In April of 1989, the Grateful Dead were still riding the high tide of success from 1987’s In the Dark album and its unlikely Top 10 single “Touch of Grey”. The band, then in their ’80s lineup configuration of Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Brent Mydland (keyboards, vocals), Mickey Hart (drums), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) were now hotter concert tickets than ever 24 years into their career, and just three years after Garcia’s brush with death via a diabetic coma. The band was a now-rejuvenated songwriting unit as well, having rolled out an album’s worth of new songs at live shows in 1988, their most prolific patch in a decade. All the while, a second generation of fans had eagerly joined the proceedings.

As a touring act, the Grateful Dead remained on their 80-shows-per-year schedule that had essentially been formalized when the band established their in-house mail-order ticket sales business in 1983. These consisted of around 15 dates in their Bay Area home base each year, another 10 to 20 elsewhere in California and the west, and three “East Coast” tours each year of 15 to 18 shows: spring dates in March/April, summer dates in June/July that were increasingly held in large stadiums, and fall dates in September/October. These tours incorporated the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions but largely played the “Northeast Corridor,” the densely populated area running from Washington, D.C. to Boston that contained one-sixth of the entire U.S. population.

After the Grateful Dead’s fall 1988 tour took place completely within the Northeast Corridor, the routing of the 1989 spring tour took the surprising step of skipping it completely. After initial stops in Atlanta and Greensboro, NC, the tour hit Pittsburgh before heading to the Midwest for dates in Ann Arbor, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. As usual for when the Dead played arena-sized venues, all of the shows were actual or de facto sellouts, and even though the band repeatedly pleaded with ticketless fans not to come to the shows without tickets, thousands came anyway in hopes of scoring one on the day. It had become a big, recurring problem, and it would reach a very public breaking point at the Pittsburgh shows on April 2nd and 3rd. Not only were they the tour’s closest shows to the Northeast Corridor, but they also took place on a weekend at a time when Deadheads could still arrive a day early and camp overnight in venue parking lots.

Sunday, April 2nd – Night One

At this point let’s pause for a shout-out to Pittsburgh’s much-missed Civic Arena. Opened in 1961 amid much-justified fanfare, the distinctive silver-domed structure was quickly deemed “The Igloo” by locals. The venue featured a paneled roof that could retract for open-air events, and inside large balconies with excellent sightlines were subsequently installed at each end, an unusual feature for a venue of its size. Eventually, the arena became too small and too old for its primary tenant, the NHL‘s Pittsburgh Penguins, and in 2009 it was replaced by the world-class PPG Paints before the Civic Arena’s closure in 2010 and subsequent demolition.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This was the Grateful Dead’s eighth overall visit to the Civic Arena since 1971 and their fourth since 1985, so the presence of Deadheads in and around the venue wasn’t a new thing. But by early afternoon on the first show day, it was beyond clear that this year’s crowd was overwhelming the local infrastructure. Deadhead camping and partying had spread far beyond the arena lots and well into nearby neighborhoods, where it received a decidedly mixed welcome from both local residents and law enforcement.

It was also obvious that the parking lot scene had attracted more than a few locals who came solely to party and had no serious intentions of attending the show. While the arena’s concert capacity was 17,000, some estimates had as much as twice that number of people outside. To add to the already tense situation, the Civic Arena’s lack of a controlled perimeter and its plethora of easily identifiable and accessible glass fire doors made it susceptible to a steady stream of gatecrashing attempts after the venue’s doors opened.

Amid all this the first show took place, and it was a consistent, upbeat affair with a moment for the ages. The nine-song first set opened with a pair of covers, with Garcia’s take on the Cajun classic “Iko Iko” leading to one of Weir’s go-to blues standards, “Little Red Rooster”. Mydland’s eco-anthem “We Can Run” was the set’s sole new song, and the set-closing “The Music Never Stopped” was spiced up with deft placements of electronic sequencing effects during the song’s jazzy middle section.

The second set was a hard-rocking affair by Grateful Dead standards, and the extended jam during the opening “Shakedown Street” contained the show’s clear highlight when Mydland reacted to a riff Garcia was playing and laid down a repeating figure progression of thick, descending synthesizer chords for the band to build upon. Garcia seized the moment and the band quickly locked in with him, and the resulting peak ensured this version would still turn up in “favorite Shakedown of all time” discussions 35 years later.

Two songs later, Garcia hit another high point during the outro solo on his new song “Foolish Heart” before the set flowed into the band’s nightly “Drums” and “Space” segments. It would ultimately become a rare “no ballads” second set, with the late highlight of “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” turning up in a surprising location between “Around & Around” and the set-closing “Turn on Your Lovelight”.

Grateful Dead — Civic Arena — Pittsburgh, PA — 4/2/1989 — Fullo Audio

[Audio: Matthew Vernon]

Monday, April 3rd – Night Two

There is an argument that Monday night’s show was the strongest start-to-finish show of the spring 1989 tour, with slight twists and turns throughout its duration to set it further apart. Unfortunately, the high quality of the Grateful Dead’s show is not the first thing many people remember about this evening at the Civic Arena.

Sunday night’s steady stream of gatecrashing attempts led to increased security and police presence outside the arena on Monday, in hopes of deterrence. It didn’t work. The attempts continued, this time in larger numbers. The situation escalated further when Deadheads threw rocks and bottles at police, who radioed for backup from a nearby motorcycle division whose specialty was wading into heavy situations. Someone tipped off a local news TV station about the disturbances at the arena, and they quickly dispatched a reporter and camera crew. They’d arrive in time to cover the end of the fracas, and they’d also capture footage of a police officer from the motorcycle division punching a handcuffed-but-still-resisting Deadhead in the face.

Meanwhile, the second Grateful Dead show started right on schedule. “Greatest Story Ever Told” opened a show for just the fourth time since 1972 and preceded “Bertha”, a simple but effective reversal of the traditional order of this longtime pairing. “Walkin’ Blues” and just the fourth version of “Jack-A-Roe” since 1985 followed, and Weir made yet another remarkable call by dusting off the band’s first version of “El Paso” in two years. Two new songs followed in the form of Garcia’s upbeat “Built to Last” and Weir’s controversial, dissonant “Victim or the Crime” before Lesh offered up his take on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. Garcia then charged through an energetic “Don’t Ease Me In” to wrap up a distinctively flavored and on-point first set.

The version of “Blow Away” that launched the second set wouldn’t just be the highlight of the run; it would be a highlight of Brent Mydland’s career. Easily the best song to come from his writing partnership with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, it was the only time “Blow Away” ever appeared in this prime location, and the band nailed it in a way that would never be repeated. It was an early version of the song before the later window dressing of backing vocals and accordion effects were added, so during its eight-minute duration there was a near-total focus on Mydland’s piano and vocals.

As the band headed into the song’s closing with a full head of steam, Garcia hit a musical swell of his own and ignored Mydland’s vocal cue to “Hold it!” where the band would usually stop on a dime for Mydland to perform a vocal buildup with the band gradually intensifying behind him. The rest of the band caught on nearly immediately, and Mydland had no choice but to roll with it too. Mydland knew how to bolster an unexpected surge from Garcia as well as anyone, and he’d pound out some heavy, angry-sounding chords before heading into his vocal rap, this time with Garcia’s soaring leads and a full-tilt band behind him the entire way. The result was a stone-cold knockout, and it remains a bit of a mystery why this arrangement didn’t stick.

The remainder of the second set was imaginative and motivated. The night’s “big jam” followed “Blow Away”, with a 33-minute sequence of “Estimated Prophet”, “Crazy Fingers”, and “Uncle John’s Band” eventually yielding to the “Drums” segment. Following “Space”, the journey home began with a pair of rockers in the form of “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I Need a Miracle” before Garcia’s reflective “Stella Blue” preceded the set-closing rocker “Sugar Magnolia”. A rare double encore paired up the Chuck Berry staple “Johnny B. Goode” and the regionally appropriate “Black Muddy River” to close out one of this era’s most underrated shows.

Grateful Dead — Civic Arena — Pittsburgh, PA — 4/3/1989 — Fullo Audio

[Audio: Matthew Vernon]


As the band’s gear was loaded out for the trip to Ann Arbor, the bad scenes outside Monday’s show were playing out on the 11 o’clock news. The footage of the police officer’s punch ensured the story got picked up nationally, and the ensuing outrage would draw attention away from the troubling statistic that police had made over 500 arrests that weekend related to the crowds who turned up for the shows.

Pittsburgh’s then-Mayor Sophie Masloff, famous for her not-exactly-unintentional malapropisms, referred to Deadheads as “Dead-enders” and backed her police force. Facing a national tide of bad publicity, however, the incident resulted in the officer’s demotion and a significant increase in attention to civilian review of police conduct in Pittsburgh going forward. With 20-20 hindsight, it was a perfect storm. The tour’s routing, the Pittsburgh shows falling on a weekend, and the physical configuration of the arena perimeter combined to present an opportunity for a bad-acting minority of Deadheads to invite serious trouble. They’d get it from the Pittsburgh police, whose heavy-handed response got them a proverbial black eye of their own for the entire country to see.

Fortunately for all involved, money talked louder than anything else, because Grateful Dead shows brought a great deal of revenue to any town that hosted them. Multiple parties worked quietly behind the scenes to mend fences in Pittsburgh, and the band would return the very next year in July of 1990. This time it was a Sunday show just across the Allegheny River at the 53,000-capacity Three Rivers Stadium, with Crosby, Stills & Nash added as the afternoon opening act to get people in early from the parking lots. This time there were no major incidents. The band would make two more visits to Pittsburgh after that, playing a pair of sold-out weeknight shows at Star Lake Amphitheatre in June of 1992 and a single Friday-night show at Three Rivers Stadium in June of 1995 on the band’s final tour, with support from Pittsburgh’s very own Rusted Root.

In the end, the Grateful Dead’s high tide of success from In the Dark and “Touch of Grey” never receded. Just a few months after the Pittsburgh shows, the increased numbers of traveling Deadheads would prompt the band and promoters to stop allowing Deadheads to camp overnight in venue parking lots. And while the band would never book another East Coast tour that didn’t contain dates in the Northeast Corridor, the ongoing problem of ticketless fans coming to Grateful Dead shows and occasionally trying to gatecrash sold-out venues continued until 1995, when Garcia’s passing at the age of 53 brought the band’s 30-year trip to a close.

But in April 1989, the Grateful Dead served up two hot shows inside the Civic Arena, with the interplay between Mydland and Garcia providing two towering musical highlights. Outside, though? Things got a little too hot.

The Grateful Dead’s two 1989 shows in Pittsburgh were given an official live release in 2006, as Download Series Number 9, and are streaming on Spotify.