On Friday, September 18, 1987, the Grateful Dead played Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was the middle of a five-show run at the fabled venue.
MSG, which opened in 1968, sits atop Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. It’s the home of the NBA’s New York Knicks, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, and the NHL’s New York Rangers. It’s also become a “home away from home” for Phish, who squatted there for this summer’s amazing Baker’s Dozen series of thirteen shows over seventeen nights. LN GD guru ECM was at a few of those Phish shows.
As I’ve mentioned, Ed is a great resource for these posts. He does the primary research – photos, links, comments from the Live Music Archive – and I do the prattle. Our process is pretty simple. Typically, I ask him for a few options of shows in the upcoming month that we can cover. He gives me a list. We chat about that, and decide. Then I get an email with a ton of material. This month was different.
In early August, here was the list:
1970 – 9/19 or 9/20 Fillmore East
1972 – throw a dart. there are so many good ones
1974 – 9/11 or 9/18
1975 – 9/28 Golden Gate Park
1977 – 9/3 Englishtown (40 year anniversary)
1978 – 9/2 Giants Stadium (raise $$ for Egypt)
1979 – 9/1 or 9/2 (super long Let It Grow)
1980 – 9/6 Lewiston (Labor Day weekend), 9/2 Rochester (filler on Dicks Picks) or one of the Warfield shows
1981 – 9/26 Buffalo (I think either [GDC members] Fen or Butch or both are big proponents of this show)
1983 – 9/2 Boise or 9/11 Santa Fe
1985 – 9/7 Red Rocks
1987 – 9/18 MSG (30 year anniversary)
1989 – 9/29 Shoreline (Death Don’t bust out)
1990 – one of the shows from MSG – 9/16, 9/19 or 9/20
1991 – 9/26 Boston
My response was sorta non-committal. ” ’87 or ’89 would be fun, but maybe save ’89 for October?”
Little did I know that 9/18/87 was not only a fun show, but also part of my dear friend’s life. He called it, and said, “I’ll work on a brief fan account and get that to you soon.”
What a fan account. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ed Martin…
It’s hard to believe that I saw this show 30 years ago. The Dead created an enormous amount of momentum in the two months before the start of the band’s much anticipated Fall Tour in 1987. Over the summer, the band released In The Dark, its first studio album since 1979 which resulted in a Top 10 Billboard hit single and its first-ever video on MTV with Touch of Grey, The buzz about the new album coupled with a highly successful summer tour with Bob Dylan thrust the Dead into the spotlight. As a result, everything changed. Suddenly it was cool to like the Grateful Dead and it was fashionable to wear tie-dyed clothing. New fans – referred to by vets as “Touch-Heads” – flooded the scene. So, it was not surprising that tickets were tough to come by for the fall tour. I was lucky to have received mail-order tickets from GDTS for three shows at Madison Square Garden – Sept. 18, 19 and 20. The weeks leading up these shows were very exciting as I began to hear great reviews from friends who attended the shows in Providence and Landover (no internet back then). The band was playing well and had added a bunch of exciting cover songs to their vast repertoire including Devil with the Blues Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly, Fever and La Bamba, the latter was a song from a movie by the same name that had been released over the summer. In addition, there were new songs that were added as a result of recent collaborations with The Neville Brothers (Hey Pocky Way) and Bob Dylan (All Along The Watchtower, When I Paint My Masterpiece and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door).
[Photo credit: Billy O. Photography]
By the time Friday September 18, 1987 arrived my excitement could not be contained. I was hoping and praying to see a lot of the songs the band wound up playing that evening. Shakedown, Watchtower, Dew, La Bamba and Knockin’ were high on my list. My seats were good – loge level on the right side near Jerry and Brent. There was a jubilant atmosphere inside the Garden. When the house lights finally went down the rabid, East-Coast audience exploded. Weir takes a moment to joke about levitating Jerry which was a reference to their appearance on The David Letterman Show the previous night. With that the band tears into Hell In A Bucket. I must confess that Bucket was not the opener I had hoped for. It had been played to death over the summer and was becoming a bit tiresome for me. However, this is about as good a version as one could possibly ask for. Weir’s vocals are confident. He’s so pumped that he is practically spitting the lyrics out. Brent is pounding his keys and Jerry’s distorted guitar runs are searing. The finale has Weir at his 80s falsetto best. Wow! Sugaree was not unexpected. It was a common pairing with Bucket for show as a show opener at the time. Walkin’ Blues is next. It had been played only a handful of times in 1985 but was reintroduced by Weir at the San Francisco Civic Center on 1/28/87 presumably as another option for the “blues slot” to keep things fresh. It remained part of the band’s regular repertoire through the end. Once again, Weir is in terrific voice and is in total command of this version. Jerry follows that up with Candyman which is one of those little nuggets like Row Jimmy, Althea and High Time that I never tire of seeing. Candyman had taken on a new significance since Jerry’s return from his diabetic coma – “Won’t you tell everybody you meet that the Candyman’s in town.” Garcia’s solo on this version is glorious. I was floating. I never wanted it to end. Weir chooses When I Paint My Masterpiece, the first of three songs from the Dylan catalog that will be played that evening. The band premiered Masterpiece at Ventura on 6/13/87 complete with an engaging 2-part-harmony arrangement accompanied by Garcia. This upbeat version is stellar. A soaring Bird Song follows and the energy with which it is played matches everything that preceded it. The band brings it to an incredible peak and then just as we are all getting started the band pulls the rug out from underneath us and closes the first set out after only 6 songs. What?
[Photo credit: Billy O. Photography]
Fortunately, the break was not too long. Continuing with the same high level of energy, the band opens the second set with the only logical choice under the circumstances – Shakedown Street. It was on my wish list so I was ecstatic. The Garden explodes with appreciation as the band crashes into the opening D-minor chord. This is a speedy version that is very similar to the incredible version they played in Pittsburgh on 7/6/87. Madison Square Garden is instantly transformed into a dance party. Heads are bobbing, bodies are gyrating. Huge smiles everywhere. People are getting DOWN. Once again, Garcia’s vocals are assertive. The “Beat Out Loud” verse is sung with authority and the “Poke Around” vocal scatting sets up the jam that follows perfectly. Garcia finds a pattern he likes and plays it repeatedly. The crowd surges with ecstasy. Having reached the peak, the band cuts it short just like they did in Bird Song and continues the party with Women Are Smarter. They slow things down again with a strong Terrapin which leads to Drums and has everybody scratching their head at the wisdom of a 3-song pre-drums set that lasted just 30 minutes(!) All will be redeemed shortly.
What follows the Drums and Space segment is a thing of which dreams are made. GDTRFB > Watchtower is high octane 80s Dead at its very best. Watchtower made it debut at the Greek Theater on 6/20/87 and Garcia was blowing the doors off it with his searing leads. This version is one of the better ones. At the conclusion of Watchtower are a few descending notes and a brief moment of silence where the entire world seems to hangs in the balance of what the band will play next. It’s the feeling that is usually associated with the moment of anticipation before the band plays Dark Star. Here, the band plays something almost as sacred – Morning Dew. Over the years, the band had kept Morning Dew kind of rare. However, in 1987 it had been played 13 times already. Not that anybody was complaining! The repetition/practice paid off in spades as the band dropped what is arguably one of the best versions ever – Cornell aside. Most would agree that is one of the top 10 versions ever played. Garcia pours his soul into this one both instrumentally and vocally. His aggressive vocal approach was certainly unique and took every by surprise. Check out how he sings “Where have all the people GONE” and and his inflection on the final “I GUESS it doesn’t matter anywaaaaaaaaay.” along with the way he hangs on that last word. Holy shit! I mean, that is some jaw-dropping, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising, goose bump inducing, chills-down-your-spine shit right there. The rowdy weekend crowd roars with approval. It was startling how fast and loud the reaction was. It sounded like a stadium after the home team won the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup, etc. Words can not do justice to the reaction. It was mind blowing and it is nothing like I had ever heard before or since then – and I was in attendance for the Dark Stars on 10/16/89 and 3/29/90. Ever the pro, Garcia takes the crowd reaction and responds with a guitar solo for the ages. There is no time to bring this Dew down to a whisper as was customary. This one required a burning solo right from the beginning. His guitar squeals with high-pitched notes. As the band approaches the end the pace quickens. Garcia’s distorted notes are flying at a dizzy pace like they did in Watchtower. Brent’s thundering organ is swirling. Climbing higher and higher. Finally, Garcia hits an impossible note. It’s screeching and it sounds way off-key but, holy shit is he wailing. He repeats the off-key note with rapid machine gun fire and in the chaos of it all, it makes perfect sense. I’m losing my mind but II’m not alone. The crowd explodes again. At that moment, everybody knew we had witnessed something so epic that it would be remembered in the legacy of Grateful Dead concerts. Any gripes that people may have had about the concert being too short were quickly forgotten. A finale like that makes a massive statement. Nothing more needed to be said. The band could have put their instruments down and walked off stage without an encore and nobody would have complained. To get Good Lovin’ with La Bamba tossed in was gravy. Obviously feeding off confidence and crowd energy, the band turns in an incredible performance. that brought the house down again. Smiles everywhere – especially when Garcia launched into La Bamba. Bobby’s reprise of Good Lovin’ is filled with falsetto squeals that only further feeds the frenzy. The soothing Knockin’ encore was like church. The Dead destroyed MSG, reducing its fans to a puddle.
Yeah. What he said! This show is fantastic, guys. As well-known reviewer Dr. Flashback quipped on the LMA: “This show simply rocks.” It even made the cut and became part of the massive 30 Trips Around the Sun box set
to commemorate the band’s thirty-year career on their fiftieth anniversary. (The header image – pardon the watermark – is from that.) Unfortunately, the official version isn’t on Spotify, but other quality versions are available.
Transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the soundboard recording HERE
Transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the audience recording HERE
Transport to the MattMan remaster of the soundboard HERE
is a decent video of the entire show.
Oh, Jerry and Bobby were on the original David Letterman show the night before. HERE
is the YouTube link. They played Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I watched that in my freshman year dorm room.
Thanks, Ed. Hope I did this one justice. My life is richer because of you.