Feb 18, 2012

May 4-9, 1968: New York


The Grateful Dead have lost a lot of weight. Pigpen is almost svelte, and Bill the Drummer doesn't look so good. Musically they've added so much weight that their old album (new one due in July) now sounds like your speakers have turned to sieves. You first heard it in December those two nights at the Village Theatre. What is the same is the purity. No tricks, just music, hard, lyric, joyous - pure and together, dense and warm as a dark summer country night. There's the Dead, and then there's everybody else.
That spiraling new riff that comes through almost everything they play now - including the old stuff, pushed hard by Bill and the New Drummer, winds above you, around you, swoops you into a driving, pulsing, always always musical solid state of energy - enough to (incredibly) lift at least one New York audience to its feet dancing last week, Sunday in the park. They nearly caused a civic disturbance by stopping when the permit said they had to (disturbance cooled by Bill Graham). It was beautiful. The audience - a little wiped out from hours of Butterfield Blues, Airplane, crush, and waiting - milled and sat. The Dead played: it was New York, but it was a free concert, in a park, on a sunny Sunday. The Airplane, back in the bandshell listening, grooved. The Dead started cooking.
Suddenly a teenybopper was up down front, all limegreen and longhair and motion. The row of photographers in front of her were up. Then the audience, not in rows, but en masse, was up, dancing, screaming, frenzied. A firecracker went off onstage. Bubblegum flew. A drumhead popped and drumsticks flew. Everyone onstage was dancing. Suddenly it was over. There WAS something like it once before. Newport, Duke Ellington, Jonah Jones wailing in the wings on rolled-up newspaper, 27 choruses by San Salvadore. The Newport cops requested and got an end to that. There was no riot then. But that was Newport, and New York audiences don't come lightly to their feet. There was no riot this time either, of course - there was football in the meadow, and a promise of three nights at the Electric Circus.
The night before, in a set without a break that lasted over two hours, they played one epic number that lasted over an hour. The Dead were at Stony Brook, but the audience was nowhere at all, perhaps partly because the lightshow, which was good, very good in its own right, but inexperienced, was off on some trip that intruded on the music instead of backing it.
Tuesday the Dead opened (at a stiff $4.50 a head) at the Circus, which has good acoustics and is a generally relaxed place to listen. Their first tune is always a shambles - "You'll have to wait till we figure out who we are and what we're doing here," says Jerry Garcia. When they find out, Garcia climbs all over your head with those beautiful riffs shot out of outer space: Bob Weir is there, always there, building, building; Phil Lesh, those long sets; Pigpen, riding everything. There's the Dead and then there's everybody else.
Wednesday, after one set that was nearly perfect, they busted eardrums with a full-volume "Viola Lee" - retaliation on a non-dancing audience, not their best sound or act. It's a drag they're dragged by non-dancing. New York's not quite ready, but if they stayed there it would happen sooner. It's still hard to move and hear simultaneously, but at least they raised one audience last week.
Thursday they played a touching "He Was a Friend of Mine," then I understand some Kew Gardens mama invaded the stage and broke up the last set. Lesh booted her where appropriate, drumsticks flew again (aimed this time), Weir got beaned by a flying cymbal, the drummers stalked off. I wouldn't know. Suffering a back strained by nearly a week of sitting backless and standing for the Dead, I was kacked out in the dark rear of the Circus. Where do THEY get the energy?

(by Annie Fisher, from the "Riffs" column in the Village Voice, May 16 1968)


  1. I wonder what the "epic number that lasted over an hour" was at the Stony Brook show... Almost certainly an Alligator>Caution. (The Alligator>Lovelight>Caution on 6/14/68 lasts over 45 minutes.)

    1. Oh, and the shows mentioned:
      Saturday, May 4 - SUNY, Stony Brook
      Sunday, May 5 - Central Park, NYC with Jefferson Airplane & the Butterfield Blues Band
      Tuesday-Thursday, May 6-9 - Electric Circus, NYC (two shows a night)

  2. The 4/30/68 Stony Brook Statesman has the schedule for Carnival Weekend, May 3-5. The Friday night concert has Janis Ian & Love at 9:30 in the gym; the Saturday night dance concert has the Grateful Dead & the Incredible String Band at the gym, 8:30.
    “Saturday night’s dance concert will feature the Greatful Dead, a rock group, and a guitar duo, the Incredible String Band. Both concerts are free to Stony Brook students, but tickets must be obtained in advance at the box office in the gym.”
    (The 5/3/68 issue differs: “Admission $3 or $2.50 for alumni.”)

    I couldn't find any article on the show in later issues, though, just a lost & found ad for a jacket lost at the concert...

    1. I was there on Saturday but only slightly familiar with the Dead at the time. They played three songs in total. The first song was Good Morning Little School Girl, at about 15 minutes. I wish I could say what the other songs were but I was unfamiliar with them at the time (so it is unlikely they were on their first album). Two other songs followed, one was about 35 minutes long, and the last one went on for about an hour and fifteen minutes. I was amazed at how long the songs were and was looking at a clock (I think I did anyway, my memory now only includes what I determined their length to be, not how I knew it at the time). I remember thinking that the third song was ending after 45 minutes - but it sputtered back to life. The show was far from sold out.

    2. Great to hear more about the show! Although the Village Voice reviewer said "the audience was nowhere," it sounds like a remarkable show. This was a wild period for the Dead's music, but sadly very few tapes exist from spring '68.

  3. A couple audience memories of the 5/5/68 Central Park show:

    "The Jefferson Airplane played the night before at Fillmore East and announced that they would be playing at the bandshell in Central Park with their friends the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Grateful Dead. The PBBB played first, then the JA. It was a lazy spring day. Someone threw a frisby from the audience and hit Paul Kantner in the ass, and he brandished it at the audience. Shortly into the Dead's set, the last of the afternoon, everyone was up and dancing and didn't sit down until they stopped. Here is what I can remember. There may have been more.
    Morning Dew, Cryptical Envelopment>The Other One>Cryptical Envelopment, Alligator" [setlists.net]

    "Everyone was up and dancing and didn't sit down until they stopped" is confirmed by the newspaper account.

    A deadlists eyewitness also recalls, "The night before, 5/4/68 at the Fillmore East, Paul Kantner told the audience that they will be playing free in the park with the Dead tomorrow. The Dead opened 5/5/68 with Bob Weir saying to the NYC crowd, "Welcome to San Francisco." Then Phil hit the opening chords to Morning Dew..." (He misremembers the Dead opening, though; they actually played last that day.)

    For more info on the Electric Circus, see:

  4. The Incredible String Band opened for the Dead at the May 4 Stony Brook show, but did not have fond memories of it...
    Mike Heron: "We didn't really hit it off [with the Dead] - it was like an alien culture."
    Robin Williamson: "Us opening for the Grateful Dead - well all I can say is they were a hell of a lot louder than we were, but we were far more entertainingly attired."

    Theoretically, both the ISB and the Dead might have played 'We Bid You Goodnight' at the show...

    1. The 5/4/68 show at SUNY was actually the first show in the Incredible String Band's first tour of the US. There have been a couple CD releases of ISB live radio broadcasts in May & June '68, which give an idea of how they sounded opening for the Dead. (The above quotes come from the "Live at the Fillmore" CD notes.)
      Robin Williamson later said of the ISB's introduction to the US, "People were a bit bemused, but not necessarily hostile. I think they felt we were a bit wacky. When we first came to America, I remember, we [opened] for the Grateful Dead... And the Dead, at that time, were in the electric blues mode. And we were distinctly in the sort of weird mode... The audiences that we were playing to were trying to work out what to make of us."
      Nonetheless, they were already fairly popular - perhaps as much as the Dead, in some circles. Adrian Whittaker writes, "[The album] 5000 Spirits had already attracted a sizable cult following in New York, and [WBAI] had been playing The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (then in the Billboard Top 100) in heavy rotation...[along with] a live-in-the-studio appearance on Bob Fass' WBAI late show." The band also returned to New York a month later to play a well-received WBAI benefit at the Fillmore East.