The configuration of the "Dance For Disarmament" was very odd. Since audience and soundboard tapes circulate, I am using this post to describe the event itself and to emphasize the particularly unique aspects of the show, and I will limit my comments on the music. Most shows from the early 70s onward fit into some very basic models. The two acoustic benefits in 1981 (Apr 25 at Berkeley Community Theater and May 22 at the Fox-Warfield) were an exception, but the Dance For Disarmament fit neither the traditional molds nor the newer "Acoustic Benefit" model. There are some parallels to the Dance For Disarmament in 60s and early 70s shows, but none later. Nothing like the format for the December 12, 1981 show was ever attempted again, so in some back door kind of way it must have been a significant show. To my knowledge, no member of the Dead has ever made a meaningful comment about the event.
The significantly unique events on December 12, 1981 were:
- Brent Mydland played grand piano in an electric Grateful Dead set
- The Dead played a single electric and a single acoustic set
- One of the opening acts was a band featuring an active member of The Grateful Dead
- The Dead backed up another artist for an entire set
- Jerry Garcia walked off stage during the show and left the rest of the band to finish the set
(a recent photo of Fiesta Hall at the San Mateo County Events Center)
Fiesta Hall, San Mateo County Fairgrounds, 1346 Saratoga Dr, San Mateo, CA
The San Mateo County Fairgrounds are located on Hillsdale Boulevard, between El Camino Real and Highway 101, about halfway between San Francisco and Palo Alto. As such, the Fairgrounds would have been a regular part of the landscape in the days when the fledgling Warlocks were working the joints on the El Camino in the Fall of '65. Indeed, the Fairgrounds were practically within walking distance of The In Room on the Old County Road in Belmont, the next town South. Since I assume that all the Dead members drove themselves to the show, only Brent Mydland would have needed directions. Everybody else in the band would have known where it was. Even though Mickey Hart had never played the In Room, Drum City, his father's drum shop, had been near the El Camino in San Carlos, the next town South of Belmont.
The Grateful Dead had played the San Mateo County Fairgrounds before, on May 9, 1969, but almost nothing is known of that show. They are listed (in Deadbase and elsewhere) as having played The Hall Of Flowers at the Fairgrounds. There is no such building by that name today, but there are several buildings, and any or all of them may have been re-named. Fiesta Hall is a modest sized pavilion with a capacity of about 2,000. It was mostly used for trade shows and other such events, but relatively rarely used for rock concerts. I did see Journey there in 1975, but at the time Journey were an unsigned band without a record contract, albeit an unsigned band with two former members of Santana and Aynsley Dunbar (plus two guys from Frumious Bandersnatch).
Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez
Joan Baez had gone to Palo Alto High School (preceding Bill Kreutzmann, Ron McKernan and me), where she had become locally famous for refusing to participate in "duck and cover" nuclear attack drills. After her family moved to Boston in 1958, she became Nationally famous as the clear voiced siren of young white folk singers. She mixed modern activism with traditional folk music, singing and playing in a simple, personal style that made her accessible to young and old alike. More serious practitioners of folk music thought of her as a trivial artist who had turned her looks and a few well known songs into a career.
One of those serious practitioners of folk music was Jerry Garcia. Blair Jackson speaks about the resentment Jerry Garcia had for Joan Baez's success (p.54), when he felt he was the superior musician. This was particularly frustrating for Garcia, as his girlfriend Sara Ruppenthal was friendly with Baez, who had returned to the Bay Area. In fact, Baez invited Sara to accompany her on a European tour, but this was obviated when Jerry got Sara pregnant, and marriage and motherhood replaced a tour of European venues for her.
By 1981, Joan Baez was more famous than ever for committed activism, first against the Vietnam War and by the late 1970s against nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Although Baez had had periodic successes, particularly with the 1975 album Diamonds And Rust, by the early 1980s she was much better known as a political figure than as a record or concert attraction. Many musicians had taken up the cause of nuclear disarmament by 1980, and Joan Baez was among them. In 1981, Joan Baez and Mickey Hart were dating, so it's not surprising that Joan managed to persuade the Dead to play a Nuclear Disarmament benefit.
In 1981, the Grateful Dead were a top-selling act at major East Coast venues, and sold a fair number of tickets on the West Coast as well, but without the "Grateful Dead" name they were not a huge draw. Granted, just the name "Jerry Garcia" sold out Fiesta Hall with almost no advertising, but while there were a few people outside looking for tickets, the scene was not mobbed or out of control. Since Jerry Garcia played the Keystone clubs constantly, the area's desire to see him play was fairly sated. It must have given Garcia a certain amount of satisfaction, however, for Joan Baez to need him to sell out her benefit. Back in the early 1960s, it would have been the other way around, and I think the competitive side of Garcia is often overlooked when compared to his many other interests. In fact, Garcia's actual feelings about the concert was of considerable interest to me after the show ended.
(my notes from the December 12, 1981 Grateful Dead show, written up that evening. At the time--and still--I was more interested in who performed and what instruments they had played, rather than setlists)
High Noon with Mickey Hart
Fiesta Hall was a rectangular building with the stage in the center of one of the long sides, rather than at the far end. Thus the crowd was spread widely, but everyone wasn't too far from one side of the stage or the other. The show was general admission, and sold out, but it wasn't particularly crowded.
We entered the concert expecting a performance by Joan Baez and then an acoustic set by the Grateful Dead, along the lines of what they had done at Berkeley and the Fox-Warfield earlier in the year. I no longer recall if Mickey Hart or High Noon was advertised, but perhaps they were. In any case, when High Noon opened the show it was still surprising. High Noon had debuted at the May 22 Warfield benefit, seemingly put together to back Country Joe McDonald. The band had played Bay Area nightclubs throughout the Summer, mostly featuring the songs of Jim McPherson. Joan Baez had guested regularly with the group, singing a song or two at many club dates.
High Noon had a one-time lineup, suggesting that the group was re-activated for just this show. The lineup was
- Mike Hinton-lead guitar
- Jim McPherson-guitar, vocals
- Merl Saunders-organ, electric piano, synthesizer, vocals
- Chuck Rainey-bass
- Mickey Hart-drums
The New Riders Of The Purple Sage had opened numerous Grateful Dead shows when they featured Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart during the 1969-71 period, but despite the profusion of Grateful Dead spinoff bands since then I can only think of one other time where any of them opened for the Grateful Dead. At the "Bob Fried Memorial Boogie" at Winterland on June 17, 1975, both Kingfish and Keith and Donna opened for the Grateful Dead (billed as Jerry Garcia and Friends), but other than that time this High Noon appearance was the only time I can recall where a Dead satellite band was the group's opening act.
High Noon with Joan Baez
After several numbers, and probably about 30-45 minutes, High Noon invited Joan Baez and Bill Kreutzmann on stage. Kreutzmann played some percussion, as there were not two drum kits set up, and Joan played acoustic guitar and sang. She was popularly received by the crowd. I was not a Joan Baez fan, so I retired to a sort of ante-room where I could get a soft drink and relax. We could still hear the music in a muffled sort of way. Joan performed the song "Diamonds And Rust" and a few others.
After Joan Baez had played a few numbers with High Noon, the band left the stage for her solo performance. This was still more or less what I had expected. I could still hear her from the room we were in, not well, but well enough to know if some surprise special guests were announced or something. Joan Baez is like cauliflower--appealing to some people and not to others. She plays basic songs in a very simple way that emphasizes her voice, which many people find lovely. She has a nice voice, in fact, but I feel she interprets a lot of songs the same way, so somehow a Bob Dylan song about nuclear war and a song about a farm dog end up sounding the same. Baez is not much of a guitar player, and her performances have a pretty static beat, with no reference to the swinging rhythms of the blues or even old-time folk music. Other people like her, however, and the crowd seemed to enjoy her solo performance.
Joan Baez and The Grateful Dead
After Baez finished her solo set, we worked our way back into the crowd in anticipation of the Dead's set. As expected, the Dead's acoustic configuration was being put in it's place, with a grand piano for Brent. There was an extra microphone up front, but I assumed that was in anticipation of a Joan Baez guest appearance--I was hoping for some Dylan songs. So it was quite a surprise when Joan and the Grateful Dead came out together. As a footnote, it was interesting to see Phil Lesh on bass, since John Kahn had played standup bass at the previous two acoustic Dead benefits that year. To my knowledge, the full Grateful Dead had not backed up their opening act since Bo Diddley on March 25, 1972, and this too was extremely rare.
Joan and the Dead launched into "Me And Bobby McGee," with Weir and Baez singing a duet. I recognized that it was a "first" in the sense that there hadn't been (to my knowledge) an acoustic version of the song, but it was a terrible version. Joan Baez was simply not enough of a guitar player to stay with the Dead, and she tethered their rhythmic interplay into a static clunk. Garcia took a tentative, miserable little solo, but I cheerily wrote it off to the usual startup hiccups. We had at least gotten a sort of first-time event, which meant there had been at least some kind of rehearsal. Anything could still happen, and that is what made Grateful Dead concerts exciting. My mind was already starting to sort through possible Bob Dylan songs.
It turned out that Joan Baez had been working on an original album, mostly featuring songs she had written, with the Grateful Dead as her backing band. The bulk of the acoustic set was six original Joan Baez songs. Baez, however, had made her fame as an interpreter of other people's songs, and had written relatively few herself. While I have always agreed with her political views--we Palo Altans stick together that way--didactic politics do not often make for good songs. Now and again someone like Joe Strummer can come along and write a successful "political" song ("turning rebellion into money"), but it is generally a failing enterprise. Suffice to say, Baez's songs were tendentious and clunky, lacking either tuneful hooks or insightful lyrics. You can look up the list yourself (on the archive), but there's a reason the album was shelved, even though the Grateful Dead played on it.
Worse than the dopey lyrics, however, were the simplicity of the songs and Baez's conventional strumming. The Grateful Dead knew how to accompany folk music, but to work their magic they need freedom to roam on the instrumental sections, and neither Baez's songs nor her playing allowed that. Bob Weir was accompanying her on vocals on many songs, and seemed to be enjoying himself, but Garcia and Brent seemed extremely frustrated by the music. Garcia's solos were lifeless and seemed to lead nowhere, and Brent's few stabs at participation seemed to add nothing. With three guitars, a bass and two drummers playing simple music, a grand piano seemed superflous and Brent seemed to know it.
After Baez played three of her own songs, she sang the old chestnut "Barbara Allen," but her painfully simple rhythm left no room for the Dead to accent it. Then Garcia and Weir joined her on the Everly Brothers classic "Bye Bye Love," but Garcia couldn't find a way to get in a good solo. This was followed by two more Baez songs that went nowhere. Garcia and Weir joined in for a version of Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy," yet another first, but it was another dry hole. Baez just doesn't have a feel for anything with a rhythm resembling blues or rock, and with her prominent vocal style, Garcia was left with no place to solo. It could be difficult to ascertain Garcia's mood based on his facial expression, but he seemed very frustrated and wasn't smiling, and this mood was reflected in the unhappy look on the face of the usually animated Brent Mydland.
Baez and the band started up yet another new song, entitled "Lady Di And I," and Garcia abruptly unstrapped his acoustic guitar and walked off on stage left, handing his guitar to a stone faced Steve Parrish as he disappeared behind the amps. No one on stage batted an eyelash or acknowledged Garcia's departure. I can't remember who soloed on "Lady Di And I." Weir and Baez duetted on Paul Simon's "The Boxer," and the group left the stage. At some point it had been made clear that the Grateful Dead were coming back to play an electric set, but Garcia's departure was mystifying. It didn't look planned. Was he ailing, or just frustrated at the unimpressive performance that he had just participated in?
I had seen Jerry quick to walk off stage as a drum solo began, but those often seemed to have as much to do with non-musical needs as anything else. Once I had seen a clearly ailing Garcia walk offstage after "Playing In The Band," only to have the Dead play most of "Passenger" without him (Stockton January 18, 1978), but Garcia and the boys were playing great that night, and Jerry came back strong after his little break. We'd have to wait and see for the electric set to try and determine the reasons for Garcia's departure from the stage during the Joan Baez set.
The Grateful Dead
Fiesta Hall was a civic building, and while the vibe was relaxed, it was clear that the show was not going to go on forever. Since High Noon, Joan Baez and the acoustic Dead had all played sets, it seemed likely that the Dead would only do one electric set. Of course, single electric sets, while not unheard of, were also a departure from Grateful Dead orthodoxy, so once again there was an air of interesting uncertainty. For me, at least, this uncertainty was tempered with the possibility that Garcia was ailing, since I had never seen him walk off a stage so abruptly.
However, the Dead's crew quickly reconfigured the band for the electric set and the boys came out ready to rock. Matt Kelly was onstage to start the show, and Garcia rocked hard as they went into "New Minglewood Blues." The Dead essentially just played a modified first set for the electric portion of the show. There was no real jamming, and the set ended with a somewhat unique "Cold Rain And Snow">"Around And Around">"One More Saturday Night." Matt Kelly, himself a South Bay native (he grew up with Bob Weir in nearby Atherton), played harmonica on the first two numbers and the last two (he may not have been audible on "Saturday Night").
The grand piano remained on the stage from the acoustic set, so Brent played it on a few numbers. Normally the Dead did not have a grand piano on stage with Brent, so I think this was the only time he ever played a grand during an electric set. While not essential on its own terms, the main pleasure for me of seeing the Dead was watching the variations, so this was yet another detail that set the show apart. After a healthy 9-song, 50 minute electric set, the Grateful Dead left the stage, and the crowd started to cheer for the obligatory encore.
Encore: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
Joan Baez and Bob Weir led the band back onto the stage for the encore. I believe there were the expected thank yous and exhortations from Baez, although I no longer recall specifically. I do specifically recall, however, that when they started up Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," neither Garcia nor Brent Mydland was on the stage. Baez sang the song, with some help from Weir on the choruses, but only Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart joined her on stage. I read this as confirmation that I wasn't imagining Garcia and Mydland's frustration with the music. Both of them seemed healthy and lively for the Dead's electric set, and didn't even come on stage for the encore.
I was extremely pleased that I had attended the show, but I didn't want to hear Joan Baez with the Grateful Dead again, and based on Jerry's and Brent's actions, it didn't seem like I would ever have to worry about it. How wrong I was.
Joan Baez and The Grateful Dead, Oakland Auditorium Arena, December 30, 1981
A few weeks later, the Dead began their 5-night stand at the Oakland Auditorium, leading up to New Year's Eve. The BGP deal at the time was that various surprise guests would typically join the Dead on New Year's Eve. Although we did not know it at the time, the surprise guest was going to be Joan Baez, and she made an unexpected guest appearance on Wednesday, December 30. The Dead had played a pretty good first set that night, but during the break the stage setup was reconfigured, a definite sign that something was up.
Joan Baez played a brief solo set, and there was a roar of recognition from the crowd. I did not join in, nor did I when the Dead joined her to start the second set, This time, Brent was nowhere to be seen, and Garcia was playing electric, while Weir had switched to acoustic. Once again, this was a performance configuration unheard for a long time in the Grateful Dead universe (Weir on acoustic, no keyboards, last seen in 1970). Unfortunately, the band launched into a lifeless "Me And Bobby McGee." Garcia stared off into the middle distance, and took a brief, plodding solo that went nowhere. My friend (who shares my first name) flatly asserted "that was Garcia's worst guitar solo ever," and he may have been correct.
The Dec 30 set was mercifully brief, just six songs. "The Boxer" was bracketed by two new Joan Baez songs, and then they played the traditional folk classic "Merry Month Of May." This is a wonderful song, but she did it in her personal, Joan Baez style, leaving Jerry with no room to explore, and he just went through the motions. The set finished with another new Baez song (six songs total). It seemed all too clear that Baez would be a special guest on New Year's Eve.
Indeed she was. On New Year's Eve, after a brief, enjoyable set by The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, in itself historic because it turned out to be the last time they would open for the Dead, the crew set up the Dead's equipment in the Joan Baez configuration. My friend and I weren't prepared to suffer through this again, so we retired up to the bar. The third and final Joan Baez set was the only time I skipped out on a Dead or Garcia set by going to the bar. The music was audible up there--there may have even been video--but we talked about The Who or something while we waited it out (for the record, the set was six songs: "Me And Bobby McGee", "Bye Bye Love", three new songs and the traditional "On The Banks Of The Ohio").
In retrospect, a deal was probably struck where the Grateful Dead would play the Dance For Nuclear Disarmament show in return for a guest appearance by Joan Baez on New Year's Eve. Since the Dead had been recording with her, relations were probably initially good. Once the San Mateo show had taken place, the band was probably committed, and anyway, since Joan and Mickey were dating, the non-confrontational Dead were just going to suffer through it. Sometime in 1982, Joan and Mickey broke up, the album was shelved and everyone more or less forgot about the collaboration. The tapes for Dec 30 and 31 don't appear on the Archive, and it's probably just as well, although if you listen to the final "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" on December 31, Joan sings the song and Garcia and Brent were once again not on stage, presumably both in Limos heading onto Interstate 980 towards the Richmond Bridge. It's hard not to draw a conclusion from that.
A Worthwhile Result
For me, the experience of seeing the Grateful Dead was expressed in a series of remarkable moments. Those moments, sometimes rare and sometimes voluminous, were the product of expectations and assumptions, so often an event that may have been mundane in retrospect were still quite powerful at the time. Retrospective Deadhead scholarship, like this blog, has its place, but that is quite different than the sudden arrival of the unexpected moment that supercharges an event. Although I felt that the Joan Baez/Grateful Dead collaboration was a true musical low point for the band, it still resulted in one of my best Grateful Dead concert moments.
After the opening set on December 30, I was relieved that the Joan Baez episode was over for the night. Weir quickly handed off his acoustic guitar and strapped on his Ibanez, but Brent was nowhere in sight. He had not been onstage for the Joan Baez set, and perhaps there was no pre-arranged signal for him to know when to return. Nonetheless, Weir counted off "Feel Like A Stranger," and the Dead launched into the second set proper.
Perhaps the band thought Brent was onstage, but in any case they didn't pause. Of course, I had never heard "Feel Like A Stranger" without keyboards. Amazingly, Phil Lesh planted his feet and played a thunderous Jack Casady style bass riff, filling the empty hole created by Brent's absence. The song took on a different, lively sound as a five piece, with Phil effectively acting as a lead instrument. It wasn't that I wanted Brent to leave the band, but suddenly after a very poor, unimaginative set I was hearing the Dead at their most inventive best. The sudden inversion from low to high had an electrifying effect on me, and that justified the whole evening.
As the Dead got near the end of "Stranger" and Brent still hadn't appeared, it crossed my mind that the call-and-response vocal part at the end would have to be dispensed with. When the band got to the outro, and Weir sang "Gonna be a long hot, silky, silky night," Jerry himself stepped up to the mike and sang Brent's part in answer. The crowd erupted, so I wasn't the only person who was thinking this. Happily, although it wasn't a particularly great night, my clearest memory wasn't the flat set with Joan Baez (and Jerry's "worst guitar solo ever"), but the huge burst of energy from Phil's hot bass run and Garcia's surprise vocal intervention. Brent returned for the next song, and the rest of the set was enjoyable but unspectacular, but I'd already had the moment that made the night worthwhile.