Friday, August 28, 2020

February 6, 1979 The Pavilion, Tulsa, OK: Grateful Dead (Last Lost Live Tape)

The board tape for January 22, 1978, in Oregon
The Grateful Dead were the first band to not only allow audience taping, but the first to openly encourage it.  Inadvertent or not, the Dead's strategy to allow the free circulation of live tapes was essential for the group to build their loyal audience, who returned to see the band again and again, indifferent to whether the band current record release, if they even had one. The Dead succeeded financially running directly against late 20th century music business orthodoxy.

Deadheads know, of course, that not every Dead show was taped, or preserved on tape. Many shows in the 60s were missing, and even into the early 70s there were scattered shows with limited or missing tapes. By the early 70s, however, the Dead were popular enough in an underground way that even the "untaped" shows had newspaper reviews, eyewitness accounts and other ephemera, so we had some idea what happened those nights. 

There's an outlier, though. And it's late, much later than anyone realizes. On February 6, 1979 the Grateful Dead played the Tulsa Pavilion in Tulsa, OK. No board tape survives in the vault. No one seems to have made an audience tape, not even of terrible quality. There was no newspaper review. No one has appeared online as an eyewitness. Maybe it was just a Tuesday night in Tulsa--maybe they played "Dark Star" for 40 minutes. We don't know.

How did this happen?

If you go down to the Deep Ellum DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) station, you probably don't have to keep your money in your shoes.
The Grateful Dead in Texas and The Southwest 

The Grateful Dead first established themselves as a money making act on the two coasts, followed by the Upper Midwest. If you define a traveling circus by roadways, the Dead's initial main lines were US101 in the West, Interstate 95 in the East, and I-80 linking the two across the country. This is hardly a metaphor, as an analysis of their first touring schedules will tell you. Throughout the 70s, initially under the guidance of Sam Cutler, the Dead worked on building audiences in different places, along different roads. Financial success for the Dead meant profitable touring, and building audiences in new territory required returning to a region again and again, maybe not in the same cities but near enough for a road trip.

The Cutler road map played huge dividends over time, even if the paydays didn't come until after Cutler was long gone. Over the decades, the Dead extended their touring schedule to include upstate New York and the "New South" of North Carolina and Virginia. When the band finally hit it big in 1987, with "Touch Of Grey," the willing audiences in those places allowed the Dead to tour from city to city without excessive travel. This favored both the road crew and the road-tripping Deadheads. Put another way, the band took their three main highways, and added two more: I-90 (in New York State) and I-85 (in Virginia and North Carolina). 

But the Cutler plan wasn't foolproof. Throughout the 70s and early 80s, the Dead played relentlessly in Texas and some surrounding states. They played some great music, per the tapes, but the Dead never really took hold in Texas. It seems strange, given the generally strong economy and Texans love of love music. I wrote about this at some length, but I can't say why Texas wasn't prime Deadhead territory. By the time '87 rolled around, the Dead had pretty much given up on the state, and after 1988, they never played there again. The Grateful Dead's failure to add I-10 as a major thoroughfare was the the backdrop for that Tuesday night in Tulsa.

The Pavilion in Tulsa, OK, built in 1932 with a capacity of 6,311. Located on the State Fairgounds at 1701 S. Louisville Avenue, the Grateful Dead played here on February 6, 1979
February 6, 1979 Tulsa Pavilion, Tulsa, OK 

After December 1978, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that the Grateful Dead somewhat gave up on Texas and the Southwest. They only played the region intermittently throughout the 80s. As the 80s rolled on, when the Dead played their strongholds in Florida and Atlanta, they took the North/South route through Virginia and North Carolina rather than East/West through New Orleans and Texas. This was not necessarily a planned decision, but it was a rational one. As the Dead's ticket sales became more focused on fans who saw the band over and over again, the booking policy led to a touring schedule that featured relatively short drives on a nightly basis. The vast distances of the Southwest were far less attractive for any fans who were thinking of catching three or four shows in six nights.

Another factor in the Dead's declining presence in the Southwest was the absence of any longstanding relationships with local promoters. Sam Cutler was an old comrade, and he had run Manor Downs in Austin, but for mysterious reasons he dropped out of managing the facility in the late 1970s. The Dead would indeed return to Manor Downs but Cutler's departure meant that the band focused on established beachheads elsewhere. We will have to wait for Cutler's new book (hurry up, Sam!) to unravel the details, but it seems that his departure combined with the vast plains of Texas to keep the Dead touring in the more humid climes of the Southeast, rather than the Southwest.

The Grateful Dead's only appearance in Tulsa on February 6, 1979 indicates how small a part the Southwest played in the band's plans. Everything about the Tulsa show is an outlier, and indeed the entire section of the tour is an outlier. The Dead had never played Tulsa before, which is 107 miles Northeast of Oklahoma City, and the second largest city in the State (behind OKC). The  Pavilion, at 1701 S. Louisville Avenue, had a capacity of 6,311, and had opened in 1932. It was originally called The Fairgounds Pavilion. The Pavilion was only the second-largest venue in Tulsa (the 8,900 seat Convention Center had opened in 1964), so it wasn't a glamorous booking even for Tulsa.

 It was also a Tuesday night. Even weirder, it was in between a Sunday night show (Feb 4) in Madison, WI and a Wednesday show (Feb 7) in Carbondale, IL. Both of those shows were effectively university gigs.

Any band that would go 750 miles for a Tuesday night gig in a city they had never played, just to go 500 more miles for a Wednesday night show in another city they had never played was hurting for money. The Dead had two weekend nights in Kansas City, KS (Feb 9-10), so they had to fill the week with any paying booking. If Texas had been a good gig, they might have gone there, but Tulsa and Carbondale seem to have been better choices. Draw your own conclusion.

When I mentioned the Tulsa show in an earlier post, commenter Brad K mentioned that someone who put up posters for the show had said that it snowed. I checked this out, and it's correct--temperatures were under thirty and there was snow, albeit not a lot. Now, sure New England 'Heads will say, "c'mon 25 degrees and snow flurries, I'd do that!" But the Southwest isn't the Northeast. The roads and the people aren't equipped for any snow, so anyone making a last minute decision would have just stayed home. Daunting weather would have discouraged any non-roadie from driving to Tulsa from any distance.

There's yet another observation derived from Brad's comment. In the late 70s, promoters only hung posters around town if a show was way undersold, and they were desperate to sell tickets. How many Grateful Dead shows were there in the 70s where anxious promoters put up signs around town? Not anywhere I lived. And another thing--not only is there no tape for the Tulsa show, nor a setlist, but there's a missing poster, too. Sure, it's probably a standard "boxing -style" poster that says "Tuesday Night, The Pavilion, from San Francisco: The Grateful Dead." But right now, it's rarer than any Avalon poster.

As far as I know, the February 6 Tulsa show is the last, latest Grateful Dead show for which we have no audience tape whatsoever. That tells me that for whatever little community there may have been of "tourheads," none of them were going to Tulsa on a Tuesday night in February. Legend also has it that when Brent Mydland joined the band, in late March, Garcia grabbed a few tapes of recent shows off the shelf and handed them over. While unprovable, it would explain why Tulsa and a few other shows from that run have no board tapes in the vault. Thus February 6, 1979 in Tulsa, OK, is the latest Dead show for which we have not a single recorded note from any source, listenable or not. 

If you meet a guy, and he tells you "I saw them do "Dark Star" during a snowstorm in Tulsa," well, maybe he's deluded. But maybe.... 

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, a few distant fragments have been threaded into one place. Thanks to everyone who contributed, but particularly fellow scholar Jesse Jarnow:
Grateful Dead at Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion, February 6, 1979

First of all, not one but two posters exist (it turned out both were on Deadlists). They aren't great, but they exist.

Eyewitness Accounts
It turns out there are a number of comments on recalling the show. It appears that the show was kind of undersold anyway, and then a snowstorm encouraged people to stay home. And it was several inches of snow, which is a lot for the Southeast. Here's some good samples:

"Tulsa Steve" recalls:
That snowy show.....

Yup, I was there too. It was a weather disaster. There was a blizzard raging in the hours prior to the show. The band made it to Tulsa. I'd always heard that the TU Student Association posed as a "real" promtion company and brought the Dead to Tulsa. having been a fan for many years, this was my 3rd show with the Dead and I was happy to attend. I bought our tickets early on and had great seats right in front of the stage. As I recall, the band had played Saturday Night Live about a week before and they were touring hard. Jerry's voice was in lousy shape (you could hear it when he sang I Need A Miracle...lots of crackling in those pipes. I chalked it up to working so hard and being on the road for weeks. The unfortunate thing is that many of the fans couldn't make it in due to the snow - seriously, it was a foot deep. Even people from Oklahoma City backed out and consequently, the Fairgrounds Pavillion was really about 2/3rds empty.

For me, not the best show, maybe the worst - but by God I was there and its sorta like fishing - my worst day fishing is better than my best day worst Dead show was DEFINITELY better than most other days in my 55 yrs! Thanks to Patrick Dead Head for confirming my thoughts. I too went on to earn my degree from TU and happy I stuck it out. This made that fateful year even more interesting. By the way, I'd also heard rumors after the show that the Dead would NEVER play Tulsa again and you know what? They never did! I'm going to run some traps cause if the Lafortunes have a tape of that show, it needs to be liberated!!!!!

"Patrick Deadhead" has an illuminating story

Tulsa show
At the age of 19 I produced the show on behalf of the Tulsa univ student assn, changed my life . due to the weather we lost $15k, a valuable lesson ( with someone elses money) about business. Experience of a lifetime. They felt sorry for us and invited me on the bus. I stayed and got my degree instead . Asked Dicks Picks about it , tapes were damaged .There was someone with a good rig close to the stage, but i never got the tape. They were a bit shocked at my age when we met at the airport. Jerry was real friendly and we hung out and had a long converstaion at intermission. My girlfriend and I had a steak dinner cooked by the crew backstage second set. The experience was crazy , the Babtists threatened to protest ( Oral Roberts country ) , the stage union tried to shut us down for using student labor , one of the cars with band members wrecked on the slick ice. Mickey threatened to toss the TV out the window when they would not let the band in the hotel bar with jeans on. That experience prepared me for a great job that included working with global promotions , beauty pageants , TV shows and all kinds of good stuff. Thanks Greatful Dead. Learned a lot of lifes lessons that unforgetable night. I still have the coffee cup from the band commisary

An alternate poster for the Grateful Dead at the Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion on February 6, 1979

There seems to be enough information to construct a setlist, as some Commenters pointed out
Set 1:
Jack Straw, Loser, Beat It On Down The Line, Peggy-O, It's All Over Now, China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider, From The Heart Of Me, New Minglewood Blues, Deal
Set 2:
I Need A Miracle,>Bertha>Good Lovin', Ship Of Fools, Estimated Prophet>Eyes Of The World>Drums>Not Fade Away>Black Peter, Around And Around
Johnny B. Goode

"China Cat Sunflower" had returned a few days earlier, in Indianapolis (Feb 3), so if there were any actual tourheads, it would have been heartening to find out that the return wasn't just a one-off (like in '77).

A writeup of the Tulsa Grateful Dead show from the 1979 University of Tulsa yearbook, with pictures of Phil and Bob


The Tulsa College yearbook has pictures from the show. No review, but pictures.

A photo of Jerry Garcia and The Wolf, onstage at the Fairgounds Pavilion in Tulsa, OK, on February 6, 1979. Photo from the 1979 University of Tulsa yearbook

The Tape

And of course, the tape. Someone taped it. We even know who taped it. William LaFortune is currently a judge in Tulsa, and he used to be the mayor of the city. And he taped it. He recalls it in an interview. But he doesn't know what happened to the tape.

An interview with Judge (formerly Mayor) William LaFortune in the April 2015 edition of Tulsa Lawyer Magazine  (great research from @bourgwick)

Somewhere out there, someone has a box of dusty old cassettes they were given back in the 80s. Maybe Tulsa Feb 6 '79 is there. If you see it, pass it on.