The Grateful Dead Overwhelm SPAC: June 27, 1985

The Grateful Dead played SPAC only four times in their career and today marks the anniversary of the third show which, for better or worse, may be the most memorable one of them all. Unfortunately, the show is remembered more for being responsible for getting the Dead banned from SPAC for the next three years. Reportedly, more than 40,000 fans attended this show, with Deadheads traveling from all over, creating Woodstock-like traffic conditions in Upstate New York and the Saratoga area.

This crowd size might be suitable for a stadium show, but instead created a venue that was 17,000 people over capacity, producing a chain reaction of safety issues that could have easily endangered the massive crowd. The SPAC balcony for this show was a veritable zoo, packed beyond belief as a result of people rushing in and passes reportedly being dropped down from above. Things are so out of hand a first set PSA urging people to stop hanging from there needs to be done. The band would serve its time and return in grand fashion three years later, but not before one more rowdy show that features a bevy of live Dead standards and traditional blues covers.

The show kicks off in a rather atypical fashion with a cover of the recently revived “In The Midnight Hour.” The Dead had dusted off this Wilson Pickett cover and refashioned it into an opener for a brief span in 1985. After some quick vocal sparring between Bob Weir and Brent Mydland, the band quickly launches into a much more familiar first set sight in “Bertha.” Jerry Garcia rips off the first of many effortless guitar solos and SPAC is officially all systems go.

“Little Red Rooster” follows and produces a sturdy blues jam, this time with Mydland going back and forth with Garcia on organ and guitar, respectively, that does a nice slow build in intensity. Afterwards, both Weir and bassist Phil Lesh essentially stop the show to admonish some fans who are hanging from the balcony railings and urge them to get back into their seats. Fittingly, the Dead then waste no time and jump right into a cover about an outlaw of another kind in “Stagger Lee.”

A pristine “El Paso” with some truly dulcet tones provided from Mydland’s electric piano then follows before Garcia begins to strum the opening chords to “Crazy Fingers.” A spirited Jerry powers through the vocals and delivers a string of delicate runs on the guitar with even more blissful background soundscapes emanating from Mydland’s rig. After a brief, exploratory jam the music then finds itself turning into a full-fledged “Supplication” jam, although no lyrics are ever sung. For some reason, the song was no longer paired with its traditional tag-team partner in “Lazy Lightnin’,” which the band stopped playing in 1984, and would only be a played a handful of times more in their career. The jam eventually loses steam and eventually dissolves seamlessly into “High Time.”

The Dead then wrap up the first set at SPAC with one of their newer live staples in a rousing “Hell In A Bucket” replete with more aggressive guitar play from Garcia and the boisterous vocal stylings of Bob Weir. The set then closes with a cover from way back when in a short and sweet “Don’t Ease Me In.”

The second set starts on a high note right from the gates and literally doesn’t come to a stop with a set full of nothing but segues. It begins with a “Feel Like A Stranger” that produces a riveting jam that seems to be picking up steam before Garcia seems to shift gears a little quicker than the rest of the band and steers it right into the beginning of “Eyes Of The World.” This lays down the foundation for another series of instrumental jams, spearheaded by Garcia’s frenetic runs up and down the fretboard.

The music then somehow finds its way to an early second set “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad” that’s supercharged and seemingly played at a quicker than normal pace. After some brief indecision, and a possible nudge into “Not Fade Away,” the Dead instead veer into the ever prescient “Women Are Smarter.”

The band then yields the floor to the Rhythm Devils, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, for some percussive and psychedelic relief with the traditional “Drums” > “Space” sequence. From the depths of “Space,” some familiar chords begin to emerge and the Dead launch into a “Truckin'” with the “New York’s got the ways and means line” getting a serious round of applause from the SPAC faithful. Instead of stretching this out a bit, the night’s ongoing theme of blues covers then carries on with a take of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” with Weir ably manning the vocals.

The short, bluesy jam lends itself perfectly to the intro to “Black Peter” as the Grateful Dead keep the second set’s train of songs going without nary a stop. The Dead then unleash the last three covers from their musical holster to wrap up the evening’s festivities, starting with a set closing “Turn On Your Lovelight” that produces one more brief, boisterous jam with Weir singing the vocals that the legendary Pigpen used to make his own in a different time.

The encore selections could very well serve as a subliminal message to the overflowing crowd that helped make this the last Grateful Dead show at SPAC for three years as well as a nod to the upcoming ban. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was the first choice, perhaps an indirect message for the Dead faithful to respect the rules and capacity figures for venues going forward. A fitting closer in Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” then closes out this show and begins the three-year wait for the Dead’s return to Saratoga.

Grateful Dead Saratoga Performing Arts Center – Saratoga, NY 6/27/85

Set 1: In The Midnight Hour, Bertha, Little Red Rooster, Stagger Lee, El Paso, Crazy Fingers > Supplication Jam > High Time, Hell In A Bucket > Don’t Ease Me In

Set 2: Feel Like A Stranger > Eyes Of The World > Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad > Man Smart (Woman Smarter) > Drums > Space > Truckin’ > Spoonful > Black Peter > Turn On Your Lovelight

E: Johnny B. Goode, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

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