Bringing In The New Year With The Grateful Dead 1988-89 (With Clarence Clemons on NYE)

J.C. Juanis on June 20, 2011

Today we revisit J.C. Juanis’ report on the 1988/89 Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve run, which included an appearance by the late Clarence Clemons_

“Some Rise, Some Fall, Some Climb, To Get To Terrapin.” _ – Robert Hunter

You had to be either deaf, dumb, or blind to not realize the Grateful Dead were back in town. In San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, the group’s loyal legion of fans, the Deadheads, were very visible in their multi-colored buses and tie-dyed outfits, many of whom had traveled form the four corners of the world to share in the year end’s revelry with their favorite rock band. For the Deadheads, attendance at the New Years Eve shows is the high point of their year. And with the gathering of the tribes comes the carnival atmosphere that surrounds the band and their fans each time they perform.

The Oakland Coliseum parking lot was transformed into a huge campground as the Deadheads lined each aisle into their unique enclave, complete with marketplace. It seems with each passing year the hordes of hippie capitalists grows, as this veteran Deadhead has never seen more vendors, most with their own booths complete with lights and dressing rooms.

One of the problems facing the Grateful Dead, especially in the last couple of years, is the influx of Deadheads that arrive at shows, without tickets. At these shows tickets were as scarce as I’ve ever seen them, even for the shows on the 28th and 29th. Hundreds of Heads seemed content with the prospect of never actually seeing the band or hearing a note of music. Many hung out in the parking lot where the vending and partying went on non-stop.

The Dead, for their part, played exceptionally well during this three day stand, sticking mostly to their tried and true repertoire. Inside the Coliseum Arena on the 28th, we found that there was no access on the floor and in some parts of the stands. Tapers crowded in front as well as behind the sound board and were partly to blame for the lack of access on the floor. For those folks used to the hominess of the Henry J. Kaiser, the Coliseum Arena was just too big. If the Dead plan on playing this size venue in the Bay Area they should consider having reserved seats, as opposed to the mob scene called “festival seating” (seating?). That would greatly improve the dangerous crush of humanity that jammed the arena’s floor.

So much for the suggestions, let’s get to the meat and potatoes. The Dead started the show on the 28th with a powerful 1st set that included “Iko Iko,” “Walkin Blues,” “Bird Song,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile” and “Jack Straw.” Jerry Garcia, rumored to have quit smoking, was in exceptional vocal shape. The highlight of the set came midway with a rare electric version of “Jack-A-Roe.” The second set featured a rousing “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider,” which featured Phil Lesh on vocals – a nice treat. The drums and space segment was also very impressive thanks to the two large speakers set up in back of the arena which added a truly psychedelic effect. A joyous “Uncle Johns Band” flowed effortlessly into “I Need A Miracle,” and was followed by “Foolish Heart” which seemed to take the audience by surprise. The band finished up with a strong “Lovelight” that bought back memories of the long deceased Pigpen. After the show, with temperatures below freezing (a rare occurrence in Oakland), many were surprised to find ice on their cars and on the ground. This was just the start of a long weekend for those who called the parking lot home.

The next evening’s show was well played, if just a little predictable. Access in the arena improved slightly by moving the taper section into the stands. “Hell In A Bucket” and “Sugaree” started out the set which also featured strong versions of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” and “To Lay Me Down.” The set ended on a powerful note with “Let it Grow.” At some points when the music seemed to be getting a little sluggish, the state of the art lighting system came through with stunning results. The second set showcased familiar Dead classics such as “Playin in the Band,” “Crazy Fingers” and “Samson and Delilah” Brent really soared during the latter tune on organ as the Dead hit their groove. A thunderous “Other One” after space wound down into “Stella Blue,” which was followed by a lackluster version of “Throwing Stones” into (yep, you guessed it!) “Not Fade Away” to end the show.

During the 29th, the “off” day, a hard rain steadily fell from the blustery sky. This, accompanied by the uncharacteristic chill, made for rough going in the Coliseum parking lot.

On New Years Eve, the clouds parted and revealed optimistic blue skies, as the Deadheads lined up early to ensure a good spot inside the arena to enjoy the show. Deadheads expecting a “miracle ticket” found tickets to be even scarcer than the previous two shows. As the sun went down, temperatures plummeted as well as the hopes of some to get into the most important Dead show of the year. This year the show was only broadcast in the Bay Area on KFOG. Little Feat was playing at the nearby Henry J. Kaiser, and that eased the disappointment of many out of town heads without tickets to their favorite show.

Inside the arena, the reveling Deadheads were treated to excellent opening sets by peter Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics Ensemble and The Tom Tom Club. Apfelbaum and his ensemble, a horn dominated sixteen piece jazz band, played inspired world beat music that was enjoyed by many in the audience. Apfelbaum has been featured on the locally produced KPFA radio show, Rex Radio, that is hosted by Phil Lesh and Gary Lambert. The Tom Tom Club includes Talking Heads members Tina Weymouth on bass and drummer Chris Frantz. Their sound at times bordered on disco with the syncopated sound of drums and synthesizers. They performed their hit “Genius of Love,” as well as a surprising rendition of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” that was the highlight of their show. Also performed was “Femme Fatale,” (an old Velvet Underground tune) and The Talking Heads classic “Psycho Killer.” After their set, The Tom Tom Club crossed the Bay for a midnight show at The Warfield Theatre.

Around 10:30 the Dead took to the stage amid a thunderous roar from the partisan audience. They went on to perform an incredible set. Opening with the late Sam Cooke’s “Good Times,” the boys roared into “Franklin’s Tower.” The Dead were then joined by a surprise guest, Clarence Clemons, Bruce Spingsteen’s sax blowing big man. Clemons hit the groove as the Dead went into an incendiary “Wang Dang Doodle,” which at times had that “Spirits in the Night” feel with the addition of The Big Man. This was followed by “West L.A. Fadeaway” which ahs been the Dead’s jamming tune this year (David Hidalgo, Mick Taylor and Clemons all have joined the Dead on this song at various shows this year). While the boys jammed, a large inflatable Gumby and Godzilla held a mock fight in front of the bandstand to the delight of the crowd (Gumby kicked ass). Clemons left after this number with Garcia assuring all that he would be back. Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” followed. “Cold Rain and Snow” exploded as the Dead rocked as hard as they could. “Cassidy” followed by “Don’t Ease Me In” closed this energetic set.

The energy in the arena rose considerably as we awaited the midnight hour. We didn’t have to wait long because at the strike of twelve all eyes were focused on the back of the arena. To the strains of composer Phillip Glass’ “Powaqqatsi,” Bill Graham, dressed as Father Time, flew on a giant mirrored ball amid lots of fireworks to the stage as the crowd counted down the last few seconds of 1988. The house lights went up as thousands of balloons dropped from the rafters. The Dead, joined by Clarence Clemons broke into “Sugar Magnolia” as the audience throbbed with ecstasy. The house lights didn’t go down till the end of the next song, “Touch of Grey.” The Dead were on a roll as they performed “Women Are Smarter” and their classic “Terrapin Station.” The songs seemed to take on a new life of their own, compliments of Clemons’ sax playing. Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were joined by Olatunji and Kitaro for a tribal stomp that fueled the fire of this great show. After space, more gold flowed; “The Wheel,” “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “All Along the Watchtower” were given the Dead full throttle treatment. “Morning Dew,” one of the oldest songs in the Dead songbook, was performed flawlessly with Garcia’s vocals seeming to reach previously unattainable notes. You could hear a pin drop as all 16,000 fans savored every nuance of this all time favorite. When Weir went into “Sunshine Daydream,” the Dead set had come full circle. The deafening applause from the packed Coliseum raged for a full ten minutes as the Dead contemplated what the next move would be. When they came back, the Dead surprised many as they went into “Wharf Rat.” “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” followed with Clarence blowing up a storm. The band ended the evening with “One More Saturday Night,” a song Clarence knows since Bruce Springsteen has performed this Bobby Weir song at his concerts as well.

All in all it was a solid, very well played show. The song selection hit on every stage of the Dead’s long history. The Deadheads flowed out into the freezing parking lot for one last bash before going back to their respective communities. Sky rockets filled the sky as vendors made their last pitch to hawk their wares. Hundreds of Deadheads danced in front of a large bus that was blaring this evening’s show from speakers sitting on the hood. It was one big party that nobody wanted to end. And I certainly wasn’t about to suggest it.