Monday, September 17, 2012

Grateful Dead: "The Closing Of Winterland" DVD Review

The greatest rock band ever - and don't even think about arguing with me on this - was the Grateful Dead. I caught forty-one shows (actually a small number in Dead land) between 1988 and 1995. Most of them were excellent. Some of them were magical.  All of them are memorable for one reason or another. Ten years before my first show, the Grateful Dead played their final gig at Winterland, a venue that will forever be associated with the band. This show was on December 31, 1978, and New Year's Eve shows were known to be wild nights for the band.  This night was particularly excellent. There were some wonderful guest musicians, and two great opening bands (The Blues Brothers and New Riders Of The Purple Sage). Plus, Winterland was a home for the Grateful Dead, and its closing seemed to bring out the best from the band. Other changes were to happen soon - the next year saw the departures of Keith and Donna Godchaux, and the arrival of Brent Mydland.  So this was the last New Year's show with Keith and Donna.

We're all fortunate they filmed this one. It was actually broadcast live on television (as well as on radio). And sure, there are some awkward camera movements at times, mostly when they're trying to get shots of Phil Lesh (who is standing behind Keith due to the relatively small stage).  And sure, every once in a while they lose focus. But it's all good.  It's all part of capturing the moment, all part of the magic that was a Grateful Dead concert.

Disc 1

The first disc contains the first and second sets. It starts with Bill Graham dressed as Father Time riding in on a giant lit joint. Yes, it was midnight, and that was the start of the show. The band played three sets that night.

Set I

That night the band opened with a rousing rendition of "Sugar Magnolia." It's hard to see at first because of all the balloons in the crowd, but man, look at Jerry smiling!  "Sugar" segues into "Scarlet Begonias" (something they did to start the second set of my very first show ten years later). Donna adds some nice vocals to the end of "Scarlet" in the jam before it becomes "Fire On The Mountain."  Holy moly, check out Jerry grooving to the beginning of "Fire," just before he starts the first verse.  After "Fire," Bill Graham thanks the crowd for thirteen years. Bob leads the audience in saying, "Thank you, Uncle Bobo," and then tells the story of the band being too broke to get Bill Graham something for his birthday and so they gave him a new name.  There is a nice slow, pretty "Friend Of The Devil," which they follow with a good rockin' rendition of "It's All Over Now" (Man, I'd love to know what Jerry and Donna were laughing about).  Before "Stagger Lee," Bob jokes, "We're going to play a selection from our latest chart-buster."  Then Donna gets a turn at lead vocals with "From The Heart Of Me," a tune they only played in late 1978 and early 1979, a song included on Shakedown Street, released earlier that year.

Set II

The band opens the second set with "Samson And Delilah" (which of course has the appropriate lyric, "If I had my way I would tear this whole building down"). I dig the Steal Your Face with dancing skeletons projected above the stage. Then they do a really nice, groovy version of "Ramble On Rose" - just a fantastic rendition. Some guy in the audience is really adamant about them playing "Dark Star." Some audience members were keeping a running tally of how many days had passed since the last time the band played that song in San Francisco: 1,535. But  band goes into a powerful version of "I Need A Miracle" - and they're joined by Matt Kelly on harmonica, which is awesome. A nice jam leads into a pretty vocal refrain, then eases into "Terrapin Station," one of the best songs ever written. And holy moly, look at Phil during this one. They go into "Playing In The Band," which of course basically guarantees a great jam. It's wonderful and it slides into "Drums."

This is a fantastic drum solo. And they're joined by Ken Kesey in Thunder Machine, a ridiculous contraption that's brought on stage. They're also joined by Lee Oskar on harmonica, and Greg Errico on drums. This is one of the highlights of the show. Bill and Mickey switch to hand percussion and keep it going. It is certainly one of the best "Drums" segments ever. And it leads naturally into "Not Fade Away."  It's kind of a slightly slow version, but has a great jam, including a lead guitar section by John Cipollina. That goes right into "Around And Around," which feels just a bit slow too - but Bob is clearly having a good time, goofing, and Donna screams, surprising him. And then it speeds up at the end to a nice respectable Chuck Berry pace.

Disc 2


They open the third set with "Dark Star," all the band members standing together to start it just right, and the audience erupts with joy at those first notes. ("Dark Star" was always a special song to Dead fans, and I remember being thrilled the first time I saw the band perform it in 1990.) After the first verse, the jam leads to "The Other One." It's Phil who brings in the tune with that heavy bass line. Only one verse of "The Other One," before going back into "Dark Star," but they stick with that for only a minute or so before easing into "Wharf Rat," another of my personal favorites. The vocals in that one section are beautiful, and I like what Keith's doing on piano. That leads to "St. Stephen," another fan favorite (one I never got to see them perform). They end the set with a really fun version of "Good Lovin.'" Toward the end, Bob says the sun's about to rise, and Uncle Bobo will have breakfast ready for everyone.


After some technical difficulties, the band launches into "Casey Jones." Jerry's having so much fun that he doesn't seem to want it to end, but it does, and they go right into "Johnny B. Goode." Bill Graham then introduces the band. "The greatest rock and roll band that ever was." I agree.  Then we get "And We Bid You Goodnight," but oddly there is no video - just audio and stills.

Bonus Features

The second disc has several bonus features.  The first is a documentary titled "Winterland: A Million Memories," which features interviews with Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Steve Parish.  They all talk about the venue, of course, Mickey mentioning how Bill Graham would oversell the place. Bob Weir talks about NRPS, and about the balloon problem.  There is also some old footage from the day. The interview with the chick from Boston is funny. What's really awesome, though, is that there is an interview with Dick Latvala from that time. And then he was identified simply as a "Dead Head."  But he would go on to be the tape archivist for the band, and to start the Dick's Picks series of concert releases in the 1990s. But back in 1978 he says, "The most important thing in life is to get to a Grateful Dead concert."  Plus, there is a shot of two Coneheads/Deadheads.

There is also footage from The Blues Brothers' set from that night. John Belushi talks a bit about Steve Cropper and Donald Duck Dunn, and they go into "Soul Man" and then "B Movie."  For some reason the set by New Riders Of The Purple Sage was not filmed that night. Why not?  But the bonus features include the audio of their performance of "Glendale Train" (one of my favorites from that band), with old photos and archival footage to accompany the tune.  (That's a song that gets in my head every time I drive through Glendale.)

There is also a short "Making Of" the DVD, with interviews with David Lemieux and Jeffrey Norman. They talk about Mickey Hart's involvement, and also about Dick Latvala (apparently, Dick had said that this concert was the greatest night of his life).

Another wonderful feature is a series of interviews done between the first and second sets - with Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Ken Kesey. Bob and Mickey encourage people to write to Bill Graham to have him build a new venue, and they talk a bit about Egypt (they had played near the pyramids just a few months earlier). Kesey talks about the Thunder Machine and about Egypt.  There is also an interview with Bill Graham from earlier that day.

The bonus features include a chronology of the Grateful Dead at Winterland, listing each of the shows, and including a tidbit or two about each of them.

The Closing Of Winterland was released on September 11, 2012 through Shout! Factory.

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