We’re looking forward to Dead & Company’s upcoming show at Ruoff Home Mortgage Center on June 12th, and it prompted us to look back at the venue’s past as the Deer Creek Music Center along with the 14 Grateful Dead shows that took place there over the years.
When Deadheads look back and cite venues where Grateful Dead magic happened consistently in the 1980s and 1990s, four locations are invariably mentioned. The Greek Theatre in Berkeley tops the list on the west coast. In the mountain time zone, there was the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Back east, Hampton Coliseum on the Virginia shore was the place to be. But the Midwest belongs to Deer Creek, and it’s still a place where musical alchemy is conjured—one need look no further than last year’s Dead & Company show there, which made our Top 5 shows list from last year’s summer tour.
The Deer Creek Music Center was built in the middle of farmland 30 miles outside Indianapolis. The venue opened in May 1989 with a performance by spiritual singer and Indiana native Sandi Patty. The Grateful Dead played their first of 14 shows at the new venue two months later. Surprisingly, the locals took a fast liking to the friendly Deadheads and the business they brought with them—a good thing considering the band would continue playing at the venue over the next six years until 1995. Their 14 performances at the venue are still good for second place all-time behind Jimmy Buffett & The Coral Reefer Band, who have played there 17 times and counting.
While every year contained memorable happenings, the first five Grateful Dead shows at Deer Creek from 1989 through 1991 were the ones that forged this venue’s high standing in Grateful Dead history.
1989: Close Encounters of the Hoosier Kind
The Grateful Dead’s debut appearance at Deer Creek came on July 15th, 1989, near the end of the band’s summer tour. By then, the group’s well-established “80s lineup” of guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were a bigger draw than ever. The tour’s first seven shows took place in east coast football stadiums holding between 45,000 and 95,000 people, while the final three took place at the 37,000-capacity Alpine Valley Music Center in Wisconsin. But for one glorious day on this tour, the Dead played this brand-new shed with a capacity of only 22,000.
Jerry Garcia was never shy about voicing his distaste for stadiums being less than ideal venues for the Grateful Dead, and after two weeks of huge shows you can hear his enthusiasm for this smaller venue come through early as he belts out the lyrics to “Bertha” and “Candyman” with the sort of gusto normally seen and heard later in shows. On the instrumental side, his improvisational skills shined during an excellent “Bird Song” to close the first set.
After the second set started with a pair of then-new tunes in “Foolish Heart” and “Victim or the Crime”, the band oozed into a gorgeous “Crazy Fingers”, where Garcia became so involved in his mid-song solo that he sang the wrong lyrics at its conclusion. Weir quickly corrected him and the outro jam bubbled over into “Truckin’”, which in itself quickly turned dirty and bluesy before birthing the night’s second-biggest rarity: a lengthy “Smokestack Lightning”. Their jam out of their blues Howlin’ Wolf cover and into the “Drums” segment recalled the longer versions of the number sung by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan from way back in the band’s early days.
“Space” then generated a welcome footnote in Grateful Dead history when Garcia, a noted film buff, paid homage the to the 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and its nearby location of Muncie (40 miles away). The guitarist did so by noodling the famous five-note motif used by the aliens in the film. The other time Garcia did this was at the legendary “Close Encounters” show in Eugene, Oregon in 1978 which was ultimately released as Dave’s Picks Vol. 23 in 2017.
The show’s closing run of songs contained not one, but two Garcia ballads, “China Doll” and “Stella Blue”. Even though the former contains another major flub, it was once again the result of Garcia getting lost in his own music on a hot night.
1989 Bottom Line: The brand new Deer Creek Music Center and its relaxed, rural setting inspired a brilliant, go-for-it performance from Jerry Garcia at the smallest show on the summer tour.
Grateful Dead – Deer Creek Music Center – 7/15/1989 – Full Audio
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
1990: The End Of An Era, But No One Knew It
The following year, the Grateful Dead once again made Deer Creek the penultimate stop on their summer tour, just before a final set of shows at Chicago’s World Amphitheatre. The Chicago run would soon acquire unwanted historical status as keyboardist Brent Mydland’s final shows with the band—three days later, he would pass away at the age of 35.
If one wants to find the last top-notch Grateful Dead show with Brent Mydland, the first night of the 1990 Deer Creek run is the place to look. The first set was a lengthy 72-minute, ten-song affair that started with the “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot” > “Franklin’s Tower” trio and finished with two more heavy-hitters in the form of “Cassidy” and “Deal”. In between came a great “Brown-Eyed Women” and Brent’s final performance of “Easy To Love You”, one of the few Mydland compositions that displayed his tender side.
As far as the second set, well, let’s check in with some folks in the know who were there. We dug out our copy of Deadbase ’90, and checked into its annual readers’ poll, and the results highlight the overall strength of the second set. Only one song did not place in the “favorite versions of the year” poll. The respondents’ rankings are in parentheses, and the song choices speak for themselves: “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” (3rd), “Looks Like Rain”, “Terrapin Station” (tied for 5th), “Drums > Space” (4th), “The Other One” (2nd), and “Morning Dew” (2nd), plus the encore of “The Weight” (5th).
Grateful Dead – Deer Creek Music Center – 7/18/1990
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
While the following day’s show on July 19th didn’t quite match the level of the night before, it nonetheless remains a strong show from a strong era and contains a controversial highlight.
The venue’s layout ensured that a gorgeous midwestern sunset took place behind the band as they laid down a seven-song first set containing tunes befitting of the all-American location (“Jack Straw” and “Row Jimmy”), plus covers of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”. Also present were Garcia’s first-set staples “They Love Each Other” and “Althea” and the next-to-last version of Weir’s “Picasso Moon” from the Brent era.
Then, a very welcome thing happened before the second set started. Someone turned Phil Lesh’s bass way, way up in the mix, and since this show was outdoors, the effect was even more pronounced. The first song to benefit from this decision was the most controversial song from Bob Weir’s Dead catalog: “Victim or the Crime”. Quite simply, this bass-up mix changes how the song was played and heard, and it resulted in what is arguably the band’s best performance of the tune. Mickey Hart also delivered a knockout blow at the song’s conclusion by leaving his drum stool to make some loud noises with “The Beam,” and when Phil mimicked the Beam’s monochord with his bass, the venue rattled as the band drifted into “Foolish Heart”.
A tone had been set, and the band then stuck to it. Forceful, bass-up versions of “Playing In The Band” and “Uncle John’s Band” highlighted the pre-drums portion of the set, while post-drums musical muscle came from “All Along The Watchtower” and the final “Not Fade Away” that Brent would perform. In between, Garcia provided ideal changes of pace with his ballads “China Doll” and “Black Peter”.
Grateful Dead – Dear Creek Music Center – 7/19/1990 – Full Audio
[Audio: Matthew Vernon]
1990 Bottom Line: The first night was the last truly classic show from the Brent Mydland era and a candidate for an official release somewhere down the road due to its performance and setlist. The second night was a strong show with a unique flavor that is a must-hear for self-confessed Lesh lushes.
1991: The Bruce Is Loose
It was a new-look Grateful Dead that arrived at Deer Creek in 1991. The band had opted to resume touring less than two months after Brent Mydland’s passing by quickly recruiting former Tubes keyboardist Vince Welnick to replace him. To ease Welnick’s learning curve, the band also called upon pianist Bruce Hornsby to join the band on a temporary basis. Hornsby was already a friend of the band and frequent onstage musical guest in the preceding years. His time spent playing in a Grateful Dead cover band meant he knew the repertoire well enough that his first full show with the band in September 1990 took place without a rehearsal.
By the end of the year, Hornsby had inserted and asserted himself into his role, and the 1991 summer tour would prove to be his high-water mark during his tenure in the band. This was the tour when he badgered band members into changing up set lists to the great surprise and delight of the crowd. It was also the tour when he pushed for big, wide improvisational jams every night, and it was when he would frequently tease the riff and melody to “Dark Star” in an effort to get Garcia to play his signature improvisational vehicle more than once per tour. While Hornsby’s occasionally-forceful playing and dominance of the music was not universally well-received by Deadheads, even his biggest critics could not deny that he often pushed Garcia and the band to some great heights during the 18 months he was a full-time member.
The Dead’s 1991 summer tour reversed course from the previous two by starting in the midwest at Deer Creek on June 6th before heading east. The band had the advantage of being more warmed up than usual, with six shows in May and a one-off at the L.A. Coliseum five days earlier. On this night, the Grateful Dead took the stage at Deer Creek and delivered one of the premier first sets from the band’s final decade.
The opening song “Jack Straw” contained a jam with second-set level peaks, and should be a legitimate candidate in your next “Best Jack Straw” discussion. “Wang Dang Doodle” was rarely better than it was on this night, and “Black-Throated Wind” and “Big Railroad Blues” fit the Middle America vibe perfectly. After a surging version of “Cassidy”, the set closed with a rollicking, barrelhouse version of “Might As Well”, which by then was a setlist rarity. Garcia even managed to nail all the high notes when he sang that tricky bridge section.
The second set had an admittedly tough act to follow, but it too delivered. Hornsby’s influence drove up the quality of “China Cat Sunflower”, “I Know You Rider”, “Estimated Prophet”, and ”All Along The Watchtower”. The bonus of “Box Of Rain” in the encore slot proved to be a nice send-off. Normally a “first set was better than the second” assessment signals a subpar Grateful Dead show, but that was far from the case on this evening.
Grateful Dead – Dear Creek Music Center – 6/6/1991 – Full Audio
[Audio: Jonathan Aizen]
The following evening heard the band pick right up where they left off the night prior, but with one noticeable difference. Since energy drinks were not yet available in the U.S., it’s safe to assume that Hornsby drank all the coffee in catering before the show because he played like a man possessed throughout their show on June 7th, resulting in one supercharged Grateful Dead performance.
Hornsby jumped right in with both feet (and both hands), dropping thick triads from the beginning of opening “Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodleoo” and prompting Garcia to step up his vocals and playing in order to keep up. Two songs later, the version of “Stagger Lee” that came out of the PA contained a closing section with Weir’s distinct, filthy slide guitar playing going head to head with Hornsby’s grand piano work, and the latter’s manic approach ensured it was a truly memorable version. “Loser” also benefited from Hornsby’s work later in the set.
The second set is one of the diamonds from the Hornsby era, and the 23-minute “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire on the Mountain” started the second half of the show in shining fashion. Hornsby’s triads upped the power during Garcia’s mid-song “Scarlet” solo, the entire band cooked during the eventful jam preceding “Fire”, and Hornsby’s solo after “Fire on the Mountain’s” second verse prompted Garcia to respond with an ascending solo that eventually vaulted over the rest of the music to stunning effect.
A strong “Truckin'” then led to an equally strong “New Speedway Boogie”, which may have been a nod to the state and its signature event, the Indianapolis 500. Following “Drums”, a longer “I Need a Miracle” gave way to a “Standing on the Moon” for the ages, with Garcia belting out the “be with you” refrain at the end of the song with as much vocal power as he ever mustered in 30 years of singing with the Dead. Last but not least, a closing “Sugar Magnolia” contained two more of Hornsby’s signature grand piano stampedes for good measure.
Grateful Dead – Dear Creek Music Center – 6/7/1991 – Full Audio
[Video: Jonathan Aizen]
1991 Bottom Line: At their best, the Grateful Dead with Bruce Hornsby could positively swarm a crowd with its 8 musicians, and that happened early and often in 1991 at Deer Creek. These two shows are slam-dunk high highlights from the Hornsby era, and perhaps someday they’ll be paired for a stand-alone official release along the lines of the RFK 1989 or Hampton 1989 box sets.
The four subsequent Grateful Dead runs at Deer Creek 1992 through 1995 were also eventful. There was another among-the-best-of-era first set in 1992 during the band’s first post-Bruce tour, a one-verse appearance of Dark Star in 1993, and a couple of bust-outs (“Childhood’s End” and “Matilda”) in 1994 to spice up a run that was about as good as Deadheads would get from a band in decline.
Sadly, the Grateful Dead’s final show at Deer Creek in 1995 was a low point in their band’s history. After fans tore down a fence so thousands of people could crash the gates of the sold-out venue during the first set, the show scheduled for the following day was canceled. It was the first and only time a Grateful Dead show was canceled due to fan behavior.
It was the Grateful Dead’s first five shows at Deer Creek from 1989 through 1991, however, that cemented the reputation of the venue and its propensity for generating midwestern magic.
You can pick up tickets for Dead & Company at the Ruoff Home Mortgage Center on June 12th here.