20 Essential Grateful Dead Shows

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The Grateful Dead winterland san francisco 1977
The Grateful Dead at Winterland in San Francisco in 1977
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

Fillmore East, New York
February 13th, 1970
Topping a bill that included Arthur Lee's Love and the Allman Brothers Band, the Dead played with superlative consistency across this entire engagement: two concerts each on the 11th, 13th and 14th (with a club date squeezed in on the 12th). Guitar nirvana arrived early, when Duane Allman and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green joined the band on the 11th for "Dark Star." Owsley drew tracks from the 13th and 14th for his 1973 anthology, Bear's Choice, and additional material from those nights was released as Dick's Picks Volume Four. But the three-set late show on the 13th, which didn't start until after 1 a.m., is a popular contender for the holiest of holies – the greatest of them all. "Dire Wolf," in the first electric set, has the deft balance of earth and electricity the Dead were negotiating in the studio for Workingman's Dead. A winding passage through another "Dark Star," then "The Other One" and a rousing "Turn on Your Love Light" finally ended near daybreak – a fitting hour for a band always driving through space, to sunshine.

Harpur College, Binghamton, New York
May 2nd, 1970
For the Grateful Dead, touring wasn't just a living – it was an imperative. Performance was their primary form of expression and sharing. In taking their version of the San Francisco experience on the road, ­especially to colleges, the band exposed greater America to the ferment and ­possibility born in the Bay Area, converting the nation one campus at a time. This show is routinely cited as one of the Dead's best – ever. It is easy to agree. The acoustic set – a warm, beguiling preview of the country and pathos on the imminent Workingman's Dead and ­American Beauty – includes the traditional ­spiritual "Cold Jordan" and a version of the Dead's rare, first single, 1966's "Don't Ease Me In." When the amps go on, the Dead play like they're working at a college mixer, jamming on their Young Rascals and Motown covers, with McKernan unleashing his inner James Brown in "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," a unique feature of this year. Get the whole night, across three discs, on Dick's Picks, Volume Eight.

Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, New York
February 19th, 1971
The dead's fabled six-night stand at this small hall, a short train ride north of New York City, opened with great promise and unexpected trial. On February 18th, the group debuted five new songs, all destined for permanent high rotation: "Bertha," "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Wharf Rat," "Loser" and "Playing in the Band." But after that show, drummer ­Mickey Hart – devastated by revelations the previous year of embezzlement by his father, Lenny, during a spell as manager – went on a personal hiatus. The group responded to the loss the following night (issued in 2007 as Three From the Vault) with determination, opening with a vigorous "Truckin'," and McKernan's growling sympathy in the Elmore James blues "It Hurts Me Too." The streamlined propulsion recalled the Dead's dance-band days; the repertoire and instrumental cohesion showed the band at a freshened high. That March and April, the Dead would record the shows featured on their Top 30 live album, Grateful Dead, a.k.a. "Skull and Roses."

Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
April 16th, 1972
On their 1972 european tour, their first major trip abroad, the Dead – with the husband-and-wife team of pianist Keith and singer Donna Godchaux fully integrated into the lineup – were "laying down the framework of what we were up to, to a brand-new, cold audience," Weir said in 2011. This show is a delightful example of that salesmanship held in close quarters: a college cafeteria. The material goes back to the first LP and thoroughly covers the reinvented Americana initiated on Workingman's Dead before the Dead unleash a climactic blast of Fillmore dance-floor action: a nonstop set of spirals and slaloms that starts with "Truckin'," melts into "The Other One" and comes to Earth via Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly. Nothing here made it to the triple LP Europe '72. But the performance – included in the sold-out 2011 Europe '72 box and available separately – is solidly transcendent: a characteristic good time at a true peak in the Dead's concert history. Check it out. It could be your next favorite Dead gig.

Bickershaw Festival, Wigan, England
May 7th, 1972
This was a day made for "Cold Rain and Snow": wet, chilly and muddy, typical English festival weather. The Dead did not play that song during this legendary near-four-hour appearance. Instead, the group, halfway through its European tour, gave the huddled masses at Bickershaw something more heated and unforgettable: the '68 trip at '72 strength in an hourlong sequence of "Dark Star" and "The Other One," the latter then easing into the wistful country pining of Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home." Bickershaw (also in the Europe '72 box and available separately) was the Dead's truncated, underwhelming show at Woodstock in 1969 made good, a memorable reward for an audience sabotaged by the elements. McKernan, in particular, was in defiantly strong and comic vocal form. It was one of his last performances. The singer-organist, suffering from liver disease, played his final show with the Dead a month later in Los Angeles, and died in March 1973. He was 27.

Civic Center, Philadelphia
August 5th, 1974
The dead played two concerts in this cavernous arena on August 4th and 5th. I worked at both of them, as part of the security team. My station was in the left-side bleachers, near the stage – the press section, where I spent a lot of time talking to Deadheads without passes who told me, "Hey, man, I'm Jerry's cousin" and "Bobby said it was cool to sit here." After the lights went down, it was easier to just let them through and concentrate on the shows: prime nights delivered through the Dead's visually breathtaking concert-audio miracle, the Wall of Sound. Choosing one of these two dates is tough. The second set on the 4th has a full rendering of the pensive-to-­urgent "Weather Report Suite," from 1973's Wake of the Flood. I've gone with the next night, for the prolonged elevation in "Truckin' " and the dazzling descent into "Stella Blue." Excerpts from both shows are on Dick's Picks, Volume 31. Alas, the live intermission performance of Seastones, Lesh's electronic collaboration with Ned Lagin, is not.

Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
August 13th, 1975
Exhausted by the logistical and financial strains of touring with the Wall of Sound, the Dead stayed away from the road in 1975 – playing only four shows that year, all of them at home. This was one: an intimate record-release party for Blues for Allah, one of the Dead's best studio LPs. Their pride in the new music and the healthy effect of their break from the grind are evident in the relaxed, textured swing of this performance. The contagious gait and sparkle of "Help on the Way," "Franklin's Tower" and "The Music Never Stopped," all from Allah's first side, stayed in the live sets for the rest of the Dead's touring life. The night, released as One From the Vault, also featured a buoyant "Eyes of the World," some Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry, and the deep space and abstract magnetism of Blues for Allah's title track. The Dead never played that one live, in full, again. "That song was a bitch to do," Garcia noted in 1991. "In terms of the melody and phrasing and all, it was not of this world."

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