Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Europe 1981: more good than bad or ugly

Stanley Mouse's lovely tour poster

I spent the last couple of weeks working my way through the Dead's Europe '81 tour.  It's not a tour that springs to mind for many fans as a major excursion, though it's hardly an unturned stone either (see tour write-ups by Blair Jackson, the modern deadhead, and Peter Wendel; Rock Scully's book has plenty of typically wild stories, too).  Photographer Bob Minkin wrote an excellent firsthand account of the Amsterdam "Oops" concerts that was printed in Deadbase and the Taper's Compendium.  My guess is, thanks to his report and his excellent photographs, most of what has been subsequently written about this tour centers around 10/16/81.  It’s one of the most famous Dead shows of the early 80's and is now saddled with so much contextual baggage ("the last great adventure!") that a straight listen is a little bit tricky.  Listening to the rest of these shows gets even trickier if you're a fan of GD biographical reportage: besides numerous other interpersonal problems and behind-the-scenes discontent, Garcia's heroin addiction was starting to get really ugly and had become evident enough for the band to confront him about it for the first time (via a letter written by Phil).  This is all good stuff to know, but not necessarily at the expense of the music itself: the performances tell a different story, and that's where I would rather focus my attention.

Another obstacle is that the general quality of the recordings aren't very high: Healy's cassettes sound like straight patches from the PA mix with minimal adjustment (mainly to Garcia's guitar), so the balance is skewed in favor of the vocals and keyboards.  The guitars (especially Weir's) can be low and Phil is often close to inaudible.  While this is far from ideal and means none of these shows will ever be getting an official release, this also isn't news to anyone who listens to sbds from this era.  Even the redoubtable Richie Stankiewicz, one of the kings of early 80's tapers, had a hit-or-miss record on this tour.  But nearly every show has a listenable recording, so I feel comfortable with the picture I was able to draw, and I think most folks will enjoy the highlights.

(fyi, re: sources -- I'm just listing the sources that I thought were the best available, which weren't always the most recent transfers: some of those "Mr. Bill remasters" have too much noise reduction for my tastes, but some are genuine upgrades, and some of the older Weiskircher auds were better than Stankiewicz's.  ymmv, of course).

The top five (chronological):

10/2 Rainbow Theatre, London
1st set:
2nd set:
The first night at the Rainbow (where the band had played another four-night stand that spring) kicks off with a solid first set: unremarkable selection but excellent execution.  The second set is more of Frankenstein job: a dreamy, jammy first half with a unique Playin>Shakedown>Bertha>Playin, then a hot, tight post-Space run marked by the most exciting Spanish Jam of the tour and a monster Black Peter that Latvala had ranked as one of his favorites.  Smoking!

10/4 Rainbow Theatre, London
An excellent Jack Straw gets a fine 1st set rolling: I also enjoy this Jack-a-Roe, BEWomen, and the closing Let it Grow>Deal combo.  Deal, in particular stands out for some low, heavy B3 work from Brent (not unlike later JGB versions).  2nd set's Samson is one for the ages, Scarlet>Fire is a fine one with a particularly nice final Fire jam, and the Spanish Jam>Other One is one of the hotter combinations of these two that you'll hear.

10/12 Olympiahalle, Munich
The boys sounds goosed from their night off, laying down an energetic, but measured, well-paced show.  There's a strong Jack Straw > Candyman, Cumberland, and Passenger before the 1st set highlight, a sweetly flowing, excellent China>Rider closer.  The 2nd set starts energetically, but kicks into high gear with an unusually hot Estimated jam that slowly makes its way into a barnburner GDTRFB.  Garcia sounds like he's struggling a bit at first, but it's great to hear him focus, lock it down, and then take off like a rocket for the duration, even through a nice little coda at the end (shades of 1971).  Solid post-Space has another wonderful Stella Blue.

10/17 Hippodrome de Pantin, Paris
After a satisfying run through a pretty standard first set selection, the boys knock it out of the park with the best 2nd set jam of the tour, and I would venture maybe one of the better jams of the year: Truckin > Bird Song > Good Times > Estimated > Eyes.  There's not a wrong foot placed with some unique and very well-executed transitions, and the mojo carries them all the way through the very end.  Lots of shows from '81 get more attention than this one, but it deserves a listen.

10/19 Palacio de los Deportes de Barcelona
Their final night in Europe ends things on another high note -- after 10/16, this is probably the best known show of the tour, though that probably has more to do with it being Garcia's single performance in Spain.  1st set delivers overall, but it's elevated by a strong Franklin's Tower after Jack Straw and a very long (dare I say... incendiary?) Let it Grow that's got to rank as one of the hottest of the early 80's.  The third Scarlet>Fire of the tour is the best and really delivers with a truly masterful Fire, each solo elegantly crafted and perfectly built up.  Garcia goes the extra distance after Sailor>Saint for a few minutes of solo flight with the drummers in tow, and there's another fine Spanish Jam>Other One>Stella Blue and a Sugar Mags that stands out for some divebombing playing.

The middle four -- not essential, but well worth a listen:

10/6 Rainbow Theatre, London
He's Gone is the highlight of the show, surely performed in memory of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated earlier that day.  It's an outstanding performance, with an exceptionally beautiful and unusually developed introduction and a powerful jam at the end.  Garcia then threads a loose Blues for Allah melody through the darkest, heaviest Space of the tour.  There's also an inspired High Time and excellent versions of the Wheel, Sugar Mags, and Stella Blue towards the end.  The first set is well done, with one of the better Shakedowns of this tour and a fine Cumberland.

10/8  Forum, Copenhagen
The Forum was apparently the biggest venue of the tour, more akin the size of their US venues.  Maybe for that reason, or maybe for another reason entirely, this show stands out for having a very different feel to it, more akin to the dreamy, stretched-out vibe of fall '79.  It doesn't sound like it was coming easy to them tonight, despite some relatively rarities in the first set (heads up for an amusingly royal snafu in Cumberland, though).  2nd set Scarlet>Fire Playin>Terrapin is nearly an hour with a meandering, jammy, gooey feel that's quite nice, but not particularly hot.  A trippy, slow NFA and another very good Black Peter bring up the rear.

10/10 Stadthalle IV, Bremen, Germany
An outstanding first set, maybe the best one of the tour, book-ended by two powerhouse trios: a high-energy Shakedown>Bertha>Minglewood opens, and a jammy, expansive Bird Song > Let it Grow > Deal closes.  LIG is excellent, though not in the same league as Barcelona's, and this Bird Song is one of the best of the year.  The second set, unfortunately, has less that stands out and more musical flubs: the biggest clunker is when Garcia plows into Eyes of the World at such a manic tempo that he can barely keep up -- not the last time that would happen, unfortunately, but I wonder if this was one of the first?

10/16 Melk Weg, Amsterdam
The famous Melk Weg show.  The acoustic set is the equal of any of the 1980 sets, with a loose energy almost more akin to their 1970 acoustic performances.  The electric set is utterly unique, but however cathartic, spontaneous, or magical as it must have been in the moment, it doesn't translate to more than a well-played novelty set on tape, at least not to my ears.  Sorry, Hully Gully fans.

The bottom five:

9/30 Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland
A solid first night on the road.  The only recording is missing a chunk of the second set (nearly all of Eyes of the World), but saves itself with an impressive Other One > Stella Blue that's worth hearing.

10/3 Rainbow Theatre, London
Nothing in the first set did much for me, not even the closing Bird Song and China>Rider, and the second set looks fantastic on paper -- Stranger>Franklin's>Estimated>Terrapin -- but doesn't get itself together until the Estimated jam.  It's probably the messiest played set of this tour, and the only one that (audibly) suggests that Garcia wasn't in good shape.

10/11 Melk Weg, Amsterdam
Garcia and Weir played a brief acoustic set at the Melk Weg on their night off, apparently following a performance by punk/poet Jim Carroll.  There's a decent aud recording (and video!), and it's unusual to hear them play some of these tunes without a bassist, but ultimately this isn't much more than a curiosity.

10/13 Water Koebel Hall, Russelsheim, Germany
Nothing wrong with this, but it's a subpar show with no major jamming.  There's a standalone jam following Sailor>Saint with some compelling stuff from Garcia, but he bails after a few minutes and leaves Bob and Brent to jam in his wake for a while.

10/15 Melk Weg, Amsterdam
The first of the two "Oops" shows at the Melk Weg: without the novelty elements of the second show, this has much less going for it, and the band doesn't sound quite as dialed in on their rented instruments.  There are a few strong moments, though, particularly the fine Other One>Wharf Rat, and Phil was feeling inspired enough to pull off a rare bass solo instead of the usual Space tonight.

German tour poster,


  1. Nice! Spinning 10/2/81 set II now, on your recommendation.

  2. Perhaps I ought to have mentioned that the top/middle/bottom groups are chronological, not in order of merit (i.e., I don't think 10/2 is the best single show -- not a bad place to start, though!). Time for an edit.