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last Grateful Dead show.
There seems to be a tendency for Deadheads to pretty much ignore the shows from 81. In general, the year wasn't given a high rating in the overall scheme of things, but in my estimation, all of the 1981 shows I have heard have been good, often excellent. I have sweet memories of my last show, but until I had confirmation of those memories when I got an audience tape in 1994 from Larry Slavens I always thought that perhaps the show wasn't quite as good as I remembered it to be. Since this show does not feature on many lists , I'll go into some detail about my experiences.
Most people will be familiar with the Rockpalast show from Essen on 3-28-81 as there are such good tapes available ,so I will occasionally refer to it as a comparison. I suppose that show might qualify as my last show as we stayed up all night to record it direct, but to me it wasn't the same as being in the audience , being only 20 feet or so from Jerry , Bob and Phil , seeing how good Brent Mydland was for the first time live and hollering out China Cat during pauses between songs. Although I'd be hard pressed to make a case for 3-21-81 as being one of the all time great shows, it is an extremely consistent and at times inspiring gig, with plenty of meaty jams and a couple of set list twists that make it well worth seeking out .
My memories are of the sound initially not being too crisp during Promised Land (we'd missed Alabama Getaway during our taxi search ), but the audience tape sounds pretty good , whatever, the sound was fine by the time the band went into a nice version of Fennario . As an old folkie I've always loved the Dead's excursions into their roots and as we listened to Shady grove and a range of Dead shows from 1968 to 1994 the night before I wrote this review, we marveled at how wonderfully holistic the band was in their playing. Blues, jazz, folk , rock, freeform , musique concrete, really , it was such a wide range that it makes it so hard to pigeonhole the Dead. Whenever people ask me what they were like, or I try to decide what to play them a show , it's almost impossible to encompass it easily.
What other band played cowboy ballads, folk tunes, feedback, jazz influenced improvisations and rock and roll all during the same show ? Well , 3-21-81 has almost all of the above ingredients. As the band moves into Me and my Uncle paired with Big River that takes care of the cowboy song aspect nicely. There's a slight hesitation during Big River whenJerry keeps on soloing whilst Weir is trying to sing, but its only momentary and it gives an indication that Garcia is damn keen to play tonight. Big River is really quite frenzied in its delivery and they've really only just got started - a good omen ! I've barely recovered from this when I'm levitated ,as we hear the first quirky notes of one of my all time favorite songs ever, Tennessee Jed.
music gives me a real tingle all the way up my spine and I know I've
got "it " in a BIG way. Jerry
Garcia's solo's in Jed has probably
given me that feeling more than any other song. On a good night it's
almost guaranteed and this is no exception. Initially its a pretty slow
Jed, but it builds very nicely until the audience is hollering on "rock
all night" and by the end of Jerry's
solo I've got my first REAL spine tingle of the proceedings.
We're into side b of the first tape and so far so good. Althea is next and as this was the first time I'd heard the song I was particularly attentive to its delivery. By the time I saw it a few days later on the TV I was a fan. This version however is not quite as powerful the 3-28-81 version although there's some delightful Garcia > Weir interplay during the jam . Although the bass on my audience tape is not as big as I'd like it to be ,it should be realized that throughout the whole show you can hear Phil being an absolute monster, the man is busy but yet totally relevant to everything being played and we all know that the band rarely bomb when Monsieur Lesh is in command, yes ?
After this the boys turn up the intensity a tad more by jumping into a driving Let It Grow .I'm barely recovered from this and am about to holler for China Cat again when blow me if they don't actually play the bugger, complete with a wonderful "I know you rider" to round off the set. I am ecstatic over this live China cat as I've always loved this song , having once sang its "nah, nah , nah, " album chorus for about three hours during one all night late sixties space exploration with my good friend "The Time Tortoise", so as a consequence its tended to stick in the memory banks somewhat.
First set has been quite a ride, an eighty minute, eleven song roller coaster with a surprise ending and one new song for us to chew on. I've loved every minute of it , but my companions are not so sure, Kate wanted to hear Uncle John's Band and Truckin'' and neither of them are particularly into jamming so the last 20 minutes or so were over their heads. I foolheartedly assure them they are going to groove on the second set and go back to trying to predict what the boys will play in the second set. Visions of 20 minute Dark Stars parade before by befuddled brain ( little did I know that they hadn't been playing that one for a long time, but then, we Europeans tended to be somewhat out of touch in those days before it was easy to get fanzines. I had no idea that the British Dead fanzine Dark Star existed in those days......)
Finally we get down to the serious business of the night with
an Estimated Prophet
that smokes nicely, Jerry
throwing up flurries of piercing notes that Bob
intersects nicely with jagged rhythmic thrusts, the jam then cruises
into a fast , jazzy, Eyes
of The World, which features some
cool jamming during which the pace never flags. Normally never one of
my faves, I can consistently listen to this version , so it must be
As the Philistines leave I return my attention to
Space, which is even better than
the "beast attack". Its about five minutes long and goes into some nice
places, which has the audience's collective cerebral cortex's reeling.
This is much more developed than the 3-28-81 space that really goes
no-where fast. Eventually we hear the unmistakable beat of Not
Fade Away rising above the discordance
of space , which raises a cheer from the crowd. However its quite a
while before we actually get to the vocals as the band explore some
of the possibilities of the theme instrumentally. This version at times
hints of the guitar feel of Bo Diddley's Who
do you love . Its a strong version
, only loosing its way for a few seconds as the band search for fusion
during the jam between the first and second verses.
Someone up there must have been listening tonight because then Garcia introduces one of my all time favourites , Black Peter. To me this just says it all about the frailty of life and our ultimate insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things, so I give a mighty cheer along with a fair few other folks. This is a GREAT version, which builds to some fine peaks acknowledged by the crowd, finally there's a shredding climax marred only by the fact that my tape cuts out just before the end , due to some unknown tape glitch. However, perhaps this is time to tip the hat to the unknown taper who got this one down, its a really good audience tape ,rated at least B+ and I'd just like to say thank you for preserving this show for posterity .
Now during all of this I've been doing some worried glancing at my timepiece as I have to leave at 11:30 as we have a train to catch and we MUST get it or pay another fare and wait until dawn to get the next train home. If it were up to me I'd get the dawn train but I won't be able to swing it with my beer swilling compadres, so I have to leave NOW. As the boys hurl themselves into the opening of the obvious Sat Nite set closer One More Saturday Night I reluctantly struggle through the crowd constantly looking over my shoulder so I can get every chance to see the band for the last time. Its a great version too, with classic Garcia leads and some top stuff from Brent , but I have to wait 12 years to hear the end of it and its following encore Don't Ease Me In , both of which are delivered with gusto and panache to wild audience appreciation.
Then followed a mad dash back to the station and then five hours
of boredom on a slow train that stopped everywhere to pick up mail.
Fittingly, Kate and John had not had a great time in their chosen pub,
the moment they walked in the door the whole crowd stopped talking and
looked at them? in one of those weird scenes reminiscent of 1950's b.
movies. They were served reluctantly and by the time 11:30 arrived they
were glad to leave.
Above all else, the Rainbow was an ideal place to see the Dead, an old classic theatre with lots of ornate plaster work, seating on the balcony, nice floor space for dancing and a relaxed atmosphere which allowed easy access to the front of stage. Although I would have loved to see the Dead in the 90's with their fantastic lighting and sound set-up, perhaps this intimate and civilized venue was a better way to go out than in a packed stadium with hassles, gridlock's and busts aplenty and the added spectacle of Jerry in decline. Yes, I'm proud I saw this particular Dead show and hey , if you have a sound board of it or any recordings of the others in the run, I want!