The Grateful Dead played their one and only show in Alfred, New York, 51 years ago today. After gigs at their usual stomping grounds like the Fillmore West and the Family Dog in San Francisco the previous month, May 1970 kicked off with the Dead going to school, playing this evening at Alfred College and the following night at Harpur College in Binghamton. These legendary performances serve as the first known “An Evening With The Grateful Dead” shows, where the band would be joined by others and play interlocking sets.
Their friends in New Riders of the Purple Sage would join the Grateful Dead at Alfred College this evening, and the following night, playing a joint opening acoustic set, before a set of their own music, with a set of electric Dead wrapping things up. It can be argued that this helped lay the groundwork of the formation of a traditional Grateful Dead show: an opening set with more acoustic, straightforward tunes before a set of heavy improvisational numbers.
The show starts off with an acoustic “Deep Elem Blues” with guitarist Jerry Garcia on lead vocals. The harmonies are certainly a little richer on this one, thanks to the additional backing support from their friends in New Riders. In an interview later this year, Garcia would explain this brand new format and the kind of live show it created.
What we’ve been doing in the States lately is having like ‘an evening with the Grateful Dead.’ We start off with acoustic music with Bobby and I playing guitars, light drums and very quiet electric bass. Pigpen plays the organ. Then we have a band we’ve been travelling with, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, where I play pedal steel, not guitar, Mickey plays drums, and three of our friends from the coast, musicians that we’ve known for a long time, are fronting the band. So we start off with acoustic music and then The New Riders of the Purple Sage — it’s like very snappy electric country-rock; it’s kinda hard to describe — and then we come on with the electric Dead, so it keeps us all really interesting, and it’s six hours of this whole development thing. By the end of the night it’s very high.Jerry Garcia, 5/24/70
After “Elem,” a traditional blues cover the band recently re-adopted after playing once in 1966, the opening set carries on with a unique version of “I Know You Rider.” This one is played at a super slow, folksy tempo compared to the traditional Dead version of later years and features an additional verse with the lyrics: I’d rather drink muddy water / Than sleep in a hollow log.” Definitely not your customary “Rider.” Following this, fellow guitarist Bob Weir promises the rapt Alfred College crowd a song about “simian creatures behind the wheel” and the band delivers a quick take of “Monkey And The Engineer.” At its conclusion, Garcia does not cease strumming and quickly leads the group into a flawlessly acoustic “Candyman.”
At its conclusion, Garcia beckons their friends David Nelson and John “Marmaduke” Dawson from NRPS to join them on stage. They make their collective presence immediately felt with a super-harmonized take on “Me And My Uncle.” This alt-country tune about gambling and betrayal sits square in the Riders’ musical wheelhouse and their presence make this one a truly pleasant version. The same can be said of the “Mama Tried” that comes next.
“Cumberland Blues,” a Dead tune that lends itself perfectly to vocal harmonies, goes off without a hitch next, with all guitars (and voices) on stage very much in synch. Nelson and “Marmaduke” stay on stage for the rest of the opening acoustic set and later contribute to a cover of The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” which is succeeded by “New Speedway Boogie.” It’s only the tenth ever version of this Dead original penned by Garcia and famed lyricist Robert Hunter and the first ever on the East Coast. It’s a version so tight that it has Garcia and a least one other audibly “whooing” in delight mid-song.
The incredible musicianship and harmonies that serve as this opening act comes to a close with “Cold Jordan,” another traditional cover with hymnal-like lyrics that the Dead and NRPS would play together this year. And then a pristine take of “Uncle John’s Band,” replete with three-part harmonies. While it may not have all the accolades of the following night’s acoustic set at Harpur College in Binghamton, it’s beautiful in its own right and certainly merits a listen.
At its conclusion, Garcia states they’ll be back later with their “electric” stuff and preps the crowd for an incoming Pigpen performance. To start this last portion of the evening, “Not Fade Away” is the selection, done in traditional Grateful Dead-style. Garcia fires off a bevy of emotional guitar riffs and the double drumming tandem of Hart and Bill Kreutzmann only add to the power this one generates. Then, as promised, Pigpen takes center stage and lends his signature vocal prowess and swagger on a cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.”
For a listen to this classic acoustic set and the opening two “electric” numbers check out the video below or go here.
The Grateful Dead close out the Alfred College gig with an absolutely ferocious “The Other One,” that’s sandwiched by “Cryptical Envelopment” on both sides, quite commonplace during this era. Bassist Phil Lesh finally gets a chance to let loose and explore the fret board, leading the band through this high octane, psychedelic sequence. The latter half of “Envelopment” gets particularly spacy and intricate at parts.
“High Time” gives Garcia one last chance to sing lead, justifiably slowing things down significantly from the improvisational madness that preceded it. Pigpen then sends the crowd home on a high note, ripping through another R&B-infused cover, this time Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight.” It serves as a more than fitting final number for a show that may have subconsciously helped shape the way live Grateful Dead shows are formatted for years to come.
Grateful Dead – Alfred College, Alfred, NY – May 1, 1970
Set 1: Deep Elem Blues, I Know You Rider, Monkey and the Engineer -> Candyman, Me And My Uncle, Mama Tried, Cumberland Blues, The Race Is On, Wake Up Little Susie, New Speedway Boogie, Cold Jordan Uncle John’s Band
Set 2: Not Fade Away, Hard To Handle, Cryptical Envelopment ->Drums ->
The Other One ->Cryptical Envelopment, High Time, Turn On Your Lovelight