The Deadheads among you will recognize the reference to the show played by the Grateful Dead at the Augusta Civic Center, in (where else?) Augusta, Maine, on the 12th of October, 1984. Commonly acknowledged as one of the best concerts played by the Dead in the 80s, its reputation was sealed when it was included in a list of the top twenty Dead shows of all time, and then included as THE 1984 show in the CD box set release 30 Trips Around the Sun.
At the time, those of us who were lucky enough to be there had a sense that something special had happened. We may not have fully grasped the magnitude, we may not have wrapped our heads around the ultimate historical significance, we weren’t talking about top twenty all time lists, but we knew that the band had conjured up the magic that evening. I saw the Dead seven times that fall, twice in Worcester, MA (10/8 & 10/9), twice in Augusta (10/11 & 10/12), twice in Hartford, CT (10/14 & 10/15), and the tour closer at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse New York on 10/20.
The famous Augusta show was without question the peak of the tour, and within the show itself there was a moment that captured it all, that encapsulated what made the Dead the Dead. I’ll return to that in a moment. But the truth is the band was playing well in general that fall. They were having fun, throwing in some rare gems, mixing up the setlists. New England was cozy for the Dead, the venues all within a few hours drive of each other, many of the towns small, and that particular tour just happened to coincide with peak foliage, the oaks and maples deep into their oranges, yellows, and reds.
I guess what I am trying to say is as great as Augusta was, you could kind of see it (or feel it) coming. The vibe was good, Jerry energized and playing well, Mydland digging deep into a new found commitment to the blues and his Hammond B3, Weir as frisky as ever, and the drummers tight. Phil, for his part, was in a good personal space, sober, in love, and feeling groovy. The table was set.
And you could trace it in the arc of the shows. There was the explosive Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower > Jack Straw to open set two of night two in Worcester. It is true that the Help > Slip > Franklin’s is a bit sloppy and choppy, Jerry not quite keeping pace with the complicated transitional leads, but the venerable old Worcester Centrum simply explodes when the crowd realizes that Jack Straw is being served up in the heart of a strong second set. Night one in Augusta, by the way, is a strong show in its own right. The first set is particularly well played, with hot versions of Shakedown, Big River, Ramble on Rose, Looks Like Rain, and Might As Well.
And post Augusta the band played a phenomenal show in Hartford. Often lost in the shuffle of the greatness of Augusta, the 10/14 Hartford show is one for the ages, with an eleven song first set, a powerful run of China > Rider, Samson and Delilah, High Time, Estimated > Eyes, all before drums!! And then post-drums a gorgeous China Doll, with the breakout of Lovelight, only the 5th time the band had played the song since 1972. Whew!
But allow me to return, for a moment, to Augusta. A fair amount has been written about the 10/12/84 show. The energetic playing. The wild setlist, filled with rarities and songs only performed once or twice that entire year. The phenomenal Morning Dew, and the Good Lovin’ encore. But there was a moment, locked forever in my memory, that captured it all, that pushed the show from great to all-time top twenty lists, and that truly expressed the quintessence of what the Dead were after night after night, of how powerful it was when they found it, and of why we went to so many shows looking for it.
It was in the second set, post drums. There is a long, long jam, winding and twisting and turning out of the space. Garcia’s guitar weaves sonic theme after sonic theme, but keeps coming back to the graceful notes that lead into Playing in the Band. The problem was, they had played Playing in the Band the night before. What was Jerry doing? He brought the band right up to the edge of the song, and then danced away, then back again. The notes appeared and disappeared, circling, close, almost, and then gone again.
And here is the thing. We were all on that ride together, Garcia’s guitar like some kind of massive magic carpet that we all were riding. Even the band! It was electric, how closely they were listening, how intently following Jerry, how ready to be vessels for the great muse that was about to descend. And we were too! Knowing, even more so feeling that a giant and beautiful and powerful wave was about to crash, and we were all ready to ride it.
Then it happened. Jerry turned towards Weir and Lesh, peering at them over his glasses in that Jerry way. At that very moment Mickey leaned forward over his drum kit, yelling out to Bobby, ‘Playin?!’ Weir turned to the drummers for an instant, and with the briefest nod confirmed what was about to happen. Suddenly, with tremendous force and power, just as Bobby turned back to the mic, the entire band came together on the mystical ‘one.’ Playing in the Band – the ‘Playin’ playout’ section – just the end, the reprise – filled up the old Augusta Civic. I believe to this day the entire concrete shell of the building momentarily lifted a few feet off of God’s good earth, with 4,000 Deadheads aboard for the ride, and the greatest band we’d ever seen on one of their greatest nights.
In one of the oddest and nearly impossible karmic Grateful Dead occurrences, somehow, someone video taped that entire night in Augusta. Remember, this was 1984!! Like with seemingly everything else in the universe, you can find the video on Youtube. The quality is iffy, but there is no question that it is the show from that evening. You can’t see the drummers on the video – it is filmed from Phil’s side of the stage, and so you see some of Phil, and Bobby, Jerry, and Brent.
But that magic moment after the space is quite clear, vivd and captured for posterity by the mysterious videographer. You see Weir turn back towards the drum kit, confirming Mickey’s query, ‘Playin?!’ That slight nod, which I guess means something like ‘evidently so!’ And then the explosion. Still gives me chills. Even 34 years later.
Let there be songs to fill the air! And magic, too, that will last a lifetime.