Twenty years ago this month, I packed up my Geo Metro and started a 36 hour drive to the north and west. The Las Cruces era of my life was over. It was time to be a Seattlite. While that would lead to many changes, one of the most surprising happened a mere week after I moved there. After three years of considered Santa Fe and Phoenix and Dallas to be local concerts, the Grateful Dead would be playing my city right after I moved. Oddly enough, I was torn.
I was moving without a job (and therefore no money). Moreover the Phoenix 1994 shows largely left me cold. Jerry was slipping fast and it was getting painful to watch. However, as much as I tried to talk myself out of it, there was no way that I could miss it. Small decisions sometimes make long memories.
Seattle’s Memorial Stadium isn’t the most classic venue. It was already nearly 50 years old at the time of these concerts and was mostly used for high school football and minor league soccer. What it does have going for it is location. It’s in the Seattle Center complex, which means that the back of the floor had great views of the Space Needle and the then existing “Fun Forest” amusement park and its rickety but fun roller coaster. It also had something else going for it – laid back police.
It’s hard to remember just how bad things were in this era of legalized pot, but the relationship between the police and the Deadhead population was awful. It bottomed out in the late 80s/early 90s, but shows in the southeast always had a bail bondsman in the parking lot and just having stickers on your car was considered probable cause to pull you over and search your car. Attending a concert was usually a battle between people who were just trying to stay on the road and police looking to pad their stats and bust some heads. Don’t get me wrong. It would be impossible to claim that the Deadheads were beyond reproach. However, it was cyclical. The cops made it harder to make money by selling sodas or t-shirts, so many resorted to spare changing, selling drugs, or the sketchy behavior of the voluntary homeless (e.g. using people’s yards as bathrooms, sneaking into shows, organized gate crashing). While we were rarely completely innocent, the one thing that I constantly saw is that when the police backed off, usually things went well. My new hometown knew that lesson. They were chill, and then so were we. It was a last oasis of calm before things really fell apart later in the summer.
There was an early good omen for this run. The Dead played a soundcheck before the first show that everyone wandering the area could hear. The playlist included “Unbroken Chain” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tough Mama.” While I would never see either of those performed live by the Grateful Dead – although I have seen Phil side projects perform the former and the Jerry Band play the latter – at least we all got to practice our best parking lot dance moves.
The one thing that made this era so unlistenable was Jerry’s disinterest. First sets got shorter and shorter, to the point where they could fit on one side of a tape. Mumbling through songs became more and more common – the Touch of Grey that opened this run was a great example – and his interest in playing also faded. He would suddenly get inspired for a song or two and the music would be amazing. It would be just as frustrating as it was liberating. The mediocrity of the rest of the show made those moments of clarity stand out more, but it also became difficult to stop wondering what would happen if the whole show could be like that again.
What made this Seattle run so special was that Jerry was present more often than not. Sure the first night started off rough with a sloppy first set but even that was concluded with an impressive “Bird Song.” “Wharf Rat” had an extended introduction, perhaps to get everyone on the same page, but when the fills are that impressive, it doesn’t matter why. Thursday contained strong version of “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Victim or the Crime” but – most impressively – had Jerry extend the music break of “Foolish Heart” long past the time that he normally would have ended it. While the length itself was noteworthy, it’s more what it implied, that he wanted to play, to extend jams, to find new riffs and variations of themes. And that made all of the difference in the world.
Late period Grateful Dead was largely about subtle improvisation, a different emphasis on a line, an intriguing backing piano run to a guitar solo, a different pace, minor differences all, but ones that could turn a good song into a life changing experience. If you went into a show rooting for a 25 minute jam that left the structure of the song (outside of the inevitable “DrumZ->Space” section), or a concert that left the normal structure of what they were doing, you were likely to walk out disappointed. What was to hope for was for a night where the setlist hit all of the right moments, where clunkers like “Samba in the Rain” were minimized, and where every song would have those extra moments. It makes it harder to explain what makes a great 1995 Dead show so incredible short of sitting someone down and making them listen, but if you were there or if you hear the tape, you’ll know when there was one of those nights. Friday May 26, 1995, the final of three shows at Seattle Center, that was one of those nights.
Some of it can be seen from the data. The show opens with “Help->Slipknot!->Franklin’s Tower” which is always a promising combination and the pre-drums second set section went, “Scarlet-> Fire, Playin’->Uncle John’s Band,” perhaps the perfect sequence. The song timings (over 11 minutes for “Franklin’s”, close to a half hour on the “Scarlet > Fire”) show that they at least weren’t going through the motions. Sure it doesn’t explain Jerry’s delicate “Franklin’s Tower” runs or the UFO effects in “Fire on the Mountain,” but it was enough to show that they were all interested and engaged. That might seem like an awfully low bar to leap, but even a few months before his death, Jerry had incredible power when he could grasp it.
The most memorable moment of the run happened at the end of the second set. It was sunny and 80 degrees, Jerry was singing a stunning “Stella Blue,” and during the line, “It seemed like all this life was just a dream,” a flock of birds flew overhead in a perfect V formation. There’s a huge cheer audible even on the soundboards, “celebrating the birds, celebrating the concert, celebrating life,” is how I described it in my review a few months later. I was reconverted. I told my friends who were crashing in my apartment, “I’m back on the bus.” That would be my last time seeing Jerry Garcia play.
After Seattle things would get ugly. There would be more off nights than on. Jerry would stumble around trying to find coherence, a death threat would be called into Deer Creek in a successful attempt to lure security away from the gates to let people crash, a deck at a campground in St. Louis collapsed leading to multiple injuries. The tour was a landmine for horrible final memories. The Seattle run might not have been perfect concerts, but it was the perfect way for this to end. One part of my life was ending, another was beginning, and twenty years later I find myself returning to the recordings once more. Why? If for no other reason, it’s best to remind myself that this wasn’t just some hazy memory. The Grateful Dead gave me important life changing experiences; May 26 was just the final one. No matter how it might seem, that life was not just a dream.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.