I was born in 1970, just a few months too late for the sixties. So, in the 1990s, I was in my 20s, a great time to be alive and of age. New Year’s Eve was a pretty huge deal to me at that point my life. I was always wondering- what is the best show on NYE and how can I possibly attend?
I moved from the East coast to the West coast in the fall of 1990, and was already a pretty big Deadhead. I was super fortunate and landed a mail order ticket to the New Year’s eve Dead show in Oakland, CA. Mail order was quite the ritualistic ordeal back then, and scoring this colorful ticket was no small event. In print on the bottom of the ticket, it said it all, “7 PM til it’s over.”
If my memory serves, I took the bus (the Green Tortoise) down from Eugene Oregon to Oakland, CA and only had a ticket to the 31st of December, none of the preceding shows. I wandered over to Oakland coliseum which had become the home to all of the holiday indoor Grateful Dead shows in those years: Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, and of course the famed runs that led up to New Year’s Eve each year.
I had seen the Dead on pay per view the NYE when I was in high school (86 I think maybe), but this was to be my very first show on the west coast. What great luck for it to be such a momentous occasion, and not just a random show.
I met some people as I got on line early in the day, and the mood was super chill. The weather was nice, and I was just enjoying being in California, up to that point I had only spent limited time in the Golden State. They slowly cattled us as the afternoon wore on- you see Oakland coliseum back then was general admission, so the order in which you entered the arena would very strongly determine the quality of your seat.
After hours of slowly winding our way through the maze that they had established, there was some randomly crazy moment where the rules seemed to have been suspended momentarily and everyone was running toward the last security check points and the doors to the arena. I had a backpack, including an eighteen inch US water pipe around which I had all of my clothes jammed so that it was a tight and bulky package.
I got up to the last security guard, and there was some mayhem swirling around with people running to and fro- and she said “Let me see that backpack.” I held it up by the loop at the top so it dangled from my heightened arms in an effort to induce her to pat it instead of opening it. While she patted it, I put on my best Jedi mind trick- and said “See, nothing but clothes.” I couldn’t believe it when she actually seemed to succumb to my jedi mastery and repeated “Just clothes.”
With that she was onto the next bundle of chaos and I was inside. Now I had lined up pretty early but there were certainly quite a few people before me, and the ‘saving seats’ culture was super strong in Oakland. I wandered the whole first tier even as probably the 1000th person inside I had to search before I found a single seat open. I sat there, and quickly made friends with the couple of heads around me. As the place filled up over the next few hours I became Mr. Popular with that good sized bong that was being passed all over our whole section.
I settled into the opening set by the Rebirth Brass Band who put on a short set with colorful visuals and NOLA style vibesters throwing things off stage for the audience to catch.
Up next came Branford Marsalis. Now Branford had made a pretty big splash into the Dead scene that spring of 1990, with an instant classic appearance in Nassau County Coliseum on LI on spring tour so I was super stoked that he was opening. At the time, the Marsalis family was establishing themselves as the preeminent jazz musicians of their time, and Branford’s stint in Sting’s band had given him a crossover reputation.
His band was a quintet dubbed the X-Men: with Marsalis on sax of course, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Robert Hearst on contra-bass, Bruce Hornsby on piano, and a guitarist named Kevin Eubanks. This is auspicious because Marsalis, and then eventually Eubanks became band leaders of NBC’s Tonight Show bands, which is one of the most visible positions a musician could have in late 20th century American pop-culture. They played what was basically a whole set of a single song- what would become the theme of the Tonight Show once Branford had taken over as Jay Leno became host. The band established the theme of the song, and each member took a huge section, to return to the head; in twenty-one minutes they let it unfurl in all its glory and that was that.
Marsalis said something along the lines of “I guess I’ll be seeing you in an hour or so…” to which the crowd roared approval. The set break allowed me to gather my wits a bit and to send the US water pipe on another journey of utility around the audience. I don’t remember exactly how/when, but there was a quick song by a trio of Bruce Hornsby, Rob Wasserman, and Branford Marsalis. It was a vocal song called “White Wheeled Limousine” which was great and I don’t think anyone there had heard it before. One of them mentioned how they recorded it that day. This really exemplified how different this show was from the previous twenty or so Dead shows I’d been to- multiple openers, a pickup band to play a quick song, and the promise of sit ins to come!
In retrospect this represented something big in jazz. I don’t know that there was a bigger jazz show in America on that New Year’s Eve; and it was just the opener for the Dead! This performance, and subsequent shows Branford played with the Dead, helped to usher in a new audience for improvisational jazz music. I was not the only one who saw Branford play in his own outfits as the years went by after this show.
Finally, the Grateful Dead took the stage. I had built this show up, this moment- in my mind like few other concerts I had attended at this age. I went to some huge concerts like Floyd and Rush, but this NYE show reached monolithic proportions in my brain as the days built up to this night. It was almost overwhelming as the band took the stage and I don’t want to say anticlimactic when they opened with the standard show opener of that period in the band, Hell in a Bucket. It’s not as if there is anything wrong with a good Bucket opener at all, as it was an excellent appetizer for a show.
Full Show Audio: Satellite Feed > 1/2″ reel @ 15 ips > DAT >CDR; Montego II > CDWave > Sound Forge XP 4.5; via Mike Hall
The first set in fact unwound as a pretty classic set one from that era with staples Jack a Roe, Mexicali Blues, and Big River making up the front half of the set. It wasn’t until the exploratory Bird Song that the band mined some of the rich minerals that were first un-earthed by the bands that opened the show. First set closed with a tasty Promised Land and we were left waiting for the NYE countdown.
I can still picture the inside of the coliseum, which I visited many times in the years that followed this first trip. It’s a pretty classic indoor concert and sports arena, and it probably fit around twenty thousand people. It achieved a certain comfort level for both the band and the audience as it was one of the most frequent stops that the band had in those years; it even felt like you knew the crew and the ushers after a while.
After an insane buildup of anticipation, the lights went down for set two. Drummers started the sounds, and exotic looking dancers took the stage. The visual splendor really built with African modern dance, stilt walking, and fire breathing all being displayed onstage. After a few minutes, a set piece was being lowered from the ceiling, an island scene with palm trees and Bill Graham dressed as a witch doctor descended over the crowd. He was tossing things into the crowd and the energy began its crescendo. The countdown commenced and our eyes were filled with colored lights and explosions and when we hit midnight twin Baby New Year’s babies bungee jumped from the ceiling on either side of the stage. It took a few moments for my overwhelmed mind to process that those weren’t dummies bouncing up and down, rather actual people, as I saw their legs and arms flailing as they bounced. What felt like thousands of balloons dropped and the band launched into a celebratory Not Fade Away. You could feel Garcia preparing for take-off- he was flirting with Marsalis, but they didn’t quite take to the sky, yet.
Not Fade Away gave way to the jet plane of Eyes of the World. And this is where the flights of fancy truly began, with Garcia, Hornsby, Welnik and Marsalis really working the riffs and interplay. Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart had a rhythmic juggernaut going underneath and the Grateful Dead took their cues from a whole evening’s buildup to launch a jazz improv rock and roll band that was never to be matched. Dark Star was the ultimate proof- at times meandering, at other times totally on point. It felt like the band had the patience and curiosity to explore every nook and cranny of the music, veering into spaces heretofore undiscovered. “Shall we go.. You and I while we can.”
It was like watching a flock of birds, starlings perhaps- flying together in the sky. At times it seemed like total chaos, no order whatsoever as each individual bird dove and soared. At other times it felt as if they fell into formation all flying with purpose in a newly chosen direction only to fall back into chaos- design, exploration, chaos, exploration, design in a never-emerending adventure on which we are all invited. “Through.. the transitive nightfall of diamonds.”
After a lengthy and dark exploratory period, the band coalesced for just moments. The hints of The Other One were apparent and none too subtle. But this flirtatious hint was fleeting as the band gave way to Drums. This one went OUT THERE.. and back again. “A Happy One,” words uttered to signal the entrance of hand drummer Hamza El Din, one of the most revered drummers in the world at that time. Hart and El Din quietly performed tantric rhythms, with El Din bringing in vocalizations and melodies. The audience respectfully accompanied with variant rhythmic clapping and vocalizations of their own. Patience leads to anticipation, Garcia reemerges to pluck quiet melodies, and is joined by Marsalis. Quiet, so quiet, then a little daring, and a gradual ascension still with hand drums. Melodies translated and shared. Hornsby joins as El Din fades out his parts and accepts the joy and accolades from the appreciative audience.
Space saw beautiful interplay between Hornsby and Garcia, with Weir and Welnik tagging along. The band was floating on air currents, catching updrafts and gliding wherever the wind and the musical musings would take them. All of a sudden, the band was in sync, not exactly in unison but working cooperatively to construct the locomotive foundation of The Other One. Hart and Kreutzmann had rejoined and before we knew it the energy was built and directed, with Lesh rushing up and dropping his bomb in our faces. The sound crew joined the band, taking over Weir’s vocals and turning him into an impetuous demon during the song’s first verse, warping the sounds as our minds were simultaneously warping. The feeling is akin to the river boat ride in Wonka, fast and haunting, careening along with the sickening feeling we all might just wipe out with a mighty crash. Lesh reasserts himself to usher in the second verse and the Demon Weir urges us all “Comin, Comin, Comin Around.”
From the chaos, we emerge with Garcia leading us down to the docks with Wharf Rat. Garcia’s mournful vocals give way to a triumphant and ascending guitar solo before returning to the theme and vocals. Jerry rings every ounce of emotion out of the tale, as only he can.
The set closes where it began, with Not Fade Away. Bob Weir and the boys bring us back with the second verse through the ending of the rock and roll classic. “You know our love will not fade away” is the dual exclamation of love between audience and band, adoringly chanted back and forth reaffirming one of the most faithful relationships between performers and their fans ever there was.
The dual encore continues the classic rock tradition with the Band’s The Weight followed by the Chuck Berry signature Johnny B Goode. Band members traded verses vocally for the Weight with Garcia, Hornsby, Lesh and Weir all taking their turns on the mic. The Johnny B Goode was the Dead’s first version in just over a year and included a raucous Marsalis giving us the early sixties sax sounds we craved for that song.
And with that we walked into the Oakland night. I had negotiated for some floor space in the hotel room of some folks I didn’t know. The next morning, I caught a ride up to Oregon at the gas station down the street and lucked my way all the way back. This was truly one of the most epic nights I had in my concert going experiences and one of the best Dead shows in my 69 times seeing the band. May my memory of this night not fade away, ever.
Hell in a Bucket
Wang Dang Doodle
Not Fade Away
Eyes of the World
The Other One
Not Fade Away
Johnny B. Goode
It was a full moon that night, the second of that month- the fabled Blue Moon.
Thanks to Sharon Budman for editing assistance.
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