, NY, 10/17/83, a show that really encapsulated that sense of community. Placid was an out-of-the-way show and therefore didn’t attract the usual band of semi-tour heads. It was for locals and the committed only and by the second set, everyone in the balcony had joined hands and were revolving in a fully enraptured circle as the boys played THE WHEEL. Pure magic.
Re-watching this video from the first set (where’s the second!!??) at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, ME. was such a treat. It reminded me just how much these guys could rock. There’s a fierceness to the playing that wasn’t always there, but when it was, you usually knew it from the second the band hit the stage. And oftentimes it was dependent on Jerry and whether or not he was feeling particularly inspired. Well, he certainly was on this night and every song featured here (despite it not being one of my favorite set-lists) is like gasoline on fire. Garcia is just tearing at his guitar with a glorious confidence and energy that is more than a little palpable on this recording. It’s a kind of energy and musicianship that Garcia never fully attained again after his diabetic coma in 1986. Not that he didn’t play spectacularly after his recovery, but there was a subtle edge missing, a particular fluidity that had been growing over the years that was lost, had fallen just out of grasp, by the bump in the road that became one of several before-and-after markers in the last third of the Dead’s musical journey (another being the untimely death of keyboardist Brent Mydland in July of 1990).
But on this evening in 1983, all was moving steadily forward. Yes, there was foreshadowing of things to come, to be sure, but the future was still unknown to us and there was every reason for optimism and celebration. So that’s exactly what we did.
Once again, the quality of the video featured below is not the best and the audio is a decent (but not stellar) audience recording. Nonetheless, it is worth every second. And yes, as is their way, the set has its share of vocal flubs and wrong chords, but for anyone who knew and understood this band and what they were striving for and oftentimes attaining, the warts were part of the journey and truly the only way to get there. And on this night, they got there.