The Brent Mydland Years: An Appreciation of the Grateful Dead in the 1980’s
A year into Brent’s stint with the band came another important milestone: the Dead’s fifteenth anniversary in 1980. The group celebrated by performing acoustic sets for the first time in ten years at extended series of shows at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York. Unlike the Dead’s acoustic sets in 1970, which mostly featured Garcia and Weir playing as a duet, with just occasional accompaniment from the others, the 1980 sets found all six members playing together as an exquisite chamber ensemble that moved easily through folk, bluegrass and a number of Grateful Dead tunes, ranging from open-ended vehicles like “Bird Song” and “Cassidy,” to “China Doll,” with Brent on harpsichord, the beautiful love ballad “To Lay Me Down,” and “Ripple,” which always got everyone singing along. The acoustic sets were beautifully captured on the 1981 live album, Reckoning. The Dead never played acoustic sets after that, but the experience appeared to rekindle Garcia’s interest in folk music—later he started playing occasionally in an acoustic duo with John Kahn, and eventually with the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and then, in the early ’90s, with David Grisman.
Though the Dead wouldn’t put out a studio album between their first effort with Brent, Go to Heaven, in 1979, and 1987’s breakthrough smash In the Dark, their profile continued to grow through the early ’80s. There was considerable national publicity surrounding the Radio City shows and the 15th anniversary in general, and then they were seen by their biggest audience ever when they appeared on Saturday Night Live in April 1980 promoting Go to Heaven. A Showtime TV special and a video called Dead Ahead were culled from the Warfield and Radio City shows, as well, giving the band its highest visibility in years.
The other thing that happened in the first few years of Brent’s time with the band is the group started playing more interesting venues than they had previously. In California, a succession of wonderful facilities opened up to the group: The Oakland Auditorium (later called the Kaiser Convention Center) in 1979; the Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 1981; Frost Amphitheater on the campus of Stanford University, and the Ventura County Fairgrounds (north of L.A.) in 1982; Irvine Meadows amphitheater south of L.A. in 1983. In the Midwest, Alpine Valley in Wisconsin was a popular destination beginning in 1980, and Red Rocks in Colorado, which the band first played in 1978, became a magnetic Mecca for touring heads as the years passed. And though places like the Hampton Coliseum in Virginia, Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, the Hartford Civic in Connecticut, the Centrum outside of Boston and Madison Square Garden in New York were really just soulless sports arenas, they, too, seemed to take on a special glow that allowed them to transcend their utilitarian roots whenever the Dead came to town.
Throughout the 1980s, the Deadhead legions continued to grow. By the early years of that decade, the loose Deadhead taper network was firmly established and thousands of new fans thronged to Dead shows just from having been turned onto the group by friends who had live tapes. Beginning in 1984, too, the Dead established formal taping sections at their shows for the first time, further increasing the number of people who were making (and trading) tapes. In the West, Bill Graham Presents conceived of regular weekend getaways for the Dead and the Heads every spring and summer, at the Greek, Frost and Ventura, as well as exotic locales such as the downs in Santa Fe and Austin, the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas and the tiny Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon.
White-collar Deadheads could fly in or drive to these weekend jaunts, and Deadheads who weren’t tied to jobs either because they were students on summer break or simply unemployed, found that following the band for weeks at a time—camping out, sleeping in tour vans, crashing with friends or overpopulating the hotel rooms of other Heads—was both feasible and incredibly fun. As the legions caravanning along the Dead’s tour routes grew, so did the number of people who tried to support their touring by selling crafts outside of shows. What started as a few folks spreading their wares on blankets outside the Oakland Auditorium in 1979 had mushroomed into a full-on bazaar in just a few years. And it wasn’t just hippie peddlers selling homemade T-shirts, stickers and the odd veggie burrito. After a while, larger businesses, with huge racks of Guatemalan clothing, and food trucks equipped with stoves and grills, became fixtures in the parking lots outside of shows, and the scene started to attract hundreds—then thousands—of people who didn’t particularly care about seeing the Dead, but who liked the commercial circus outside. This led to considerable problems for the Dead in the second half of the ’80s, when various cities and towns refused to allow the band to play there because of the uncontrollable hippie city that sprang up around each show, whether it was in the middle of a city or in more rural locations.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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