It's midnight at the last show at the Winterland Ballroom - apt word that, it was a ball; the New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball. And right on the stroke of midnight the familiar intro to "Sugar Magnolia" floats through the auditorium mingling with the crackle of bursting balloons, seemingly millions of which had just cascaded down from vast nets in the rafters. This isn't a concert, it's a party - and do the Deadheads know how to party! And how! Mysterious figures slip through the throng giving out little red envelopes inscribed with gold Chinese patterns containing very interesting contents, so close in quality to the Dead's own that one suspects...

There's no time for applause as no sooner has "Sugar Magnolia" wafted away than they burst into a powerful version of "Scarlet Begonias". Memories immediately flood back of that same tune flashing through my brain while walking around Grosvenor Square on my way to getting my visa from the US embassy. It develops into a shuffling groove with delightful scat singing from Donna Godchaux. And as I get blown away to the depths of outer and inner space, the ludicrousness of the situation dawns on me; not only is this being transmitted in its entirety over the FM airwaves, but it's also being televised in its entirety too. Earlier, the TV cameras were threading through the multitude as some bozo interviewed some of the masqueraders. All of a sudden it occurs to me that they're playing "Fire On The Mountain" now and the difference between live Dead and studio Dead is pinpointed with deadly accuracy.

"Fire On The Mountain" ends, the audience erupts and miscellaneous sparking noises issue from the stage; fire on the amplifiers? Weir explains that the equipment crew is 'dealing with a problem of a highly technical nature' and Bill Graham, orchestrator of the event, strolls on and wishes everyone a very happy New Year again and 'thank you for the last thirteen years'. This prompts Weir to get the audience to say 'thank you Uncle Bobo' following which Bobby explains (mainly for the benefit of those out in 'radio and TV land') that the Dead gave Graham the name Uncle Bobo in San Diego a year ago as a birthday present! The technical problem is overcome and it's "Me And My Uncle" - a very short version, then it slips into overdrive for "Big River" which includes some beautiful piano fills from Keith Godchaux.

A delightful cascading classic descending chord sequence has me wondering before the familiar words of "Friend Of The Devil" fill the atmosphere, charming solo from Garcia, the best to date, and then one of the Dead's 'legendary interminable breaks between numbers' as Weir humourously describes it to those not fortunate enough to be at the gig. Then they stomp into "It's All Over Now" with Bobby growling out the lyrics. 'We're gonna play a selection from our latest chartbuster,' quips Bobby and it's "Stagger Lee" and "From The Heart Of Me" in that order; odd, considering it's the other way around on "Shakedown Street"; piercing slide solo from Weir on "Stagger Lee" and Donna's voice has a deeper bluesier quality than on the record which makes her song a whole lot more interesting to listen to.

More often than not, "Sunshine Daydream" is the climax to "Sugar Magnolia", but this time, Garcia's dancing guitar at the end of "From The Heart Of Me" fades and then they rock out into the first break with it and there's been a whole set in between nearly one and a half hours of it.

We've now been in the building for about eight hours, having already witnessed the "Animal House" movie, the New Riders with yet another line-up - God knows who's in the band now, I didn't even bother to try and find out - and a real treat, The Blues Brothers. The Blues Brothers are John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, heroes of US TV's "Saturday Night Live" and the "Animal House" movie. Their band boasts such notables as Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and the notorious Tom Scott; and their album, the beautifully titled "Briefcase Full Of Blues" (the significance of the briefcase is apparent when you've seen the movie - I'll say no more) is currently riding high in the US top five. After their set, they split for an all-night rave thrown for them at the Airplane mansion on Fulton Street.

I still had to pinch myself (metaphorically, of course) to believe that I was really here at Winterland and even though we'd only been in the States since the 26th of December, we seemed to have crammed so much in that it seemed we'd been there for much longer.

It had been over four years since I saw the Dead at Alexandra Palace and I couldn't bear it any longer, so when I heard that Winterland was closing down on New Year's Eve, and that the Dead were fulfilling their by now traditional role, hasty plans were made. I'd intended to go out to the West Coast before long anyhow; this meant I just had to bring my plans forward a little.

Less than two hours after landing at LA, courtesy of Freddie Laker's narrow-bodied and very uncomfortable 707, we were rushing around a local record emporium, natch, and the Deadhead behind the counter asked us if we knew anything about DARK STAR magazine in England. Upon being told that we were from said organ, he said he'd suspected as much and proceeded to tell us about the other West Coast dates the Dead were playing - 27th and 28th at the Golden Hall, San Diego, and UCLA on the 30th. We also learned that demand for tickets for New Year's Eve had been so high that they'd been allocated by lottery! Anyhow, our arrangements would not permit time to see all these gigs, but we did decide to go to the second San Diego show.

[Page of eight photos]

[Photo of the two drummers]

We got delayed leaving LA by a personage called Danny Sugarman, who seems to be acting as manager for the Doors, when we called to pick up some pics for the forthcoming interview and he decided that he was going to interview himself for our benefit. However, I think you'll be spared the story of 'How I got to get involved in the Doors and became Jim Morrison's best buddy' by the extremely loquacious Sugarpuff. So, by the time we left the Sugar Plum Fairy's abode on trendy Mulholland Drive on the hill facing the famous 'Hollywood' sign, we caught the evening rush-hour. And it was then that the vastness of this place really hit home. San Diego is about 120 miles from LA but we'd gone 70 or 80 miles before we left the LA suburbs. A bit like driving from London to Bristol and leaving London when you get to Swindon! So we missed the first set and the beginning of the second, but it was worth it; a tasty little appetiser for Sunday night.

San Diego is an interesting place, if only for the fact that the local sport is Mexicans jumping the border; choppers with searchlights constantly buzzing around overhead and we spent most of an entertaining night watching shadowy figures darting across the carpark to make their connection.

So it was back to LA and Disneyland the next day and on Saturday we embarked on the marathon drive to San Francisco. 400 odd miles of endless Freeway. Doesn't sound too bad, but imagine driving from London to Inverness at no more than 55mph! And you gotta watch your speed, 'cos these Highway Patrols are hot! We get into the Mecca of rock music around midnight and are fit for nothing but to crash. The most amazing thing about travelling around over there is that you've heard of practically everywhere, towns and streets alike. Practically every damn one has been eulogised in song.

Can you imagine our chagrin when we discover that the very last Norton Buffalo gig with the remnants of Clover as his back-up band is also on New Year's Eve. Just our luck; but then we could hardly complain, we were seeing the Dead, after all. The Sunday afternoon is spent aimlessly cruising around San Francisco, locating various points of interest, including Winterland of course, which happens to be just round the block from the old Fillmore.

But the Dead are back on stage and tearing into "Samson And Delilah" at a good few notches on the tachometer above the recorded version. I'm sure they didn't really want to tear the old building down, though. Next is the exquisite "Ramble On Rose" and Jerry's solo justifiably deserves the ovation it receives. "I Need A Miracle" follows with Matt Kelly guesting on harp as he did on the studio version, but this is the rich uncle compared to the studio version; the band cop that trucking groove and soar away in the extended workout that follows. In fact, I expected them to burst into "Truckin'" at a number of points, but each time they seemed to work towards it, it drifted away again like a parabolic tangent. Still, I wasn't complaining, they'd done a magnificent "Truckin'" at San Diego. I'd heard tapes of live attempts at "Terrapin" and had been unsure of it's feasibility as a live number, but all apprehensions were washed away upon experiencing it first hand. Many parts of that tune elicit those rare spine tingles from me, but I wasn't prepared for the frequency of them on this occasion. It just destroyed me. It has that rare perfect combination of lyrics and melody that adds up to so many times the sum of its parts. 'Counting stars by candlelight, all are dim and one is bright, the spiral light of Venus rising first and shining best ... ... Terrapin Station, in the shadow of the moon...' Magic. And "Terrapin" trickles into "Playing In The Band", attacked with the usual verve, which develops into a long percussive segment with powering drums, tantalising percussion and the added bonus of The Pranksters who signalled the end of the segment with a minor explosion right in front of Bob Weir's guitar amplifier. The band slip gradually back on stage and ever so gently, they work their way into "Not Fade Away", now assisted by Lee Oskar on harmonica and John Cipollina roaring on guitar. John later described how he came to get inveigled into joining them on this auspicious occasion, although I'm sure he didn't need that much prompting:

'They said "Come down and jam," and I thought, "Well... I don't know," and they said, "Listen asshole - if you don't come down, we know where you live... we'll burn your car!" So I said "Okay!"'

Cipollina savaged "Not Fade Away" in much the same glorious way as he did "Mona", and there were definite under-(and over)tones of the latter song. It was a fabulous combination of guitar artistry - Weir's slide, Garcia's fills and Cipollina's power chords.

And they switched suddenly and the joint really was jumping as they moved into "Around And Around". And, for sure, they wouldn't stop rocking 'til long after the moon went down. And the place was packed at midnight, but, luckily, the police never knocked... More slide from Weir and then the nine of them are playing in double-time and I'm thinking we're getting "Johnny B. Goode" and maybe it's the end. From a temporary vantage point behind the stage I can sense and see the power of the rhythm section; Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann - there ain't no back seat in this band, they all work really hard. But it isn't "Johnny B. Goode", but more of "Around And Around", and much to the delight of the audience, who must have thought it really was the end judging from the cries of rapture at Bobby Weir's announcement that they were only taking a short break.

We later learned that it was the cunning Cipollina's second gig of the evening; he'd started out at the Norton Buffalo one and then come down to Winterland.

[Photo of Weir(?), Cipollina and keyboard player]

To continue where we left off at the end of the last break; we arrived at Winterland at about 5.30 and were greeted by amazing scenes. We hadn't realised the event started so early, put there were crowds in the street, speakers on the pavement (sorry, sidewalk - that's okay, y'welcome!) and the building was draped with all kinds of messages and Dead memorabilia. There was a huge 'Thank you', one which read, 'They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do - cheers, Bill and the Winterland gang. P.S. And so are you!' and assorted drapes of album sleeves high up on the side wall, which normally adorn the Dead's own studio in San Rafael. Some enterprising mountaineers later had these away, but I'm glad to be able to report that they were later recovered much to the pleasure of the band - they appear to be proud of their history, associations and personal memorabilia. They often have special stickers done for themselves and their friends and just in case you see a new 'skull'n'roses' design around on T-shirts or whatever, it's not a rip-off, but a Kelley/Mouse update. We get in line and get chatting to a San Diego Deadhead who's followed all three West Coast dates so far. We remark that we thought the band were really cooking at San Diego and he agrees, saying that they're getting better and better each night on this tour and definitely heading for a peak tonight - oh wow! Clearly, New Year's Eve in their backyard means more than just another gig to this band; it's a celebration, a party for their friends and long-time fans.

This is all the more apparent once we're inside the hall. The crowd is buzzing with expectancy and the "Dark Star" Loggers are in evidence with their sign which reads a thousand and however many days since the last San Francisco "Dark Star" - fool that I am, I neglected to make a note of the exact number! As you can probably gather, the "Dark Star" loggers keep a very precise record of when "Dark Star" is played within the Dead's home territory... The Dead themselves, we later learn, are very aware of the existence of the loggers and specially rehearsed "Dark Star" at UCLA the day before, so as to add that extra special something to the night's proceedings. And there are still more artifacts proving the extent that the Dead are into their own mythology. There's a 'keep on truckin'' duck/man/whatever, a Haight/Ashbury street sign and an American flag with the ban-the-bomb symbol substituted for the stars.

And from that last little ramble, you'll have sussed that they did indeed do "Dark Star" that night (or perhaps I should say morning as it was about 5.30am). Yeah. the song that I really thought they'd play through the eclipse of the moon at Giza, but didn't, was the opening piece of the third set. I got the feeling that they've moved on from there, now, though. Good though it was, it seemed to be a token gesture, not particularly long and that included a chunk of "The Other One" in the middle. It was still treated with love, though, and if nothing else, it proved that the Dead do care for the wishes of their audience. Then along came "Wharf Rat", "St. Stephen" and "Good Lovin'" with noticeably little timewasting in between. Incredible. These guys have been on stage for six hours if you don't count the breaks, and they're charging off with all the enthusiasm of a band opening their set. They seem to feed off these marathons rather than get weary towards the end. They get more inspired, more intense and rock harder as the day begins to dawn.

By this time I'm so totally immersed in the wholeness of the event that I notice very little in the way of detail; but I do notice Keith Godchaux's twinkling piano in "Good Lovin'" I think he's so under-rated, he really is a very vital component of the Grateful Dead and he's given them so much more scope since he joined.

And "Good Lovin'" was the end of the third set, the end, period. But for the encores that is... They come back on triumphant, but there's a short delay as they're 'having a hard time getting Bob's guitar started'. Jerry starts doodling around with "English Country Garden" and the others join in. A little like the little impromptu "Turn Out The Lights" on "Bless It's Pointed Little Head". However, Bob's guitar eventually does get started and it's "Casey Jones", maintaining the high vocal standard of the evening and featuring some delightful early-morning guitar sounds from Jerry. It's storming climax captures that feeling you get when everything's running away from you and snaps straight into an expletive deleted hot "Johnny B. Goode". You'd think that the number of times they've played this that it would be hard to get enthusiastic about it. But they do, and so do I, even though I must have heard the song by someone or another a million times. I just don't believe that a band whose average age must be well into the thirties can rock out like this at 6.30 in the morning having already played at least five hours of fine music. But this is the Grateful Dead and they're still young at heart.

[Photo of Lesh(?), Donna, Garcia, Weir(?)]

As they leave the stage, Bob Weir, eternal MC of the band leaves us with, 'This old place is closing up, and so let's give this old place a round of applause because it's done us all a real-good time.' He ain't kidding! Bill Graham comes on, wishes everyone a 'Happy fucking New Year', introduces the band and finishes with, 'They're the greatest rock and roll band that ever was - the Grateful Dead.' He ain't kidding, either! And amid the stamping, clapping, shouting, cheering and God knows what else as well, "Greensleeves" is played over the PA system and that's it. The End.

Not quite the end of this piece, though. Breakfast was then served, the feeding of the five or six thousand, and the thoughts running round my head and those that came up in discussion, were that not only was this one of the great concerts of all time, but that through the two occasions on which we saw them, the Dead proved that not only are they better than ever, but they have incredible strength in depth. San Diego was a hot night as well, and we heard remarkably little duplication of material. From just what we caught that night, they did "Truckin'", "Sunrise", "Shakedown Street" (even meaner than it is on the album), "Estimated Prophet", "Eyes of The World", "Rolling Thunder/Shoshone Invocation" and "Uncle John's Band"; in fact very little was duplicated.

And so Winterland has closed down. Paul Kantner wanted nothing to do with the last days at the Fillmore because he doesn't like funerals. But it doesn't have to be a funeral as this night proved. I don't know when they held the funeral, but we were present at the wake. We heard a variety of reasons as to why the hall is closing for concerts and since there was no way of finding out the real reason, it doesn't merit discussion here. Suffice to say that San Francisco has lost a great venue and seems to have little to actually replace it. Sure, there's the Orpheum, the Cow Palace, and on a smaller scale, The Great American Music Hall, oh, and just outside town, the Oakland Coliseum. But from what I understand, it'd be hard to have a night quite like this night was in any of those places and that's sad.

What's also sad is that I bet that many of you out there will expect us to have brought back miles of taped rapping with the band. We tried, but it was not to be so. Very shortly afterwards, the Dead continued their tour over on the East Coast (see Tony Ziemba's piece in "Cats Under The Stars (Front Row U.S.A.)" for details) and were far too busy preparing in the meantime. We did, however, get received most hospitably at their office and taken to see their studio and the actual location of Shakedown Street. Apparently the Dead too were disappointed that we didn't get to talk to them for the magazine and attempts were even made to organise something over the telephone. Still, it'll keep for another time. They must came to England again sometime, if only to remind those with shorter memories that they are the greatest rock and roll band that ever was. And if they don't do it soon enough, I guess Mohomet will just have to go to the mountain again, preferably Mt. Tamalpais.

Nick Ralph

Dark Star 19, March 1979, Volume 4 Issue 1

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Last updated: 5-Sep-2002