It's been said that if you remember the sixties, you weren't really there. The same can probably be said about the legendary Grateful Dead. Still, I recall attending a few Dead shows in the eighties.
The Dead launched their "long strange trip" in the mid-sixties and flew high for three decades, inspiring hordes of Deadheads along the way.
A Dead show involved not only the musicians on stage, but the audience as well. The Dead encouraged fans to attend more than one show by playing a different set list every night. They knew hundreds of songs and never did the same show twice. Not knowing what the band was going to play moved tapers to record virtually every improvisational performance.
Unlike nearly every other act, the Dead fostered this activity by setting aside a special section just for tape enthusiasts. For the tapers, only one rule applied, you can trade your recordings, but never sell them.
Over the years, the Dead's tapers grew in number as did their fans in general. It became a crusade to follow the Dead for an extended period of shows, living cheaply on the road as you went along. This meant various amateur vendors sold trinkets, jewelry, t-shirts, or perhaps vegetarian food before and after the show. Unfortunately, some fans saw the need to peddle illegal substances in this atmosphere as well, often making Deadheads targets for police.
The Dead’s multi-generational fan-base, with their psychedelic clothing, made for a colorful scene, and generated excitement reminiscent of the circus coming to town.
In our case, the Dead experience would include a traffic jam getting to the venue, a parking morass once there, a sea of tents and campers, followed by a carnival-like vendor’s area.
Walking through this territory of merry-makers was a prerequisite to attending the show. There you experienced first hand the sights, sounds and smells of the Grateful Dead on tour, just like Barnum and Bailey, but without the elephants.
The Dead and their fans enjoyed this long-standing symbiotic relationship, each benefiting from the existence of the other.
Following the amusements of the vendor area, you finally came to the arena itself, in this case the Alpine Valley Music Theater, located in East Troy, Wis. The date was Wednesday, June 22, 1988, a year after the band's first Top Ten hit, "Touch of Grey."
As usual, the group performed two lengthy sets, separated by a segment called "drums/space," which featured the incredible talents of the band's two drummers- Mickey Hart and Billy Kruetzmann. True to form, the Dead made the evening especially noteworthy by playing a new song called "I Will Take You Home," written by keyboard player Brent Mydland.
My wife Sue and I were back in the Milwaukee area the following spring for a performance by the Grateful Dead at The Mecca. The location of this show didn't allow for camping and vending, but Deadheads transcended on the area nonetheless.
The Sunday, April 16, 1989 show featured plenty of tasty guitar jamming from Jerry Garcia and Bobby Weir, but the surprise of the show came at the end. For an encore, bassist Phil Lesh, who rarely sang, performed "Box of Rain," my favorite Dead song.
Our travels with the Dead continued that summer when we attended another show at Alpine Valley, on Monday, July 17, this time with my sister Laurie Dunlap. The Dead were in Wisconsin on a three-day stand. After a solid show, the band stunned the audience with their encore. With only Garcia playing guitar, they sang "And, We Bid You Goodnight," a song they had not performed since 1978.
We had seen three Dead shows in little over a year, each one made distinctive-- and memorable-- by the band.
Although we later saw Weir and Garcia perform separately, we never attended another Grateful Dead concert.
By 1994, the Dead were inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame and sadly, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died the following year.
Those great shows from the late eighties already seem distant, but the memories they created remain as vivid as the tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirts we bought as souvenirs.