I’ve been really diving head first into the Grateful Dead lately. This is quite an undertaking; one could argue that each major era of the Dead is practically a different band altogether, in their approach to the music and the jams.
The Dead are best experienced by their live shows; free from the length and production related limitations of their studio record, the Dead were truly able to explore and expand their sound with their endless yet never tedious jamming, stretching two minute songs into half hour (or longer) brain movies meant to inspire, terrify, delight, and anger. The Dead ran the gamut.
One of my favorite live periods for the band was 1989. At this point, this particular incarnation of the Dead (the surviving core members plus Brent Mydland, who joined the band as keyboardist in 1979) had been a unit for 10 years, and had grown into an inconceivably tight unit, putting on some of their absolute best shows throughout the year.
There are a few shows that can contend for best of this year – the two RFK shows as well as all three Alpine Valley shows in July, the legendary two nights at the Hampton Coliseum on October 8th and 9th, and the focal point of this entry, their second show at the Miami Arena.
What start off as merely a typically strong 1989 show suddenly veers into maybe the spookiest hour or so of music the Dead have ever played. The first set starts off rather innocuous, with particularly solid renditions of the opening “Foolish Heart” and “Little Red Rooster combo, as well as a mournful “Brown Eyed Women” that gets an extra dose of world-weariness from Jerry’s death stained vocals. The first sign that things are going to get interesting come with “Victim or the Crime,” a sharp, lurching meditation on the dark side human nature sung by Bob with taut vocals, its edgy lyrics punctuated only by the instrumentations: Brent’s piano spikes are something out of a haunted house and Jerry’s guitar circles around the music like an angry mob at a witch burning. Heady, heady stuff, dark stuff, but some of the finest music they ever played. The last two minutes of the song is some of the creepiest, nastiest soundscapes the Dead have ever created, relief coming only in the form of a jaunty “Don’t Ease Me In.”
Set 2 is where things get interesting; while “Estimated Prophet” is not necessarily a dark song, its slow, lurching pace and references to death and fire and all that good stuff always gave it a rather ominous aura. It was a song that the band often took it into some crazy, creative areas during the jams, this version certainly no exception. Brent Mydland’s angry “Blow Away” was always one of his stronger contributions, and this version features some of Jerry’s best ‘late in the game’ wailing on the coda, leading beautifully into…well, let me set this one up first.
Up until now, there were hints the Dead were going to take the show in a bit of an edgier direction, perhaps because of Halloween approaching and them not having a show on or closer to the the 31st (it was the last show of the Fall tour). “Victim Or The Crime” kind of set the wheels in motion, but other than that the Dead kept things on a relatively easy going – if not entirely light hearted – keel.
Then comes “Dark Star.”
It’s often hard for me to write about different versions of “Dark Star”; while almost every version of “Dark Star” (at least up until 1991 or so) is immense in its own way, it’s lumbering lengths and different styles, jams and textures become hard to keep track of, so much that they often blend together in memory (at least for me). Hoo boy, not his one. About two and a half weeks earlier, “Dark Star” had been busted out for the first time in five years at the band’s second of two nights at the Hampton Coliseum (both shows beautifully captured on the Formerly The Warlocks boxed set), so it was a pretty big deal when this version washed over the crowd. Miami was not only blessed with only the second version of the tour, but arguably the best post-1978 version ever. The song begins normally (or at least as normally as a “Dark Star” can be described), with the band riffing on the main theme, and Jerry singing the first few couples of verses (though his previously mentioned ragged vocals make the song creepier than usual). At around 8:29, Brent punches in with piercing chime effects, an ominous preview of what’s to come. The true eeriness comes around the 16-minute mark, when the second verse comes into play. After this, “Dark Star” truly becomes ‘dark.’ This is ‘River Styx soundtrack’ shit right here, not to be handled lightly. It’s not a polished version. It isn’t as thought out or as tight as 8/27/1972 or 9/21/72 or 10/18/74. It never coalesces into a truly tuneful rendition at any point. And yet, this “Dark Star” totally succeeds as a mood piece, conjuring an almost demonic soundscape, with each member playing their part in its construction. If you’ve ever seen the movie Event Horizon – about a rip into the space continuum that allows for a rescue ship to be possessed by a demonic force, killing its crew – this version could easily be its soundtrack. (To make matters all the more creepy, that movie has a character named Weir for its leader, a position Bob had acclimated to once Jerry’s health really plateaued.)
I have to admit, I would’ve loved if somehow, by some odd turn of events, this “Dark Star” segued into something like “Sugar Magnolia” or (as on Sunshine Daydream), “El Paso,” just for the sheer mind-fuckery of it all in terms of mood and atmosphere. That said, the band was probably just as overwhelmed as the audience was, leading Bill and Mickey to hold down the fort with the usual “Drums” piece. Things aren’t getting done getting really, really fucking weird, though, with “Space” retaining the most frightening elements of “Dark Star.” The reviews on the Internet Archive (a.k.a. The Mecca for Dead Collectors) mention how large swaths of the audience – no doubt on some form of a hallucinogen or another) – departed the arena, looks of sheer terror plastered on their faces. It was a dark ride, and some Deadheads just wanted off. The tempo, if not the mood, brightens significantly as “Space” fades into “The Wheel,” which is a solid if not top shelf rendition. The typically gorgeous “Stella Blue” follows, Jerry singing and playing with all the sensitivity in the world, leading into a raucous “Not Fade Away” that finally gives the crowd much needed relief from the ‘arsenic and hellfire’ trip they’ve been on.
The show ends with a touching “We Bid You Goodnight,” a song that serves two masters: on the one hand, it’s a celebratory farewell as a brother bids his kin a safe journey into the arms of the Lord, complete with close harmonies and handclaps. However, with all the ensuing chaos established by the second half of the show, I often envision “We Bid You Goodnight” sung by those unaware of what had occurred previously, with the rest of the show being some freakish deathbed fever dream by the departing brother.
It is not every day I am this bowled over by the atmosphere of a live concert. With live recordings, I close my eyes and imagine myself in the communal glow of the crowd, which adds warmth, comfort and excitement no matter what I’m listening to. Not this show, by any means. I listen to this show and see myself running for the exits. I’ve not even been high listening to this show, nor did I need to be: it’s a trip without actually having to take one.
This show is available in pristine sound on the 80-cd 30 Trips Around The Sun boxed set.