True to form, I blew my own writing deadline, and that’s why Ed wrote this installment. Truth is, I was going to write about the night before this show, which would have been a mistake. Sure, there’s a good “Other One” that night, but this show is next-level, almost miraculous. Sometimes people like me, who only came to the Dead after everything was on the Archive, don’t quite know which shows are legendary, which ones people have been talking about since the night they happened. Picking the night before… this… is a great example of why it’s a bad idea not to learn a culture as you dive in. This one is an absolute killer.
— Kevin Lipe
July 18, 1976: Orpheum Theater, San Francisco, CA
Listen along: Archive.org, Relisten
As I said before, my second wave of Grateful Dead fandom came pre-internet — as opposed to my first wave of Dead fandom, which came before cassette tapes...
What live shows were available in 1991 varied wildly in quality. This show, however, is an example of one that was both available and a damn classic. The quality of the Maxell tape copy I picked up somewhere in Athens around this time was a re-re-re-re-dubbed copy of an FM broadcast by KSAN radio in San Francisco. The recording was bad, but the show was so good that I played it regularly for years, not ever knowing how to replace it.
Luckily for you, 21st century reader, this show is now available in all of its clean glory. Let's see how it holds up!
This was a weird year for the Dead, yet for this show, they are in their comfort zone too.
This was also one of the first (of many, sadly) tours the band really NEEDED rather than wanted to do. They’d recently lost their asses on their label and played just 4 shows in 1975 after “retiring” from live shows after closing out 1974 at Winterland.
Though 1976 saw a full-blown tour, the band played 24 shows across just seven venues. The show is at the Orpheum in San Francisco, at the end of a six-night run. It’s home turf and the band is loose, limber and locked in. Places like the Orpheum’s 2,000 or so seats could handle multiple-night runs and the band sold these shows nearly exclusively through their robust mailing list. There were home crowds through and through. The band also signed the right to broadcast a few of these shows on local radio. Thus, this show lived on well before the proliferation of tapers.
Now, the show: The Dead kick off the show with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and it is tight, which is how I characterize the entire first set. It’s a great set to give someone to illustrate 1970’s Dead as it's easy to listen to and strong throughout.
Also, any song that mentions Memphis or Mississippi is going to get tacit approval from me and Kevin.
Bobby fires up “Cassidy” and he and Donna do a great job of harmonizing - yes I said it. It’s a great way to get the show going. “Row Jimmy” brings the mood down, extending itself into a swaying crescendo.
An under three-minute “Mama Tried” gets the crowd back into a dancing mood, which was handy.
“Scarlet Begonias” bursts forth with one of the most delightfully silly basslines you’ve ever heard Phil play. On my shitty tape copy, I don’t think I could truly hear it. I don’t remember it. He is absolutely playing with the audience here. It’s a delight and my favorite part of the first set. They let the jam unwind a bit with Phil driving the boat for a while. The nerd is engaged. Bobby joins in the playful mood with a near reggae style and Jerry carries a delightful lead over the finish line.
We return to the dirge with “Looks Like Rain.” I’ve yet to hear a version of the song that truly moved me. Something about it doesn’t work for my ears, but this is a very solid one and they get all the juice out of it. Donna and Bobby are working well here again.
Jerry leans into a slow “Tennessee Jed,” an often reviled favorite of mine. There are some fun flourishes in here, but nothing that blows your hair back. It is a good reminder of how good these favorites can be when the band just hits the right spots rather than trying a big backflip and not sticking the landing.
Keith is able to shine through as the song is ending, picking up on Jerry’s solo and bringing the wonderful big piano sound that helped shape 70’s Dead.
Proto-Bobby Blues “New Minglewood Blues” is next. Again, it’s a very tight version - aside from a little word fumbling - with Jerry laying back in the beat and driving through the melody. Keith builds on his performance on Tennessee Jed and spends a little time going riff for riff with Jerry.
The band again takes its time with a particularly dusty “Loser.” And AGAIN, this isn’t an all-time version of it, but damned if this isn’t a grade A. Donna does a magnificent job elevating Jerry’s vocals and everyone takes a turn doing something both interesting and RIGHT, which is remarkable and rare.
Finally the first set ambles to a lovely end with an energetic “The Music Never Stopped” bringing a dang solid dead set to a close.
The second set though, are what Deadhead dreams are made of.
The first three songs — “Might As Well,” “Samson & Delilah,” and “Candyman” carry the very-good-but-not-remarkable benchmark from the first set forward. There are some really hot licks and solos in here. This might be the best version of “Might as Well” of all time and there the “Samson” is fun, too (and again, tight).
After a gentle and delicate “Candyman” — which Keith and Donna really shine on — there must be electricity in the air. Because this is what comes next:
Lazy Lightning >
Let It Grow >
Let It Grow >
Wharf Rat >
The Other One >
Saint Stephen >
Not Fade Away >
Saint Stephen >
The Wheel >
The Other One >
Dang. I remember seeing this in 1991 and being deeply confused how there could be so many arrows.
Taking you through each song as it morphs and rolls and reforms into something new feels like an impossible task... so I’m just going to give you the things that stuck out.
This is one of the earliest performances of “Lazy Lightning > Supplication” as the Kingfish album had recently come out. The Dead played it for the first time live just a month earlier in Portland on this tour. “The Wheel” is also new, having debuted at the same show.
There are two “Drums” here, and remarkably, both seem natural and unforced.
“Let it Grow” “Saint Stephen” and “The Other One” all make comebacks, much to the crowd’s delight.
On its first fly-by, “Saint Stephen” bursts through the clouds like a revelation. It is very slow on the front end. When the band loops back after “Not Fade Away,” it is nearly a completely different tune. It’s a real magic trick for a song that already had a lot of miles on it in 1976.
The whole set flows from one tune to another as smooth as silk. There are no hiccups or moments that feel forced. It’s an accomplishment for a band to move through their material with such finesse and mastery. It all just works.
This is a supremely lovely “Stella Blue.” Keith’s tinkling piano supports Jerry as he tries to connect his voice to every soul in the room. The jam finally ends bringing a fantastic and enthusiastic “Sugar Magnolia,” as a rollicking closer to a classic. It’s a calm and confident version with Keith again finding a wonderful jazzy piano line that deserves multiple listens.
Phil gets swept up in the big piano chords too and he holds them up with a beautifully clean walking bassline through the duration. Delightfully, Jerry slips to the background and lets Phil and Keith go off. The balance is just right.
The encore is “Johnny B. Goode,” which, on a set list of this magnitude, may look like a bummer. I am not one to criticise the Chuck Berry covers, though I do not expect the clouds to part when the Dead roll one out.
For those that hate them, this version will not sway you.
I like to imagine the fans in the theater.
Having just heard that incredible second set, many of these fans, having likely seen several nights of the run, were swept up in rock n roll and dumped back onto the street with one last dance. C’mon, y’all; that’s just good fun right there.
That’s probably overly romantic. It’s a hell of a show.
— Ed Arnold
The Other One
This song should be the national anthem. I’ve been an MC5 fan since high school, but I only learned about Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and “City Slang” because Memphis band The Secret Service covered it on their album circa 2005 or so, and I didn’t know it was a cover for several years after that. I’m not that cool.
Supposedly the lyrics were different every time this song was performed. That feels like it should be true, even if it isn’t, because who can tell what he’s saying anyway? And could it matter less? — KL