San Francisco’s Winterland was a dive, a dump, and a favorite stopover for artists on their way up, their way down, and their way across town. The Sex Pistols, Springsteen, and The Band all stopped there for major gigs and it became the preferred venue for the Grateful Dead’s hometown gigs during the ‘70s. Promoter Bill Graham did his best to keep the funky palace going but too many chips of plaster falling from the ceiling and a changing climate all around brought a halt to his booking gigs in the former ice-skating rink. So, what you have here is documentary evidence of the venue’s last waltz: A New Years Eve affair that saw Jerry Garcia and Co. ushering in 1979.
Simulcast on San Francisco’s KQED (TV) and KSAN (radio), the event is a rarity in the Dead archives––few, if any other, shows from the era were filmed (save for the material that comprised the unit’s feature length motion picture)––and there were probably, needless to say, no other simulcasts. That we have it at all is something of a miracle––the audio and video weren’t synched and preparing it the show for its initial DVD release in 2003 took a little extra love, care, and cajoling.
The visuals are what you’d expect––four-camera coverage allowed for some good shots but probably not the invasive shots you’d see today––but the sound is incredible. Phil Lesh’s bass shoots vibrant rays of Technicolor into your vertebrae, Garcia and Bob Weir’s guitars sound like brilliant waterfalls of ecstasy, and the backbeat of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann is as bright and confident as ever. Keith Godchaux’s piano is there, somewhere, although it’s near non-presence is probably just as well––he and vocalist wife Donna would be out the Dead camp by February 1979 and perhaps not a moment too soon.
The Godchaux error was a dark one for the Dead, but there were rays of hope at this gig and, indeed, 1979 would usher in the final decade of greatness for the band. Here, Garcia’s in good voice, especially during the first set (there are three) and his solos are always inspired, especially when he plays at the very edge of his capabilities. Weir’s voice has rarely sounded better and he had, by this point, really come into his own as a guitarist. As a whole, the band seemed to play things a little slow that evening––a fine version of “Friend of the Devil” crawls at a pace that would try a glacier’s patience but who could have been in a hurry at a gig that started at the stroke of 1979?
The overwhelming majority of the first set is absolute killer. The opening “Sugar Magnolia” is powerful, playful, and filled with a celebratory vibe; “Fire on the Mountain” sounds fresh and crackling with real possibilities; “Big River” isn’t just a surprise, it’s one of this collection’s real revelations––the band was playing especially well at the time, better than you might have expected, in fact. “It’s All Over Now” is a treat for the guitar aficionados in the house but Donna Godchaux’s “From the Heart of Me” is proof positive that you can’t really stand up against Hunter/Garcia or even Weir/Barlow compositions and expect not to sound out of your depth. Everyone whips “Sunshine Daydream” into a fair frenzy, then beats a retreat before returning for a second set that is awesomely hit-and-miss.
“Samson and Delilah” is a welcome return and Garcia is at full, unstoppable power during “Ramble on Rose”. Even “I Need A Miracle”, not the greatest song of the night, sounds pretty damned good. But after “Terrapin Station” things go pear-shaped. “Playing in the Band” lumbers like a brain damaged giant on Quaaludes and the percussion showcase “Rhythm Devils” is everything you’ve heard about the excess of such pieces during the ‘70s. The group doesn’t really recover during “Not Fade Away” although there are some rather inspired moments––but it’s kind of like moving in and out of consciousness on those nights when your brain begins to tease you with a dream before something––the cat, the slamming of your neighbor’s car door or the rattling of the garden gate––pulls you back to the dark and dull room. You might even find yourself––eyes wide open––snoring at one or two points along the way. The whole business limps to a conclusion with “Around and Around”.
But the Dead rally in the third act––whipping out “Dark Star” for a hometown crowd for the first time in a millennia (actually more than 1,500 days). Weaving that piece into “The Other One”, coming back to the main tune, then knocking out “Wharf Rat”, “St. Stephen” and “Good Lovin’” in quick succession. Three encores follow––“Casey Jones”, “Johnny B. Goode”, and “We Bid You Goodnight”––enough to convince this rabid audience that there was only so much magic in the satchel for the night.
In all, it’s the Dead in all it’s glory––the great, fiery moments and the sad, torpid ones as well, the way real live performances often go down and perhaps should more often be presented. Guest performances from John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service), Lee Oskar, Matthew Kelly, Greg Errico, and Ken Kesey add a dimension of fun, although only Cipollina’s guitar pyrotechnics are truly not to be missed.
As if all that weren’t enough, the DVD is packed with bonus material, including a documentary film, “Winterland: A Million Memories”. There are performances from special guests the Blues Brothers and New Riders of the Purple Sage, a featurette about the making of the DVD, a 2AM interview with Hart, Weir, and, a little later, Ken Kesey. You can also see a detailed history of the Dead at Winterland, select camera angles for three tracks in the final set, and witness an interview with promoter Bill Graham. There’s also a visible lyrics option, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, all of it mixed from the 24-track analog master tapes. A booklet featuring photos of the performance and liner notes by Gary Lambert as well as Glenn Lambert are both revealing and entertaining.
This is nothing short of a spectacular package–including roughly 375 minutes of viewing pleasure––and a real treasure for both Deadheads and those who are just finding their way into the deeper end of the pool.