I have written about the RFK Stadium and Giants Stadium shows from June 1991 in my annual 31 Days of Dead Projects, so I decided to take up the reins over this month’s edition of Liner Notes Music Blog and give my dear friend, JF, a much needed rest.
Live music provides us with experiences and memories. These three shows from the Grateful Dead’s East Coast Summer Tour tell a very personal story as you are about to learn.
I attended the RFK and Giants Stadium shows with my brother Dan (that’s us) and a friend we call, “Crazy Otto.” It was a heavy time for us because we had just received devastating news that our friend, Scott – who was supposed to be with us – was in the hospital, in a coma and barely clinging to life from a senseless car accident that occurred shortly after he returned home from the shows in Charlotte (June 11 & 12). Knowing that Scott would have wanted us to rage on in his absence, we went to the RFK and Giants Stadium shows and did our best to make him proud. Ah to be young, naive and forever optimistic. The shows themselves were great. More on that later but unfortunately, Scott didn’t make it. The last song he heard the Grateful Dead play was Brokedown Palace (“Fare you well…”).
Within just one week we went from the happy, care-free times of going on summer tour with the Grateful Dead to the sobering reality of going to the funeral of a 22-year-old dear friend. Fighting back tears of paralyzing grief, we left Scott’s memorial service to the beautiful strains of Attics of my Life – a song he heard the band bust out in Hampton a few years back.
During that dark time of uncertainty and profound sadness it was the music of the Grateful Dead that provided the beacon of light that we so desperately needed. The band was all too familiar with tragedy and had endured more than its share. The untimely death of keyboardist, Brent Mydland the previous summer was the most recent casualty. The band carried on just as we did while Scott’s life hung in the balance. Wasting no time at all, they enlisted the help of Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby to fill the huge void left by Brent. By the Summer of 1991, the band was firing on all cylinders.
The band played one of the strongest shows of the year on June 14 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. The performance is every bit as good as the set list looks. GDP obviously thought highly enough of it to release it commercially as part of its View From The Vault series (Volume 2). “Cold Rain” and “Wang Dang Doodle” get things off to a rocking start. It was unusual for “Big River” to lead the cowboy combo but this version along with the “Maggie’s Farm” that follows are a high energy affair. “Row Jimmy” is one of those long, pretty versions that you can just get lost in, and we did just that. The “Black-Throated Wind” that follows has one of those incredible endings where Bobby goes nuts with heroic vocals. The closing combo of “Tennessee Jed” and “Music Never Stopped” ends the first set on a very high note.
The second set is of what dreams are made. The band confidently slams into “Help on the Way” and then blasts off into a powerful and mesmerizing “Slipknot!” The palate cleansing “Franklin’s Tower” is a joy as always. The outro has that little extra something that makes it clear the band is having a very “on” night. Next up is one of Scott’s favorites – “Estimated Prophet.” The outro jamming has references to “Slipknot!” from earlier in the set. We were stunned when the band dropped into “Dark Star.” It is a short, one-verse affair. Nothing ground-breaking but special for sure. However, it is the absolutely gorgeous version of “Stella Blue” that floats out of Space that is my personal highlight. The aching ballad tugged at our heartstrings as we struggled to make sense of what happened to Scott.
“There’s nothing you can hold for very long. And when you hear that song come crying like the wind, it seems like all this life was just a dream.”
Lovelight is tons of fun. It appears to end but then Bobby surprises everybody – including the band – by launching into a rocking reprise.
We returned to New York for two shows at Giants Stadium. The show on Sunday (June 16) was highlighted by “Candyman,” “Stagger Lee” and “Let It Grow” in the first set. The band surprised everyone by opening the second set with “Jack Straw” and it was a real monster to boot. It may not be the best version ever played but it’s probably a contender for the best of the 90’s. The second set treatment always raises the stakes. A great deal of credit must be attributed to Bruce Hornsby for reinvigorating “Jack Straw” when he joined the band. It was probably one of Bruce’s favorite songs in the Dead’s repertoire. In fact, “Jack Straw” was the song that he contributed to the 1991 Grateful Dead tribute album, Deadicated. Not only did he take some of the lead vocals that are normally sung by Bobby, but on this version he and Jerry traded solos towards the end – each musician pushing the other to the precipice – resulting in a massive peak. Is there anything more cathartic than a sick “Jack Straw?” I think not. A lilting “Crazy Fingers” was next followed by a speedy, amphetamine-like version of “China > Rider.” Totally on fire. It is very unusual for “China > Rider” to lead into “Drums” and I think this may been the only time the band did it. Post-Space was highlight by two very heavy songs that reference dying – “Black Peter” and “Box of Rain.”
Our mini-tour without Scott concluded on Monday, June 17. That show has become known as “The Dark Star Tease Show” because the band quoted “Dark Star” throughout the entire show without actually playing the song proper. Jerry Garcia once said that there is a little bit of “Dark Star” in everything we play. This show was proof of that wisdom.
June 17, 1991 is considered one of the best shows the Dead played with Bruce Hornsby during his 18 month tenure with the band. Everyone is in fine form this evening, but Bruce and Jerry shine the brightest. Fortunately, a film crew was on hand to capture the magic for the ABC-TV’s program, “In Concert.”
Once again, the band surprises everyone by opening the show with “Eyes of the World(!)” It is a long, generous 14-minute version that makes everybody quickly forget about the misting rain. An upbeat “Brown-Eyed Women” puts this version in the discussion of “best ever.” As the closing notes are played the band flirts with “Dark Star” for the first time of the evening. The stadium crowd braces in hushed anticipation but the band pulls the rug out from right under us and launches into “Masterpiece.” The “Loose Lucy” that follows is as upbeat and as rocking as any version. Again, it falls into the discussion of GOAT. Among the many highlights of this magical evening is the powerful first set closing combination of Cassidy > Might As Well. The jam in “Cassidy” heads straight for Jupiter and the “Might As Well” that follows is also among the best versions the band ever played. Garcia takes each of the verses in terrific voice but the real standout is Bruce’s barrel house style piano solo. It truly is astonishing. Jerry brings the house down with his vocals on the outro.
The second set kicks off with a long, majestic introduction that leads into a fantastic version of “Saint of Circumstance.” Although “Ship of Fools” has been occasionally known to kill the momentum of a set, this version is performed so masterfully that nobody could legitimately register that kind of complaint – especially when you consider that it was followed up with yet another brief “Dark Star” jam. This time the lyrics are played instrumentally, but just before that door of magic is fully opened the band fools us again and launches into “Truckin.” As the closing jam begins to peter out, Hornsby throws in a quick “Dark Star” quote that even catches the band by surprise as the first notes of “New Speedway Boogie” are played. Garcia croons the chorus a little more than usual and it provides an ominous reminder of the darkness that loomed large with our critically injured friend. A joyous “Uncle John’s Band” is next but it is juxtaposed with a prophetic warning that “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” A very long and exploratory, MIDI-heavy jam follows the UJB reprise which eventually gives way to Drums and Space.
The band opts for the same post-Space formula they used with such great effect at RFK by segueing into a ballad. Here, Jerry leads the band into one of the most fragile songs in their vast catalog – “China Doll.” This version is incredible and was yet another sign of Scott’s fate – “…the bells of heaven ring.” Jerry’s guitar solo was very poignant. Sometimes the band is too quick to change gears between songs which results in a clumsy and jarring transition out of a ballad. That was not the case on this evening. Here, the band wisely chooses to drift into “space” via “Playin’ Reprise” which provides a very smooth and satisfying transition. For those keeping score, here is a rundown of the last few songs played: UJB > Dark Star Jam > Drums > Space > China Doll > Playin’ Reprise. Super kind for sure! The band closes out the show with a rockin’ “Sugar Magnolia” and a feel good, sing-a-long version of “The Weight” as the encore. It was a magical night. Scott’s presence was felt throughout. Shortly thereafter we learned the sad news of his passing but the music of the Grateful Dead had sustained us during this very difficult period.
Tragedy would strike again on October 25, 1991 when concert promoter and long-time friend, Bill Graham, was killed in a helicopter crash. Another untimely death. The band dedicated the four concerts in Oakland to their fallen comrade (October 27-31). During “Dark Star” on Halloween (10/31/91), Ken Kesey, emerged to deliver a very dark rap eulogizing Bill Graham that is so heavy with grief that it is almost unbearable. At one point Kesey references the untimely death of his own son, Jed, who ironically died in a car accident in his early 20s – same as Scott. Kesey’s rage concludes when he seemingly asks the grim reaper, “how do you like your blue eyed boy now mister DEATH???!!!” It is a spine-chilling moment that could just as easily be applied to Scott.
My last memory of the Grateful Dead’s healing music during this difficult time was at Madison Square Garden on September 8, 1991. It was the first show that Scott’s wife of 1-year, Nicole, attended following his death. We were there with her – the usual gang – Dan, Crazy Otto and me. The band encored with “Attics” – the same song that was played at Scott’s funeral. It took us by surprise. We assumed that the band had retired “Attics” after Brent’s death. It was one of “those” moments that can only happen at a Grateful Dead concert. We engaged in a group hug and didn’t let go for a long time.
Grateful Dead therapy.
Transport to a soundboard recording of 6/14/91 HERE. And here’s the official video:
Transport to a soundboard recording of 6/16/91 HERE, and 6/17/91 HERE.
And here’s a great video from ABC featuring several songs from the Giants Stadium shows.
[Note: Ed offered other comments on 6/16-17/91 in an earlier GDW post.]