On June 17th, 1972, the Grateful Dead made their triumphant return to the States after their spring European tour, which was eventually immortalized in the form of classic live album Europe ’72. On that night, the band made their way to the famed Hollywood Bowl and put on a truly memorable performance with no shortage of musical high points, from inspired improvisation to a notable song debut. However, the show became most significant as the last time founding vocalist/keyboardist/harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan appeared with the band before cutting ties and eventually passing away the following March.
Although “Pig” did not sing lead or play harmonica during the show, his work on the organ is notable throughout the performance, particularly on the second set-opening “Truckin'”, among others. The excellent show-opening “Promised Land” > “Sugaree” segment and standout versions of “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” and “Playin’ In The Band” made for a “gold star” set one, and set two was packed full of improvisational highlights—most notably a monster 22-minute “The Other One” out of “Drums” > “Space” early in the frame.
However, the emotional high point of the performance was the debut of a new Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter tune during the first set: “Stella Blue”. Pigpen’s organ work makes a powerful addition to the wistful ballad, but the performance itself only scratches the surface of the debut’s significance. At this time, Garcia and other members of the band were having trouble working Pigpen into the new direction they were beginning to take. A straight blues powerhouse, Pig was the Dead’s founding frontman, the soulful engine driving the train forward. However, as they moved away from blues and toward the more complex psychedelic sound for which they are now known, Pigpen had trouble keeping up. His contributions had started to seem mismatched as he struggled to get on board with their new sonic direction. In 1971, the band brought in Keith Godchaux to supplement Pigpen’s keys, and Ron’s offerings had steadily diminished over the months that followed. This being Pigpen’s final performance, the wistful lyrics of “Stella Blue”—which refer to a dying bluesman looking back on the tribulations of a trying life on the road—were eerily resonant.
You can listen to a fully restored audience recording of the Grateful Dead’s 6/17/72 performance at the Hollywood Bowl below, courtesy of tapers Dave and Jim Melton, transferred by Charlie Miller, and uploaded by archive.org user Matthew Vernon:
Setlist: Grateful Dead | Hollywood Bowl | Hollywood, CA | 6/17/72
Set 1: Promised Land, Sugaree, Black-Throated Wind, Tennessee Jed, Me & My Uncle, China Cat Sunflower-> I Know You Rider, Playin’ In The Band, Loser, Beat It On Down The Line, Stella Blue, El Paso, Casey Jones
Set 2: Big Railroad Blues, Jack Straw, Cumberland Blues, Truckin’-> Drums-> The Other One-> Ramble On Rose, Rockin’ Pneumonia, Sugar Magnolia, You Win Again, Not Fade Away-> Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad-> Not Fade Away
[Cover photo via Michael Putland/Getty]
[Originally published 6/17/19]