Thursday, March 27, 1986
Cumberland County Civic Center – Portland, ME
There are few things more frightening to most Grateful Dead tape collectors than shows from 1986. Okay, a lot of 1994-95 Dead shows may rank above ’86 for pure fright factor, but that’s a story for another time (though certainly related).
His health failing, 1986 was the year where the road, and a heroin addiction, seemed to catch up with Jerry Garcia, landing him in a diabetic coma in July of that year. There were many shows during this downward spiral that could, at best, be described as “phoned in” with few, if any, stellar moments. The band relied heavily on Garcia’s ability to shine, and when he was compromised, the entire band suffered. Beyond the last years of this band’s saga where Garcia’s drugs and health would continue to see-saw the band’s output , 1986 might be the most difficult year to traverse when looking for spectacular shows. And the overabundance of “lowlights” are a constant reminder of the darkness that was slowly emerging. The theory of many old Deadheads, who claimed it was all downhill from the beginning, is fully supported by the time we reach 1986. This is not a year you want to set up on a roulette wheel and give a spin. You are likely to crap out more often than not.
1986 probably doesn’t appear on anyone’s top ten list of Dead years. In fact, conversely, it probably tops nearly everyone’s list of worst year of the 80’s overall. Most certainly it is the low point of the first 21 years of the band’s history. Yet, for me, this makes the 1986 diamonds in the rough that do exist all that more meaningful, and worthy of hearing. True to the more and more inconsistent output of the band, there are some high points in 1986 that completely belie the reputation that the year rightly carries. 1986 has a lot of flashing orange warning lights and “enter at your own risk” signs on its door. In a strange way, these cautionary messages seem to hide some moments of real beauty.
The entire concept of the Grateful Dead Listening Guide is at play here as we step into 1986. Everyone ought to put some of this year under their belt, and I will attempt to point out some moments that buck the trend. You can then feel free to spin the wheel and listen to more on your own in an effort to understand what seemed to be going wrong in this year.
Here on March 27, 1986, as could often be the case in the 80’s, we have a show that stands out with a powerful first set. The band absolutely erupts with energy throughout set one, and they even get off to a tremendous start in the second set. As things move along, the energy settles a bit, yet the entire show is still satisfying. Note, we are talking about 1986 here. The expectations are set pretty low. In a year that gets a deservedly bad reputation, it can be mesmerizing to hear the band completely at the top of their game. Low expectations aside, the highlights here measure up to much of the 80’s nicely.
Jack Straw leaps out of the gates, and everything is bubbling. This was one of those general admissions shows with no chairs on the main floor – just lots of happy ‘heads spread out on blankets. The energy is warm and welcoming. Jerry is flying, pushing the opening song higher and higher, and the crowd loves it. Paul Hogan’s AUD is spot on in its ability to capture the music and energy. The powerful opening tune sets the stage for a great evening. 03/27 also contains the one and only rendition of Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues. The music was written by Phil and Brent and the lyrics came from Bobby Petersen, a beatnik poet who was one of Phil's old friends. Petersen also wrote Pride of Cucamonga and New Potato Caboose. He died in 1986 and Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues was the last song that he contributed to the Dead. This leads right into Bertha, and we can sense that Jerry is warming up even more.
I’m a big fan of the song Big Rail Road Blues. I like it because it often served as an ignition point for Jerry to really explode – in the same fashion as Big River. This night's version is no exception, and Garcia rides the song’s wave deeply into a sizzling explosion of energy and dexterity. Just as you think he’s wrapping things up, he bursts forth with another round of fire from dizzying heights. It’s this sort of thing, hidden in a show from 1986, that adds to the pleasure lurking in this year. It defies the logic of what we would expect from ’86, and thereby increases the enjoyment.
The Supplication Jam is born out of silence, Bobby working the theme as the rest of the band slowly joins in. Again, more crackling energy pours forth, and there is lightning shimmering off of the stage in smoke-like tendrils. It’s a ferocious energy that slowly expands as if being seen under water – electric neon colors bleeding together and drowning everything. Garcia tears things up, and Bobby absolutely cooks. This jam contradicts everything most people think about when they ponder a year like 1986, and it is precisely why we should be so careful not to prejudge; to always be open to magic at every turn. The band sounds so at home in this jam, really pushing the rhythms intricately along. Then, as icing on the cake, the band transitions beautifully into Promised Land. It takes a bit of time, and just as the music’s own decision making process could teeter into a potential train wreck, it saves itself perfectly. Promised Land, then, delivers a sensational end to the set.
Easily matching Big Railroad Blues, Promised Land explodes. Firing on every cylinder, when we get to the final lead section and hear Garcia shredding notes in rapid succession, we can’t help but be elevated into the soaring energy of the crowd around the taper. The set ends on a fantastic high, back in that wonderful Dead space of smiles all around.
Set two opens with China>Rider. This is another one of those tunes (albeit two) like Morning Dew that defies a solid time stamp. It has a certain timelessness to it, carved deeply into the tissue of the Americana-folkloric legend of the band. It’s part of a select group of songs that came to typify the Grateful Dead throughout their career. It’s part of a top five list of tunes that do this, though I’d be hard pressed to want to firmly call out what that list of five were without sparking a huge debate among fellow deadheads. So, I’ll leave it at that for now. Generally, it is tempo which bares the most era-specific identifiers to China>Rider, and in the 80’s the tune’s tempo ran fast. Here on 03/27/86, the song draws on all the burning intensity that capped the first set. The songs brim with energy. The transition solo finds Jerry crazily mounting an accent in his playing as the band corkscrews and geysers into a rippling light bath fountain of energy wiping away all ability to stand apart from the music. In a mostly indescribable display of energy, the band purely outdoes all expectation. Breathlessly, we drop into I Know You Rider.
The tempo is ramped way up, and while it might not be cooking at its original tempo of 20 years earlier, it is darn well coming close. Jerry’s leads burble out, like the water music of a drinking fountain, notes flowing endlessly after one another in their own game of follow the leader. Showers of sparks and exploding flower petals stream out in all direction. We couldn’t be in a better spot right now, leading off set two. The show could end here and already I’d regret forever not forcing you to leave with this tape in your arms way back when you first visited my listening room.
Estimated Prophet good, if slightly overshadowed with the Bob Weir cheese factor. This describes Bob’s growing tendency throughout the 80’s to play heavily to the crowd through his vocalizations. Here in Estimated he over sings/shouts a lot of the vocals and then treats the crowd to a rousing “Heh-HEY” screamfest toward the end, complete with long delay on his vocal mic. Through it all, and after it all, Jerry is there coiling leads slowly and surely on the way to Eyes Of The World.
By the time the song actually gets going, Jerry is in fine form indeed. The tempo rolls at a blistering pace, and Garcia’s ability to skip along notes like dancing across grass blade tips as he plays is very nicely done. Before going much further though, I need to warn you about Bob being horrifically out of tune. His screams from the last song clearly drove his D or G string into cowering flatness, and it takes him the first three minutes of Eyes to work it all out. After that, the song flows beautifully, and as the jam extends itself (this is a long, nearly 15 minute version), we find Jerry briefly floating lightly in a broad orbit around the music. The band traverses mountain sides, and cloud patched skies together, whirling on lazy winds. The winds ease the band into a wide valley where the music settles like dew, and the segue into Drums begins. While the rest of the band leaves the stage to the percussionists, Jerry remains for nearly three minutes playing amidst the feet of the slowly approaching, towering drum giants. His guitar drifts further and further out into an echoing space, eventually leaving the drummers to their work.
Space leads nicely into a Spanish Jam, and the tune casts its haunting psychedelic shadows around the music nicely. It then segues easily into Truckin’. It’s a bit of a textbook version, complete with Bob messing up lyrics. It ends with Jerry pushing toward Black Peter before changing direction into Wharf Rat. Sweetly emotional vocals, and strong solo work from Garcia, make this a very nice version for 1986.
Sugar Magnolia rocks very nicely. The band has enough gas in its tank to lift the song, and the crowd back up to a peak of energy. Bobby then absolutely mangles the vocals on the lead-in of the Sunshine Daydream end jam. He laughs at himself, more than once, and it all lends to that wonderful Grateful Dead vibe (only our Bobby could blow the lyrics to Sugar Magnolia). All in all, the set ends on as high a note as could be hoped. Day Job is the encore, one of the most unliked songs in all of Deaddom. If you don’t dislike it, it might just be that you just haven’t been subjected to it from more of the 57 times it showed up between 1982 and 1986 . This night would mark the second to last time it was played. Most deadheads say, good riddance. I'm not really sure why. I don't find it as off-putting as some tunes.
So, we can call this a very safe and satisfying entry point into 1986. The show speak to the quality that lurks around one of the darker stretches in the Dead’s musical journey. From a listening standpoint you absolutely can’t go wrong with Paul Hogan’s recording – for everything up to, and including, China>Rider. For whatever reason (a miss flipped Dolby B switch, more than likely, during the tape transfer to digital), the rest of his recording transfer suffers from heavy noise reduction. While I implore you to start with his recording, you’ll want to switch to the other circulating AUD for Estimated through the end of the show. I know this means downloading the show in parts from two sources. Please trust me, the Hogan AUD makes it worth it. There is also a SBD of this show. But SBDs in the 80’s were getting mastered onto cassette, and this, along with a myriad of EQ and mix issues leaves many SBD recordings from this period somewhat lacking, the SBD from this night among them. So, please follow this listening order for maximum effect:
Estimated Prophet through end of show:
03/27/86 Koucky AUD etree source info
03/27/86 Koucky AUD Download
and if you're curious:
03/27/86 Koucky AUD etree source info
03/27/86 Koucky AUD Download
and if you're curious: