“How Does the Song Go?”, a column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before.
By Nate LaPointe
Today, in coordination with Mardi Gras, I’ll dive into the Grateful Dead’s strong ties to the holiday and musical culture and vivid history that comes from New Orleans.
In the post-coma era (12/86-7/95) the band had a loose and unofficial relationship with both Chinese New Year and Mardi Gras which often happen around the same time of year. In true Grateful Dead fashion, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which was celebrated year by year, likely having more to do with band and venue schedules.
I dug into the ol’ Deadbase and found six years in which there was a Mardi Gras celebration. ‘87, ‘88, ‘89, ‘90, ‘93, and ‘95 with the first three being held at Henry J. Kaiser in Oakland and last three at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Every occasion was centered around the song “Iko-Iko” as it’s got that New Orleans (pseudo) second-line drum beat and is a standard in the Creole music world. The band often included guests as a drums-heavy Iko began the second set. Here’s a list for your reference and listening pleasure:
3/3/87 Henry J. Kaiser
GUEST: Dirty Dozen Brass Band
2/16/88 Henry J. Kaiser
2/7/89 Henry J. Kaiser
GUEST: Sounds like percussion guests but nothing listed in Deadbase.
GUEST: Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil
Without any solid proof, I’m going to venture on a limb and say a parade was included each year also, having been to both 1/30/87 Chinese New Year and 2/27/90 Mardi Gras, both featuring a colorful parade that would weave through the floor section of the crowd. I’ve got some vivid memories of the 2/27/90 show for sharing. Opening the show was Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil. Being all but twelve years old and living most of my life in Laramie, Wyoming, this was obviously my first exposure to Cajun music. The unique mix of two against three African rhythms plus accordion and violin is burned into my memory and has led to decades of searching out and performing with these elements in my own music. At set break there was a limbo contest at the back portion of the floor section. I participated but did not place. How low can you go is not part of my physicality.
In those years, my father and his friends were obsessed with taping the shows and getting the best sound quality possible. As you know, the Dead offered a “tapers section” where folks could set up mics, stands, and decks to their heart’s desire. Taping outside of this area and getting caught doing so would result in gear confiscation and immediate removal from the venue. Gear would be returned after the show’s completion. I know this only because Mark had this happen on 8/12/87 at Red Rocks. SO, Mark made a hat and mounted two Schoeps mic tips in the front with a piece of black silk draped in front. Second set on 2/27/90 my dad drew the short straw and had to be the mic stand. As you can imagine, that means no talking, coughing, dancing, or turning around to view a parade. The tape sounded great. This was the last time my family and I ever got to see Brent Mydland perform.
As you listen and form your own opinions of these shows, don’t forget the chaos involved in having opening acts, guest musicians, and the challenges that come with having a parade coordinated with the musicians. In addition, close your eyes and imagine the parade with jesters, dancers, and streamers of gold and purple.