I've got a weird relationship with Florida. All my life, I've had some family there (almost none of them native), so I'm there a couple of times a year. This isn't the place to get into it in depth, but I'll say this: it's got a weird vibe. I like it, because like any truly weird place, it's got its own unique brand of weirdness. And, like any little pocket of weirdness, it's not surprising that the Dead tended to play better than average shows there. So, with all the @FloridaMenandWomen in mind, it's always a good time to listen to a Florida Dead show.
More to the point, I was thinking about Florida because of a list that's going around of the 30 shows selected for the Dead's enormous 50th anniversary boxed set (now confirmed at dead.net). Unusually for picky deadheads, general consensus (and I use the word lightly) in my neck of the woods is that they picked some real winners and some surprisingly cool sleepers. Inevitably, a couple of choices are going to jump out as being a little too left-field, and one was the 1980's representative: 11/28/80 in Lakeland, FL. It's smack in the middle of a quick 4-show swing through Florida and Georgia, on the heels of the much more famous (but not as exciting) run of acoustic/electric run of shows, and it's not a show that probably springs to anyone's mind as belonging in the top tier of the year. 11/30/80 was a cult favorite, a punchline in Nick Paumgarten's fine 2012 New Yorker articlethat was finally (and deservedly) enshrined for posterity as a Dave's Picks release. 11/29/80 seems to be a pretty popular favorite, at least for fans of the early 80's, with an eye-popping setlist and fine playing to match. But 11/28? Misguided choice, or a well-kept secret?
Giving it a close listen, I'd have to say neither. I think it's a very good show, but not a great show, which probably means that I'm not hearing the ephemeral x-factor that's apparently obvious to someone else. By this point, warts-and-all is the name of the game, but there are still some stumbles and slips in this one that do make this seem like a strange choice: Jerry's solo in Jack Straw starts in the wrong key, there are some pretty big vocal clunkers in Tennessee Jed, that sort of thing. But there are some pockets of really inspired, raunchy playing, too: a demonic and demented Little Red Rooster (seriously), a powerful Looks Like Rain, some downright nasty jamming at the end of Deal, and the debut of the rare electric Deep Elem Blues (fresh from the acoustic sets from the prior months). The second set has the same inconsistent highs/lows: a nice Stranger opener has some more stumbles, and the highlight is most definitely the unique To Lay Me Down > Let it Grow > Terrapin, all of which are wonderful but not quiiiite at that next level of magic, to my ears at least. There's not much happening in drums>space, then the post-drumz is energetic but, for the most part, pretty run of the mill.
There's some really fiery stuff in there, no doubt, but 11/29's second set embodies the magic in much more sustained, consistent way. It's not all spotless -- the transition into Franklin's from Shakedown (again, one of a kind) is a total clunker, but the whole set glistens and sparkles: Jerry eases back while Brent comes to the fore in a great, airy Shakedown jam, sparks fly everywhere in Estimated, and they really make the most of the usually negligible post-Truckin jam with some seriously hot Other One jamming. Space has some much heavier, creepier, involved jousting between Jerry, Brent, and the drummers (always a good sign when they stick around), and when the Other One itself finally materializes (complete with the crowd egging Phil into his intro roll), Jerry goes off like fireworks. He pulls out all the stops with a gorgeous Stella Blue, and despite usual shakiness of Casey Jones, it still feels like something special and out of the ordinary.
Why didn't they pick 11/29 over 11/28? I have no idea. What drives official release selections is probably far more mundane than picky heads ever take into consideration: the tapes are missing, the tapes are of poor quality, the tapes have some technical limitation that I'm not hearing, the tapes have a giant cut that can't be patched. To be honest, there are a handful of 1980 shows that I would've picked over 11/28 -- 1980 hasn't exactly been overlooked, but there are still a number of other shows I would have pulled for. True, griping about official releases is a guilty pleasure that nevertheless feels like biting the hand that feeds, but a $700 box set touting itself as a representation of the "narrative of the Grateful Dead's live legacy"does add a little more weight to the selections than usual: rather than simply being released on their own merits, these shows now stand as a kind of representative of their year.
In all fairness, by the way, I love most of the choices they made. There are some really inspired and non-obvious selections in there, almost outnumbering the picks that are already widely acknowledged classics. I'm really excited that we're getting major upgrades of 9/24/72, 9/18/74, 10/3/76, and 4/25/77! Really excited.