Is There Such Thing As A Generic Dead Show?

Tracking the Grateful Dead’s career via Baby Blue, pt. 2

Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. This week we ask the question, “Is there a generic Dead show?” I’ve picked 2 different years and will analyze based on certain criteria pulled from Deadbase’s “Basic Statistics” section.

I’ve chosen 1972 and 1987, as those seem to be years in which the band settled into a format and repertoire before making significant changes the following year. The criteria I’m basing my analysis on is setlist statistics. For 1972 I’ll use the most common song for each category listed here:

  1. Open first set – “Promised Land”
  2. Close first set – “Casey Jones”
  3. Open second set – “Truckin’”
  4. Close second set – “Not Fade Away”
  5. Encore – “One More Saturday Night”

Runner up is July 16, 1972 at Dillon Stadium in Hartford, CT. They opened the show with “Promised,” closed the first set with “Casey,” and opened the second set with “Truckin’,” matching three out of five categories, or 60%.

September 17, 1972, at the Baltimore Civic Center wins with four out of five categories, or 80% including the three listed above but adding “One More Saturday Night” as the encore. No show in 1972 met all five categories.

For 1987 I’m adding two more categories as Drumz became a regular occurrence.

  1. Open first set – “Hell In A Bucket”
  2. Close first set – “Don’t Ease Me In”
  3. Open second set – “China Cat Sunflower’”
  4. Into Drumz – “Terrapin Station”
  5. Out of Drumz – “The Other One”
  6. Close second set – “Turn On Your Lovelight”
  7. Encore – “Black Muddy River”

There’s a three-way tie for first place with three shows from 1987 matching five out of seven categories, or 71%. Those shows are April 18, 1987 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in Irvine, CA, May 2, 1987 at Frost Amphitheatre in Palo Alto, CA, and August 12, 1987 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, CO. All three open with “Bucket,” have “Terrapin” into Drumz, and close with “Lovelight.” No show in 1987 matched all seven categories.

Now that the math is out of the way, let’s answer the question…Is there a generic Dead show? No. Not by mathematical standards, and certainly not by emotional standards. Were 7/17/72 and 9/17/72 high points of ’72? Low points? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, nor have I listened to each show in its entirety.

Are 4/18/87, 5/2/87, and 8/12/87 generic because they match 71% of my arbitrary and vague categories? No. I CAN answer this because not only was I in attendance at 8/12 Red Rocks, I was backstage. Even if they had played the exact same setlist all three nights of this run, this particular show was special because of the way they came out of Drumz into “The Other One” with only Weir, Garcia, and Lesh playing, Brent at the verse. No drummers yet which means no iconic buildup/Phil bomb. But man, when Billy and Mickey come in at the chorus with their driving toms, it’s chilling. The machine is churning during that jam. Not generic.

Maybe we needed a cool-off for an encore. “Black Muddy” would have fit the bill and given us six out of seven categories matched for this article. But standing next to Jerry’s amp, I’ll never forget the first notes of “Mighty Quinn” and seeing just how engaged he was with the crowd. Not generic, not by any measure.

As we pilgrimage to Ventura next week, some might wonder how many times they’ll have to hear “Scarlet” or “Truckin’” during the weekend. My answer is simply, who cares? They will be played, likely quite well, and definitely unique to that version. And isn’t that the point? We are going to have four days of music, fun, and community and there’s nothing generic about that. See you at the Fairgrounds.