Sep 8, 2012

August 1972: Berkeley Community Theater


A short time ago the Grateful Dead played a four-night engagement at the Berkeley Community Theater, a hall that seats 3,500 when the orchestra pit is used.

The entire series of four performances -- 14,000 tickets -- was sold out by the end of the second day the tickets went on sale. There was no special advertising campaign, just the usual announcements in the standard Bill Graham ads.

No other group appeared with the Dead on the show and the music began early every night, at seven o'clock, and went on until 11 or 11:30 PM. The theater is part of a high school campus, and it is against various rules and regulations of the local and State Departments of Education to run after midnight.

The Berkeley Community Theater is not a dance hall. There is no flat, wide area on which to dance or crash. There are only regular auditorium/theater seats and it was a reserved seat affair with numbered tickets and prices ranging from $3.50 to $5.50.

It was beautiful. Night after night the audiences were warm, friendly, appreciative and enthusiastic. Even the usual Bill Graham Quiz, in which he stands on stage and answers questions ("When is the Airplane coming? September 15 and 16 at Winterland. John Lennon? John Lennon is at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.") went down without heckling or antagonism.

The music was superb. The band played straight through each night with only a half-hour intermission long about mid-evening. Of course the Dead are unique and the affair would have been obvious as a Grateful Dead tribal stomp even to a deaf man. All you had to do was to look around backstage and see the women, babies and dogs and it couldn't have been anyone but the Dead.

However, what they did was not the kind of thing which is possible only for one special group. It is possible for a lot of groups and it should be noted and considered by the whole rock & roll world.

The standard rock show of today has evolved from two sources. The old original Fillmore dance concerts and the all-star touring show/concerts of the Fifties. At the Fillmore, the concert was three groups: a lightweight, middleweight and a heavy, each playing about an hour and the show generally repeated twice an evening. A light show was standard right from the beginning. The Fifties concert/show with Paul Anka or Fats Domino would include half a dozen groups or singles each doing two or three songs (concluding with their hit) and then the star doing about an hour.

But earlier, in the Swing Era of the Thirties and Forties, the big bands drew crowds of thousands to dances with only the one group, themselves, on each show. Count Basie or Benny Goodman would play from eight or nine o'clock until 2 AM with only a ten or 15 minute break every hour or so. Occasionally -- and for a very special promotion -- another band would be added and it then became "A Battle of the Bands" with, say, Andy Kirk and Count Basie, or Benny Goodman and Count Basie in which each band alternated hour by hour from eight or nine o'clock until, sometimes, four AM. In those days you stood on the dance floor, you didn't sit or crash.

I have never known why it was necessary to sit or stand through two opening groups to hear the band you came for, except as a means of introducing new groups to an audience.

The whole concert style of Goodman, Ellington, Kenton and the rest which became standard operating procedure at the beginning of the Fifties and which set the matrix for the Fats Domino/Paul Anka/Bill Doggett touring shows which followed, was a combination of the status (ego) involved in playing a concert as opposed to a dance and a method of getting new locations to replace the dwindling dance halls. Also, dance halls could have only one ticket price and concerts could be scaled in various echelons for a bigger gross.

So now we have come full circle. The Grateful Dead can play four nights (and they obviously could have played a week) at a concert hall with absolute artistic and commercial success. Some of the patrons -- Graham estimated 20 percent -- were repeaters, buying tickets for every night. It reminded me of a big band playing the Roton Point Casino when I was in high school. We'd be there every night. Or Glen Island where we would make it three nights out of five, say.

There were other good things about the Dead's Berkeley series. Because it was for four nights and there was room enough for everybody (ticket swapping was common with Listeners' Personals on KSAN-FM acting as a bulletin board), there was none of the hysterical meat-market scrum at any of the box offices. There was time enough for us all.

The Dead do not go in for any of the show biz nonsense you see with some Svengali-created groups in which costumes and lighting attempt to create the drama missing from the music. The Dead are very straight ahead in their presentation. To begin with, they are among friends and they know it. And of course it is axiomatic that, being among friends, there is nothing to live up to. Just be yourself.

Aside from the individual virtues of the group, they have mastered the ability to control dynamics to a more consistent degree than any other group I know of except the James Brown band. The Dead can come down to a whisper and still keep it moving, and this is one of the hardest things to do in group music. That they make it appear to be so effortless is a tribute to their ability. That, too, is hard to do, but as everyone knows who has become expert in any field, it's easy when you know how and the Dead sure do know how.

For me, Jerry Garcia was always one of the true original sounds in contemporary instrumental music. Like a very few others (B.B., Hendrix) it has always been possible to pick him out right away. In earlier days he was not a particularly impressive singer. But he has developed into one now. It was evident from the records that he was getting a lot better, but then in the studio it is possible to aid the voice in a way it can't be done in live performance, and now on the concert stage Jerry is a fine singer, again with a highly personal sound.

Phil Lesh (like Jack Casady) has always been a fascinating bassist precisely because he did not play the bass like other bass players but instead made it into a continual counter-melody to Garcia and the song. But Lesh has gotten even better and his bass playing takes over from time to time to become a uniquely dominant voice.

Bob Weir is the personification of the Dead's philosophy of "let it grow." Standing there beside one of the greatest guitarists of his time, Weir has grown. In other circumstances he might have been inhibited, but the Dead's ambience let him be, and he has become a fine singer and an excellent player. Bill Kreutzman has mellowed out over the years as a drummer and really swings his ass off. Keith Godchaux, who replaced the ailing Pig Pen, plays keyboard which gives an unusual pianistic sound now and Donna Godchaux sings an occasional song in a charming Southern-flavored voice.

All in all the week was pure joy. Now why don't the Band, the Who, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, and the rest do the same thing? Must we always be prisoners of those amphitheaters?

(by Ralph Gleason, from Rolling Stone, September 28 1972)


  1. I don't know if Ralph temporarily took leave of his senses,but I would expect that if someone was playing a piano it would add a pianistic sound.

    1. He means in contrast with Pigpen's organ.