Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann turns 73 today, and while we are looking forward to seeing him on Dead & Company’s summer tour starting in just over 3 weeks, we also decided to take a look back at the 11 Grateful Dead shows that took place on his birthday over the band’s 30-year history.
Because you just might ask, Billy was indeed the band member with the most “birthday shows,” with fellow drummer Mickey Hart coming in second (7), followed by rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir (6), bassist Phil Lesh (5), lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia (4), Brent Mydland (2), Vince Welnick (2), Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (1), and Keith Godchaux (1), while Donna Godchaux, and Tom “TC” Constanten, Bruce Hornsby never played a Grateful Dead show on their respective birthdays.
In part one of this Billy K birthday retrospective, we take a look at the first five of Kreutzmann’s birthday shows, which cut a fascinating swath across early Grateful Dead history:
May 7, 1966
Six days after the Grateful Dead moved onto Rancho Olompali, Billy turned 20 and the band played the “Peace Rock 3” benefit concert for the Vietnam Peace Day Committee at Cal Berkeley‘s Harmon Gym. While Deadbase 50 lists “Midnight Hour” as having been performed, no recording or full setlist exists from the show. Also on the bill were the Charlatans, Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane outfit The Great Society, the Jaywalkers, and the Billy Moses Blues Band. As a side note, Cal Berkeley student newspaper The Daily Californian sent a young writer named Jann Wenner to review the show. Shortly thereafter, he would drop out of school and go on to found Rolling Stone magazine. He remains its publisher more than half a century later.
May 7, 1968
By this time, Billy and the band had acquired their second drummer in the form of Mickey Hart. On Billy’s 22nd birthday, the band played a pair of shows at the now long-gone Electric Circus club in New York, NY. A large ballroom on St. Mark’s Place in Greenwich Village that was then one of the wildest clubs in the city, this performance was no small feat. While no recordings or set lists of these shows have ever been confirmed, this undated recording from May 1968 is from the same time period and serves as an example of the psychedelia-drenched sets the Grateful Dead were cranking out just before they released their second LP, Anthem of the Sun.
May 7, 1969
In a truly archetypical example of the late San Francisco rock music scene in the late 1960s, Billy turned 23 on a day when the Grateful Dead opened for the Jefferson Airplane during a free, pop-up, daytime show at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park—and on a Wednesday, no less! Fortunately, recordings of both bands’ sets were captured, and the Dead’s set was a beautiful mess laced with audio gems like Owsley “Bear” Stanley trying to solve ongoing PA problems, Jerry Garcia trying to return someone’s lost car keys amidst much laughter, and Bob Weir handling a lost child announcement. Jerry even sang lead on “Good Lovin’” before the band finally fell into a groove with long versions of “Dark Star” and “Lovelight” to round out this disheveled yet highly entertaining set. Even though the Grateful Dead were a month away from releasing their Aoxomoxoa LP, they amusingly failed to include any numbers from it in the set.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/96 – Full Audio
May 7, 1970
Billy turned 24 on a day when the band played at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during a week of gigs at northeastern colleges. The show marked their second on-campus gig at MIT in two days following the band’s impromptu free show the previous day in protest of the Ohio National Guard’s shooting of student protesters at Kent State University, which left 4 dead and 9 more wounded. One of the MIT students who helped organize the May 7th show was Ned Lagin, who had already piqued Jerry Garcia’s interest with a letter he wrote to the band the previous year. Lagin met and became fast friends with the band on this day, and would subsequently collaborate with Phil Lesh on their Seastones project and occasionally sit in with the Dead during shows in 1974.
The Dead’s acoustic set was typically fun, featuring plenty of chatter between songs. After touring partners The New Riders of the Purple Sage played their set, Pigpen was turned loose on four big numbers in the Dead’s electric set including a great, 10-minute version of “Easy Wind” in which Garcia dropped in the main riff to “Dark Star” in a different key at the end of the jam, along with “Good Lovin”, “King Bee”, and “Lovelight”.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/70 – Full Audio
[Taped by Noah Weiner; Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
May 7, 1972
During arguably the best tour in the Grateful Dead’s history, Billy celebrated his 26th birthday with an all-time classic gig headlining the Bickershaw Festival in Northern England. According to Phil Lesh, Billy was “playing like a young god” on this tour and was at the absolute top of his game, as was the rest of the band, now augmented by Keith and Donna Godchaux on piano and vocals. Sadly, this would turn out to be Pigpen’s final tour before his health concerns caught up to him for good. Immortalized on the Europe 72: The Complete Recordings box set, this marathon performance ran just a couple minutes shy of four hours, and while the band was protected from the elements by a covered stage equipped with space heaters, the crowd took it in from a weather-beaten setting, with three days of rain turning the site into foot-deep mud bog and cold temperatures prompting people to start bonfires to keep warm. Fortunately, the Dead gave everyone reason to stick around as they played one of the best shows in their 30-year history. This was the only show from the Europe ’72 tour to contain both “Dark Star” and “The Other One”, as well as both extended Pipgen songs, “Good Lovin’” and “Lovelight”. They even played along as Weir led the crowd through a rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” for Billy. This was the Grateful Dead at the peak of their powers, and it’s a fitting end for the first part of our look back at Billy’s birthday shows.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/72 – Full Audio
For the second part of our walk back through the eleven Grateful Dead shows that took place on May 7th, drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s birthday, we look to the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. From 1977 through 1981, the Grateful Dead’s touring patterns included an annual pass through the northeastern United States in early May. These tours contained frequent gigs at colleges and universities, often booked by student organizations using annual money from activities committees, with the idea of allowing students to blow off some steam before exams commenced. This may or may not have helped Deadheads’ GPAs at these schools but, unsurprisingly, no one seems to have remembered to conduct any research on this subject.
May 7, 1977
During what is arguably the second-best tour in the band’s history in May of 1977, the Grateful Dead laid down a radiant show at Boston Garden on Billy’s 31st birthday. But this show has a major identity problem, in that is remains overshadowed by the following night’s show on May 8th at Cornell University, considered by many to be the band’s greatest show ever. Nonetheless, 5/7/77 was an excellent show as well, and was given an official release on the Get Shown The Light box set.
On paper, the show has one unusual occurrence in that “new tune” “Terrapin Station” turned up in a rare position as the second set opener. The rest of the show, however, was classic May 1977 Dead. The first set contained standout versions of “Cassidy”, “Mississippi Half-Step”, and “The Music Never Stopped”, and after Terrapin cast its spell, the remainder of the second set was later anchored by a gorgeous “triple-Jerry” sequence of “Eyes of the World”, “The Wheel”, and “Wharf Rat”.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/77 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
May 7, 1978
The band delivered a strong show at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Field House in Troy, New York, though Bill later revealed in his memoir, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, that all was not well within the band at this time. This tour’s final show would be cancelled 11 days later following Bill’s argument and subsequent wrestling match with keyboardist Keith Godchaux, who would exit the band less than a year later along with his wife, vocalist Donna Godchaux.
However, there was no evidence of conflict on Bill Kreutzmann’s 32nd birthday, as the band’s sound had gotten thicker and heavier since 1977. The first set was highlighted by a “Friend of the Devil” with a swing-for-the-fences solo from Garcia, and the set’s closing number, “The Music Never Stopped”, was posted as a free download in 2015. The second set opened with a laid-back version of “Scarlet Begonias”, but the ensuing “Fire on the Mountain” contained a couple of major flourishes that recalled the legendary version from the aforementioned Cornell 77 show—if you’re into that sort of thing.
The birthday boy and his fellow drummer, Mickey Hart, were allotted a then-unusually long time for their drum duet. Over the course of 16 minutes, they pounded out the beat to “Not Fade Away” to hint at what might be coming next. However, instead of moving into “NFA”, the band went with then-new addition “Iko Iko” before transitioning into “The Other One”—one of the two times in Grateful Dead history that this admittedly odd pairing of songs occurred.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/78 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
May 7, 1979
It was a very different Grateful Dead that played the Kirby Fieldhouse at Lafayette College on Bill Kreutzmann’s 33rd birthday. Not only was this then-new keyboardist Brent Mydland’s fifth show with the band, it was also the fifth show to feature The Beast, the large array of drums and percussion instruments that would remain onstage for drum duets for the remainder of the band’s career. In order to make it easier for Brent to adjust, the Dead had scaled back their repertoire to just under 50 songs during this run from the 80–90 they played on tour throughout most of the 1970s.
The changes were obvious at first listen. The upbeat first set kicked off with “Don’t Ease Me In”, and a clear highlight came from a peppy-to-stunning set-closing “Passenger” that heard Brent’s Hammond B3 organ and backing vocals come to the forefront while and the drummers brought the rolling thunder, Garcia brought the slide guitar, and Bob Weir belted out the lyrics. It was a brighter and faster version than usual, but the “raunch” that bassist Phil Lesh was going for when he co-wrote the song was absolutely present. This was a number Brent had nailed early, and you could hear the crowd pop in response.
In the second set, the “Shakedown Street” opener was also played as a faster tempo, and the song’s jam found Garcia’s playing upbeat as he engaged with the new guy. Once again, the birthday boy and Mickey delivered a long, involved drum duet courtesy of all the new options at their disposal on The Beast. After almost 15 minutes of doing their thing, their old friend and Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina joined the band for the rest of the set, which was highlighted by 16 thumping minutes of a Fillmore-style “Not Fade Away”, Lesh’s bass lines surging from the PA and vibrating the building. In a decade filled with great performances of the song, this version is right up there. It was the highlight of a show that made it seem clear that the new kid was going to work out just fine.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/79 – Full Audio
[Taped by Barry Glassberg; Transferred by John Steinthal; Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
May 7, 1980
On Kreutzmann’s 34th birthday, the band made their first return to Cornell University since their masterpiece gig there three years earlier. The show was hot enough that three songs from the first set and all of the second set received an official release on Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 4.
The second set started with one of the five “double Jerry” pairings of “Shakedown Street” and “Bertha” the band ever played, and the venue’s notoriously boomy acoustics were referenced twice by Bob Weir as he swapped in the line “Playing in the Barn” during each half of “Playing in the Band”.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/80 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
In 1983 the Grateful Dead firmed up the repeat-business model that would last for the rest of their career, with three east coast tours per year in March/April, June/July and September/October that primarily consisted of multiple shows in each city on the itinerary. This brought an end to their delivery of May Madness to east coast college campuses. However, late April/early May still found the band playing west coast shows, and they did manage to create annual academic havoc back home with a pair of shows at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheatre each year from 1985 through 1989.
May 7, 1984
This “dirty eighties” show found the band in the middle of a three-night run in their second home of Eugene, Oregon, at the 2,448 capacity Silva Hall—an extraordinarily small venue for the band by this time. While this is an era where the quality of Grateful Dead shows varied widely due to Jerry Garcia’s health and substance abuse issues, he was still capable of delivering some astounding moments and ideas on his best nights.
On the day Bill Kreutzmann turned 38, the smaller gig and the much-loved locale ensured that Garcia remained engaged and consistent from start to finish on this night. By this time, Brent was particularly busy and out-front in the mix, sometimes to cover for Garcia on nights that he struggled, and this show was great example of his evolution as a player after 5 years in the band. Billy got a first set birthday shout-out from Bob before “Mama Tried”, and a well-chosen trio of “Bird Song”, “Esau” and “Deal” took the show into intermission.
The “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” that kicked off the second set was highlighted by Garcia making a conscientious second pass through his signature “I wish I was a headlight” verse, flooring everyone in attendance. The energy from this unexpected turn carried over to “Estimated Prophet” and “Eyes of the World”, which featured a lengthy outro jam by the whole band before yielding to the drummers. By the time it was over, it marked a rare no-ballads second set.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/84 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
May 7, 1989
The Frost Amphitheatre on the campus of Stanford University was the idyllic site of a pair of daytime Grateful Dead shows for seven years in the 1980s, and no less an authority than The Golden Road’s Blair Jackson declared the Frost to be his favorite venue where the Grateful Dead played. As it would turn out, Billy’s 43rd birthday show would be the last one the band was able to play there. The “over-success” that began in 1987 finally made the 9,500-capacity Frost and its middle-of-campus location too great of a logistical risk for them to play.
This final show is a great snapshot of the Grateful Dead circa 1989. The first set featured old standby “Bertha” in an unusual third spot before the band focused on their new, in-progress LP. First up was the title track, “Built To Last”, followed by the band’s third-ever stab at “Picasso Moon”, which featured Weir’s quickly-jettisoned idea to use falsetto vocals on the pre-choruses. The set’s highlight was a delicate, detail-attentive “Bird Song”.
The second set opened with two more “new tunes” in the form of “Foolish Heart” and “Victim or the Crime”. Soon after came a highly underrated hour in Grateful Dead history, with a nice, bluesy jam bridging “He’s Gone” and a spirited drum duet between Mickey and the birthday boy. This was followed by one of the best Space segments in Grateful Dead history, with Garcia, Weir and especially Lesh making full use of their new MIDI equipment and melting more than a few brains in the process. The resulting chaos led into one of the premier versions of “The Other One” from the band’s final decade, and the set finished strong with versions of “Black Peter” and “Lovelight”.
Grateful Dead – 5/7/89 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
So concludes our Bill Kreutzmann Grateful Dead birthday retrospective. Happy 73rd birthday, young man! See you out on the road in just a bit.