Today marks the anniversary of the maiden voyage for the Grateful Dead to Utica. Certainly no strangers to New York City and the Hudson Valley by 1973, the Dead would soon begin to make their mark all over the Empire State. The band was still very much in the emotional wake of the recent death of founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan who was laid to rest just weeks earlier. The first shows afterwards were three nights at the Nassau Coliseum and now this new iteration of the Dead headed upstate for two more in Oneida County. This first night of music is an impressive showing from start to finish, filled with fan favorites and a whole bunch of new material debuted earlier this year. It’s all gas and very little breaks as the set list will attest, just the latest dose of good music at the Aud with Santana having played here last month and Procol Harum scheduled for a gig next month.
The recording for this show doesn’t start until the tail end of the show-opening “Bertha,” picking up in the middle of a Jerry Garcia-led jam before its closing verse. The audio quality itself is more than passable though and the Dead launch into a first set staple in “Me And My Uncle” next. The opening set also features a “Wave That Flag,” a song that would only be played a handful of times on this spring tour in 1973 before later being formally resurrected as “U.S. Blues” next year. It’s the same melody and general song structure, just with some slightly different lyrics along side some ultra jazzy piano fills from Keith Godchaux.
After some customary post-song tuning, things take a turn for the mellow as Bob Weir takes the helm for the delicate “Looks Like Rain.” It’s a wonderful display of group musicianship as the playing ebbs and flows along with the emotional progression of the song, peaking in a short but explosive jam that the Utica crowd loudly acknowledges. The “Tennessee Jed” that follows gets stretched out even further, with a catchy jam that comes to a slow crescendo, before the Dead reign it back in with a “Box Of Rain” that sees Donna Jean Godchaux backing up bassist Phil Lesh on vocals on the American Beauty classic. Donna then assumes lead vocal duty for a cover of the Loretta Lynn tune, “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” another song only played a handful of times in 1973.
The opening set of music then reenters the “boy’s club,” so to speak, with the next two song selections, one old and one new. A spirited but quick run through of another first set stalwart in “Jack Straw” precedes a still-fledgling “Row Jimmy” that was debuted just last month, but all the same, sees the band tugging at the collective musical heart strings once more. Afterwards, presumably in response to crowd requests for “Saint Stephen,” Phil Lesh loudly affirms they “don’t do that one anymore” with Weir adding, “Because we liked it too much.” It wouldn’t be played live again for more than another three years.
Instead, the Dead run through the old, reliable “Beat It On Down The Line” before treating Utica to another live show newcomer. This time it’s a mesmerizing “Here Comes Sunshine” that sees guitarists Garcia and Weir complementing each other wonderfully on a song that certainly shows the potential to be a fixture for the years to come but, oddly, would be shelved for almost twenty years instead.
An already marathon-like first set then continues with, fittingly, a crisp take of “The Race Is On” with Weir impressing on rhythm guitar before Garcia takes the baton and leads the way through an incredibly emotive “Loser.” After Weir then follows suit with a Western-themed song of his own in “El Paso,” The Dead finally bring the landing gear down on their first ever set at the Memorial Auditorium in Utica with an absolutely flawless run through of “China Cat Sunflower” along with a vintage “blink and you miss it” segue into “I Know You Rider.” Then, for good measure, they tack on a “Playing In The Band” after this that the “core four” of Garcia, Weir, Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann just run circles around. The jam instantly goes dark and deep, taking its sweet time before coming back up for air. It’s one of the show’s true highlights and caps off a lengthy first set that lasts well more than 90 minutes.
There’s no signs of this show slowing down anytime soon as the Dead reemerge for the second set with a feisty “Greatest Story Ever Told” that’s accentuated by Donna Jean’s passionate vocals. The band then introduces another newcomer to the scene, one of the earliest played versions of “They Love Each Other,” in its original faster, shuffle-like tempo that’s laid down smoothly by Kreutzmann. Afterwards, Weir and Garcia go tit-for-tat once more as they trade lead vocal duties on “Mexicali Blues” and “Brown Eyed Women,” respectively, before teaming up on a cover of “Big River” as the band keeps churning out songs.
The tide then turns back to the introspective with the delicate “Brokedown Palace” that follows along with a triumphant take of “Me and Bobby McGee” with some spirited backup vocals from Garcia. After another long tuning break, the Dead come out of the huddle with a fakeout of sorts as they play the airy instrumental “Weather Report Suite Prelude” but then instantly shift gears and drop into one of their signature psychedelic soundscapes, “Dark Star,” which more than ably takes cares of the “Space” portion for this Grateful Dead show.
Emerging from the “Dark Star” haze are the opening chords for another song soon to be a second set fixture for years to come, “Eyes Of The World,” which also made its live debut just last month. The Dead go deep once more here, with another fifteen-plus minute jam highlighted by some pure guitar wizardry from both Garcia and Lesh.
Things slow down one last time with the “Wharf Rat” that follows, a song that happened to make its debut at a legendary show at New York’s Capitol Theatre in Port Chester two years ago. The strides the song has made during this time are evident as a noticeably blues-driven collective jam gets attached to the back end of this one before coming to a standstill. To close out this impressive display of their ever-growing musical catalog, the Dead dole out a few more longtime favorites to the Utica crowd starting with an emphatic “Sugar Magnolia” that Bob and Donna Jean drive home. A set-closing “Casey Jones” then serves as the de facto encore this evening, wrapping up an extensive three-plus hours of music and setting the stage for a repeat performance here the following night.
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Grateful Dead Utica Memorial Auditorium – Utica, NY 3/21/73
Set 1: Bertha, Me & My Uncle, Wave That Flag, Looks Like Rain, Tennessee Jed, Box Of Rain, You Ain’t Woman Enough, Jack Straw, Row Jimmy, Beat It On Down The Line, Here Comes Sunshine, The Race is On, Loser, El Paso, China Cat Sunflower-> I Know You Rider, Playin’ In The Band
Set 2: Greatest Story Ever Told, They Love Each Other, Mexicali Blues, Brown Eyed Women, Big River, Brokedown Palace, Me And Bobby McGee, Weather Report Suite Prelude-> Dark Star-> Eyes Of The World-> Wharf Rat-> Sugar Magnolia, Casey Jones