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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

1981 March 9 - Madison Square Garden

Monday, March 9, 1981
Madison Square Garden - New York, NY
Audience Recording
The maturation process for a Deadhead tape collector is a very interesting thing indeed. Whether it's in the way one slowly develops an ear to "hear" a year from just a few seconds of a song, or gains the ability to call a tune long before it starts based off of random between-song noodling happening on stage; with more listening comes the perception of subtleties and nuances which can elude other less experienced ears.

One subtle nuance that sticks with me from the time long before I was a seasoned listener myself is that of being able to discern a "really on" show from one that might be considered "normal." "On" refers to that level of play which goes decidedly over the top from what we might consider a regular Grateful Dead performance. It's different than a "good show." It's actually more about a certain extra layer of sparkle, for lack of a better explanation.

This nuance sticks out for me because I distinctly remember having no clue how to discern the "really on" attribute at all. And I recall not caring. I recall feeling like every new tape that passed through my mail box was "really on" as far as I was concerned. In this, my ignorance truly was bliss.

And then I heard 03/09/81.

Shows from the 80's tend to blur together. Maybe this makes it somehow easier for certain performances to stand out -- I'm not sure. Regardless, one song in to 03/09/81 and it becomes abundantly clear that Jerry is on. I suppose recognizing this takes at least having heard enough shows to create a frame of reference, but during his solo in Feel Like A Stranger, when his amplifier tubes are being pushed to the edge of destruction -- an over saturated and piercing tone -- Jerry explodes like a plume of liquid starlight. It's not a long passage, but it's more than enough to make anyone within an ear's distance cock an eyebrow and smile. And this quality proceeds to infuse the entire night's performance. There's something about Garcia all night. He is really on.

Before diving into the show, it's also worth noting that this Barry Glassberg audience recording is quite certainly one of the very best audio documents around. Clear from the first notes, this recording oozes with the power to whisk you directly out of your everyday existence, and land you squarely in the sweetest spot imaginable at a 1981 Dead show.

Set 1: Feel Like A Stranger, Althea > C. C. Rider, Ramble On Rose > El Paso, Deep Elem Blues, Beat It On Down The Line, Bird Song, Minglewood Blues
Set 2: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider> Samson & Delilah, Ship Of Fools, Estimated Prophet > Uncle John's Band > Drums > Space > Other One > Stella Blue > Good Lovin' E: U. S. Blues

Highlights tumble over each other throughout the show. Almost no song goes untouched by Garcia's clearly overreaching endeavors. Beyond the riveting Stranger to open the first set, Bird Song contains wonders both great and small. There are lines in Jerry's solo that pierce the air; repeating phrases that echo down miles of mental canyons, forcing the song's dynamics to pull in every extreme. Then there are passages spun into endlessly intricate tapestries with threads as thin as hair; gossamer strands of coiling moonlight. This is a version not to be missed.

A fine China>Rider opens the second set, and within the transition is a deliciously long intro jam to I Know You Rider. It finds Jerry repeatedly allowing himself an extra set of measures, unwilling to step off into the song itself. This forces us to become more and more lost in the moment, and the intoxicating nature of the second set is only just starting. The Rider bounding directly into Samson & Delilah is a nice added delight.

The music expanding out of Estimated Prophet sounds like a slowed down China>Rider groove that slowly undulates, breathing whispers and mysteries. The 7/8 time signature quickly evaporates and every note becomes syncopated upon the last. Soon we are on slow rolling hills with each musician following his own lazy path. Subtly, Garcia massages a key change and the jam slips into Comes A Time territory bringing with it a familiar and joyous opening of the heart. Garcia's notes sing, and we are smiling forever, deliciously lost with the band.

Sun flakes settle, and murmurings echo quietly around us. The music is thinking, pondering its next direction. Like a slowly drawn curtain, Uncle John's Band is revealed. Always a perfect choice, we are swept in, spinning on the trails of Jerry's lightly arching melodies. When we sail into the final section of the song, his solo is a mix of staccato swirls and bursting bird calls. Edges sharpen and Garcia's tone fluctuates between ice and honey. The jam takes on the pure Grateful Dead voice, defying song identification. We are resting close to the music's soul here, and invisibly we pass into Drums & Space.

Treated to a post Space Other One, things can hardly get any more satisfying. As is often the case, the band demands surrender across treacherous terrain. Boulders and lighting, ancient masks and imploding planets -- the rush of sensory overload tips us over the edge. Hopeless to define a myriad of images that pass in great thousand year gusts, we merge with the music completely.

Edges give way, and miraculously we emerge out of the second verse into a gleaming, towering hall of trees lit from within. The music swirls delicately between branches nearly unseen. Jerry's voice appears leading us through a delicate and touching Stella Blue. Once again, the band exudes a tenderness that elevates the musical experience beyond mere Rock ‘n Roll.

Once hearing this show, it might be easier for you to put your finger on nuances that separate the different levels of Grateful Dead performances. This show is a lesson in hearing the energy within the music, and recognizing it in other places forever afterward.


  1. I'm a relatively new head, and have basically just been exploring the archives on my own, no guidance at all. Until about a month ago I found this site. You, my friend, can put into words what I feel as I listen to this music. The words I just can't find when trying to explain The Dead's music to my friends. I've only just begun to read the numerous blogs you've posted, but I very much appreciate you taking up the position of taper/trader living across the street, since I don't have a guide for this life expanding adventure that is the Grateful Dead.
    Thank you for providing me with wonderful reviews that shimmer in the sunlight as I explore this amazing world of music. I'm excited to give this one a listen. Last time you had a review of a show that was a step above the rest it was 1970-06-24 (how I found this blog in the first place) and I was ready for something amazing, you having put it up on the pedestal. I was so blown away, and since then I pretty much just take your advice, knowing your suggestion's good. :) Thanks for this service.

  2. Mikey - My new best friend! :-) Thanks for the kind words. It means everything to hear about how the site is doing what was intended.

    I wouldn't quite call 3/9/81 at the same par with 6/24/70 though. That's a tough act to follow. :-)

  3. It certainly is a tough act to follow. Based on your blog on 6/24 I held off on it for a little while. I downloaded and had it, but I waited for a little while until the right time to hear it, cuz I just had the impression that it would just about change my life. And boy did it. I haven't given it to any of my friends yet (they're not nearly as much of a head as I am) because I want them to know the music well enough to realize how special that night was. Oh man. Crazy.
    I probably won't put this one on the shelf like I did that one, as I know my way around the dead better than I did then, but that said, I want to listen to it when I have time to just kick back a relax and give it my full attention.
    And to repeat what I said before, this site is definitely doing what was intended. Whenever I'm looking for another show to grab I get on and pick one, read the review and then listen to that sweet sweet music. I am very thankful I found a way to get through some of the massive collection of shows with a guide, rather than just grabbing random shows. It works, but it left me feeling helpless sometimes, and now I no longer am. :) I anticipate I'll be getting on this site pretty frequently for a long time to come.

  4. Hmmmm . . . very interesting. After a year of dead listening, I'm achieving some degree of maturation. However, I must admit that most shows sound fantastic to me. Oddly enough, I wasn't long into this one when I realized there something special about it. At first I thought it was the quality of the recording, which is vastly superior to most of the AUDS. Upon reflection I am thinking that maybe that combination of great playing and stellar recording is foundation for advancing to that next level of appreciation. Thanks Captain Icepetal for the guided tour!

  5. Excellent selection, Noah - thanks as always for pointing out these gems that even some of us, (almost but not quite), AARP members might not have been familiar with :-) How 'bout a couple more of these "ON" shows, maybe to compare and contrast with this one? Kind'a like going around the tracks on a roller coaster, and then not getting off but going around again...

  6. Thanks for the guidance. '81 has always been a favorite year of mine. The 80's seem to be an endless cavern ready for exploration. Glassberg's recording on this one is especially sweet. He really nailed capturing the beautiful tone of Garcia's guitar and the full power or the entire band. Fantastic. Once again thank you so much for all you work. This blog is always a pleasure to check out.

  7. Hey Noah! Just last night I was listening to an interview with Barry Glassberg, Jerry Moore, and Rob Bertrando:

    This morning thought I would check your blog and here is Barry's 3/9/81 AUD. I haven't listened to this in awhile but I certainly recall Garcia's playing - Barry's tape really gives that sense of the notes floating and sparkling in the air.

  8. Wow! This is a nice show for sure. Aside from the excellent recording and Jerry's playing there are other elements to the show which stand out to me. The whole show has a groove that is both relaxed and yet tense at the same time. Phil, Mickey, Bill are settled in, yet they drive the show to the next destination. Bobby's rhythm guitar cuts through Jerry's round tone. Brent's keyboard does bog up the sound. Everyone is singing in key (we are not always blessed with this...). Jerry is in fine form. Finally, the band engages in musical conversation.

    Thanks again for providing a wonderful service.

  9. Ooops...I made an error in my last comment. I left out the word 'not' in a sentence. Brent's playing does NOT bog up the sound. Apologies...

  10. Looks like someone is reading this blog...

  11. Yeah, this is a lovely show. There are some corking 'Fire's and 'Stella Blues' from the Eighties, probably more beautiful as Garcia's voice got ever more fragile. And he always benefitted for a renewed dynamism in his relationship with a keyboardist, and by this show Mydland was really finding his feet.

  12. My first Show wasn't until Nassau 4-11-82, but 3-9-81 was one of my first tapes, and it is the show I refer to as the show that turned me into a Deadhead. Jerry's tone and demeanor were very aggressive. Love this show! Still one of my favorites. Stranger, Althea, CC, Minglewood, Ramble, Deep Elem, China Rider are the version I usual compare virtually all all to.

  13. This is the show that turned me into a Deadhead! Many versions of the songs from this night are ones that I compare all other to. It was one of my first tapes as I saw my first show at Nassau 4-11-82. Love this show!

  14. Great Blog!

    This Ramble On is sparse and clear and exact - just a great version!

  15. Thanks for this. I'm more of a '72-74 & '77 guy but this is undeniable. Jerry is really coming through clear and impassioned. This Stella is really breathtakingly beautiful. One reason I like this over other '80's show I've heard is that Brent is more like humble Keith if you get my drift. He adds harmonies and piano lines like an accompanist rather than a fronting member, which for me doesn't work so well later on.
    Again, thanks for giving us some maps to the treasure. Love your sign posts

  16. Best Althea I've ever heard, and I've made a point of comparing them all!!

  17. These Feb & March '81 shows were what it took to finally drag me out of the '70's closet. From the Uptown on the 26th to the 10th at MSG are well worth giving a listen to if you never have [or haven't in awhile ;)]

  18. Great recommendation, this show made my morning. Thanks for the post. The Glassberg AUDs I've heard are all high quality and this is one of the best. Check out his AUD of 1977/05/03 - the best sounding audience recording I've come across.


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