It’s probably (or at least it should be) obvious to anyone that has read just a wee bit of my material that I’m a Deadhead. The Dead have been a part of my life for over 20 years. I was late to the show though, through no fault of my own. Being as how I was born in the heyday of the Grateful Dead’s existence, I didn’t have but a few years to enjoy seeing Jerry Garcia perform live. Yet I consider myself lucky. Even though Jerry was in failing health and battling addiction during those years I feel privileged to have seen him play, even if when comparing those 1990’s performances with previous years there were few nuggets worthy of attention.
And that’s why, when I had to consider the best show I had ever been to, I didn’t pick a Grateful Dead show. I went to some good Dead shows in the 90’s, and as you can read on my previous blogs I did include a performance from the 90’s. There were fine moments in all the shows I attended, but no, the best show I ever attended wasn’t a Grateful Dead show.
It was a Jerry Garcia Band show.
And I’m going to break the rules here, because they are mine to break. The best concert I have ever attended was a 2-night run of The Jerry Garcia Band at the Starlight Bowl in San Diego, CA, May 17th and 18th, 1994.
There’s a lengthy side story that goes along with these two shows. It involves my date both nights: a ½ Thai girl I took to the shows, the commander of a SeAL team in San Diego, a one-eyed Volvo, and coffee at 2:00 a.m. Stay tuned for that one.
For this final installment of 10 Shows, we’ll just stick to the concert—2 nights with JGB at the Starlight Bowl.
This was my first experience with what was essentially a scaled-down version of a Dead show. Granted the Starlight Bowl was no small venue, when compared to the monstrous scene that surrounded the L.A. Coliseum, Cal Expo, or the Silver Bowl, this was a very intimate experience. Nestled in the hills of Balboa Park above downtown San Diego, the venue and lot scene overlooked the city lights through groves of trees that ringed the parking area.
The crowd in general was much mellower than what I’d experienced before; they were more familiar and friendly. Although Dead show lots were always a fun scene, full of festivity and mostly goodwill, there always seemed to be a dark undercurrent lurking about. Whether it was the presence of undercover cops, heavy handed hustlers, or other nefarious folks that had intentions other than just having a good time, there was always a sense of needing to watch out for yourself in the lot of a Dead show. I felt none of that here.
Along with the more intimate vibe there even seemed to be a minimum of super-desperate fans cruising about and hanging by the gates, begging for an extra as the column of ticket-holding fans filed in. Only a few bedraggled-looking hippies held a finger aloft, waiting and hoping that someone would give up a miracle ticket. My date and I went inside and found our seats, about 1/3 down from the back of the venue and slightly stage left. As with most amphitheaters designed with the sole purpose of music in mind, there really wasn’t a bad seat in the place.
As the sky was nearly darkened the house lights came down and the crowd became jubilant. Garcia and the band came on.
“Jerry’s got purple pants on!” someone to my right screamed.
Jerry was known by this time for wearing almost exclusively black sweats and a black shirt. For whatever reason he mixed it up that night, the astute fan making note for any who didn’t notice Garcia’s change in attire. Jerry smiled sheepishly as the crowd went crazy, giving a restrained wave as he unceremoniously doffed his guitar and picked and strummed a few chords before breaking into a classic Jerry tune, Cats Down Under the Stars.
Jerry’s performance was far and above anything I had seen previously with the Dead. Soulful, engaging, and even a bit animated at times, Jerry was a completely different performer with JGB. Playing mostly rhythm and blues standards, old soul covers, and a smattering of his original work, JGB put on a show that effectively rewrote the book of what I thought I knew about live music. The interplay between he and John Kahn, the bass player, sounded as if the stringed instruments were conversing of their own accord, unaware that their strings were pulled and plucked with such mastery and precision by their owners.
The crowd continued its mellow demeanor in that it was completely entranced with Jerry’s performance. I scanned the crowd occasionally. There was nothing but smiles. A vibe that literally exuded peace and love flowed about, sent forth from the amplifiers to waft and weave and manifest exponentially throughout the venue. Someone in the upper reaches of the crowd meticulously blew up balloons, the kind party performers make animals from. Instead of poodles and giraffes he created complex geometrical designs that, once set aloft, maintained a steady height above the crowd, floating and bobbing and seeming to hover on the energy the crowd and band created.
Even the cluster of trees at either side of the stage seemed to bend and move and meld with the music, uncannily creating a heart shape over the stage as a light wind blew up the stands and through the crowd.
Garcia was on that night. The crowd was on. Everything about that show titillated my senses. As Jerry closed with the upbeat tune, Midnight Moonlight and exited the stage I realized something: I get to do this all over again tomorrow night.
Night two had the same vibe. We didn’t partake in much lot-cruising but instead headed into the venue straight away. Our seats were in roughly the same area and we sat and discussed the merits of the show the night before with those sitting around us. Everyone agreed that last night’s show was stellar. Everyone was hopeful for a comparable 2nd night.
We were not disappointed.
Jerry opened with a stirring rendition of How Sweet It is (To Be Loved By You,) which was standard Jerry-fare for the time period but a great song and opener regardless. This got the crowd smiling and spinning as the band segued into a reggae-tinged version of Stop That Train. The first set was shaping up nicely, and as it wrapped with an up-tempo Deal, a Grateful Dead staple, I collapsed to my seat and looked about the venue.
I got the Grateful Dead. I remember the moment they grabbed me. Unless you’ve been pulled into the fold it’s difficult to understand. Yet at that moment, between sets at the 2nd night of Jerry’s show at the Starlight Bowl in San Diego, my level of awareness and relationship with the music of the Dead, and specifically Jerry Garcia, went to another level. It was enlightenment.
The 2nd set rolled to a start with Shining Star, a cover I wasn’t expecting but spun expertly in Jerry’s unique way. The set was soulful and refined, running through Garcia’s songs and an assortment of covers before finally settling into the same closer as the night before—Midnight Moonlight. It was hardly disappointing to hear the song again- it was a fast-paced gem that roused the crowd and brought the energy to a zenith. As Jerry walked off and the house lights came on my first thought was when will I get to see him play again?
It was just weeks away luckily, and my summer was full of Grateful Dead-centric adventures. Yet no shows before or since could compare to those mid-week concerts in San Diego by The Jerry Garcia Band. Perhaps in the greater scheme of Jerry’s canon they are fairly insignificant performances: just an entry in Deadbase or a CD label tucked between the spring and summer Dead tours.
No matter. I realized a previously unidentified connection between music and the soul those nights; it is something that has remained with me since, and to this day, when I hear the soulful rasp of Jerry Garcia’s voice, more than a little something stirs inside me.
So that’s all folks- the 10 (well, okay, 11) best shows I’ve ever attended. Up next: I don’t know yet…