Oct 23, 2020

October 16, 1970: Irvine Auditorium, Philadelphia PA

Marijuana in the air. Find your seat before the start. Are the Dead next? Look at the ceiling, will you? Dozens of different mosaics. Has Irvine ever looked so freaky? Shh. Here they come. 
The Grateful Dead, your original San Francisco acid-rock band, formerly mad LSD freaks on the Merry Pranksters dayglo bus, famous for hour-long psychedelic versions of half-hour album cuts, the first band with two drummers, partial inventors of the rock and roll light show, participants in the Haight-Ashbury summer of love, featured in a Life magazine article on hippies. 
Here they are, folks, the fire marshal has asked me to remind you that there is no smoking in Irvine Auditorium. 
A living legend. 
Three thousand cheering fans stand in the aisles, fill up the orchestra pit, crowd the stage, hang from the speakers, dance in the balcony, cavort in the lobby, mob the dressing room, hug their neighbors, pass the joint, gawk at the mosaics, and get ready for two hours of fine rock and roll. 
It took a handful of albums and a half a dozen years for the Dead to become big, national stars. Two weeks ago, it took only one song for the Dead  to convince the audience that they were as good as everyone said. 
Irvine Auditorium, on the Penn campus, was the location, and the excuse for the celebration was Drexel University's Homecoming. The theme of the weekend, according to the Drexel Homecoming Committee, was "Times Are Changing," and the evening proved they certainly were. 
It is very difficult to describe the music. Jerry Garcia's slinky guitar lines changed one song into another. Pigpen sang a funky version of "Turn on Your Love Light" and exploded occasional red smoke bombs for percussive emphasis. Adonis-like Bob Weir played second guitar with outstanding virtuosity, taciturn bassist Phil Lesh laid down a heavy, driving bottom, and dual drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman beat counter-rhythms on the skins. 
Songs would begin with a familiar hard-rocker ("Not Fade Away" or "Good Lovin'"), dissolve into a spacey break, come back with another song, another break, and, whew! 20 minutes later, the original song. 
Big hits were performed - "Love Light," "St. Stephen," "Dark Star," "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," all the tunes calculated to get the audience screaming, clapping and dancing. 
The Dead played for a little over two hours, a very short set by their standards. They played no acoustics set, and their band-within-a-band, the country New Riders of the Purple Sage, never appeared. Yet everybody left satisfied and emotionally exhausted - even the 2000 fans who payed $5 each to get in. 
The next day, a Penn BMOC told me that the concert "will long be considered the cultural high-water mark of the fall semester." 
He's right, of course. 
It's not every day you get to see a legend and the reality turns out to be better than the fiction.

(by Dennis Wilen, from the Philadelphia Daily News, 29 October 1970) 

Alas, no tape!


  1. In an unusual arrangement, the Dead played Drexel University's Homecoming concert at the University of Pennsylvania. Originally the Penn students thought the Dead would be playing their own Homecoming. The Penn student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, reported in a 9/17/70 article on the Homecoming weekend schedule: "The Penn Union Council (PUC) has announced plans to have the rock group The Grateful Dead in concert for Homecoming weekend. Word was received Wednesday, however, that The Grateful Dead will not be performing, and PUC is working on arrangements for some other group to perform."
    But by 10/9/70, the Dead were advertised at U of Penn's Irvine Auditorium, presented by "Drexel Homecoming Committee in cooperation with Penn Union Council." (Tickets were available at Drexel for $5.)

    The Drexel University paper, the Triangle, noted on 10/9/70, "Eric Burdon will not be coming to Drexel for Homecoming... The new Homecoming group will be Grateful Dead. They will appear at Irvine Auditorium...in conjunction with Penn Union Council. The concert is Friday night at 8:00 and there will be one three-hour show."

    The Daily Pennsylvanian lamented in a 10/13/70 article, "Homecoming Show Hopes Fade," that no band would take the Dead's place for their own Homecoming:
    "The Penn Union Council (PUC) has disclosed that there will probably be no Homecoming Spectacular this year due to the difficulty in obtaining a replacement for the previously scheduled Homecoming band. The Grateful Dead, whom the PUC originally expected to perform, did not sign the contract, because of the unfavorable acoustics of the Palestra... Because of similar weekends throughout the entire country, PUC has not been able to find a viable alternative at this late date... Financial considerations were also involved in the group's decision. Having lost money because of the last-minute cancellation of Sly and the Family Stone before last spring's Skimmer, the Council began the year on shaky financial grounds. With the further loss of revenue from the poorly-received Delaney and Bonnie concert on Sept. 25, PUC does not feel that it is in a position to hire a second-rate replacement for the Dead just for the sake of having a band... The group also feared that the presence of other top-rate groups in Philadelphia that same weekend would appreciably diminish ticket sales...
    "The Dead, though declining to perform in the Palestra, hinted to the Council members that it would not object to doing a concert in Irvine Auditorium. Because of the limited capacity of Irvine Auditorium, the Council decided against hiring the group to perform there... Should the Dead have performed there, the cost of tickets would have been at least six or seven dollars. A two-night stand was also ruled out because of a previous commitment by the Dead..."

  2. Neither student paper reviewed the show. But one Drexel student complained in a 10/23/70 letter to the editor in the Triangle, "This year we were supposed to have a top group for the concert, but as usual someone failed somewhere... Drexel agreed to use a Penn concert as our concert; but as reports go, when seats were put on sale, Penn students bought most of the choice seats."
    The Homecoming chairman replied in the 10/30/70 issue of the Triangle: "To answer [the] charge that the concert was a Penn concert, this is an utter falsehood. 'The Grateful Dead' were contracted by Drexel for Drexel's Homecoming. I will say that arrangements were a bit hurried regarding this concert. This was due to the cancellation of 'Eric Burdon' two weeks prior to Homecoming. Because of this cancellation and the conditions required by the 'Dead,' we had to rent a larger hall; thus Irvine Auditorium. It is a matter of record that Drexel paid all groups concerned, including the University of Pennsylvania. In arranging the concerts the seats were divided as follows: sixty percent to Drexel and forty percent to Penn, with the better seats reserved for Drexel students. All tickets were sold on a first come first served basis, and the concert did sell out."

    Though the Daily Pennsylvanian didn't cover the show, it was mentioned in a later article on 5/5/71 about how awful a year 1970 had been:
    "As usual the frustration found a partial release - at least for students - in the semi-sacrosant ritual of the 'counter-culture' - the rock concert. In late October, Irvine Auditorium shuddered to the electric throb and treble of the Grateful Dead, a semi-legendary San Francisco group which first became famous by playing at Ken Kesey's acid tests. For one evening at least, the campus escaped its cramped apartments and smoky living rooms to shiver to the Dead's guitar work and bittersweet - but still defiant - lyrics. But momentary releases like the Dead concert could not mask the atmosphere of atrophy and the corresponding mood of cynicism that seemed to envelop the campus this fall. Increasingly, students sought escape in drugs such as LSD and especially marijuana. Perhaps this was due to an unconscious belief that chemical thrills could provide a measure of relief from the feeling that somehow something had been lost, something had been defeated."

  3. In short, those behind-the-scenes pieces give us a look at the competitive world of rock-concert scheduling! The order of events seems to be that the U of Penn first approached the Dead to play their Homecoming concert at the Palestra, the campus gym mostly known as a college basketball arena. The Dead refused to play there and would not sign a contract; they wanted to play at the Irvine Auditorium, which was much smaller. But the U of Penn felt this would not do. Happily, Drexel immediately snatched up the Dead for its own Homecoming when Eric Burdon unexpectedly canceled, renting Irvine and selling tickets to students from both universities. Naturally the show sold out. (Irvine's capacity was only about 2000, versus the Palestra which held almost 10,000, which gives you an idea of how many ticket sales the Dead were willing to forgo to play a nicer auditorium.)

    The Daily News review is a good one - as usual for fall 1970 you get a sense of the excited audience stuffing the place, "screaming, clapping and dancing." The reviewer knows the Dead by reputation (as he outlines at the start) and seems familiar with at least the last couple albums, but it's implied this was his first show. He was won over from the first song - the Dead were even better than their myth!
    Yet he also seems to know about previous Dead shows that year - he mentions there was no acoustic set or New Riders, which at least some of the audience were expecting. And he says they "played for a little over two hours, a very short set by their standards." (He gives no indication of two sets, but a couple witnesses recall there were two sets. It doesn't look like he left early either, judging by the songs he lists. The Dead were scheduled for three hours, and if he's accurate they might even have been done by 11, very unusual for the 1970 Dead. Did they face an early curfew or what?)

  4. Deadbase has the setlist as:
    Morning Dew
    Casey Jones
    Saint Stephen >
    Not Fade Away >
    Good Lovin'
    Uncle John's Band (encore)

    As he tells it, Not Fade Away and Good Lovin' had some extensive jamming. (And Lovelight had smoke bombs!) The review adds Dark Star to the list, calling it a show of "big hits." While it's grievous to hear about another lost Dark Star, I have to put a little question mark by this. The Deadbase contributor didn't mention it. If Dark Star was played, it would mean three Dark Star shows in a row (10/11, 10/16, 10/17) which is quite unexpected for late 1970, a period when Dark Star was rarely played. (The entire rest of the fall only has three known versions; the last time the Dead had played it at three shows in a row was at the Fillmore East in February.) It's even more unexpected in a short 2-hour show, though the Dead might have been inspired that night.
    The Deadbase reviewer, Zea Sonnabend, wrote quite a contradictory account of the show: "They didn't play Dark Star, which I always rooted for in those days... They were also having a hard time with the acoustics because all of the sound immediately went up into the domed ceiling and they could probably not hear themselves... [Irvine] has the worst acoustics of any college hall I've ever been to."
    So while normally I'd trust a newspaper review over a later memory, in this case I'm a little uncertain. (Zea does admit to 'altered consciousness' and remembers very little of the music!)
    Zea was also unimpressed by the audience: "Drexel rented the auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania and reserved every other row for Drexel students and their dates. This meant that we hippies were surrounded front and back by awesomely straight students expecting a nice homecoming concert... Most of the Drexel students were polite enough to stay through the first set, but during all parts of the show a few were leaving at a time, and at the break quite a few left. A lot seemed quite offended by us at their concert as well as the band."
    This is in glaring contrast to the newspaper report of a thrilled audience where "everybody left satisfied and emotionally exhausted." Goes to show how reviewers' perceptions can differ!
    There isn't much in the way of firsthand accounts online, but a couple people claim there were acoustic & NRPS sets. One person reports, "This was my first of many Dead shows. NRPS definitely opened for the Dead. I was in high school at the time and remember having orders to be home by midnight. I looked at my watch at 1 AM and the boys were still going strong."
    Again, a total contradiction with the newspaper report. What to believe?