I had a good run with the Grateful Dead. But by 1994, my expectations were diminished.
I started seeing the band in the mid-1980s, during a pocket of high energy, powerful tours that peaked, for me, at Riverbend in 1985 (otherwise known as the show when I “got it” for the first time). Garcia’s diabetic coma slowed things down for a couple years, but when he was back, he was back, driving the band through its last consistently great period.
In the midst of all of this was a run by the band at the old Richfield Coliseum south of Cleveland. It must have made sense geographically; Richfield was an easy-ish trip for Deadheads from the Midwest and East alike, and I know the Coliseum was bigger — and, with a solid roof instead of a retractable one, better able to handle the weight of the band’s PA and light rig — than Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. The result? An easy trip to suburban Cleveland from Columbus or Athens, over and over and over.
The short run at Richfield in March 1994 was what had become a regular spring break for me: while most of my friends headed to a beach somewhere, I set up in slushy parking lots in Detroit or Cleveland.
I was excited to see the band, but I was also aware that things had taken a downturn. The end of Bruce Hornsby’s extended residency took a little wind from the sails, and the old guys never seemed completely comfortable with Vince Welnick alone in the keyboard seat. And while we weren’t privy to the details of his heroin addiction, Garcia’s up-and-down health seemed to be on the way down again.
So — I would have settled for good on March 20 and 21, 1994.
On March 20, that’s pretty much what we got — good. A solid set list, well played, but no fireworks. We left happy with with the show and feeling mildly optimistic about what we might see the following night.
On Monday, March 21, something else was going on. The tip-off for me was Bertha, the second song of the first set … the band was tight and energetic, and Jerry was fully engaged, nailing lyrics, solos and the kinds of flourishes that he reserved for nights when he was feeling really good. That energy continued through what looks to be a standard-ish first set, on paper, anyway. From the stands inside Richfield, though, we knew different.
A good Picasso Moon started the second set — not the song I would have picked, but a good start nonetheless. But then: New Speedway Boogie, with the authority of a band that had seen Altamont with its own eyes. Victim — not my favorite song, but on this night it was especially dark and intense. He’s Gone, which is my favorite Grateful Dead song, and this was the best one I had heard since the Riverbend show I mentioned earlier.
And then it got really good.
There was a rote rhythm to the second sets of those 1990s shows: Three songs, maybe four; the drums and space segments; pump it up out of space, then Jerry ballad, then roar into the set closer. After the vocal jam on this night, Bobby, Phil and Vince packed it up, ready for their 10-minute break while the drummers took over. Jerry, however, wasn’t done; he stayed on stage, eventually locking in on a calypso rhythm with the drummers that turned into a jam based on the Harry Belafonte song Matilda (a song the band would sort of play five or six times before Garcia died in 1995). The jam seemed to be spontaneous and it was driven entirely by Garcia, who didn’t often take that initiative at that point, and it was good enough that Weir came back out on stage to play along.
Post-Rhythm Devils? We expected something up-tempo, and we got it with Lovelight that was surprising because that was always — always — a second-set closer. While we tried to comprehend that twist, the band downshifted … and started into Stella Blue.
I can’t argue with people who say that Garcia’s best days as a guitarist were in the late 1970s, probably 1977 and 1978. But the 1990s version of Jerry was head and shoulders above the the 1970s version in another area — vocals. Age gave 1994 Jerry’s voice an authority that 1977 Jerry couldn’t match … and that’s what we heard in this Stella Blue. Raw. Emotional. Subtle and powerful in the same song. The band behind him sparkled, but this was all about what Jerry was feeling right then … and it was the best version of the song I’d ever heard.
And that’s still the case.
The Stella Blue turned out to be the middle of a Lovelight sandwich, a thunderous end to the set. And I always liked Liberty as an encore.
And that was it … the last truly great bit of Grateful Dead I saw in person. There were at least a couple other shows — a rainy, cold day at Buckeye Lake the following summer and an odd afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium in 1995. That’s the one where we got a rain storm during the set break that finally cut that day’s stifling heat and humidity … and we got a sloppy, fun Grateful Garage Band Dead version of Gloria as the encore, one month before Garcia died.
I’d classify those shows as pretty good, memorable for the fact that they were the last ones for me.
But the last great one was that Richfield show, 22 years ago today. Here’s a link to a stream of the soundboard recording. Listen, at least, to the second set from He’s Gone through the Lovelight coda. In a year when the Grateful Dead could occasionally be written off as a nostalgia act, I was lucky to get that bit — that one final hour — with the band that could breathe fire. And I will never forget it.