In the Grateful Dead’s 30 year history, there are a handful of shows known simply by the date they were played. Five-Eight-Seventy-Seven, Ten-Nine-Eighty-Nine, and Two-Fourteen-Sixty-Eight are among a select few performances that any Deadhead recognizes immediately. Today marks the anniversary of another of those shows: Three-Twenty-Nine-Ninety. Over a second set of absolute gems, the band, joined by the famed jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, would put together a seamless 90 minutes of music that wore out tape decks, CD players, and iPods long before the band’s archivists got around to officially releasing the entire show nearly 25 years later.
When Branford joined the band at the Nassau Coliseum they were at a creative peak that began six months before that fateful night on Long Island. The Fall 1989 tour was one for the books, starting with two unannounced shows in Hampton, Virginia on October 8th and 9th that saw breakouts of “Dark Star” (first in more than 5 years), “Help>Slip>Franklins” (ditto), and the first east coast performances of “We Bid You Goodnight” and “Attics of My Life” since 1970. The tour picked up speed as the band went up and down I-95, playing stand out shows on Weir’s birthday in East Rutherford on the 16th, in Philly on the 20th, and ending with a mind-bender of weirdness (even for the Grateful Dead) in Miami on the 26th.
The energy on stage was also palpable in the parking lots. I attended a lot of shows during the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990 and there was a feeling that anything was possible. In the pre-internet, pre-social media world, you relied on the four-page “Dupree’s Diamond News” and parking lot gossip to divine possible set lists and speculate about the next big break out performance. The music was self-assured but also exploratory, with Garcia dipping into a new bag of tricks courtesy of MIDI technology that could transform his guitar into a variety of other instruments or he could simply link up with Mydland’s muscular blues riffs on organ and throaty backups. Lesh was the absolute backbone of the band, while Weir’s mastery of the rhythm guitar, the notes not played as he famously put it, made him the perfect foil for Garcia’s brilliance.
When the Dead pulled into Landover, Maryland in unseasonably warm weather on March 14th, 1990, the stage was set for more magic. The three-night run at the Capital Center would see more break-outs, “Loose Lucy,” “Easy to Love You” and “Black-Throated Wind” all rejoined the band’s repertoire for the first time since the mid/late-1970s and Lesh’s 50th birthday was punctuated by a killer “Terrapin Station” that is acclaimed as one of the band’s finest. Subsequent stops in Hartford and Albany provided more evidence that the band was firing on all cylinders, with the former providing stand out versions of “Shakedown Street” and “Morning Dew” and the latter being of such good quality, large portions would be released commercially under the sobriquet “Dozin’ at the Knick.”
So it was that on the first night in Nassau Coliseum, the band had another treat in store. A premiere performance of “The Weight,” a mournful ballad that saw the Dead hand off verses to each other in a letter perfect way that showed they had taken the time to practice this performance, as opposed to their more common tactic of half-assing cover tunes like “Blackbird,” “Stir It Up,” and “So What.”
The following night started off unexceptionally, if professionally with a solid first set of standards like “Jack Straw” and newer material like “We Can Run.” But when Marsalis took the stage for “Bird Song,” March 29th began its ascent into the history books. This Bird Song does indeed soar, with Marsalis’s addition turning it into an ephemeral, almost dream-like sequence of music that puts your head in the clouds and a smile on your face. The chemistry was there, the playing lush, rich, and textured, fitting neatly within the many other moments of beauty the band had produced over the prior two weeks.
Instead of sticking around for the set-ending “Promised Land,” Marsalis alit from the stage, and one could have assumed his star turn was over. However, when he walked out on stage for the second set, Branford and the Dead created a masterpiece that would come to be seen as one of the best hours-and-a-half (give or take) of music they ever performed.
The set opens with “Eyes of the World,” performed in a jazzy tempo that mixed perfectly with Marsalis’s soaring alto saxophone. This version takes flight from the get go, as the crowd roars with approval at the first notes Marsalis adds to the mix. Stretched out over more than 16 minutes, the interplay between Garcia and Marsalis is not just literal music to the ears, but the grainy video bootlegs that circulate online show the two in spirited harmony, Garcia clearly enjoying the younger man’s presence and the saxophonist sliding into Garcia’s musical conversation like an old friend. Eyes has many stand out moments, but the one I always come back to is a note Marsalis hits at 6:35 and holds for a few seconds that sends chills up my spine every time I hear it and resulted in an appreciative “you-believe-this-guy” look from Garcia to Weir. It is the “x” factor Deadheads would speak of but rarely see, in miniature. The shift to “Estimated Prophet” in tempo and feel shows Marsalis capably following the band’s lead. He intuits the reggae/funk vibe to the song, switching from alto to soprano sax and laying down a solo at the 8:15 mark that culminates in a wicked blues riff at 9:19 that is stunning coming from a musician who had never heard the song before performing it on stage.
This sets the stage for another in the list of post-Hampton Dark Stars that shine with an authority and confidence that became a signature of these 89-90 performances. Jerry leads the band through a loose, nicely articulated intro jam that Marsalis picks up on instantly, intermingling with Mydland’s twinkling keyboards and Weir’s anachronistic rhythm guitar. It is gooey and warm like a fudge brownie laced with LSD and after the brief verse, dissolves into a long, exploratory jam that careens around tight corners like a sports car before stopping on a dime for the Drums/Space segment.
The set’s back end picks up right where the band left off, tidying up the second verse of Dark Star before shifting into a solid Wheel > Throwing Stones and a pitch perfect Lovelight that gives everyone an opportunity to take a bow - none more so than Marsalis, who is showered with applause as he takes a lead at the three minute mark that stretches for close to 90 seconds and will get you out of your seat and shaking your bones.
Aside from the high quality of the musicianship, the Nassau Dark Star show also fits in with the Dead’s mythology. Rumor has it that Lesh popped into a Marsalis show in New York City and extended the invitation to the saxophonist. After joining the band for Bird Song, Marsalis reports that he was ready to leave, but the band implored him to sit in for the second set. The rest, as they say is history. While it may be apocryphal, it has been said Branford knew none of the Dead’s music when he stepped on stage. Perhaps, but even if the grain of truth is there and not the whole kernel, the show instantly entered the band’s pantheon, widely acclaimed as one of their greatest performance and rightly so.
Of course, for a band that could reach such heights, the Dead also had a stubborn self-destructive streak. The remaining nights in Nassau and the Atlanta shows that closed the tour retained the high quality of the era and the Summer 1990 tour was an absolute monster of epic proportions and performances. At a time when the band appeared to be at the height of its powers, tragedy was just around the corner. Mydland died of an overdose less than a week after the Summer 1990 tour ended and while Garcia remained clean for a little while, by 1993 his decline was noticeable and the band soldiered on, a shell of itself, for two more years before his death in 1995. Marsalis would go on to play four more gigs with the band (12/31/90, 9/10/91, 12/10/93 and 12/16/94) but none matched the creativity or improvisation of that special night on Long Island. It remains a touchstone of the Dead canon and a show I return to time and again to recall those days of my youth and the special bond I still share with all those who call themselves Deadheads.
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* Note: Time references are from the commercial release “Wake Up To Find Out”