Grateful Dead Monthly: Nassau Coliseum – Uniondale, NY 5/6/81


[Apologies for the lateness. These posts should be on/near the date of the show, and I’m twelve days after.]

On Wednesday, May 6, 1981, the Grateful Dead played a show at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

We’ve covered the venue before. Home of the NHL’s Islanders. Phish has played there, most notably to begin the fabled Island Tour, and the Dead played there as early as 1973.

This show was the first of a three-night run. Originally scheduled for 5/7-9, the opener was moved up a day. The band appeared on NBC’s “The Tomorrow Show” with Tom Snyder (remember him?) the next day. Here’s the video – interviews and four acoustic songs:

The show is well-regarded, to say the least. The Taper’s Compendium calls it “one of the strongest and most exciting shows of the Dead’s career.” And the fluff continues:

“The big jam in the second set is widely regarded as legendary, and deservedly so. But the whole show packs a wallop; the band meets the always exuberant Nassau crowd head on – and simply blows them away! There was lots of wild playing by Garcia in the 80s. Sometimes, though, he’d become isolated in his pursuits and would overrun his bandmates, creating an intense but polarized sound; the result belonged in a sports bar. But at this show, the band was able to lock in and meet his ‘high’ energy level. And Garcia, for his part, contributes more of an ear for what else is going one.

No warm-ups in the first set. A hot Alabama > Greatest Story combo sets the pace to open the show. Garcia and Lesh sound refreshed but positively tense as they pounce upon each song. Cassidy roars. Rooster goes over the top with scorching solos from Myland, Weir, and Garcia, while Lesh pounds the blues beat deep into our chests. Let It Grow unleashes some of Garcia’s most nearly out-of-control-but highly inventive-playing ever. Deal rocks very hard as Garcia joins Weir in some fierce strumming to close out the set. Phew!

As He’s Gone begins, Weir dedicates it solemnly to hunger striker Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army, who’d just died in prison (only shortly before the British finally acceded to his demands). There’s thus an extra measure of sadness in this version, culminating in some harrowing howls of grief by Garcia at the end.

As the singing fades, Garcia plucks the picking pattern that often follows this song. Weir, though, breaks form by adding some deliciously spooky feedback that distinguishes the moments as something different. Garcia takes notice, hangs with Weir a bit to intensify this feeling, and then suddenly double-times a run, clearly now fired-up. This new ale has a similar taste to Cape Cod 10/27/79, and at the same exact spot in the show; only the doorway is quite different here. Garcia starts leaning in, faster and faster, nose-diving into his guitar.  The musical pile surges ahead with him, neck to neck, until out springs a genuine Caution Jam, blitzed to the max by Garcia and Weir’s telltale strumming. Nassau is ablaze! After several minutes of this, a variation occurs, courtesy of Weir and Lesh, who pick up the pace, hurtling into the Unknown [not a song, just a feel]. Lesh spontaneously drowns out the music in a fit of fun. The smoke clears to reveal a jazzy jam that squeaky clean and crisp – for the moment. But you can feel the explosive Caution energy still lingering, lurking, waiting to strike in some guise. Garcia tweaks first: faster and faster his notes spiral, gaining in confidence, unaware of the shadow hot on his trail: The Loch Lesh Monster!

Garcia looks casually over his shoulder, sensing something too late! Lesh goes GU-GOOO, blindsiding him and the others, forcing a meltdown, everyone playing sluggish but intense. Weir comes up with some extraordinarily creative chords: Weir-d sounding. Garcia lays down one of those vaguely familiar melodies from his repertoire of, oh, five hundred songs or so, the jam takes a clearer path now – more friendly, but still with that edge sniffin’ around.

Suddenly everyone stops except Garcia. He keeps plugging away, trying to pinpoint his aim, round and round on the guitar, just missing one note, and then round and round again almost – faster he goes, getting closer. The band sneaks in. Wait! Garcia hangs on a holding pattern of many notes, but with no resolution – he just holds it steadily. The others lock in and form a tight counterrhythm. Garcia hovers a bit longer and then nails the releasing note to [lo and] behold! Spanish Jam, albeit a slick variation of it. Now all linked up, Garcia pours it on, a little nervous as he jumbles all these notes together. His bandmates tear into it, feeling the heat, certainly now anchoring their expressions. They jam the heck out of this, before Garcia softens his notes and guides the band downward, carefully into Drums.”


Whoa. The Dead for a Year blog also has a glowing writeup. And here’s LMA reviewer ice9freak, under the subject “Simply killer.” Speak, man:

“The first set has plenty of sparkle, with exemplary versions of Jack-A-Roe, Dire Wolf, and Let it Grow. This version of Let it Grow is particularly inspired and serves as a premonition of the huge jamming that’s unleashed in set two. After the boys take a breather, Minglewood opens the second set. I know what you’re thinking: not the most exciting choice. Don’t be fooled—the band is taking its time. High Time follows, and it’s a very strong version, perhaps the best since the fertile ’69-’70 period of this tune’s history. Garcia’s vocals find that plaintive, soulful zone that delivers chills. Sailor>Saint follows and I dare anyone to point me toward a hotter version. Bobby flat out kills the vocals and the build-up in Saint is pure joy. If this version doesn’t get your euphoria flowing, consult your local witchdoctor or gypsy woman immediately. Before He’s Gone, Weir dedicates the performance to IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands who died on May 5. This He’s Gone is superbly played, but the jamming that follows is what sets this show apart. A freewheeling Caution Jam bleeds into Spanish Jam. Jerry is in incredible form, and at points you can hear the band straining to keep up with him. Anything else I might say about these two jams would do them a disservice. I’ll just say that if you haven’t heard them yet, you need to. Right now.”

And hear them, you shall. 5/6/81 ultimately became Dick’s Picks #13. Dick Latavala was a huge fan of this show. According to LMA poster light into ashes, this was “one of Dick’s favorite shows from the ‘80s. The second-set jam always blew him away, and to him it was not only one of the best jams of the ‘80s, it was one of the best jams ever. He also really dug the first set.” Check it out.

And transport to the Barry Glassberg front-of-the-freaking-board audience recording on the LMA HERE.


Quick programming note…

The blog is sorta on hiatus. I’m burned out, guys. ECM and I will keep on keeping on with GD posts – we have our process, and a slice of an audience, so it works. The rest? Tbd.


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