Spoiler: none of these shows is top-to-bottom great. Many of them have something worth hearing and revisiting. Isn't finding those gems what it's all about?
1/5/79 - The Spectrum
The band's history at the Spectrum is notable, and this was their first two-night stand there, rescheduled from December and split over two weeks, presumably working around the hockey season. It's a pretty run-of-the-mill show, captured on a solid if not amazing aud tape (all respect to the uncredited taper). Two unfortunate tape cuts excise Jerry's climactic Sugaree solo and most of the Music Never Stopped jam. Weir's slide solo in Sugaree sounds truly and unbelievably terrible. An unexpected highlight is the last stretch of All Over Now, when Garcia and Lesh decide it's time to lift the roof for a few moments. The second set jam begins with a somewhat sluggish Estimated, which perks up during an unusually colorful segue into a very long Eyes of the World: 16 1/2 minutes of legitimate jamming. Nothing earthshaking happens, since Garcia sounds happy to take it at a mellow pace, but it's still a pleasant ride. A loud, raucous Space (all hands on deck and making noise) sets up a more energetic post-Drumz: it sounds like they're having fun on Truckin', and then they attempt the first Nobody's Fault But Mine in a while -- it's a full band effort, not just Garcia playing the melody -- but Garcia's mic gives out and they're forced to make it an instrumental. Black Peter sounds quite good, though Garcia seems to be making room for Weir's slide again (whyyyyy), and Around and JBG feel unusually goosed. "Thank y'all, we're gonna see you in a week or two." Not bad, but overall it's a so-so show. At least the local reviews were good.
|high times at MSG, by Bob Minkin.|
1/7/79 - Madison Square Garden
Another historical first: the band's first MSG shows (again rescheduled from December). Boy howdy, do they sound glad to be there: the run blasts off with a truly titanic Jack Straw, with a jam for the ages. Mama mia! The rest of the set is wholly unremarkable, which feels almost cruel given that opening salvo. There's a pretty nice Cassidy and Jack-a-Roe; Garcia sings "kicked my eye and blacked my dog" in Tennessee Jed, and delivers on a solid Passenger closer. True to their we-always-blow-the-big-ones form, the second set is marred by PA problems: the opening Miracle has some sound issues, Shakedown feels perfunctory, and repeat Estimated > Eyes finally finds a groove but is also on the shorter side. Space is an unexpected highlight, with a kind of "world music" vibe as Garcia improvises more melodically with Hart's marimba. But Not Fade Away feels bloated and overlong to me, although there's an interesting bit where everyone is trading fours, and Black Peter (another repeat) is going well until the PA craps out again, never to fully recover. Blah. Hear this Jack Straw over and over, and maybe the Space. Full disclosure: Bob Wagner's aud tape is solid, but boomy and a little unfocused, which may be tilting my general opinion here.
1/8/79 - Madison Square Garden
The first set is great! Good selection, great energy: a very fine Half Step > Franklin's kicks off with a satisfying peak to the Half Step jam and a nice transition. Everything has the extra edge, and even the more obvious flubs sound more like over-enthusiasm than carelessness. Lazy > Supplication, another good combo, closes things out. Promising start! As much as I really want to love this second set, however, I am just not feeling it. On paper it's great, and Charlie Miller has repeatedly said that this is one of his particular favorites. So your mileage, obviously, may vary. Scarlet > Fire features an unusually prominent Donna "solo" in the transition jam, more forward than her other occasional moments of glossolalia -- you go ahead, Donna! -- and Jerry bumbleebeing his way through the rest of it. Hmm. He steps it up for FOTM with one well-crafted solo after another, but the rest of the band sounds like they're plodding along. Maybe it's just me? This S>F certainly has its proponents (e.g. here), so perhaps you all will like it more than I do. Nothing much moves me either in Terrapin or Playing, and they skip Space altogether tonight for some noodling right into the Other One, which doesn't feel like it fully comes together before the vocals. Wharf Rat, at least, is a powerhouse. It's interesting that all three of these shows so far have had an energy bump after the Drums, but haven't quite delivered the goods beforehand.
|MSG, by Bob Minkin.|
And another historical moment: the Dead return to Nassau, which they had sworn off in 1973 after heavy police presence and arrests. A few good pulls were made, but Keith Gatto's aud tapes of both nights are spectacular, which I admit may contribute to my higher opinion of these shows. The first set mostly lopes along without much spark (the B-grade song selection is partially to blame), but ends well with quality versions of Passenger and Loser before a hot Music Never Stopped finale that burns through both jams to a big finish. Shakedown is a much better performance than MSG's (prompting Phil to crack, "you know it well!" to all the Long Islanders), but then a workmanlike Miracle > Bertha > Good Lovin' seems like they are settling in for another unremarkable 2nd set jam. But oh no: a full blown Dark Star. How? Why? Huh? Remember that they had brought this back ten days earlier for the closing of Winterland blowout (and would play a shorter one again 10 days later), but this one takes the full ride for over 18 minutes, complete with a nice climax in the second half. imho this vies with the 1984 Greek Theater encore for the best of the "lost years" Dark Stars, and what a nice surprise it is. Space, thankfully, is another full-blown skronk-fest (crazier than 1/5) with another big climax, dropping off into a decent but unremarkable Wharf Rat. They have one more ace to play: St. Stephen, another reprise from Winterland (and the last one they would play until 1983), a pretty on-point and fired up version. Thank you, boys! Dark Star through the end of the show is well worth hearing.
1/11/79 - Nassau Coliseum
(a rare sbd also circulates, though the aud is the better bet)
I wasn't expecting much from this more pedestrian looking setlist, but surprise surprise, the first set felt pretty solid. A big ol' Sugaree opener boasts a great final jam (and less egregiously bad Bob slide), and there's also a nice Cassidy and a solid-if-not-amazing Jack Straw > Deal finisher, both with some slippery spots but an all-around good feeling. The second set opens with a very long, jammy Miracle, by far the longest (10+ minutes) of this period, with a nice, easy, quasi-Truckin' shuffle. The band goofs around wishing happy birthday to everyone ("the Birthday Brothers & Sisters Band!") before setting sail into the best Estimated so far (though check out Jerry pulling the e-brake hard in the bridge solo) with a lovely, nearly composed transition into He's Gone. They groove on a long Truckin' tease before Drums, then noodle around for bit before Truckin' proper. They give this one another good reading and make their way roundabout to the Other One, with a great transition to the intro and a short but very punchy jam, and finally a very slow but steady Stella Blue with an extra long outro solo -- not a true stunner, but a worthwhile trip -- before wrapping up the night a fine Casey Jones encore that I hope was a little parting fuck you to the Nassau police. Start to finish, this may be the most consistent second set of these six shows, though nothing jumps out enough to make it one for the books. A worthwhile specimen, nevertheless.
1/12/79 - The Spectrum
Back at the Spectrum for night 2, with Eddie Claridge's and Jim Wise's sweet, up-close FOB as the only circulating recording. The first set is mostly pretty ho-hum (the opening Jack Straw doesn't hold a candle to the MSG version), but things settle into place with a nice Peggy-O, and a great one-two punch of Passenger and Deal. The energy spills over into a nice Samson, though Garcia's voice isn't in good enough shape for Roses. Yikes. Dancing in the Streets had become far less common than it had been in spring '78, and while it seemed like the band's interest in stretching this one out had been waning, this one pulls a rabbit out of its hat: after a brisk, tight jam, they bring it back around and then wander off into a looser groove; it's nice them exploring an unexpected direction at this stage in the game. Garcia manages to tie it back into the Dancin' reprise, they wrap up the tune, and then Garcia sets off again as everyone else takes a break. Hart eases off, and the next few minutes are just Garcia and Kreutzmann playfully sparring with each other -- nothing like John Coltrane/Elvin Jones intensity, but it's pretty cool to hear these two having a rare 'alone together' moment. Hart returns for a low-key Drums, which ushers in a Not Fade Away that (after another grimacey slide solo) is elevated by Garcia powering through the rest of the band's laconic groove with a stronger attack. A bonus GDTRFB and Sugar Magnolia (no ballad) keep the energy and good vibes up high. It's worth hearing this Dancin>jam, and worth sticking around for the rest of it if you're not in a rush.
|1/12/79? by unknown|
None of these six shows is a powerhouse from start to finish. With the exception of 1/8/79, all of these first sets are pretty skipable, barring a couple highlights. The first two shows are generally pretty low-gear and low priority. I keep hoping that 1/8/79's second set will turn my crank someday, but it hasn't happened yet. Things get genuinely engaging for me with the second set of 1/10 Nassau, 1/11 maintains the energy for an all-around generally solid show, and 1/12 delivers with an overlooked strong second set jam. But I'm not feeling inspired to keep going, so this symmetrical six-show run will suffice. fwiw, the second set from 1/15/79 in Springfield is probably the best single set of this final winter 79 period (though, again, the first set was mostly a snoozer, iirc). 2/3/79 Indianapolis is another real diamond in the rough, and I presume most folks know the final Keith & Donna show on 2/17/79 has some very spirited (if messy) playing and a host of setlist surprises.
The "problem" with these shows has less to do with any obvious flaws and more of a kind of settled but indifferent professionalism (well, professionalism by the Dead's standards). "We used to play for acid, now we play for Clive," perhaps. Jerry's and Donna's voices sound pretty blown out more often than not, Keith never sounds too engaged in any of it (though the tone of the electric piano he was playing isn't doing him any favors), and everyone else just kind of plays on through. As much as history has firmly attributed this to the Godchauxs, it sounds to me more like a cloud had settled on the band in late 78 that didn't fully clear until Brent Mydland was fully settled in a year later.
|1/9/79: Keith is not amused (Bob Minkin)|