|My ticket stub from Selland Arena, Fresno, CA January 15, 1978|
However convenient and sensible this touring pattern was, the Dead did not fall into it lightly. At least once they tried a completely different approach to the winter. In January of 1978, instead of going on break, the Grateful Dead toured the West and upper Midwest. It made for a very different year, and they played some great music. Of course, all the evidence suggests that the little tour was not a financial success, so nothing like it was ever done again. This post will focus on perhaps the finest of those January '78 shows, and certainly the strangest Dead show I ever attended, the concert at Selland Arena in Fresno on Sunday, January 15, 1978. As an appendix, I will include a brief itinerary of the tour to put the show in context.
|The handbill from the Grateful Dead/Country Joe And The Fish concert at Selland Arena from February 17, 1968|
California's San Joaquin Valley is one of the great agricultural centers of the world. Highway 99 runs up and down the center of the state, and it did so long before Interstate 5, and all the towns along 99 are important centers of agricultural commerce. Although Fresno was not always a particularly large town, it was always an important center for dairy and farm products. By virtue of being roughly between Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, the city of Fresno became the biggest of the Valley cities. While its population was only 133, 929 in the 1960 census, by 1980 it had nearly doubled to 217, 129 (in 2010 it had doubled again, reaching 494, 665). By 1961, Fresno State College had joined the California State College system, and Fresno was starting to become a real city. Real cities, of course, build convention centers with an arena for sports, concerts and entertainment.
The Selland Arena, at 700 M Street in Fresno, was built in 1966, as part of the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center. The arena had a capacity of about 6, 500, somewhat larger than Winterland, and quite large for the 1960s. Even though the city of Fresno was not large in the 60s and 70s, there were a lot of towns surrounding it, so there was a built-in audience for rock concerts. Also, touring rock bands discovered that they could play Fresno on an off-night between weekends in San Francisco and Los Angeles, so a lot of good bands played Fresno on school nights, particularly in the 1970s. In any case, once the Selland Arena was built, Fresno got its share of concerts.
The Grateful Dead played Selland Arena four times. The Dead had played the tiny Marigold Ballroom on May 12, 1967 (at 1833 E. Hedges, for you geocoders), but the first time the band played the Selland was February 17, 1968. They shared the bill with Country Joe and The Fish and a local band, Valley Fever. This was part of the tour that was mostly recorded for Anthem Of The Sun, but for whatever reasons, the Fresno event was not itself recorded. Back in 1968, the touring circuit wasn't fully built up yet, and San Francisco and Los Angeles bands would play shows in Fresno because it was an easy drive (for the roadies, anyway), and it filled up a night on the gig sheet. One of the many Valley teenagers who attended the show was Bob Weir's half-brother Jim Parber, then living in Merced, although neither Weir nor Parber knew of their relationship at the time.
The Grateful Dead came back on Friday, June 13, 1969. Deadlists shows the venue as "Fresno Convention Center," but its just another name for the Selland Arena. The Dead were supported by Aum and Sanpaku, both of whom were booked by the Millard Agency, as were the Dead. Members of both bands joined the group on stage at various times (Aum guitarist Wayne Ceballos and Sanpaku flautist Gary Larkey for certain), which suggests a rather loose evening.
The Grateful Dead returned again to the Selland Arena on Friday, July 19, 1974. The band was headlining at the enormous Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, July 21, so a Fresno booking made touring sense. A friend of mine went to the show and said that the event was relatively thinly attended, for a Dead show, and the band was spacey and the vibe was very weird. At one point, Phil Lesh even left the stage during "U.S. Blues." Because of the enormity of The Wall Of Sound, the Dead had to have two days between venues, so they could not have played anywhere between Fresno (Friday) and Hollywood Bowl (Sunday).
The California Tour, January 1978
In December, 1977, the Grateful Dead played the first of their extended New Year's runs. They headlined Winterland for three nights on December 29, 30 and 31, and when those shows sold out--it took a couple of days--they added an additional show on December 27. At the time, there was no particular precedent or expectation for this. It was the third time in the year that there had been a three night run in Winterland, but there was nothing special yet about the December run-up to New Year's.
Soon after the New Year's shows sold out, Bill Graham Presents announced a string of dates in California throughout January. The band avoided many major Southern California venues and played some more out of the way places. The Grateful Dead had been able to successfully play some out of the way places in New York, like Hamilton, Rochester and Binghamton and perhaps Graham felt that there was pent-up Grateful Dead interest in the California hinterlands. In any case, the Dead played San Bernardino, San Diego, Los Angleles, Santa Barbara, Bakersfield, Frenso, Sacramento and Stockton (see below for details).
Touring California in the winter made good business sense, because unlike other parts of the country, there wasn't a serious threat of snow, so audiences would be willing to drive longer distances. This was important in the valley, where there were a fair number of rock fans, but spread out over a wide area. Now, I believe that the San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles shows were successful, and the Santa Barbara show was a benefit in a relatively small theater. However, the San Diego, Sacramento and Stockton shows, while sold out, were in relatively small 3000-capacity venues, much smaller than anywhere the Dead could play on the East Coast, and not necessarily worth their time. Finally, the Fresno and the Bakersfield show were financial debacles. The band never played either city again (if Bakersfield had decent attendance, the venue would still have fallen into the "tiny" category of Stockton or Sacramento). It's hard to say how much the financial bath the band took at the two valley shows discouraged Bill Graham or other promoters from booking another January California tour, compared to other perhaps more prosaic reasons for not touring, but the fact is there was never any touring between New Year's and February after 1978, except to make up for canceled dates.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Grateful Dead show at Selland Arena on Sunday, January 15, 1978. It was one of, if not the, strangest Dead show I ever attended, and if I was forced to pick a show that was 'my favorite Dead show,' I would go with that Selland Arena show.
|The back of my ticket stub from Selland Arena, Fresno, CA, January 15, 1978|
The Grateful Dead were still a popular group in early 1978, but they seemed a little old hat. Winterland was a mid-sized hall, and they had shown they could sell out four nights, but the implication seemed to be that it was the same people coming over and over. The biggest acts, like Eric Clapton, played the Oakland Coliseum or the Cow Palace, and the Dead didn't seem to have that kind of heft. One dynamic that I was only dimly aware of at the time but am acutely aware of now was the willingness of East Coast Deadheads to get on the road to see the Dead. The Dead could draw in places like Binghamton or Hamilton because Eastern Deadheads were willing to get in the cars and go up and down I-90 and I-95 in order to see as many shows as possible.
Its my belief that Bill Graham promoted Grateful Dead shows in Bakersfield and Fresno because he thought that West Coast Deadheads would travel like East Coast ones, and that turned out not to be the case. Eastern Deadheads bought the traveling ethos into the Deadhead universe--Westerners didn't do it. In my case, although I was a poor college student at the time, the Grateful Dead had played ten shows at Winterland in 1977, and I had seen seven of them. What was the urgency to travel? I had gone to Santa Barbara to visit a friend and see the Dead (February 27, 1977), but it hadn't even occurred to me that I should go to the San Bernardino show the night before.
Starting about 1980, I met more and more people at Dead shows who had moved to San Francisco for better access to the Dead, and those were the people who thought nothing of driving to Los Angeles or Portland, or both, just to catch a show or two. That's what they had been doing in New Jersey or Chicago, so it was no change for them. Locals like me got sniffy about attending Dead shows outside my own county, but the Easterners made the Deadhead traveling circus a reality. Yet no one had figured that out at the time, and Bill Graham's promotion was a bit ahead of the curve.
The big rock event in San Francisco on that weekend was the Sex Pistols show at Winterland on Saturday, January 14. It turned out to be the last show of the Sid Vicious-era Pistols, and a legendary San Francisco rock moment. However, since I was going to see the Dead in Fresno on Sunday night, I had a paper to write, so I stayed home from the Sex Pistols even though my sister had an extra ticket, and thus missed one of the all-time rock events. Fortunately, my choice turned out to be worth it. However, my friend Jeff, who attended the Fresno show with us may have been the only person in history to have seen the Sex Pistols and the Grateful Dead on consecutive nights.
Fresno was about 3 hours from San Francisco, mostly on easy-to-drive Interstate 5. Even though we had all seen the Dead for three or four nights in December, it seemed exciting to actually adventure out into the valley to see the Dead. Of course, had we been Easterners, we would have gone to Santa Barbara (Friday Jan 13), Bakersfield (Saturday Jan 14) and then Fresno, but we didn't have that mindset yet. We also had tickets to the Wednesday night show in Stockton (Jan 18), about 90 minutes from Berkeley, but we were skipping the Sacramento show the night before (Tuesday Jan 17). Anyone from New Jersey or Boston or Utica would have thought we were nuts, but we were used to the Dead playing constantly, and missing a show didn't seem catastrophic.
One of the things that made the Fresno trip viable was my friend Jeff, whom I knew from the dorms. My other friends were from Los Angeles, and neither they nor I had ever set foot in Fresno. However, Jeff was from Fresno and had been to Selland Arena many times, so by bringing him with us we had a native guide. In the era before google maps and GPS, this was no small consideration. In any case, we grooved on down the road and made it to Fresno well before the start of the show, thanks to Jeff's expert directions. Although Jeff was from Fresno, he didn't express any pleasure at being back in his hometown, which he dismissed as hicksville.
When we got to the Selland Arena, we were in for a surprise. The place was your typical multi-purpose sports-enterntainment arena, used for basketball at Fresno State College and rock concerts for the city. Even if the Grateful Dead were only popular in an enclosed little universe, in San Francisco that universe was pretty intense. In 1977, Bill Graham Presents would open the doors at Winterland at 5:00pm because so many people were waiting in line, and there were volleyball games and movies to keep people entertained until the putative 7:00 pm start (which was often closer to 8:00). Thus it was a shock to get to Selland Arena a half-hour before show time and to find the arena largely deserted.
Now, if you've ever been in a large arena with a small crowd, it seems more barren than it really was. We were convinced that there were only a few hundred people there, but that is probably our minds exaggerating the emptiness. Still, even accounting for people who arrived late, people who were nestled in the dark seats far from the stage and people dancing around the lobby, there couldn't have been more than 2000 people there, tops. Most of the people didn't really seem like Deadheads, just people who lived in Fresno who liked rock music, and would go to see Johnny Winter or Kenny Loggins or whoever was playing (which my friend Jeff assured me was typical of Fresno at the time).
The Selland show was strange indeed: an arena the size of Oakland Auditorium, bigger than Winterland, with a very modest crowd that mostly sat bored in the seats, leaving the floor near the stage utterly deserted. You know those t-shirts that they used to sell at Dead shows that had a logo and words to the effect of "Grateful Dead 1966-1980: Sold Out!"? They didn't go to Fresno.
I have always been one who felt that the much-discussed symbiotic relationship between the Grateful Dead and their audience has received far too much attention, and that the Dead were more about music than their audiences self-declared insistence that there would be no Grateful Dead without their own presence. I still think that Deadheads overrate themselves, but the first set at Fresno gave me a major dose of what the Dead were like to an indifferent audience. They must have played a lot of gigs like Fresno in the 60s, out in the hinterlands. There were a few devoted Heads up front, and a bunch of bored locals, going "why are these guys so popular?"
Set One, Selland Arena, Fresno, CA January 15, 1978
|Good Lovin' ;||
|Dire Wolf ;||
|Mexicali Blues >||
|Big River ;||
|It Must Have Been The Roses ;||
|Brown Eyed Women ;||
|The Music Never Stopped ;||
The first set at Fresno was the most lifeless, boring Grateful Dead set I have ever seen. There were a few people dancing up front, but just as an experiment my friend Mike and I walked up and leaned on the front of the stage barrier without touching another human being. I'm glad we did it, because we never got to do it again. The lack of enthusiasm in the crowd was palpable, and I got a unique glimpse of how the strange clunky energy of the Dead's improvisational style depended on an attentive audience, as every note seemed wrong. The fact that Garcia's voice was still very weak from a lingering illness added to the lethargy and strain of the performance. I swear that Garcia's solo on "Mexicali Blues" was so lifeless that he dropped his hands for the last several bars, since it was such a failure. The band made a little effort for 'The Music Never Stopped," but we wondered why we had made the effort to drive three hours through the Valley just to hear the worst Dead set in our lives.
Set Two, Selland Arena, Fresno, CA January 15, 1978
After "Terrapin," the Dead launched into "Playing In The Band," and when the singing ended, Jerry, Bob and Phil huddled in front of the drummers and played the jam for themselves. There was practically no crowd there, and the band was getting nothing from them, so they just played weird, spacey music for their own pleasure. The lengthy jam that followed was the wildest, weirdest, spaciest jam I have ever heard at a Dead concert, and I went to a few. The surviving audience tape, while enjoyable, cannot capture the intense, self-absorbed weirdness of that jam.
The net effect of going from "worst Dead set ever" to "most far out jam I have ever seen" had a dramatic effect. Physics tells us that dramatic acceleration leads to escape velocity, and we definitely burst through the ionosphere, swirling in orbit far above the earth. The lengthy "Playing" was followed by an intense "Wharf Rat." Garcia's nearly broken voice was used to great effect, and his emotional solo was the capstone to the intense "Playin" jam that had preceded it. When it ended, a relatively brief "Sugar Magnolia" ended the show, and the band left the stage. The crowd was too small to cheer for an encore, as many of the locals had left, but in any case those of us who had been listening were too stunned to care. This was a clutch performance by the Grateful Dead: a mostly-empty venue in the middle of nowhere, no excitement from the crowd, and still delivering a show for the ages.
It goes without saying that I never saw another Dead show like Fresno. For one thing, I occasionally went to a Dead show that wasn't sold out, but I never went to one again that was deserted. In subsequent years even casual audiences had heard about expected behavior at Dead concerts, but in 1978 Fresno the Grateful Dead were like Marshall Tucker or Wishbone Ash, just another Winterland headliner trying to win over fans outside of their regular market. They couldn't do it, either, so they just made music. Maybe it was more about the Grateful Dead than the Deadheads after all.
All my friends were exhausted, but I was elated. One of my friends had seen the Dead in Selland Arena in 1974, and he opined that perhaps it was the same that time, with a small crowd and weird self-absorbed music, but that he didn't understand it. He promptly fell asleep, as did everyone else but me, as I happily drove my friend's car back to Berkeley up Interstate 5, knowing that I had seen something that would not pass my way again.
Appendix: January 1978 Grateful Dead Tour Itinerary
January 6, 1978: Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA Grateful Dead
The Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino was at the edge of greater Los Angeles, because it had been the terminus of the Pacific Electric Railway. The Swing had a capacity of 10,00, and was actually one of the biggest places that the Dead headlined in California. Garcia had a fever and laryngitis, and his voice gave out after the first set, leaving all the second set songs to Weir.
January 7-8, 1978: Golden Hall, Community Concourse, San Diego, CA Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead had played the Community Concourse at 202 C Street a number of times over the years, but the complex was part of a maze of buildings, and I do not believe they actually played the same rooms each time. Garcia's voice was shot for these shows, and Weir and Donna Godchaux handled all the vocals. I believe that Golden Hall was a Warfield-sized theater, with a capacity of 2500 or so.
January 10-11, 1978: Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA Grateful Dead
There are actually two venues at the same address at the Shrine, the Shrine Auditorium and the Shrine Exposition Hall. I do not know which one the Dead actually played this time out. If it had seats, it was the Auditorium (where the Oscars are sometimes held) and if it didn't it was the Expo. Since the shows were on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, it seems more possible it was the actual Shrine Auditorium. The show opened with "Bertha," assuring the crowd that Jerry was back singing, even if his voice was shaky.
A number of commenters on the Archive describe shows similar to Fresno, with far out meltdown jams in the second set.
January 13, 1978: Arlington Theater, Santa Barbara, CA Grateful Dead
I believe the Arlington was a fairly small, Warfield-sized theater. This show was some sort of anti-nuclear benefit. The jamming in the second set is quite amazing; Fresno was no fluke.
January 14, 1978: Civic Auditorium, Bakersfield, CA Grateful Dead
By all accounts, Bakersfield was as weird as Fresno. We heard a rumor that Bakersfield was so empty, people were told that anyone with a Bakersfield stub could get into Fresno for free. I doubt that story was true, but I take the rumor as an indicator that it was not a typical Dead show. Bakersfield Civic had been used for many rock shows over the years, but I believe it was smaller than Selland Arena, so a modest crowd might not be so notable.
According to numerous commenters on the Archive, the Dead's soundman was arrested during the show by the Bakersfield police. The Dead apparently wrapped up the show quickly and declared their unhappiness with it from the stage.
January 15, 1978: Selland Arena, Fresno, CA Grateful Dead
January 17, 1978: Civic Auditorium, Sacramento, CA Grateful Dead
Even though this was a Tuesday night, Sacramento was only 90 minutes from the Bay Area and the Civic had a capacity of about 3,000, so it was like a regular show for the locals.
|My ticket stub from Stockton Civic Auditorium, January 18, 1978|
My friends and I also attended the Wednesday evening Stockton show (well, except for the guy from Fresno). We had heard nothing about the other shows, of course, and were half-expecting a deserted auditorium and weird jamming, so we hauled ass to get there after class. We made the show minutes before it started, and naturally the place was packed to the rafters. Stockton, too, was just 90 minutes from the Bay Area, and while I'm sure there were many people from the local area it felt like a regular Winterland Dead crowd.
The Dead started out on a very high note with "Mississippi Half-Step," and despite Jerry's ragged voice, by the time he was taking us across the Rio Grande-io the place was going crazy. So much for a replay of Fresno. Still, it was a very lively show, even though Garcia's energy level gave out with his voice, as he was clearly not well. Garcia left the stage during "Playing In The Band," I believe for the drum solo, and when the band returned and started "Passenger," Garcia did not immediately come on stage. The band played the first verse without him, although he slowly made his way out there and managed to take his big solo, but it was plain that he was struggling.
January 22, 1978: McArthur Court, Eugene, OR Grateful Dead
Whatever weakness the Grateful Dead may have had drawing an audience in Central California in the Winter meant nothing in Oregon. On a population-to-attendance basis, the Dead's biggest market was Oregon. McArthur Court was the U. of O's basketball arena (where the Ducks would quack under pressure), and the Dead had been packing the joint for nearly a decade. As far as I know, the January '78 show was a huge financial success, too, and fans were rewarded with a great show that included the unique "Close Encounters" jam.
January 30-February 1, 1978: Uptown Theater, Chicago, IL Grateful Dead
Why would the Grateful Dead play Saturday night in Eugene, and then take an eight day break in order to play Monday-thru-Wednesday in a 2000+-capacity movie theater in Chicago in the depths of winter? If a band is going to play Chicago in the winter, why not play a bigger place on the weekend? This strange itinerary only makes sense if there was a canceled weekend show.
I have to think that the Grateful Dead were scheduled to play the weekend of January 28-29 in either Seattle or Vancouver or both, and the shows must have fallen through. There may have been mid-week shows planned in the Northwest as well. Three dates in Chicago on a weeknight, followed by three dates in the frozen north (Madison, Milwaukee and Cedar Falls, IA) only make sense as part of a continuous tour. I have no idea how or why other Northwest dates fell through, and it's even possible they were supposed to play Denver or Salt Lake or Omaha, not Seattle, but in any case it doesn't seem to have worked out. Combined with the debacles in Bakersfield and Fresno, the Grateful Dead did not try a winter West Coast tour again.