20 Essential Grateful Dead Shows

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The Grateful Dead shoreline california 1989
The Grateful Dead perform in California in 1989
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Beacon Theatre, New York
June 14th, 1976
The Dead ended their 20-month hiatus from touring in June 1976. The Beacon was the third stop on the tour. This concert was the first of two there, and the recording from that generously long night confirms the relief and satisfaction I felt a week later, when I saw one of the band's four shows at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. The Dead were rested and rejuvenated, already playing with an excited momentum and clarity that would carry into the nightly perfection of their spring '77 tour. "Cassidy," in the first set here, is an exemplary snapshot. Weir and Donna Godchaux harmonize in easy, bracing formation across Kreutzmann and Hart's polyrhythmic carpet; Keith Godchaux laces the twin-guitar rain with gracefully executed saloon-piano flourishes. In the second set, Garcia sings the reflective irony of "High Time" with plaintive force, before the real high times start: long, assured expeditions through songs from Blues for Allah and Aoxomoxoa. Another golden era was under way.

Winterland, San Francisco
June 9th, 1977
For sublime singing, instrumental union and sequencing bravado, there may be no greater sustained run of shows, certainly in the Keith-and-Donna years, than the Dead's spring '77 tour. Highlights are plentiful: Five concerts from one week in late May have come out on archival releases, and the May 8th show at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is often cited in greatest-ever terms. But I keep coming back to this valedictory blast on home ground – the end of a three-night stand and the final gig of the tour – because of the second set. It has the jagged acid-flavored reggae of "Estimated Prophet," from the Dead's next album, Terrapin Station; passes twice through "St. Stephen"; includes all of Terrapin's seductive title suite; and ultimately lands, an hour later, in "Sugar Magnolia." I described that medley, in my liner notes to the 2009 box set Winterland June 1977, as "all of the Deads in one – the lysergic delirium; the country-rock comfort; blues-party time; the electric seeking." I haven't changed my mind.

Civic Center, Augusta, Maine
October 12th, 1984
The Eighties were an uneven decade for the Dead. There was new blood: keyboard player Brent Mydland. But Garcia was in perilous health, and studio recording lapsed after 1980's Go to Heaven. There was a Top 10 single at last: "Touch of Grey," from the 1987 LP, In the Dark. But that success brought an explosion in numbers on the road, overwhelming the parking-lot scene and the dedicated pilgrims following the band from town to town. Through it all, the Dead toured as if their survival depended on it – which it always did – and played fondly remembered gigs, often off the beaten track. After a summer of amphitheater dates, the band sounds cozy here, loose and swinging indoors, especially at quicker tempos. Mydland plays a brawny organ solo, evoking the Hammond-jazz master Jimmy Smith, in the cover of the Rolling Stones hit "It's All Over Now," and the Dead bend "Uncle John's Band" into a spirited, improvising vehicle with a detour into "Playing in the Band," another great song about this way of life.

Madison Square Garden, New York
September 18th, 1987
The Dead dutifully played their hit "Touch of Grey" twice during this five-show New York run – but not tonight. They start with a wry laugh over their improbable, complicating success, plunging into "Hell in a Bucket" from In the Dark, with Weir belting the chorus line at a shredded pitch: "I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe/But at least I'm enjoying the ride." Garcia seconds that motion, turning to his 1972 solo effort, Garcia, for luxuriant readings of "Sugaree" and "Bird Song." The second set is classic contrarian Dead: urgent and unhurried with a crisp, long stroll through the durable title track from the 1978 disappointment, Shakedown Street (produced to surprisingly bland effect by Little Feat's Lowell George). The baroque drama of "Terrapin Station" is the last stop before the open waters of "Drums" and "Space"; "Good Lovin' " comes in two parts with Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" shaking in the middle. The Dead's spell as pop stars would soon be an anomalous memory; they kept playing like it never happened.

Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, Virginia
October 9th, 1989
You didn't need an advanced degree in Dead lore to decode the name on the tickets for the two '89 shows at this 13,000-capacity arena. The group was billed as "The Warlocks," a thinly veiled attempt to avoid overcrowding and security problems. Hampton Coliseum was a favorite East Coast stop for the Dead at the time – they performed there 21 times between 1979 and 1992 – and these concerts sold out fast, mostly to local fans who got two of the band's best shows of the decade. The Dead were about to release what would turn out to be their last studio album, the ironically named Built to Last, and they played the title track in the first set on the 9th along with a Brent Mydland showcase, "We Can Run," written with Weir's composing partner, John Barlow. The second Hampton show, issued with October 8th in the 2010 box Formerly the Warlocks, is most notable for the return of "Dark Star" after five years, and in the encore, American Beauty's "Attics of My Life" – its first time out since 1972.

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York
March 29th, 1990
There was something about springtime that brought out the verve, fraternity and experiment in a Dead tour. The group's six-city, 16-date East Coast trip (with a stop in Canada) in March and April of 1990 was so strong that Weir remembered it years later as "the high point of that era. We were hot, feeling our oats and surprising ourselves onstage." Spring 1990, a multi-CD survey of the tour released last year, includes the March 30th show at Nassau Coliseum. But the 29th had a special guest: saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who slipped into the lineup for the whole second set with ease and a challenging fire. His keening phrases in "Eyes of the World" – alternating with, then dancing alongside, Garcia's teardrop runs – edge the song toward the progressive-soul temper of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Marsalis also enjoys the blowing room in "Dark Star" and fires up some R&B honk and squeal for "Turn On Your Love Light." That "Eyes" came out on the 1990 live release, Without a Net. But the whole set is a gas.

Madison Square Garden, New York
September 14th, 1991
This was my next-to-last night with the Dead. There would be a solid send-off, also at the Garden, in '93. But I think of this show more often, for the good feel running through it and the rebirth that appeared to be in reach again after Brent Mydland's death in 1990. The Dead were working with two keyboard players, Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby; the latter's singing also added pinpoint heft to the harmonies. From this show, I particularly recall the call to disorder – the Shirley and Lee hit "Let the Good Times Roll," taken at a measured Sam Cooke-like pace with a gospel call-response finish – and the way Garcia, looking like everyone's grandfather, soloed like his much younger self in "Jack Straw." This was not a historic gig. It's a treasured piece of my connection to a band and infinitely evolving mission that seemed, at that moment, without end. Bill Graham famously said of the Dead, "They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do."

This story is from the special Rolling Stone edition Grateful Dead: The Ultimate Guide, available now

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