Western New York has always provided safe haven for the Grateful Dead and among their more popular stops in the region is Rochester, specifically the War Memorial. The band would play 15 known gigs in the Flower City during their historic touring career. Ten of them would be in this building. Unfortunately, the later part of this 1978 tour had to be cut short due to an ailing Jerry Garcia. But there were certainly heaters to be had before then, this show among them.
After an opening roar of electric guitars, the show begins in earnest with “Promised Land,” a popular Chuck Berry cover. Keith Godchaux plays some inspired keys on this one behind the guitar play and makes his presence felt early. Afterwards comes the first of three “Take A Step Back” announcements from Bob Weir, looking out for the “bug-eyed” folks in the front row. Once that’s accomplished, the instrumental into of “They Love Each Other” kicks in with Jerry Garcia manning the vocals. Unfortunately, some feedback issues mar this one a little bit early on. It’s salvaged though with a delightful Garcia solo and the continued strong play of Godchaux on keys.
Following an extended tuning break, the band bursts into “Cassidy,” with Donna Jean Godchaux now added to the vocal mix. It’s is a tidy yet superb version with the whole band in full synchronicity. This lays the foundation that’s topped with another poignant Garcia solo.
Choosing not to run with this momentum, another tuning break follows which seems to fuel the rabid audience even further. Out of this, “Dire Wolf” rears its head. Garcia’s vocals seem to improve a little on this one from earlier in the show before he infuses it with his traditional guitar licks.
Then comes round two of “Take A Step Back.” This time Weir’s pleas for the people on the floor to move back as much as they can is accompanied by a spattering of “Finiculi Finicula” from the band. Afterwards, Weir stays on the mic for lead vocals and leads the band through their Western classic, “Me And My Uncle.” They waste literally no time at its conclusion before launching into a raging “Big River,” thanks to an ultra-seamless transition they’ve perfected for these songs.
Things then slow down a bit with the relaxed pace of the “Row Jimmy” that follows. Jerry and Donna Jean’s vocals eventually merge nicely in this delicate yet fairly straight forward version. Afterwards, it’s Weir’s turn once again as he leads the Dead through “New Minglewood Blues.” Believe it or not, the five-show gap between its last performance was actually a fairly large one for this first set standard. Another opening set regular, “Loser,” follows before one last notable segue closes things out. A raucous “Jack Straw” that’s fueled by some blistering Garcia-supplied guitar licks towards the end. Before the last “wine” is even finished being sung, “Deal” starts up instantly. This concludes a first set that’s fairly standard in terms of song selection, but executed to near perfection.
The second set begins with one last plea from Weir to everyone on the floor to move back as much as possible. Then the Dead are off and running with “Bertha.” This longtime first set staple had now shifted to a regular spot in the second one in 1978. Starting with this tour and well into 1979, it was featured in the second set each time. And it was followed every time by a cover of The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” Tonight would be no different. While it may not have the same cachet as other traditional song pairings, “Bertha” > “Good Lovin'” was a verified couple from the middle of 1977 until late 1979, appearing next to each other every time played.
Jerry Garcia then leads the group through “Stagger Lee,” a cover of a traditional folk song about the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in 1985. Lloyd Price would later find fame with it thanks to his 1959 recording that topped the charts. After this rather atypical beginning to the second set, things begin to take a more familiar turn. “Estimated Prophet” sees Weir’s wailing vocals paired with Donna Jean’s harmonies that give it a nice touch. But the highlight is the tail end that sees Garcia gradually escalate a mesmerizing sequence through his guitar’s signature tone for this song. Bassist Phil Lesh is also heavily involved as the jam progresses.
Then, somewhat suddenly, Garcia pivots and begins strumming the opening rhythms to “Eyes Of The World.” This version is vintage 1978, with Garcia again taking lead and navigating the rest of the band through this beautifully crisp and funky rendition.
As the “Eyes” jam slowly peters out, The Rhythm Devils then take things over. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart get their moment in the sun with an all out 10-minute percussive assault in the traditional “Drums” section. The ecstatic War Memorial crowd and their approval can be heard loudly throughout.
After a brief “Space” section, the beginning of “Not Fade Away” starts in almost comical fashion with Garcia coming in extremely late on the beginning vocal section. It gets cleaned up nicely though and eventually stretches out into a full-fledged jam that melodiously stretches well past the ten-minute mark. Weir’s frenetic rhythm guitar play back Garcia wonderfully before the jam devolves into a slower pace and “Black Peter” appears. This, too, extends nicely with a patient and deliberate pace that’s peppered with more brilliant Garcia guitar fills.
The show maintains its vague theme of some odd song placements with a “Truckin'” that closes out the second set. The Rochester crowd once again noticeably voices their approval after the “New York’s got the ways and means” line as well as the nod to Buffalo.
In true Chuck Berry “bookending” fashion, the show ends with another cover of his, a quick romp through “Johnny B. Goode.” This puts the finishing touches on the fourth of ten overall shows the Grateful Dead played at the Rochester War Memorial.
Grateful Dead – War Memorial, Rochester, NY 11/21/78
I: Promised Land, They Love Each Other, Cassidy, Dire Wolf, Me & My Uncle> Big River, Row Jimmy, Minglewood Blues, Loser, Jack Straw, Deal
II: Bertha> Good Lovin’, Stagger Lee, Estimated Prophet> Eyes Of The World> Drums> Space> Not Fade Away> Black Peter> Truckin’
E: Johnny B. Goode
Grateful Dead Rochester