Saturday, June 21, 1980
West High Auditorium – Anchorage, AK
1980 is a year, like 1979 to some degree, that seems somewhat lost between eras. Not even shunned like 1976 as paling to a nearby year thought to be better, 1980 often doesn’t even draw enough attention to offer up a negative dismissal. It is generally simply forgotten. When Deadheads talk about the early 80’s, the years that come to mind are 1981-1984. Poor 1980 seems always the bridesmaid and never the bride. This is a real shame, because 1980 is filled with many breathtaking moments and some pretty standout historic events, such as the return of Acoustic Dead at the Warfield and Radio City Music Hall. Without even focusing on that highlight (we will in the future), you needn’t look far to find an ample supply of great music from this transitional year. It sounds a lot like the late 70’s and a lot like the early 80’s, and generally it will always surprise you and make you wonder why no one gives it much attention.
Alaska. I know a fair amount of Grateful Dead lore, but I can’t recall exactly how the Dead managed to arrange a trip so far north, and to sell a three night run on top of it at this 2,000 seat high school auditorium. What amazes me further is that we were lucky enough to have seen someone up there taping these shows, and taping them well. In fact, there was more than one taper doing it; in Alaska, no less. It warms this AUD lover’s heart to be able to serve up such a wonderful audience recording here now. This run is regarded as containing some of the best music of the year, and the closing night, 06/21/80, shines the most brightly in my opinion.
While it’s well known that the first sets of the early 80’s often could contain a blistering amount of energy and musical excitement which could rival second sets, and any first set output from the previous decade, it is not altogether clear precisely when this first set transformation took place. It seems to have its seeds with the addition of Brent to the band in May 1979, but didn’t really see its groundswell until sometime later. It would be a worthy investigation to try pinning down the first post Keith & Donna show that contained a surprisingly blistering first set. We can at least be sure that by June 1980, the propensity for first set fireworks was well on its way to being a hallmark of the decade.
A fun fact to bear in mind about this show – consider the date and location. The sun never set in the sky while the band played this “night.” People walked out of the concert into daylight.
Right out of the gate, we are treated to a great Sugaree, a song that fully matured during the prior year with the band, as well as in Jerry’s solo band work in 1980. This provides a great start to the show, complete with Garcia reaching some shredding highpoints late in the solo. It is only a precursor for things to come.
The first set continues to deliver the goods, peaking a few different times. Supplication is first to crack open the door to some mind bending psychedelia. Loping along in its 7/8 time signature, Jerry’s fingers fly as the music opens up into great spinning orbits causing everything to cycle through loosely knotted patterns that seem to follow the path of an infinity symbol. A short jam, but fully satisfying. They cool things way down, only to let it all mount up again on electric fingers of fire. Then the set closes with an altogether gooey Feel Like A Stranger. Like huge handfuls of warm, multicolor taffy, the music oozes with complete disregard to anything resembling right angles. Floor, walls, hands, and faces all congeal in a great lava lamp of interwoven wax. Stranger wouldn’t close sets all too often, but here it works oh so well to prime the crowd for what the rest of the night may bring. The jam begins with its fantastic funk/disco high step, only to quickly tip head over heels into a cauldron of stewing colors. Jerry and Brent lose all sense of each other’s beginning and end points as the music follows fractal footprints deep into your mind. You know it’s gonna get stranger.
As things get started in Terrapin Station, the music sheds all connection to the year in which it is being played. Sounding far more like a slice of 1977, this Terrapin calls to mind that strong sense of being gathered around a campfire as the band tells a story – something generally associated with other songs than this one. Nonetheless, the band is casting its hypnotic spell over everything. Gentle hands with flamed fingers caress our face and beckon us in. The door is shut behind us. We are safe and alone, as a grand journey begins with the solo section marking a point of no return. The music rises and falls on the trails of some great juggler’s balls. They change size and color as they translucently pass each other in the air. It’s a ballet of butterfly music in a dream that defies our ability to concretely retell the story after waking. The song reaches its zenith and crashes thunderously as the melody chases its own tail over and over. It gives nary room for a breath before materializing into the next song, Playin' In The Band.
The Playin’ jam wastes no time stroking the fibers of the Grateful Dead’s adoring musical muse. Its power is awakened like a room instantly filling with a heady incense that reminds our ancient soul receptors of the essence of the eternal. Broken up into a handful of section, the jam begins immediately to unbind the tightly wrapped petals of the musical flower that held the formal part of the song together. It’s like a flower slowly waking to starlight. While the tempo of the song churns along, there is a widening space between the beats, into which cosmic oceans gently lap to the shore. Garcia goes right for his auto-filter wha pedal and calls up a nearly invisible web of energy that drifts and turns in unseen air currents. Everything takes on a distinctly three dimensional aspect on the audience recording, all of the instrumentation finding its natural place in the landscape around us.
After a short while Garcia’s pace quickens, and he’s running staccato lines in a musically choreographed dance of twirls, swoops, and back bending joy. The energy of the band tightens around Jerry, and everything takes on the sense of wild horses galloping across moonlit countryside, not unlike the energy we hear in Playin’s from 1972. We flow endlessly over hills which quietly rise and fall at random intervals like the deepest ocean shedding a storm’s energy reserves. What seems like hours later, the band emerges into a more subtle pasture where sounds begin to crackle and shimmer like the air around us is condensing into sporadic forms just out of reach. Slowly these sounds, which could have previously tricked our mind as not possibly coming from the musicians, fill all of our aural space, and we’ve somehow been cast a million miles away from whatever concert we thought we were attending. Great suns are rising and setting. Clouds form into mountains, then into lightning, then into thousands of turning flowers. And on and on it goes.
A molten lava-like creature is stirring. It’s skin ripples with glass sharp scales as it transforms to fill our entire field of senses. Blaring a white hot cacophony of wicked colors which gush out like an uncapped torrent, the band drives deeply into a completely frenzied expression of Space, and leaves us powerless to defend anything as we slip into Drums.
The Space which then returns after Drums is breathtaking. It’s as if we have walked right back into the pre-Drum chaos. Nothing sounds done out of routine, whatsoever. By no means is the band just playing some weirdness because this is where it fits in the show. The music is doing things which defy all the laws of physics completely. Steal your face right off your head, indeed. There’s little sense in trying to describe things more accurately. This Space leaves you completely transformed. As it fades off, Phil can be heard hinting at Dark Star (no WAY!). Instead, the band turns on a dime into Truckin’ and the entire concert has returned around you. As if from a wormhole in another dimension, we are dropped back into something far more familiar to our human experience. There are people clapping along, hooting and hollering. The music dances. The band is playing back on a steady 4/4 beat. My God, where were we?
Truckin’ over delivers in most every way imaginable. When they hit the big power chord after the long triplet ramp up section, a shock wave erupts over the crowd. Just before this note there is a fraction of silence, which is common to all Truckin’s at this moment of the song. But it is somehow more this time. Perfectly executed, the entire band absolutely stops together, and hits that chord in perfect unison – a classic moment where we can hear more in the space between the music, than in the music itself.
The show closes with a Brokedown Palace which brings a spiritual serenity to the entire evening’s experience. In taking you to this quiet spot of personal grace, it actually succeeds in returning us all to a harmonious union; one to which we often don’t pay enough attention…
"Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul..."
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