On Friday, October 31, 1980, the Grateful Dead played a show at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Radio City Music Hall, the home of the Rockettes and the so-called “Showplace of the Nation,” sits in midtown Manhattan on property that John D. Rockefeller leased from Columbia University. Originally planned as a home for the Metropolitan Opera, the Rockefeller Center site gained the attention of movie theater mogul Samuel Roxy Rothafel, who proposed two venues – a movie theater and a music hall. After some twists and turns (the Wiki provides a nice account), construction began in 1931 and finished in 1932, when it opened to the public. The Art Deco gem seats 5,960, and hosted the Dead only once – an eight-night run in 1980 that culminated with this Halloween show.
The RCMH run followed a quick two-night run at New Orleans’ Saeger Theater and, before that, a fifteen-night run at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. Fifteen nights to celebrate (somewhat belatedly) the band’s then-fifteen year history. The band recorded all of the Warfield shows for a live album. Dennis McNally in his book A Long Strange Trip estimated that the fortnight-plus-one spanned 800 reels of tape. Typical two-set Dead shows were long, but these were each longer by a whole set – an opening acoustic set, in a throwback to 1970. Mark Binder, on a blogpostassociated with a “Yesterday’s Dead Today” segment on Sarasota Community Radio, mentions difficulties for tapers:
“Soundboards of the acoustic sets on this tour are fairly common, but many dates from the Warfield and Radio City don’t have soundboards, since the Dead and Bill Graham knew they would be recording for future releases. There are many stories on the ‘net documenting how some stealth tapers succeeded, some were caught, and even one who was caught, ejected from the venue, and then invited back in thru another door.”
Regarding the Warfield shows, McNally heaped alot of praise on Bill Graham, but not much on the Dead. He said “the band’s contribution to the party was at a very good but not superior level.” He attributed that to a lack of rehearsal for the acoustic sets, which caused Garcia’s touch to be “atrocious” at the beginning of the run.
That touch improved as the band moved east and decamped at RCMP.
According to David Browne in his book So Many Roads, Radio City was struggling at the turn of the ’70s. Here’s his account, in an excerpt from Rolling Stone:
“[B]y the late seventies, with New York City in fiscal freefall, Radio City’s future was suddenly shaky; movie attendance dropped, and plans to convert it into an office building or parking lot loomed.
Thankfully the interior of the building was granted landmark status in 1978, and its famed art-deco lobby and other interior design elements were refreshed for $5 million. During talks to save the building the idea of booking pop acts came up, and by the fall of 1980 Radio City Music Hall had presented one major pop star, Linda Ronstadt. Now it would host an entirely different kind of beast, the Grateful Dead, who were about to settle in for eight nights, October 22 to 31 (with the nights of October 24 and 28 off).”
Brown reported that the run felt like “an event,” and the Dead literally tailored the venue to their recording setup. Again, Browne:
“To accommodate the recording the Dead needed two hefty Neve recording consoles, one rented and the other shipped out from their Front Street home base. Both had to be hauled up a flight of stairs to reach Plaza Sound, the studio that sat atop Radio City (and where punk bands like Blondie and the Ramones had recorded). The Dead’s office had sent paperwork ahead of time to make sure the consoles would be able to make it into the building, but when the time came to install them, a problem arose: the consoles couldn’t quite clear the stairwell. After some head-scratching, one of the union workers at the venue, with drummer Mickey Hart’s urging, said, ‘Oh, fuck it—we’ve gotta get this thing up here.’ With that they grabbed a sledgehammer and took down a few inches of the stairwell wall.
Promoter John Scher, who’d been working with the Dead for several years by that point, had no idea the ‘renovation’ was happening, and the thought of physical damage to the interior of a New York landmark rattled even Scher, who thought he’d seen it all with the Dead. ‘I remember them telling me after they’d already done it, after the fact,’ Scher says. ‘I was basically shitting in my pants until the shows were over.’ It wouldn’t be the first time the Dead would encounter some pushback in their career, but this victory was significant. ‘I had no second thoughts about that,’ says Hart. ‘It was the thing to do. Nothing stops the Grateful Dead. Onward into the fog.’ They’d already made it to fifteen years despite adversity, busts, deaths, and fallow periods, and no one was about to let a bit of concrete stand in their way.”
In a story that’s featured in Browne’s book, McNally’s book, and bassist Phil Lesh’s book, Searching for the Sound, the Dead were actually sued by RCMH’s management, who were concerned that the poster (it’s the header image) by Dennis Larkins, BG’s art director, was mocking Radio City’s recent difficulties and suggesting its impending demise. The suit was later dropped.
The Warfield and Radio City shows were eventually documented on two live albums – the acoustic [Dead] Reckoning and the live Dead Set. (Those links from the incredible GD Lyric and Song Finder break down which songs came from which shows.) Here they are on Spotify:
The Halloween show was special. Per Browne, it was broadcast live by closed-circuit feed to fourteen movie theaters around the country with setbreak comedy bits by Al Franken and Tom Davis from SNL (not well-reviewed on the Live Music Archive, fwiw). So how did the Grateful Fn Dead start such a momentous night? With an eight-minute version of the title track of guitarist Bob Weir’s 1978 live album, Heaven Help the Fool, followed by an unknown instrumental from 1976’s Blues for Allah. Of course, haha, crowd pleasers for the fans far and wide – and the last time they played those songs. Phil’s bass rig was on the fritz, so he joins the band for It Must’ve Been the Roses. The rest of the acoustic set is fine. Garcia sounds husky at times, as he does for much of the two runs, but he and the rest of the band are otherwise in good form. Roses and Bird Song, which gets rave reviews from the LMA folks, are particularly sweet.
(Photo credit: James R Anderson.)
The electric sets are uneven, tbh. First one? The Jack Straw > Cold Rain and Snow opening couplet is so-so. A couple of cowboy songs, a nice Ramble on Rose into a waaay too long Little Red Rooster, a sorta crappy Looks Like Rain (Bobby clearly is emoting for the cameras), and a lively Deal closer. Second one? There’s a decent, if by the books (they all are, fwiw), Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance, if that’s your thing. The Franklin’s Tower is peppy; the Fire on the Mountain is hot. (That version is also featured on Dead Set, and, according to ECM, it’s the only time the band played it out of Space.) Then a fun Not Fade Away > Stella Blue > GDTRFB > Good Lovin’ segment, and an Uncle John’s Band encore. Not too shabby.
Transport to the Bill Tetzeli seed of the soundboard recording on the LMA HERE. That’s the version that ECM sent to me, but there are others – check out the right column on Relisten.net.
Most of this show, along with a few songs from the preceding night, ultimately became the Dead Ahead video/dvd – a fave of mine in h.s. a million years ago. Better yet, the entire show (from the closed-circuit feed) is on YouTube, as you might imagine. Super super cool to see such high quality video of the band at one of their peaks.
Oh, and if you’re a download person still, the Midnight Cafe has uploaded all of the Warfield shows HERE. Have at it.