With Dead & Company’s show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY approaching on Tuesday, June 18th—exactly 36 years to the day from the first Grateful Dead SPAC show—we wanted to take a look back at the Dead’s short but eventful history of four shows in Saratoga Springs, all of which featured band’s “80’s lineup” of lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, keyboardist Brent Mydland, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
Three of the four Grateful Dead shows at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (affectionately known as SPAC) took place within the “dirty eighties” period of March 1983 through July 1986, when shows could occasionally be spotty due to Jerry Garcia’s health issues. However, two of those first three SPAC shows from 1983 through 1985 were 80s-era classics and the third is well above-average for that time. Meanwhile, the sole post-coma, post-In The Dark show at SPAC in 1988 would have lasting consequences, both good and bad.
PRELUDE: HOW DO WE GET THERE?
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center opened in 1966 to provide a wide variety of live music and theater performances, but the first rock concert there didn’t take place until The Doors’ gig there in 1968. Since then, the profits from the bigger rock and pop shows have helped to fund the extensive range of classical arts performances at the venue. And while the Grateful Dead developed and maintained a steady presence in upstate New York throughout their career, it’s a little bit surprising that they didn’t actually play SPAC until their 1983 summer tour. However, the Grateful Dead’s first SPAC show coincided with the year that the band refined their business model to more easily facilitate repeat business (i.e. people seeing multiple shows on one tour by driving from city to city), and SPAC thus became a key location on three straight summer tours.
While folks outside the region have a general idea that SPAC is “somewhere north of New York City,” its exact location is 183 miles north of New York City and 200 miles northwest of Boston, with the Vermont border only 30 miles away. This centralized location means that residents of almost 20 cities spread out over six northeastern states are 3 hours’ drive or less from the venue. Given Deadheads’ well-known propensity for traveling to see the band, SPAC’s location was ideal—perhaps even too ideal.
JUNE 18, 1983: HOW DO YOU DEW?
The Grateful Dead’s first visit to SPAC was quite the maiden visit to the venue, with a large, rain-soaked crowd witnessing what is widely acknowledged to be the best show of the 1983 summer tour and one of the best shows of the year. The first set offered highlights from the very beginning, with a “Bertha”/”Jack Straw” opening pairing and the night’s first big jam immediately in the form of an early-show “Bird Song”. A few songs later, “Althea” preceded the third-ever “Hell in a Bucket”, which the band paired with long-time standard, “Deal”, to close the set.
The second set was one for the ages, and word has it that this show would likely have been given an official release by the band if not for the inconvenient and frustrating fact that they do not have a recording of the show in their tape vault. That’s a shame, because the 27-minute “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire on the Mountain” is up there with the version from Hartford later in the year that would appear as part of Dick’s Picks Vol. 6, and Deadbase contributor Jeff Silberman, who attended the show, “hereby challenge(s) anyone to find a more raucous version of “Scarlet Begonias’ than the one that opened this set.”
Weir followed this pair of epics with one of his own, an 18-minute version of “Playing in the Band”, whose reprise out of “The Wheel” almost 20 minutes later served as the intro to the show’s highlight: the best “Morning Dew” of the dirty eighties, whose ending was so powerful that is necessitated a full stop by the band to regroup before the set’s closing salvo and encore. Silberman recalled that all he could think during the song’s closing section was “Phil is Lord.” We get it, Jeff. We definitely get it. Listen to the full show below:
Grateful Dead – Saratoga Performing Arts Center – 6/18/83 – Full Audio
[Taped by Jim Wise; Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
JUNE 24, 1984: RAN INTO A RAINSTORM
It didn’t take long for word to get out about how good the previous year’s show was, as over 37,000 people took the “Never Miss a Sunday Show!” mantra to heart and braved a rainstorm to see the Grateful Dead play an upbeat show that kept the soaked masses on the lawn moving, especially after the sun went down for the second set. In this era of the band, it was often preferable to see earlier shows on a tour, as Garcia’s voice and health would typically start to wear down by the end of many tours at this time. But this was only the third night of the east coast swing of the summer tour, and it started with a bang in the form of the first “Dancing in the Street” in three years. Garcia also showed he was there in peak form by going “full yell” on a couple of vocal lines during the ensuing “Dire Wolf”. Later in the set, his “just like New York City” line in “Ramble On Rose” generated a cheer from a sizable portion of the crowd.
The band must have drank a lot of powerful coffee (or something) during setbreak as the second set started at a frantic pace with “I Need A Miracle” and one of the fastest versions of “Bertha” ever played. A long, charged “Playing in the Band” followed and gave Weir an opportunity to insert a larger number of full, deep chords into the jam than usual, making for a distinctive version that led to an achingly beautiful “China Doll”. But instead of the customary “Drums” segment following from there, a still-amped-up Weir called for “Samson and Delilah”, and the crowd got themselves a blistering version of the age-old spiritual. This was also an era where the Rolling Stones‘ “Satisfaction” turning up as an encore was usually the sign of a good night, and sure enough, it was the first of two encore songs on this evening. This was an eventful and energetic show in an era when neither of those things were guaranteed.
Grateful Dead – Saratoga Performing Arts Center – 6/24/84 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
JUNE 27, 1985: DON’T HANG OFF THE BALCONY!
The Grateful Dead’s 20th-anniversary tour in June and July of 1985 started and finished in California and contained the by-then traditional run of Midwest and Northeast venues in between. It turned out to be the strongest start-to-finish tour of the dirty eighties, and the SPAC show on June 27th, 1985 was one of the tour’s best.
When you add up the music, the crowd, and the overall vibe, this was one of the wildest Grateful Dead shows of the decade. The venue reached and surpassed critical mass with a listed attendance of 40,231, which was (and always will be) the venue record at SPAC: After this show, the venue’s management implemented a strict capacity limit of 25,103 that remains in place to this day. Not bad for a Thursday night.
The band served early notice that good things were coming by opening with a relative rarity, “Midnight Hour”, before upping the energy with “Bertha”. After “Little Red Rooster”, the band had to stop the show after watching a fan hang off the balcony in the pavilion. After Bob’s pleas failed to work, Lesh laid down the law before the pair broke the tension with one of their old, bad jokes. It then became an excellent first set that contained newly-revived and/or rare songs: “Stagger Lee”, “Crazy Fingers”, “Supplication Jam” and “High Time”. As the crowd tried to take all this in, the band leveled the place with “Hell in a Bucket”. Author Howard Weiner specifically mentions this version in his thoughtful and entertaining book, Deadology, noting that enthusiasts of the song “may not find a better ‘Bucket’ anywhere.”
The second set contained even more surprises. After kicking off the set with “Feel Like A Stranger”, the band opted to bypass its traditional staccato ending, with Garcia instead steering the ship through an unprecedented transition into “Eyes of the World”. It happened so quickly and easily that the crowd was caught by surprise, and after a fast 9 minutes of “Eyes”, Garcia and Mydland led another on-the-fly transition into “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”, which had undergone a recent revitalization after its move to the pre-drums portion of the second set earlier in the year. The rest of the set progressed quickly and powerfully (but was far from rushed) and the two-song encore was capped off with a standout version of “Baby Blue”.
Those who were there (and can actually remember it) are likely to back on this one very fondly. It was a peak evening for 80s Deadheads, and not too shabby of a night for a band that was still two years away from scoring its first Top 10 single. There was, however, a price to pay afterwards: Due to a myriad of safety issues (including thousands of fans on the lawn successfully storming the pavilion and its balcony), the Grateful Dead would not be booked to play the venue again for three more years. The band and fans were finally granted another chance in 1988. Sadly, that would turn out to be the last chance at SPAC.
Grateful Dead – Saratoga Performing Arts Center – 6/27/85 – Full Audio
[Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
JUNE 28, 1988: PASSING THE TORCH
Three years after the 1985 Grateful Dead SPAC overflow, the band was finally allowed to return to SPAC on their summer 1988 tour, but a new set of circumstances conspired to make this show their final one there. After Garcia (and the band) survived his diabetic coma in the summer of 1986, the summer of 1987 saw the band release their In The Dark LP, which resulted in newfound mainstream success and a previously unthinkable Top 10 single in “Touch of Grey”. This resulted in a brand new generation of younger fans, soon to be derisively referred to as “Touchheads” by veterans, and the venue’s firm capacity of 25,103 ensured a fast sellout to a mix of fans old and new.
The show was scheduled on a Tuesday in an attempt to reduce the amount of people showing up without tickets. The performance was also broadcast locally on FM radio station WPYX as a treat for the locals and a gambit to assuage the thousands of unsuccessful ticket and miracle seekers who did turn up. However, neither action truly worked as there was a large gatecrash attempt during the first set, though police were there to physically repel it while fans inside the venue on the lawn stormed the pavilion’s balcony once again. Much less harmfully, Deadheads also revived the venue’s “marshmallow war” tradition during the opening “Hell in a Bucket”. (Marshmallows had been banned from the venue years earlier after fans at rock shows had adopted the habit of lighting them on fire and throwing them, though thankfully the battle on this day was sans flames.)
“Hell in a Bucket” ended up being only song from In The Dark aired on the day, but by that point, there were even newer songs in place. After a run of five more first-set songs highlighted by “Candyman”, the band offered up the fourth-ever versions of “Victim or the Crime” and “Foolish Heart”, which were respectively debuted 11 and 9 days earlier at the first two shows of the tour. The crowd was taken aback by “Victim”, but “Foolish” scored a pleasant-enough reaction via its nice mid-song jam.
The second set opened with a “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire on the Mountain” pairing that thrilled Deadheads old and new. The “Fire” was one of the highlights of the show, along with the “Estimated Prophet” that followed and the crazed “Drums” segment that featured Mickey kicking and pounding The Beam. Following “Space”, the third new song of the night aired in the form of Mydland’s lullaby, “I Will Take You Home”, appearing in what would become its customary slot before a standard run of 1988 songs finished the set.
When looking back at this one, we found that it was one of those shows that was about more than just the setlist or the performance. More significantly, the Grateful Dead show at SPAC in 1988 was a “turning point” show for thousands of younger heads from the northeast who were either catching their first show ever or beginning to truly dive into the band after seeing them once and beginning to get familiar with the music. The show’s high points ensured the creation of thousands of new Deadheads-for-life, though they wouldn’t get another chance to see the band at SPAC. After the band taking a year off from the playing in the area 1989, the Knickerbocker Arena in opened in downtown Albany 1990 and became the Grateful Dead’s go-to regional venue for the remainder of their career.
Grateful Dead – Saratoga Performing Arts Center – 6/28/88 – Full Audio
[Taped by Braverman; Uploaded by Jonathan Aizen]
EPILOGUE: SARATOGA SETLIST STATISTICS, COURTESY OF DEADBASE 50
“Hell in a Bucket” and “Bertha” were each played at all four Grateful Dead SPAC shows.
Bob Weir did not play a “first set blues tune” at the 1983 show, but his three regulars each got one airing at the subsequent shows: “Minglewood” (1984), “Little Red Rooster” (1985) and “Walkin’ Blues” (1988).
The performance of “Dancing In The Streets” that opened the 1984 show was a bust-out. The tune had last been played on July 7th, 1981, a gap of 203 shows, and before that one-off, it had last been played on December 10th, 1979, a gap of another 128 shows.
The band tacked on “Samson And Delilah” just before Drums at the 1984 Grateful Dead SPAC show, and we were surprised to learn that this drummer’s dream of a song did not directly precede Drums more often. This was only the second time it had happened since the song’s introduction to the repertoire in 1976, and it would only happen four more times during the Grateful Dead’s career.
Encores of more than one song were not common through Grateful Dead history, but three of their four SPAC shows (1983, 1984 and 1985) had two-song encores.
The 1985 SPAC show was a setlist-watcher’s dream. While the show had no true bust-outs, five out of its nine first set songs were newly revived, rarely played, or both: “Midnight Hour” (newly revived and rarely played), “Stagger Lee” (newly revived), “Crazy Fingers” (newly revived, but rarely played in the first set), “Supplication Jam” (newly revived and rarely played) and “High Time” (only the fourth time played since its revival in 1982). The second set featured the only “Stranger” > “Eyes” transition in Grateful Dead history and one of only three “Eyes” > “Goin’ Down The Road” transitions that ever happened.
While the Grateful Dead never returned to SPAC after 1988, Dead & Company will bring the spirit of the Dead back to Saratoga Springs on Tuesday, June 18th. Get your tickets for Dead & Company’s show at SPAC on Tuesday, June 18th here. For a full list of Dead & Company’s upcoming summer tour dates, head here.