the last time.

Not my stub. But I still have it somewhere.
Not my stub. But I still have it somewhere.

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.

richfield snow

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.

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a weekend.

A perfectly relaxing Saturday morning. Handmade Arcade. Keller Williams. A road trip to Columbus for the MLS Cup final.

Whew.

I didn’t take pictures of the first part of Saturday, but I don’t want to give it short shrift: Yoga class at 8 a.m., followed by my first ever acupuncture treatment; that combination, boys and girls, is pretty much unbeatable. We took a productive spin through Handmade Arcade, got in a nap … and then …

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So we started with the photographic portion of the weekend as we each enjoyed a glass of Master of the Galaxy, the delicious imperial IPA by Grist House in Millvale. At least two of the last shows I’ve seen at Mr. Smalls — basically just around the corner from Grist House — have been on Sundays, so there haven’t been the same kind of pregaming opportunities we enjoyed on Saturday. And we did enjoy: a couple beers apiece, delicious dinner from the Burgh Bites truck, and a fun time talking with some folks who had driven to Pittsburgh from Cleveland to see Keller. If you haven’t been to Grist House, guys, you need to go — especially when you can then take the short walk to see your show at Mr. Smalls.

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Keller LOVES Mr. Smalls — when I interviewed him for BCT a few years ago, he said that’s why he picked it to film his concert DVD. On Saturday, he opened for himself, playing a short solo set — as solo as Keller and his infinite loops ever are, anyway — before he hit the stage with the KW Trio. As he always does, he starts playing before he actually comes up on stage ; that always catches people by surprise a bit, so Mrs. Crappy and scored floor space right up by the stage for the solo set.

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I mentioned trio, right? I hadn’t seen drummer Rodney Holmes before, but he has serious chops, playing jazz sessions with a host of different guys and winning Grammys playing with Carlos Santana. The bassist? That’s Rob Wasserman, Bob Weir partner in crime and original member of Ratdog. Seeing KW play with a band is always a cool, different experience, and that was definitely the case on Saturday.

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Because we weren’t tired enough on Saturday, we thought driving to Columbus for the MLS Cup final sounded like a great idea. Spoiler alert: In spite of the game’s outcome — and the atrocious officiating — it was.

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We met Fred and Ethel outside Mapfre Stadium, did a bit of tailgating — thanks to them, because they brought all the supplies on Sunday — and headed inside. Ethel told me what section they were sitting in when I asked about getting tickets from the match, so we scored tickets in the same section. And there might have been a little beer.

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Awesome atmosphere. Loved the Nordecke tifo. The place was nuts … for about the first minute of the match. The rest of the night was awesome too, but the match itself didn’t turn out the way we wanted.

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Still, I’d say it was a perfect weekend. Sure looks that way, huh?

4. grassy.

Bluegrass music works any time of the year.

But for me, the best time of the year for bluegrass — especially the hippie-grass I love so much — is right now. The air is cool and maybe a little misty, like we’re in a mountain town at dusk. The smells are distinctive: old, dry leaves, some wood smoke from a fire off in the distance.

And you can hear the musicians tuning up as you walk towards the old bar for the evening.

It looks, sounds and feels a little like this:

falls

It also sounds like this:

The definite for me is Thursday night at the Rex Theater, for the Infamous Stringdusters — those are the guys in the clip above. Possibilities include Yonder Mountain String Band, on Sunday at Mr. Small’s (this one depends on how I’m feeling after we get back from a night football game in Columbus the day before) and Cabinet and the Jeff Austin Band back at the Rex next Friday.

It’s going to be good for my soul. If you feel like joining me, it’ll be good for yours too.

the beam.

This is awesome on all kinds of levels, but I was especially excited to see some tight shots of The Beam, the big thing with the piano strings that Mickey’s beating on. Those vibrations, when amplified through a concert PA system in an arena like, say, Richfield Coliseum, could rattle your sternum. If I were to ever assemble a bucket list, playing a Beam at high volume would be near the top.