The Dead Unleash A ‘Beautiful’ Array Of Debuts At The Cap: February 18, 1971

Today marks the anniversary of the start of The Grateful Dead’s fourth and final residency at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester. Affectionately known as “The Cap,” this small theater certainly helped build the legacy of The Dead in New York and beyond. The first show here in 1971 may well be a leading cause of this. Not only does it offer a host of songs from the recently released and acclaimed American Beauty album, it also features a wealth of brand new songs that made their live debut this evening and would become concert regulars in the years to come. Throw in one of the most “beautiful” pieces of collective improvisation that the band has ever played and you’ve got a show for the ages right here.

This legendary run at The Cap starts off with a new song that’s soon to become a Grateful Dead staple, a rip-roaring “Bertha.” It’s only the third one ever played after two live performances in December of 1970 and the first time it’s ever opened a show. It seems a little quicker than its customary tempo, with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir nailing the harmonized vocals. After a presumable audience request for “Casey Jones,” Jerry Garcia notes the next song “isn’t driving a train, but it’s almost as good” before the Dead launch into “Truckin’.” This American Beauty tune has a little more experience under its belt in the live setting and an extremely crisp and cohesive version ensues, with a short bluesy jam spearheaded by Garcia on the tail end. Batting in the third spot this evening is Pigpen, who steps up to the plate, harmonica in tow, and maintains the early blues vibe with a classic rendition of “It Hurts Me Too.”

After some more post-song extended tuning, a tradition Weir notes is “older than music itself,” Garcia jumps back on the mic and leads the band through another new number. This time it’s “Loser,” the first one ever performed live. It’s a well honed version that’s again a little faster than its successors but played beautifully (a sign of things to come) with a hair-raising guitar solo thrown in by Garcia. A chatty Bob Weir then begs for indulgence from the audience for another brand new song to follow that winds up being “Greatest Story Ever Told.” It’s a quick take that fizzles out shortly but instead of more post-song tuning, the Dead keep it going and immediately segue into a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

Weir maintains his presence on lead vocals for the cautionary tale of “Mama Tried” that follows before handing the baton back to Pigpen for his signature cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.” This yields another significant blues-inspired jam with drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart helping set the pace. What follows this may be one of the most awe inspiring and notable sequences of Grateful Dead music in their storied history. It’s a “Wharf Rat” sandwich with two mesmerizing slices of “Dark Star” serving as the bread. “Dark Star” starts off extremely patient and melodic before Garcia comes in with the opening verse. After petering out into full ambience, Garcia seems to hit the opening note of “St. Stephen,” which often followed “Dark Star” in this era, but instead the Dead collectively turn on a dime and unleash another newcomer with the heartfelt and poignant first ever “Wharf Rat.” As it comes to end, the second serving of “Dark Star” emerges. But before it truly begins, the Dead continue to noodle around and steer the music into a joyous, euphoric piece of improv that’s simply known as the “Beautiful Jam.” This serves as the vessel that carries the music back into “Dark Star,” which completes this awe inspiring section of music that’s included on the Dead’s five-disc So Many Roads the celebrates the band’s entire career.

Many years later, bassist Phil Lesh seems to be brought almost to tears after listening to this heralded piece of music from The Cap thanks to Dead historian David Gans.

Somehow this doesn’t even complete the first set this evening. The Dead throw in a “Me And My Uncle” to close it out and earn themselves a well-deserved set break. The band emerges from this clearly in high spirits, giving some recommendations for the house light settings before starting the second set with an energized “Casey Jones” aka “that train driving” song. This sets the stage for yet another live Dead debut at The Cap that would go on to be an integral part of their history: “Playing In The Band.” It stays pretty close to the vest and doesn’t produce a drawn out, show-defining psychedelic jam like future ones will, but all the signs of a live show staple for years to come are there.

Photo by Peter Corrigan

Weir stays on lead vocals for the cover of “Me And Bobby McGee” that comes next before Garcia takes over for another number from American Beauty with a vintage rendition of “Candyman” that even includes harpsichord-like fills from Pigpen along with some more soulful vocal harmonies.

Pig then gets to take lead one last time and rips through another blues cover, this time it’s Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Then the last Beauty song of the evening emerges in “Sugar Magnolia.” It’s another fairly short yet explosive take that sees Garcia using the wah-effect on electric guitar to its full capabilities. This gets a warm reception from the Cap crowd, surpassed only by the one that the beginning notes of the “Saint Stephen” that follows receives. With the “William Tell Bridge” shelved as of 1969, instead Kreutzmann and Hart lead the percussive-heavy charge into “Not Fade Away” as the second set’s closing sequence begins to unfold.

The Dead offer up one final sandwich to The Cap with a “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad,” replete with Weir’s wailing vocals, that feeds right back into “Not Fade Away.” And to cap things off (no pun intended), the music then immediately flows into a show closing “Uncle John’s Band” that’s played to perfection. Although there would be another five shows still to come in Port Chester, this one serves as the end of an era of sorts, with drummer Mickey Hart leaving the band the following day for his three-year self-imposed hiatus.

Grateful Dead Capitol Theater – Port Chester, NY 2/18/71

Set 1: Bertha, Truckin’, It Hurts Me Too, Loser, Greatest Story Ever Told > Johnny B. Goode, Mama Tried, Hard To Handle, Dark Star > Wharf Rat > Dark Star > Me And My Uncle

Set 2: Casey Jones, Playing In The Band, Me And Bobby McGee, Candyman, Big Boss Man, Sugar Magnolia, Saint Stephen > Not Fade Away >Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad > Not Fade Away > Uncle John’s Band

The entire show can also be found on YouTube.

bill kreutzmannBob WeirCapitol Theatergrateful deadJERRY GARCIAMickey HartPhil Lesh