Let me start by saying that I have never listened to a whole run from pre-coma 1986. I may have never even heard a whole show. The mid-eighties have a terrible reputation; I remember hearing a few tracks from that period in which Garcia sounded so terrible that I wrote off those years altogether. I have found some great stuff from 84/85, and I assumed therefore that 86 was the year to avoid. '84 and '86 are the only years with no official releases of any kind (from '68 to '93). Comments about Garcia's addiction in the literature, and his collapse in July, convinced me that I ought to concentrate on different eras.
All that being said, I was very surprised by the Spectrum run (March 23-25). I thought they sounded really good. They were very tight, they were quick between songs, not chatting or tuning. Garcia's playing was fast and precise on tunes like Deal, Alabama, Big River, Day Job etc, and real sweet on High Time and Morning Dew, though his voice is showing definite signs of smoke damage. In particular I liked hearing Samson (23rd). I always felt like the solo section was too fast and that he wasn't quite keeping up, but here, he's all over it.
Weir had taken a very forward approach vocally; he does extended raps in tunes like Good Lovin' and Midnight Hour. We also get a lot of Howlin' Bobby in Women are Smarter and LL Rain. He was much more active in that period; aside from the vocals, he would hop to the front of the stage in Sugar Mags or other closers, giving a little showmanship to the crowd, something that would die out towards the end of the decade. I can't help but feel that it might have been compensation for Jerry's unreliability. If Garcia didn't want to be the star of the show, somebody had to step up.
The mid eighties are also the period of Esau and Tons of Steel, a revival of Comes a Time and Midnight Hour, and the beginning of Tom Thumb's Blues and Desolation Row, all present in the run. Phil sang one song a night (Gimme some Lovin, Box and Tom Thumb respectively). Brent only got one song (Tons) the whole run (on the 25th), but had at least one stand-out solo in Big River (23rd). The drumz sections back then were marked by more subdued drum solos. There is a little MIDI stuff, but nothing crazy. Mickey hits the Beam a bit but by and large, it's a far cry from the fifteen-minute all-out jungle-space stuff we hear later with all the effects and bells and whistles and the huge rack-tom beatdowns. Space is much more melodic than later. Garcia in particular plays quick lines up and down the fretboard. The result is that the end of space comes about more organically, more of an ">" than later, when he would pick up a song from out of nowhere.
Some picks. 23rd: Hand Jive was nice, the second of only six performances. Weir set it and the rest filled in. Shakedown, also interesting, though Garcia blew half the words. In set two, The Other One>Comes a Time was a highlight. Weir did some crazy guitar screams in the intro vamp that I've never heard before, Phil was real strong. Garcia laid into Comes A Time immediately after the second verse, and I though it was beautifully played. Day Job was possibly the fastest song they ever played. I couldn't believe it.
24th. Jerry was like lightning on Alabama. I always like Esau, though it was a bit confused (they were still working it out during the Oakland New year's run; Weir apologizes for playing it again "but we need the practice"). It was the last-ever Sailor. I wish I could comment, but there was a problem with the FLAC conversion. The Saint transition was a bit flubby ("just like a swiss watch"), and Weir gave the old " Just exactly what the fuck you gonna do," to the crowd's delight. The closer, right out of Space, was a thunderous Morning Dew that just kept building and building. Absolutely hair-raising finish.
25th:Nice Stranger opener, Tons of Steel was good. Weir introduced it: "This next tune is in the key of F." Weir likes to tell people what key songs are in. It was the very first performance of Desolation Row, with all 112 verses. (I don't know how the hell Weir still remembers all those lyrics. He forgets Saturday Night but nails Desolation Row every time). There was a little flubbage on the changes and the ending was improvised, but I suppose each first-time-played is significant. Set two started off with Scarlet>Touch: rare, surprising, but not unheard of (eight times total since 5.8.84; this was the last). Looks Like Rain was a definite stand-out that last night; Jerry was using the echo effect he used on Althea in the 80s, and Weir was Haaaw-ing away.
They closed out the run with Fare you Well. "Once again, thank you Philadelphia."
All in all, I feel like I've missed out on a whole phase of Dead by ignoring '86; If anyone has any shows/runs they think I should listen to, please let me know.
Next up: not sure yet. I was going to review the Doors' European tour from 68 (somebody posted a "box-set" - collected pics + extant recordings - a huge amount of work to be sure), but almost none of the shows are complete and some of the AUDs are so bad you can't make out the song. We'll see what happens.